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Merchandise Mart Is An Iconic Building Housing Top Home Showrooms.

Merchandise Mart, also called the Mart, landmark building in downtown Chicago, one of the largest commercial buildings in the world and the largest wholesale design centre. Encompassing some 4,200,000 square feet (390,000 square metres) of floor space, the Merchandise Mart spans two city blocks along the Chicago River, rises 25 stories, and was the largest building in the world when it opened in 1930. Today it features retail shops, boutiques, radio and television studios, 10 floors of office space, and 11 floors of permanent showrooms. It hosts dozens of trade shows and community events annually that attract designers, architects, builders, consumers, and tourists alike.


The Merchandise Mart was built by retailer Marshall Field & Co. It was the desire of James Simpson, president of the company and chairman of the Chicago Plan Commission, to consolidate Field’s wholesale activities, which were then scattered throughout the city in 13 warehouses, into a single national centre where both consumers and retail managers could shop for home and commercial furnishings and to beautify Chicago’s riverfront in the process.

The location along the north bank of the Chicago River, at the confluence of its North and South branches and just east of Wolf Point (the site of the area’s first trading post where trappers bartered with Native Americans), was chosen not only because the area could accommodate a building of that size but also because the building would replace the unsightly train yard then occupying the space.

The Merchandise Mart was designed by the Chicago architectural firm of Graham, Anderson, Probst & White under chief architect Alfred P. Shaw. Construction began on Aug. 16, 1928, and the building opened on May 5, 1930. The Mart housed Field’s wholesale showrooms and manufacturing facilities and leased floor space to retail tenants. Amenities included restaurants, parking facilities, a bank, a post office, and a telegraph office.

Building And Artwork

The Merchandise Mart’s design combines Art Deco characteristics with elements of three building types: the blockiness of a warehouse, the oversized windows on the ground level typical of a department store, and a tall central tower reminiscent of a skyscraper. Chambred corners, minimal setbacks of the roofline, and corner pavilions helped to minimize the structure’s mass and bulk. Originally placed around the tower’s crown were 56 sculpted heads of American Indian chiefs, a reference to the site’s early days as a trading post.

Barely visible from the street, those 7-foot- (2-metre-) tall terra-cotta sculptures were intended to be seen from the upper floors of future skyscrapers built around the Mart. In 1961 the sculptures were removed, destroyed, and replaced with plain plates. A design motif of the Merchandise Mart’s initials interlocking letter Ms is used throughout the building. Noted muralist Jules Guerin, who frequently collaborated with Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, created a frieze of 17 murals in the lobby that highlight aspects of commerce in the many countries whose wares were sold in the building.

In 1953 Joseph Kennedy, wanting “to immortalize outstanding American merchants,” commissioned eight bronze busts, each four times life-size, for what came to be known as the Merchandise Mart Hall of Fame. Resting on white pedestals along the Chicago River and facing north toward the gold front door of the building are busts of Frank Winfield Woolworth, Marshall Field, Aaron Montgomery Ward, Julius Rosenwald and Robert E. Wood (both associated with Sears, Roebuck and Company), John Wanamaker, Edward A. Filene, and George Huntington Hartford (founder of the A&P grocery chain).

In 1977 the Mart opened the Chicago Apparel Center in a building adjacent to it and completed an enclosed pedestrian bridge connecting the two buildings in 1988. The Mart received LEED-EB (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for Existing Buildings) Silver recognition in 2007, making it the largest building in the world to be thus certified.