Located at the junction of the three branches of the Chicago River, the Merchandise Mart is an impressive structure. Commissioned by Marshall Field, for a time it was the largest building in the world. Now the massive edifice is home to multiple types of businesses, with an emphasis on design firms.
When the Merchandise Mart was conceived it was designed to be a city within a city. Marshall Field and Company hired art deco firm Graham, Anderson, Probst and White to create a building that would consolidate all thirteen of his warehouses and provide showrooms. They were a natural choice, considering they’d already participated in the design of the Field Museum of Natural History.
Construction began in 1928 and was completed in 1931. It continuously employed 2,500 men and as many as 5,700 during the early months of the Great Depression. Covering two square city blocks and reaching 25 stories it was the largest building in the world until the Pentagon was built in 1943.
Unfortunately the timing was terrible for Marshall Field. Business for the retail magnate began to decline along with the economy and in 1945 Joseph P. Kennedy, father of President John F. Kennedy, purchased the landmark. The Kennedy family managed the building for over 50 years through Merchandise Mart Properties, Inc., and in 1998 it was sold to Vornado Realty Trust.
Lining the river on the south side of the Merchandise Mart is a row of giant bronze busts. These figures, which are four times life size, were commissioned in 1953 by Joseph Kennedy. They represent eight outstanding American merchants including, of course, Marshall Field.
Design firms are still major tenants of the building. For decades their showrooms, which often featured fully designed rooms, were only open to wholesale clients and the very wealthy. Many showrooms are now open to the public, and the first floor offers LuxeHome, a collection of luxury kitchen and bath showrooms. Several of the floors are only open to trade professionals, including those that offer commercial, home, and outdoor furnishings, as well as gift and home accessories. However, you can visit these showrooms if you are with a registered interior designer or trade professional.
While the majority of tenants are design-related, there are other types of businesses. One in particular is 1871. This unique environment provides coworking offices, conference rooms, mentoring and workshops for start-ups.
Shops at The Mart is a collection of retail shops located on the first and second floors. Most of them are the previously mentioned LuxeHome showrooms, but there’s also a Garrett’s Popcorn and The Chopping Block, a retail store and classroom dedicated to cooking. There are several dining options in the food court as well as a McDonald’s and popular Chicago sandwich chain Potbelly’s.
It’s only natural that the Merchandise Mart would be the venue for the largest tradeshow of contact and commercial furnishings. NeoCon includes over 1,000 exhibitors and 50,000 attendees in mid-June every year. Other shows at the Mart include The Chicago Apparel & Accessories Market, and the Chicago Gift Market.
There are also several shows that are open to the public. The Design Center Sample Sale and the Chicago Gift Market Gift Sample Sale allow everyone to shop. The One of a Kind Show and Sale makes gift shopping easy every holiday season.
While the Merchandise Mart has a large physical footprint, it has made significant headway in reducing its environmental footprint. In 2007 it was awarded LEED certification. On the first floor the Green Spot showcases sustainable products offered by its tenants. There is also a life-size timeline of the steps in the sustainable movement around the world.
The Merchandise Mart is more than just a giant building; it is the center of an entire industry, inviting design professionals from around the world.