Much like the Rosenwald Apartments on Chicago’s South Side, construction on the famous Merchandise Mart was begun just before the Stock Market Crash of 1929. In the early years of the Great Depression, both buildings struggled to make a profit. However, in 1945, Joseph P. Kennedy (father of JFK) purchased the building from the Marshall Field Company and successfully renovated and reinvented the iconic building. Once the largest commercial building in the world by floorspace, it is an Art Deco masterpiece of massive proportions that has housed commercial showrooms and offices for most of a century. It’s located at a picturesque point at a bend in the Chicago River where the first trading post and small businesses were founded in the early days of the city.
The Chicago Loop – the Merchandise Mart can be seen in the lower left
Photo credit: Historic American Buildings Survey via Library of Congress
Part of Kennedy’s reinvigoration of the building was introducing a “Merchandise Mart Hall of Fame,” a series of eight busts of famous merchants from around the country that face the Mart. The first seven men were elected by ballot by members of the national business community and their busts were commissioned at three annual ceremonies in 1953, 1954 and 1955. As one of the great retail magnates of Chicago history, Sears president Julius Rosenwald was part of this initial group, inducted in 1954.
Julius Rosenwald’s bust
Photo credit: Zol87 (flickr)
Today, as some commercial showrooms move out, the Merchandise Mart is being reinvented once again as a center for tech start-ups in River North, a neighborhood near Chicago’s Loop that is home to Google and Groupon. The New York Times reports that floorspace in the Mart that had formerly been used for furniture and design showrooms has gradually been given over to tech businesses by Vornado Realty Group, the owner of the Mart since 1998. Especially interesting is 1871, a non-profit organization that rents a large portion of one of the Mart’s 200,000 square foot floors, and acts as an incubator for small tech start-ups, providing networking, affordable space and even investors. The name 1871 recalls the rebuilding of Chicago after the great fire, and symbolizes the rebirth of River North and the Merchandise Mart as a hub for digital technology.
The Merchandise Mart
Photo credit: Mike Desisto (flickr)
After the initial seven busts of the Merchandise Mart Hall of Fame in the early 1950s, the series was revived once more in 1972, to include the famous retailer Montgomery Ward. Today, as the Mart is changing its image again, it may be an opportune time to make a new addition to the Hall of Fame. Montgomery Ward’s induction to the Hall of Fame was not done in the previous manner of advisory committee and national ballot – instead, according to Timothy Garvey (who wrote an article about the Hall of Fame in the Illinois Historical Journal in 1995) it was a more Chicago-centric celebration of a local luminary. Who should be added this time? Should it be Oprah Winfrey, who built her show and media empire in Chicago?