Merchandise Mart

Merchandise Mart

On August 16, 1928 two men stepped in front of the cheering crowd and proudly showed their shovels. Then they tossed some dirt around. The newspaper headline next day read: The birth of the Merchandise Mart in Chicago!

One of the men was James Simpson, the head of the Marshall Field’s store chain in Chicago. His wholesale trade was booming and he needed a place to consolidate all showrooms, manufacturing and shipping facilities under one roof. Two years later he got Merchandise Mart, the world’s largest building with a footprint of two city blocks. It was massive. It was a city within a city. It even had its own dedicated zip code.

The other man was architect Ernest Graham, the chief architect of Graham, Anderson, Probst and White. The firm was a direct successor of legendary Daniel Burnham’s practice. It was responsible for the design of such iconic buildings in Chicago like Union Station, Wrigley Building, Federal Reserve Bank Building and others.

Ernest Graham had worked with Daniel Burnham during construction of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. He was the man riding on a white horse and issuing orders to everyone in sight. Daniel Burnham was a poet of urban design. Ernest Graham was a brute force who brought his design to life.

After Daniel Burnham’s death in 1917 Ernest Graham took over the firm. Being a shrewd businessman he became part of Chicago’s power elite and secured the most desirable commissions in town.

But the architectural design he produced could be at best described as grand but conservative.

Ernest Graham didn’t personally design the Merchandise Mart. He created the boundaries of the style it can be designed.

The actual designer was Alfred P. Shaw, the junior partner of the firm. He took what the Marshall Field’s James Simpson wanted: the warehouse, the department store and the skyscraper. Then he blended these building stylings together, sprinkled it with some art deco elements and created a faceless concrete monstrosity known as the Merchandise Mart.

Another Chicago architect Andrew Rebori later wrote some interesting words about the design: Those entrusted with the design and execution of this huge structure were never once swayed by the emotion of the creative mind. They followed the smooth path of accepted precedent. The result is a massive impressiveness.

I truly believe that the Merchandise Mart gave inspiration to Stalinist architecture. Some architects from the Soviet Union had probably traveled to Chicago in the early 1930s and took a note.

Like the Merchandise Mart the buildings of the early Soviet period were rigid and sober with only a few ornaments on the facades. Stalinist architecture was meant to show power. So the buildings were huge, overpowering and dominant. They showed that the Big Man is in charge.

I feel shivers down my spine every time I walk by the Mart.