The Marshall Field Wholesale Store


The Marshall Field Wholesale Store, although gone for 85 years now, is still considered among the most important commercial structures constructed during the last half of the nineteenth century.  Virtually every book dealing with American architecture makes reference to this Chicago edifice, both for its own design and for the impact it had on later buildings in the city and across the country.  

By the time of the Great Chicago Fire in October 1871, Marshall Field had established himself as one of the giants of commerce in the city of Chicago.  His company was known for its innovative and groundbreaking policies, and consisted of two divisions for retail and wholesale.  The building which they shared was destroyed in the fire, giving Field the opportunity to construct new buildings for each.  In 1872, he completed a five-story structure at Madison and Water (now Wacker) to house the wholesale division, but within a decade, the division was already outgrowing its space, as Field continued to add new product lines.  By May 1881 he had purchased all the lots on the block bordered by Adams, Fifth (now Wells), Quincy, and Franklin. 

In 1885, Field contacted architect Henry Hobson Richardson with the proposition of designing a new building on the site.  Richardson completed preliminary plans by summer and in October travelled to Chicago to unveil the finished plans and sign the contract.  An article in the Chicago Tribune said in part:

“Beauty will be one of the objects aimed at in the plans, but it will be the beauty of material and symmetry rather than of mere superficial ornamentation.  H. H. Richardson, the famous architect . . . has long had certain ideas which he wished to embody in such a building . . . It will be as plain as it can be made, the effects depending on the relations of the ‘voids and solids’ – that is, on the proportion of the parts . . . The structure will be a distinct advance in the architecture of buildings devoted to commercial purposes in this country.”

By December 1885, the foundation was in and the stonework was underway, but the building did not even begin to approach completion before Richardson’s untimely death in April 1886.  This saddened him greatly, as evidenced by the following account of his final days written by his first biographer, Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer:

“The two weeks which passed before he died were weeks of infinite restlessness and pain; but he never complained and never lost his spirits, his hopefulness, or his keen interest in the work that was going on in the offices below.  The day he died he talked confidently to his doctor about his tasks and aspirations, and declared once more that what he wanted was ‘to live two years to see the Pittsburgh Court-house and the Chicago store complete.’  These, he said, were the works he wished to be judged by.”


The statistics for the building were staggering for the time.  The completed structure stood seven stories high, with full basement on spread foundations.  It fronted 325 feet on Adams and 190 feet on Franklin and Wells, and was 130 feet tall.  The plan encompassed 61,750 square feet per floor, totaling almost twelve acres of floor space, which could accommodate 1,800 employees.  The final cost of $888,807 was an enormous sum of money at the time, but just a fraction of the sales of the wholesale division for 1887, which were over $23,000,000.  Marshall Field owned the land and the building personally, and leased it back to his company.  The Wholesale Store opened on June 20, 1887, amid little fanfare in comparison to the opening of the retail store. 


The load-bearing outer walls were brick covered by rock-faced Missouri red granite up to the second-floor windowsills, and East Longmeadow red sandstone above.  The structure was impressive both for its overall size and for the size of the stones used.  Adjectives such as “enormous,” “palatial,” “Cyclopean,” “immense,” and “mammoth” were used to describe it in contemporary accounts.  These terms are not surprising, given that the stones in the granite base were larger than those utilized in any other building in the city.  The first-floor window sills alone were nearly eighteen feet long.

The second through fourth floors were tied together by the main arcade stretching thirteen bays on Adams and seven each on Franklin and Wells between broad corner piers ornamented with boltels.  The fifth and sixth floors were also joined by an arcade having two arches over every one for the floors below.  Groups of four rectangular openings marked the top floor creating a horizontal band above the vertically thrusting arches.  


Above this was the crocketted cornice in Gothic style “vigorously and crudely cut, to be in scale with the whole mass which it terminates.”  The plate glass windows, set in wood framed double-hung sash were recessed to the inner face of the walls to emphasize the thickness of the stone when viewed from the exterior.

Architectural critics and historians have noted the significance of the building from the day it was completed.  Richardson’s biographer Van Rensselaer said in part:

“No cathedral, however magnificent in scheme or perfect in detail, would be worth so much to us as the Pittsburgh Court-house or the great simple Field Building at Chicago . . . The Field Building is in one way his most remarkable. . . No building could more frankly express its purpose or be most self-denying in the use of ornament.  In short, the vast, plain building is as carefully studied as the smallest and most elaborate could be, and is a text-book of instruction in treatment no less than in composition.”

When Richardson’s work was the subject of an exhibit organized by the Department of Architecture of the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the 1930s, its catalog went so far as to say that:

“The Field Store is Richardson’s most important building . . . Richardson shows in the Field Store that commercial architecture might have its own honest distinction, independent both of the past and of other contemporary types of design.”

The Wholesale Store had a profound impact on other architects of the day.  Perhaps none of them was more affected than Louis Sullivan, who immediately incorporated ideas he gleaned from the Wholesale Store into such projects as the Standard Club, the Walker Warehouse and, especially, the Auditorium.  Carl Condit, in his book The Chicago School of Architecture, stated:

“The decisive change in the plans of the Auditorium came as the result of the influence of Richardson’s Marshall Field Store.  Both Sullivan and (Ferdinand) Peck had a profound admiration for the earlier building; in addition, the board of the Opera Association saw many possible economies in the adoption of its simplicity.  Fortunately, for architects everywhere, Sullivan abandoned his propensity for elaborate exterior ornament and concentrated on the architectonic effect of mass, texture, and the proportioning and scaling of large and simple elements . . .”


In spite of all the praise lavished on the building, it was pure economics that eventually led to its demolition.  By the early 1920s, the wholesale division was in serious trouble.  The railroad and especially the automobile made it easier for rural residents to travel into larger cities to shop; spelling disaster for the country merchants who had been wholesale’s best customers.  Additionally, many of the merchants in the small towns succumbed to manufacturer’s appeals to buy direct at lower prices, and the success of huge mail-order houses further contributed to the decline of wholesale.  In an effort to breathe new life into the wholesale division, plans were announced in 1927 for the construction of a huge new facility, covering two city blocks, and containing 4,000,000 square feet of space.  The new building, known as the Merchandise Mart, served as the death knell for Richardson’s Wholesale Store building.

The Merchandise Mart opened in 1930 and the company engaged Graham, Anderson, Probst & White to draw up specifications for the demolition of the old building.  The massive structure was reduced to rubble by mid-summer to accommodate a parking lot.  Little was salvaged other than machinery and equipment, lighting fixtures, brass rails, gates and revolving doors.  The granite and sandstone, so praised for its visual impact, was used as fill to create a level surface for the asphalt parking lot.  


Two sandstone capitals did survive and were later found supporting the “Horace Oakley Memorial Bench” at the Lake Zurich Golf Club.  They were subsequently moved and are now installed amongst other significant Chicago architectural fragments in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Graham Foundation.  A plaster casting of one of the capitals has just been installed in the visitor’s center at Glessner House Museum, adjacent to the permanent exhibit on H. H. Richardson.



Ironically, Richardson’s American Merchant’s Express Building was destroyed by fire the same year that the Wholesale Store was demolished.   The residence designed for Franklin MacVeagh had been razed in 1922, leaving only the Glessner house to serve as a legacy of Richardson’s impact on Chicago.