Six North Michigan - Montgomery Ward & Co. Tower Building
by: chicago designslinger
[Six North Michigan - Montgomery Ward & Co. Tower Building (1899) Richard E. Schmidt, architect; (1926) addition Holabird & Roche, architects; (2004) adaptive reuse; De Stefano Partners, architects /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
In 1887 Aaron Montgomery Ward moved his mail order catalog business from Wabash Avenue over to nearby Michigan Avenue. The Chicago-based dry goods merchant had hit it big by offering people in remote parts of the country the opportunity to select thousands of items from the convenience of their own homes. From hair brushes to harnesses, Ward's catalog was a hefty five pound offering of more products than anyone could imagine, and after mailing-in your order to the Chicago warehouse, your package was delivered directly to your door - or nearby post office. He was the Jeff Bezos and Amazon.com of his day.
[Six North Michigan - Montgomery Ward & Co. Tower Building, 6 N. Michigan Avenue, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
The brick, 6-story Michigan Avenue building he purchased for $285,000 had been designed by architects Beers Clay & Dutton in 1885 for the U.S. Storage Company. The new location would give the catalog king the space he needed to warehouse his goods as well as the teams of workers who processed over 15,000 orders a day. In 1891, with business booming, Ward & Co. expanded to the south and added two floors to their existing brick structure. Then in 1898 with increasing sales and a catalog whose page count grew as profits flourished, the company announced that architect Richard E. Schmidt would design a tall towering building for the parcels of property that extended further to the south, ending at the northwest corner of Madison Street and Michigan. The main mass of the 12-story structure would house offices and warehouse space, with interior floors that could handle the stressful loads produced by tons and tons of merchandise. Above the bulky base, a slim 7-story tower would rise above the Madison & Michigan corner, topped-off by a 3-story pyramid-like cap, crowned with a belfry - minus the bells - with a statue titled "Progress Lighting the Way for Commerce" standing on tip-toe at its peak. By the time construction got underway however the tower had moved to the middle of the building's park-facing front, and when it was completed in 1899, the structure was the tallest in the city.
[Six North Michigan - Montgomery Ward & Co. Tower Building, Historic Michigan Boulevard District, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
The combined Michigan Avenue properties were a beehive of activity, and a cut-away illustration of the interior produced in 1900 showed the entire complex buzzing with worker bees. Ward loved this location and its Grant Park frontage. He became a powerful advocate for the park, and fought a constant battle in the courts trying to keep the area between Michigan Avenue and the lake "forever Open, Clear & free of any buildings" as was clearly written on one of the first city maps in 1836. He lost some battles, but won big when the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the open space champion in 1900. A big change came to the tower building itself however in the early 1920s when an extra four floors were added to the structure, wrapping around the 7-story tall tower and shrinking it to just 3-stories. An off-with-their-heads alteration substantially changed the appearance of the Michigan Avenue property in 1947 when the pyramid-shaped top piece was torn-off, and the once towering tower shrunk even further.
[Six North Michigan - Montgomery Ward & Co. Tower Building /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
The Ward company had actually began to undertake a move from their park view location 35 years before the tower's cap was guillotined. Richard Schmidt and his design partner Hugh Garden designed a new building for the catalog and warehouse divisions which opened in 1909 on Chicago Avenue along the north branch of the river. The orginal structure eventually grew into an enormous warehouse/office compound that served as the company's headquarters into the 21st century. Ward's old Beers, Clayton & Dutton building on Michigan Avenue was sold in 1912 for a tidy $1,295,000, and in 1947 the French perfume company Lucien Lelong - looking to establish a beachhead in the States - purchased the Tower Building for $2,300,000. In the 1960s, a large illuminated sign with that read "Almer Coe" was secured to the upper portion of the truncated tower, which became a landmark of sorts along the Michigan Avenue street wall until it was dismantled in the 1980s. Now the former beehive's 8-story brick building houses offices while the tower building houses residents. And the park that Montgomery Ward worked so hard to preserve is one of the most visited places in the city - and the state.