Sunday, February 22, 2015

Montgomery Ward & Co. Mail Order & Catalog House Building
 by: chicago designslinger

 [Montgomery Ward & Co. Mail Order & Catalog House Building (1909) Richard E. Schmidt, Garden & Martin, architects; Addition (1917) Montgomery Ward & Co. Engineering Department, architects (2002) adaptive reuse; Gensler & Pappageorge/Haymes, architects /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

It was the of its time. It started out in 1872 as a single sheet of paper, which by 1906 had grown into a catalog offering-up thousands of items for sale ranging from spittoons to stoves, weighing-in at a hefty 4 pounds. Aaron Montgomery Ward's mail order catalog company was a retailing behemoth, and by 1905 a move was in order. The old warehouse/office complex on Michigan Avenue overlooking Grant Park was too small and outdated so the hunt for a new location was on.

  [Montgomery Ward & Co. Mail Order & Catalog House Building, 600 W. Chicago Avenue, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

Space was an issue, but so were the Teamsters. In the Spring of 1905 there was a very public, very contentious, and very messy Teamster's strike. The Teamsters drove the teams of horses, that pulled all the wagons, that carted all the Ward's dry goods. In November 1905, Charles H. Thorne, Montgomery Ward's nephew and treasurer of the company announced that the catalog concern would be leaving Michigan Avenue and moving to a new location. The only requirement was that the site be adjacent to railroad lines or the river. As quoted by the Chicago Tribune Thorne stated, "We intend to do business without teamsters. At least we shall employ only a few. Teamsters are troublesome especially while the union is in charge of the present leaders. In our new location we shall have little need for their services. We shall possess either direct railroad facilities or lighterage advantages on the river front."  In May 1906 the company completed the purchase of a large tract of land right next to the north branch of the Chicago River on one side, and the tracks of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul railroad on the other. So Thorne not only got direct access to a line of tracks, but he also got his river frontage, all in one fell swoop.

  [Montgomery Ward & Co. Mail Order & Catalog House Building, National Historic Landmark /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

Thorne called on architect Richard E. Schmidt, who had designed Ward's Michigan Avenue headquarters, to design and build a structure that would provide plenty of space for offices, a warehouse and a distribution facility all in one building. By this time Schmidt was now in business with architect Hugh Garden and structural engineer Edgar Martin, and the team delivered the largest reinforced concrete building ever constructed. At 1.2 million square feet, and covering a floor area of over 25 acres providing the 3,000 Ward employees with a state of the art facility that boats could dock adjacent to, and train cars could pull right into for loading. Schmidt, Garden & Martin were Prairie School practitioners and although the building looks pretty utilitarian, the long bands of window and brick definitely give the building the School's signature horizontal feeling, while the ornament over the doors pay tribute to the great Louis Sullivan. Ward's business kept growing and so did the building. In 1917 under the supervision of their in-house engineering department, the plant was increased by another 400,000 square feet at its north end.
After 128 years in business, Montgomery Ward & Co. closed their doors for good in  2000. The Chicago Avenue building was converted into a residential condominium and high-tech commercial complex in 2002, and in 2012, the internet giant Groupon became the building's largest tenant with over 350,000 square feet of space.

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