An international hub of commerce, trade, retail, and culture is situated right near short-stay apartments in the River North District of Chicago.
More than 20,000 tenants and visitors flood through the doors of the Merchandise Mart every day. Over the last century, the expansive complex has grown and evolved with the times, ultimately becoming a staple of Chicago industry.
The Early Years
Marshall Field & Co., the visionaries behind the mart, sought to consolidate the city’s wholesale businesses, primarily its architectural and interior-design companies. To do so, they needed to identify an area large enough to accommodate such a venture, which led them to the Chicago riverfront.
The area developed for the Merchandise Mart was once a Native American trading post and later a train station. The mart had the firm backing of the city, which was eager to revitalize its riverfront.
That’s exactly what the Merchandise Mart did. When it opened in 1930, the 4-million square-foot property became the largest building in the world, attracting international attention for Chicago. A few months after it opened, an elevated-train station was incorporated into the complex, bringing even more visitors through the mart.
As its reputation grew, the mart incorporated formal tours of the building, and its renowned architecture and artwork, in 1948.
Tourism turned a corner in 1991, when the mart opened a retail area. Wholesale business remained a significant portion of the mart’s focus; in 1969, the National Exposition of Contract Furnishings began holding its annual conference at the mart, which is the largest trade show of its kind in North America. Wholesale showrooms continued to occupy about half of the mart’s space.
Other big-name businesses residing in Merchandise Mart include the Chicago Sun-Times, a Holiday Inn and an NBC station.
In addition to commerce, the mart has become a cultural icon. It has been referenced in numerous shows and films, such as “The Fugitive.” Its 17 murals in the building’s lobby attract art lovers from around the world, as does the international art fair Art Chicago, which it hosts every year.
For such an iconic and vast complex — it’s so large it has its own zip code — the building’s operators keep it engaged in the local community. The web of lights on the outside of the building change with holidays throughout the year, as well as for special Chicago occasions, including sporting events. In 2018, there are plans to install a massive screen on one side of the building to project images and videos for passersby.
The Merchandise Mart is a must-see example of Chicago’s past, present and future. Take advantage of your time and close proximity during your visit at your short-stay apartment in River North and venture over to the mart for a dose of Chicago culture.