Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Montgomery Ward Warehouse at 600 West Chicago (Part II)


1,323, 000 square feet of exquisite space that hugs the river at 600 W. Chicago (JWB, 2010)

Aaron Montgomery Ward was born in February of 1843 in Chatham, New Jersey to Sylvester and Julia Ward.  When he was eight-years-old, the family moved to Niles, Michigan where he went to public school until he reached the age of 14.  At that point he went to work in a barrel factory for 25 cents a day before moving on to work in a brickyard.  Several years later he moved to St. Joseph, Michigan where he worked in a general merchandise store for five bucks a month plus his board. Within three years he was put in charge of the establishment and his paycheck had increased 20 times over – to 100 dollars a month.

Ward moved to Chicago in 1865 with this merchandising experience to recommend him.  He entered the employ of Field, Palmer & Leiter, where he remained for two years.  With the experience he gained from working with three men who would become giants in Chicago merchandising and industry, he left, first to work in a wholesale dry goods business and then to serve as a traveling salesman for Walter M. Smith & Co., a St. Louis firm.

A year after the Chicago fire of 1871, Ward’s life changed.  He married Elizabeth Cobb of Kalamazoo, Michigan and he started the first big mail order business in the world in a loft over a livery stable on Kinzie Street between Rush and State.  Forming a partnership with his brother-in-law, George R. Thorne, Ward began working on his goal of eliminating the middleman and selling directly to the thousands of rural customers flooding the rapidly expanding western United States, people who were at the time being charged exorbitant rates for goods of inferior quality.  The firm began with one clerk.
Schmidt, Garden & Martin designed the sprawling complex on the
river at Chicago Avenue with no apologies for the unadorned way
that it mirrored the function of the business inside (JWB, 2011)

By the time of his death on December 7 of 1913, the little one-clerk operation above the livery stable on Kinzie Street had become a business that generated 40 million dollars a year.  The company had branches in Kansas City, New York, Portland and Fort Worth and employed 6,000 workers.

Perhaps even more important than his unrivalled success as a merchant was the legacy he left to Chicago, his one-man crusade to save the city’s lakefront. But that’s a story for another time . . . perhaps when we work our way down to  6 North Michigan Avenue, an 1898 tower that Montgomery Ward built from a design by Richard Schmidt and Hugh Garden, the same partners who, along with Edgar Martin, would design the sprawling warehouse for Ward on the edge of the river.

And how about that warehouse?  Finished in 1908, it was the largest reinforced concrete building in the entire universe, the largest floor space under one roof in the United States with 30.5 acres of room.  Influenced heavily by the Prairie Style with which Hugh Garden was so familiar after his association with the young architects in the Steinway Building, the warehouse sprawled along the river, such a large structure that workers in the building wore roller skates while filling orders.

When it was completed, this was the largest reinforced concrete
building in the world (JWB, 2010)
Just after it was finished The Architectural Record wrote of the new warehouse, “. . . there is evidence of a definite attempt . .  . to express the function of the different buildings and more particularly there is a sincerity in the use of materials in expressing the structural facts that is a step toward the fulfillment of the hope just expressed.”

A definite attempt to express the function of the buildings?  A sincerity in the use of materials in expressing the structural facts?

Sound familiar?

That’s right . . . “It is the pervading law of all things organic, and inorganic, of all things, physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function.  This is the law.”

Schmidt, Garden & Martin followed THE LAW.  It was the law Louis Sullivan brought down from his tower on Congress and handed to the young men and women who worked together on the top floors of the Steinway Building just around the corner.

And that law was applied to Montgomery Ward’s massive warehouse on an unparalleled scale.  The floor area measured 1,323,000 square feet.  The building was 731 feet long, 275 feet deep at its widest point, tapering to 153 feet on Chicago Avenue.  Nine stories high, The Architectural Record called It “a repetition of a monotony truly appalling.”

That last statement was not meant to be nearly as damning as it sounds today.  The journal in which it appeared made the point that this was a new kind of building . . .  “It will be noticed that these qualifications are functional, structural and economical, uninfluenced by any consideration for architectural display or effect.  Indeed, beyond a natural desire for an effect of stability and order, one might say that in this building architectural expression was not wanted.”

Notice the clear division between office space
on the first three levels and utilitarian
space above (JWB, 2011)
The obvious division of the building further advances our understanding of how it functioned when it opened.  The first three floors of the structure, for example, feature larger windows than the floors above and these lower floors are grouped together with piers that run through all three stories.  Here is where we find what little ornament there is on the building . . . the terra cotta details that top the piers on the third level and the terra cotta spandrels between the windows on the second and third levels.

These floors were given up to the executive and working departments of Ward’s vast enterprise and their treatment distinguished them from the storage floors of the six floors of warehouse space above them. 

Again The Architectural Record recognizes that this is a new kind of design, “It states the facts with perfect candor; of repetition and order it makes rhythm; from monotony it draws repose, and always in its form it is plastic.”

Rhythm, repose and plasticity . . . you can see those three attributes in this great building to this day.  It is, over a hundred years after is was built, as vital as it was back in 1908. 

Back In February of this year the building sold for big bucks, not surprising since the immense space inside 600 West Chicago is almost fully leased. In 2003 the city invested $28 million in Tax Increment Financing funding to redevelop the building, and the plan took hold. 

Over a century later . . . still an imposing presence
in the city that grew up around it (JBW, 2011)
The building today houses a variety of businesses – ranging from the upscale Asian restaurant, Japonais, to the unbelievably successful Groupon, which began in just a couple of offices at 600 West Chicago in November of 2008 and as what Forbes Magazine called “the fastest growing company ever” attracted 13 million subscribers while expanding its operation to 85 North American markets and 29 countries, hiring more than 1,200 people in the process.

In 2010 Eric Lefkofsky, one of Groupon’s founders, said, “600 West is a triumphant example of the entrepreneurial spirit of our city.”  It is today just as it was back in 1908.

The law hasn’t changed.

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