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Montgomery Ward Buildings

Posted by Pudleaux Tourism: Digital Chicago Visitors Guide on January 20, 2011 at 12:56 AM

Traveling North on the North branch of the Chicago River, one comes across a series of buildings old and new that were designed for the now defunct Montgomery Ward's. There is a very long, zig-zagged building that follows the turns of the Chicago River. This was the Montgomery Ward Warehouse, designed 1906-1908 by architect Richard Schmidt of Schmidt, Garden, & Martin. This was the first, and largest of the three structures in the River North district. Richard Schmidt also designed the Montgomery Ward office tower on Michigan Avenue across from Millennium Park. At the time of its completion in 1908, the warehouse was the largest reinforced concrete building in the world. It has a very long, flat, and horizontal orientation, similar to the Prairie Style residences Frank Lloyd Wright was building at the time, but on a much larger scale. Montgomery Ward developed the first mail order catalog business and because the building was so long, clerks wore roller skates to move from one end of the building to the other when retrieving inventory. Since Ward's went out of business, the building has now been converted to a mixed use office building, housing restaurants, office, and retail space.

The second Montgomery Ward's building to go up in River North was the merchandise building located just across the street on Chicago Avenue, and was designed by an in-house design staff. This building, though not quite as large as the warehouse, was also designed in the Prairie Style. Notice the tower on the northeast corner of the building topped with a 22.5 foot statue. This is the "Spirit of Progress", based off of the Spirit of Progress statue originally designed by sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens that was on top of the Agricultural Building at the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893. She is carrying a staff and torch in outward reaching arms. The building is now condominiums with added balconies on the exterior.

The final building of the Montgomery Ward's trio is the modern tower directly east of the merchandise building. This structure was completed in 1974 by architect Minoru Yamasaki, the architect of the World Trade Center twin towers in New York City. This structure looks like a typical Miesan structure hugged by four massive travertine marble piers at each corner. However, steel is not the structural component of the building: concrete is. There are structural cores of concrete under the travertine facade, who's massive strength help to free up the loads carried on each floor creating more interior space uninterrupted by columns, however eliminating any opportunity for corner windows. What looks like a building trapped between four converging piers is actually a series of glass curtain walls. These were originally designed with black aluminum to contrast with the white travertine marble, but in a 2004 remodeling were replaced with silver aluminum curtain walls to make it more appealing for its conversion into a condominium building. Additionally, balconies were added on the east and west walls between the travertine piers. 

Categories: Montgomery Ward Buildings, Richard Schmidt, Minoru Yamasaki

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