Merchandise Mart: Chicago's Iconic Commercial Hub

Merchandise Mart, often referred to as "the Mart," is a renowned commercial building located in downtown Chicago, Illinois. This article provides insights into the history, architecture, ownership, and sustainable practices of this architectural gem.


The construction of the Merchandise Mart commenced on August 16, 1928, in response to the growing need for a centralized wholesale goods hub in Chicago. Situated at the confluence of the Chicago River's branches, it rose to prominence as the largest building globally when it officially opened its doors in 1930, boasting a staggering 4 million square feet of floor space. The project was spearheaded by James Simpson, then-president of Marshall Field & Co., and architect Ernest Graham. This colossal undertaking, which brought together 2,500 workers, embraced innovative construction techniques and technologies of the time.

The building's construction involved impressive feats, including the use of compressed air to lift cement, conveyor belts, transfer elevators, and vertical towers for delivering wet concrete. It required a whopping 29 million bricks, 40 miles of plumbing, 380 miles of wiring, nearly 4 million cubic yards of concrete, and 200,000 cubic feet of stone. Bethlehem Steel played a crucial role by fabricating 60,000 tons of steel for the project. Additionally, the building incorporated 7.5 miles of corridors and over 30 elevators.

Big Enough to Own a Chicago Zip Code

The Merchandise Mart's immense size was evident as it possessed its very own ZIP Code, 60654, until 2008 when the Postal Service reassigned this ZIP Code to encompass a portion of the surrounding area. Moreover, in 2010, the building extended a warm welcome to the public by unveiling its Design Center showrooms.


Upon its completion, the Merchandise Mart was a testament to Marshall Field's vision, consolidating Chicago's wholesale goods business under one roof. Later, the Kennedy family acquired the building in 1945 or 1946, depending on the source. The purchase price was reported to be around $12.5 million, and it became a significant source of the Kennedy family's wealth. The building's sale in 1998 marked the end of the Kennedy family's last remaining operating business. Vornado Realty Trust acquired the complex center property for $450 million in cash and a stake in Vornado.

Expansions and Renovations

The Merchandise Mart underwent various expansions and renovations to meet the evolving needs of its occupants. Notably, in the late 1950s and 1960s, modernization efforts were initiated. In 1961, concrete plates replaced Indian chief carvings that adorned the building's exterior. An entrance canopy was added in 1962.

In 1977, the Chicago Apparel Center, located on the west side of Orleans Street, expanded the Mart's floor space to 6.2 million square feet. Architect Helmut Jahn designed an enclosed pedestrian walking bridge over Orleans Street in 1988, connecting the Mart and the Apparel Center. A substantial modernization effort in the late 1980s included public utility upgrades and the restoration of display windows, entrances, and lobbies. This project was completed in 1991.


Designed by the architectural firm of Graham, Anderson, Probst, and White, the Merchandise Mart embodies the principles of art deco architecture. It combines elements from three distinct building types: the warehouse, the department store, and the skyscraper. The building's design incorporates ribbon piers defining windows, chamfered corners, minimal setbacks, and corner pavilions to minimize bulk.

The central tower, rising 25 stories, resembles a skyscraper and features an interlocked initials logo of the Merchandise Mart on recessed portals. Fifty-six American Indian chief figures encircle the tower's crown, paying homage to the site's history and Chicago's early trade. The lobby is defined by square marble piers, embossed bronze-trimmed storefronts, and a green and orange terrazzo floor.


Jules Guerin's frieze of 17 murals in the lobby vividly illustrates commerce worldwide, showcasing the origins of items sold in the Mart. The murals portray various industries, products, modes of transportation, and architectural highlights of 14 countries.

Joseph Kennedy commissioned eight bronze busts, known as the Merchandise Mart Hall of Fame, to honor outstanding American merchants. These busts, four times life-size, adorn pedestals along the Chicago River, facing the building's entrance.

"Art on theMART"

"Art on theMART" is a digital art display initiated in 2018. This innovative project transforms the Merchandise Mart's Chicago River-facing facade into a 2.5-acre canvas for digital artwork. It features works from organizations such as Arts of Life, becoming the largest digital art projection globally. Displays occur annually between March and December, beginning 15 minutes after sunset and lasting two hours each night.


The Mart's strategic location places it at the heart of the Near North Side, near a thriving gallery district and vibrant eateries. Notably, Kinzie Chophouse and the historic Chicago Varnish Company Building are adjacent to the Mart. The building's unique shape is a result of its construction after the completion of bascule bridges over the Chicago River.

Exterior Lighting

The Merchandise Mart features dynamic exterior lighting that changes to reflect various occasions and events. Traditionally, it showcases green for St. Patrick's Day, orange for fall festivities, and pink for Cancer Awareness Month. It aligns its lighting with other iconic Chicago buildings, such as the Sears Tower and John Hancock Center.

Green Building Practices

Under the leadership of Chris Kennedy, the Merchandise Mart achieved LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Certification in 2007, making it the largest LEED-certified building globally at the time. The Mart has long been committed to sustainability, implementing practices such as thermal storage, green cleaning products, recycling programs, and energy-efficient lighting. These efforts have resulted in significant reductions in pollution, waste, and water consumption.

The Merchandise Mart remains an enduring symbol of commerce, innovation, and sustainable practices in the heart of Chicago, continually adapting to meet the needs of its time while preserving its historic charm.

60654 Zip Code June 14, 2024
Avg. DOM
Avg. $ / Sq.Ft.
Med. List Price
209 Properties
Page 1 of 18