Remembering Marshall Field’s

Audience at Chicago Architecture Foundation

Leslie Goddard’s book Remembering Marshall Field’s is a work of historical preservation that conserves the memories and meaning of a special department store within the collective consciousness of Chicago. At a recent lunchtime lecture at the Chicago Architecture Foundation, Goddard spoke about the intimately intertwined relationship between Marshall Field’s and the city of Chicago, revealing a rich history of urban and cultural transformation with experiences that influenced millions of peoples’ lives.

The story begins in 1852 with a small dry goods store on Lake Street called P. Palmer & Co. that would grow with the vigor of Chicago itself. By 1868, the company that would become Marshall Field’s moved to State Street along with the rest of the fashionable retail trade. The Field, Leiter & Co. store burned twice — once in the Great Fire of 1871, and again in 1877. But each time it recovered quickly and was well positioned to take advantage of additional business from the Columbian Exposition of 1893, at long last under the name of Marshall Field and Company.

Macy's on State StreetThough known today for its retail trade, it was wholesaling that made Marshall Field’s successful. Over the years it built, bought, and demolished a number of buildings, and by 1914 Marshall Field’s occupied an entire downtown block bordered by Washington, State, Randolph and Wabash streets.

All the adjectives used to describe the amalgamated buildings were superlatives. The grandiose architecture and interior design made a profound impression upon wealthy shoppers and penetrated the imagination of Chicago’s masses. Marshall Field’s enjoyed tremendous prestige that changed Chicago’s image from a slaughterhouse city to a refined metropolis. Marshall Field’s became a point of pride for the city.

By the late 1920’s, the growth of the city’s suburbs lead Marshall Field’s to open satellite stores in Evanston and Lake Forest. It even established a national presence in suburban shopping malls as downtown shopping districts across the country began to lose their vitality.

After decades of expansion, sales began to slow and financial difficulties began to mount. In 1982, Marshall Field’s ceased to be a public company and went through a series of ownership changes concluding with Target Corporation selling the department store to the May Department Stores Company in 2004. By 2006, all Marshall Field’s stores were renamed Macy’s.

During its waning years, the majority of Marshall Field’s customers at the lunch time were of an older generation that experienced the store in its former glory and participated in the shopping spectacle. The demise of Field’s produced a sense of loss and nostalgia that lingered in the air.

Although the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 and became a Chicago landmark in 2005, for many people the end of the Marshall Field’s brand felt as though the building, itself, had been demolished.

The older men and women in the lecture hall that afternoon still remember their Marshall Field’s experiences. But once they are gone, who will remember the department store that grew up with Chicago? Hopefully the book Remembering Marshall Field’s will help future generations understand this important piece of the Chicago puzzle.

Lunch time lectures at the Chicago Architecture Foundation are every Wednesday from 12:15pm – 1:00pm. They are free and open to the public.

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Author: Paul Kulon

Paul Kulon is a Chicagoan and blogger. You can see more of Paul’s photos and musings on his Tumblr feed, Bohemian Embassy

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