Merchandise Mart Unveils Tech-Friendly Makeover

Merchandise Mart (Courtesy of Vornado Realty Trust)

This ain’t your father’s Merchandise Mart (Courtesy of Vornado Realty Trust)

It’s been a decade of change over at the Merchandise Mart (222 West Merchandise Mart Plaza).  From bustling hub for the creative classes to even more bustling hub for the new tech class.  It’s 85-year-old bones have seen Chicago make and re-make itself over and over, and now it’s The Mart’s turn.

We don’t call it “The Mart” because we’re best friends.  We call it that because that’s the new name that its New York owner, Vornado, likes to use — stylized as theMART.  It’s part of the building’s $40 million makeover, officially unveiled today, which includes much more concrete things than a name and a logo.

It includes things like The Grand Stair, the long-needed link between the building’s busy first and second floors.  Even though it packed in retail shops, a food court, and a CTA Brown/Purple Line Station, the eastern portion of this building was annoying to navigate.  Going from the first floor to the second floor was easy enough — take the nice escalator.  But getting down?  Wait for an elevator, or hoof it down a spiraling fire stairwell.

Now there is a 50-foot-wide staircase which allows you to go both up and down.  Or neither.  As some of the stairs are padded, and meant to be sat on. This is one of the trendy things in interior design these days — turning staircases into hanging out spaces for the cool kids.  Or as the consultants put it: It allows employees to leverage synergy through serendipitous collaborations.  Feel free to use that in your next PowerPoint.

If you prefer to leverage your synergy in a more traditional space, there’s now an area called The Lounge.  With its helvetica instructional signs (“Go ahead, play with your food”) and furniture labels (“Medium Pillow,” “Checkers Table”), it might be mistaken for an Ikea showroom. But this is another place for the tech set to stretch out with a laptop, slurp some dark roast, and dream up the next million-dollar free-range organic disruptive technology that you and I won’t be able to stop clicking on.

Also new is the previously-mentioned food court, which is bigger, brighter, and for some reason called a Food Hall now.  The actual food halls of places like Harrod’s and Daimaru have nothing to worry about.  The Merchandise Mart version is still a food court, though now it sports exposed utilities hanging from the ceiling, in order to make the place feel a little taller and more open.  Portions also have mirrored ceilings, like a motel down near Midway Airport.  But probably not for the same reason.

Overall, the word “makeover,” while alliterative in a headline, is perhaps a bit of an understatement.  A makeover is something you get for free with a $59.95 purchase at the Lancome counter at Macy’s on State.  This is more of a transformation, taking the Merchandise Mart out of the 1930’s and putting it solidly in the modern day.

Though we miss the old Merchandise Mart when it was bristling with men sporting trilbys and exotic-skinned briefcases rushing back-and-forth doing serious work, we’ll get used to the new age of men and women sporting Yomiuri Giants ball caps and vintage backpacks with ironic Dell logos on them hanging out, drinking gallons of coffee, and changing the virtual world the way the previous generation changed the actual world.  One thing remains true — when the sun rises on a new generation, the Merchandise Mart will be there.

Please to enjoy the photo gallery, and then the press release.  All photos courtesy of Vornado Realty Trust.


Merchandise Mart Unveils Transformative Renovations

Monumental Grand Stair highlights iconic building’s $40M project

Chicago, IL – June 9, 2016 – The Merchandise Mart (theMART) announced today the opening of The Grand Stair, a communal space connecting theMART’s first and second floors, and the centerpiece of theMART’s highly anticipated capital-improvement program. Also included among theMART’s $40M renovation to its public spaces is a modernized, urban food hall, as well as a large multi-purpose space on the second floor, and a riverfront park with alfresco seating.

TheMART’s transformative renovation was designed to complement the creative energy and talent of its tenants and visitors, reflecting both the functionality and aesthetic of those who utilize theMART’s space for offices, retail, showrooms and events. Dynamic elements of the renovation include:

  • The Grand Stair: a monumental new portal of theMART, the 50-ft wide majestic staircase creates a connection between the first two floors, and also serves as a meeting or work place with stadium seating, a large projection wall and free Wi-Fi.
  • The Lounge: a multi-purpose space with spectacular views of the Chicago River and skyline, located atop The Grand Stair will feature food service and provide various areas to meet, work and socialize.
  • The Food Hall: a reconfigured, reinvigorated and dramatically designed seating area with more natural light will engage visitors beyond dining and offer additional space for lounging, socializing and working.
  • River Drive Park: a 5,000 square-foot outdoor green space along the riverfront connects tenants, visitors and pedestrians to theMART’s main entry, and includes seating and shaded areas with dramatic views of the river and Chicago skyline.
  • Reception/Information Desk: a new greeting point located at the base of The Grand Stair.

“TheMART’s stature as an architectural icon, and its influence as the epicenter of Chicago’s commerce and industry, is reflected in every aspect of the unique and functional design of The Grand Stair and theMART’s other new communal space elements,” said Myron Maurer, COO, theMART .

Vornado Realty Trust, the property’s owner, engaged innovative, New York based architecture, strategy, and design firm, A+I to lead the design process throughout the three-year capital improvements renovation project.

“Rather than creating a port of entrance and exit, the architectural features of theMART’s new lobby allow for a new kind of engagement by slowing down the pace of passage,” states Brad Zizmor, Principal and Co-Founder of A+I. “The Grand Stair and Reception Area create a monumental architectural landscape conducive to reflection, thinking and socializing. In keeping with A+I’s reinvention of the lobby as a programmatic space to dwell in, as opposed to pass through, we designed a colossal stair with a physical structure that is 80% meant to be lingered on as opposed to being walked on.”

Location: 222 West Merchandise Mart Plaza, River North

Author: Editor

Editor founded the Chicago Architecture Blog in 2003, after a long career in journalism. He can be reached at

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