Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Fair Comes to Wards

For 85 years, Montgomery Ward had been a landmark Chicago institution. The irony was that after all those years, the company maintained only one retail store within the Chicago city limits (inside a portion of their home office complex) and a minimal presence in the greater metropolitan area (a medium-sized store in La Grange and a few others). In 1957, with Wards in an expansion mode for once, that finally changed. Even so, several more years would go by before the Montgomery Ward name would grace any additional Chicago area storefronts.

On June 25, 1957, as reported in the Chicago Tribune the next day, Wards announced their purchase of The Fair, a Chicago-based traditional department store chain with a flagship store on State Street, plus three suburban branch stores. For the foreseeable future, the stores would continue to operate under The Fair name, and the current management would remain in place. The appeal for Wards was clear – in a period where they were trying to gain critical mass in select markets across the country, they would have a jump start in Chicago. Just as important, Wards now had a presence on “that great street”, Chicago’s legendary retail row, alongside Marshall Field & Company, Carson Pirie Scott and other such luminaries.

The origin of The Fair dates back to 1880, just seven years after Wards’ own founding. Starting out as a “little jewelry shop with a 16 foot frontage on State St.” as the Tribune put it, the company prospered quickly and within a few years added a number of other lines, mostly clothing and other soft goods. The Trib article mentions that The Fair’s founder, E.J. Lehmann, was credited in some circles as “the originator of the modern department store”, although I’m sure there’s been no shortage of others willing to lay claim to that title. Lehmann also receives the honors for being the “first to price merchandise to the odd penny”, i.e. charging $5.98 for a six-dollar item.

Ten years later, word of The Fair’s success had reached America’s newspaper of record, the New York Times, in a May 9, 1890 article that (in the quaint style of the day) proclaimed some exciting news: “A Big Commercial Scheme. – Chicago to have the largest store building in the world.” The “scheme” was the construction of The Fair’s new store, a massive 12-story structure covering an entire half city block, bordered on three fronts by State, Dearborn and Adams streets. While The Fair’s flagship store would be a downtown Chicago landmark for nearly 100 years (it was torn down in 1984), the “largest store” distinction would only apply until 1902. That year, R.H. Macy and Co. opened what is still referred to as “The World’s Largest Store” (as the huge red billboard on the corner of the building continues to remind us) on Herald Square in New York City.

In 1925, stock in The Fair was offered publicly, and controlling interest passed to none other than Sebastian S. Kresge, founder of the famous Detroit-based variety store chain that bore his name and would, many years later, become Kmart Corporation. Although Kresge would control The Fair for over 30 years, he kept a hands-off approach, preferring to let local management run things. The Fair’s operations were never combined with the (many times larger) S.S. Kresge Company. Eventually, formal ownership of The Fair was transferred to the Kresge Foundation, who in turn would later sell it to Montgomery Ward.

In 1929, The Fair took its first (and last for a long time)expansion steps, starting with the January buyout of E. Iverson & Co., who operated a single department store at 1342 Milwaukee Avenue. More significant was its first suburban expansion a few months later. Starting in the late 1920’s, a number of key downtown Chicago department store firms began to open outlying city and suburban branches in what author Richard Longstreth has termed “Bringing Downtown to the Neighborhoods” in his wonderfully informative piece of the same name. In this period that preceded the “shopping center era”, these stores were usually stately structures located in the…well, “downtown” of the suburb in question. The early years of this trend saw three well-known Chicago retailers – Marshall Field (Evanston, Lake Forest), Goldblatts (Hammond, Joliet, Gary) and Wieboldt’s (Evanston, River Forest) as most active. In April, The Fair established retail branches in two buildings in west suburban Oak Park purchased from the Nicholas Company, a hardware store, one located at the corner of Lake and Marion streets, the other at 126 North Oak Park Avenue. By 1936, the operations were consolidated into the Lake Street location, and the adjoining three-story building was also acquired that year. The newly expanded Oak Park store was completely modernized and air conditioning installed as well.

For the next 15 years, things would remain more or less status quo for The Fair, but the 1950’s saw a new injection of excitement into the old firm. The Fair would open new stores in two of the area’s highest-profile shopping center developments. This included the “pioneer” Chicago-area shopping center, Evergreen Plaza, which opened in 1952 in southwest suburban Evergreen Park. The brainchild of famed developer Arthur Rubloff, Evergreen Plaza caused a national splash at the time of its opening. At 170,000 square feet, The Fair was by far the center’s largest store at the time of opening. Evergreen Plaza’s other department store, Carson Pirie Scott, had a much more modest 44,000 square feet. In 1963, Carsons reset the balance with the opening of a much larger square foot store at the Plaza. Other stores at the “L-shaped” shopping center included Lytton’s and Maurice L. Rothschild, two popular area men’s and women’s apparel chains, a Jewel Food Store (and a Kroger, too!), S.S. Kresge and the first shopping center-based Walgreens.

In late 1956, the company opened up its second shopping center location at Old Orchard, the “Jewel of Chicago’s (shopping center) collection” as termed by Women’s Wear Daily columnist Samuel Feinberg. Nestled in the upper income suburb of Skokie, Old Orchard was a beautifully-designed outdoor shopping center, replete with courtyards and fountains amidst the who’s who of Chicago-area retail. Originally planned as a development of Marshall Field & Company on land that they owned, Field’s ended up selling most of the property, with the exception of the land on which their own store would stand (although they would maintain a high degree of sway over the tenant mix and other key decisions at Old Orchard) to Philip Klutznick, who had recently developed the famous Park Forest “planned community”, which included a shopping center as a central feature, and would go on to develop Oakbrook Center. The Fair occupied the second anchor spot within Old Orchard, although at 121,000 square feet, the store was dwarfed by the Marshall Field’s store at the opposite end of the center, a behemoth nearly triple its size. When Montgomery Ward took over The Fair soon after the Old Orchard store opened, a large hardware department was added.

The last Fair store opened five years after the Wards buyout of the company, and in a sense it was the most surprising. In 1962, Montgomery Ward joined forces with Carson Pirie Scott and Wieboldt’s to open Randhurst Center, a huge enclosed mall in Mount Prospect, the first major shopping center in the Northwest Suburbs. Randhurst was groundbreaking in many respects, from the center’s unique ownership structure to the highly advanced triangular architectural design by the famed Victor Gruen. At a time when Montgomery Ward was striving to establish its modern image in the minds of the American buying public, they made the amazing decision go with the staid Fair nameplate on the highly publicized, nationally renowned Randhurst project. The store’s exterior design was anything but staid, however, and those colored, illuminated panels still shine on in my memory (I only knew the store in its later incarnation as a Montgomery Ward). See the first photo above.

In the book “Satisfaction Guaranteed” by Booton Herndon, a very entertaining look at the first 100 years of Montgomery Ward, chairman Tom Brooker related the problems that had faced Wards all along with The Fair, of management set in its ways (and in my opinion, a scale too small to effectively compete with the likes of Fields, Carsons, Goldblatts and Wieboldts). Combined with that was the huge opportunity cost of mothballing the Montgomery Ward name in the crucial Chicago market. The inevitable conclusion was that the old-line department store model embodied by The Fair was a poor fit for a mass merchandiser like Wards, and the time to convert The Fair stores to the Wards nameplate and system finally came.

The first Fair store to be converted, of course, was the Randhurst unit, which took place in November 1963, a year after its original opening. (An auto center had already operated under the Wards name for some time by then.) In late 1964, the Oak Park, Evergreen Plaza and Old Orchard units became Montgomery Ward stores as well. In the fall of 1965, the last and biggest conversion took place, a major renovation of the gigantic State Street store, which would then become the largest of the 500-plus Wards stores at the time. The circa-1890 exterior was stripped away, replaced with a sleek new look “with windows recessed under protected arcades”, as the Chicago Tribune put it. And of course, all-new area Montgomery Ward stores were in the works as well – at Dixie Square Mall (1965), Yorktown (1967) and many others to follow.

The Fair had moved on, and the funky, diamond-like “MW” logo now stood in its place.

The first photo is a circa 1962 postcard view of The Fair at Randhurst. Second is a Kresge publicity photo of Old Orchard, circa 1957 followed by an aerial photo of Evergreen Plaza from a 1953 Urban Land Institute bulletin. The Fair's units are visible in the foreground of both photos.
Below, from the Library of Congress, is a 1964 view of the downtown Fair flagship – the temporary “Montgomery Ward" sign is already in place. Last, from around the same time, is an artist’s rendering of that store’s very extensive modernization.


  1. The State Street store looks better in the pic than it did in real life. Like a lot of facelifts of early 20th century buildings, the modern veneer looked cheap and phony in a short period of time. I remember staying at the Palmer House shortly before demolition when the building appeared particularly shopworn.

    Wards, Wielboldt's, and Carsons teamed for Lakehurst and Yorktown, as well as the never built Westridge that had been proposed for Addison. I would assume that this teaming was in response to Field's, which either dominated its early malls or co-anchored with Sears, Old Orchard and Forest park being exceptions, esp. the Park Forest teaming with low end Goldblatt's.

  2. I read THE ORGANIZATION MAN in college, and the writer tells the social history of Park Forest. When the developer opened the area's shopping center with Goldblatt's (not mentioned by name but referred to as "a peoples' department store") the residents kicked up a fuss until they added a Marshall Field branch.

  3. Anonymous – The rendering looks so nice that I’m not surprised the real thing didn’t look as good. I would imagine that the veneer didn’t age well at all. The 1890 facade may have looked rough by the 1960’s (and probably well before that), but there’s a distinct difference between a “patina” and downright dinginess.

    As a teenager in the late 70’s I used to go the Beatles convention (Beatlefest) every year at the Palmer House. They later moved it to Hyatt near O’Hare. I thought I was big stuff buying my own lunch at the PH restaurants!

    I think you assumption about Wards/Wieboldt’s/Carsons team-ups makes sense. It was generally a defensive game against Field’s and Sears, who were the dominant players.

    Paul – “The Organization Man”, a very famous and influential book, is another one of those books that I really need to read one of these days – it’s always interesting to get insights from that fascinating period as it unfolded.

    Now that you’ve tipped me off on the Park Forest/Marshall Field’s reference, I need to move it to the top of the list. Fascinating!

    I did read “The Organization MAD” (Mad Magazine paperback anthology), though, but I guess that doesn’t count! ;)

  4. That is one nice looking store in that first photograph.

    Our library has a copy of The Organization Man. I remember rifling through it a few years agp. I should go back and get it!

  5. A beautiful old building that State Street store was, it's a shame that it's no longer with us.

  6. Didi – I completely agree – Randhurst in its original form was quite the place - almost difficult to put in words. Incredible visual appeal!

    Nokorola – It is too bad, although as mentioned above, the 1960’s refacing didn’t age well. I would imagine had the building survived with its original facade into the 1980’s, it would been a candidate for a magnificent restoration as other Chicago landmarks - the Rookery , the Monadnock and the Railway Exchange building, to name just a few examples - underwent at that time. Thanks!