THE MART, one of Chicago’s most famous buildings, has gotten a makeover. With the help of Gensler, owners and operators Vornado Realty Trust have revamped the creative compound’s offices, common areas, and outdoor spaces to prioritize a culture of work, life, and wellness.
The Art Deco behemoth structure, which takes up two full city blocks, opened in 1930. The retailer Marshall Fields & Company recruited architect Alfred Shaw to realize their vision of an all-encompassing destination for consumers to shop, live, and work — a city within a city. Shaw combined the architectural styles of the department store, skyscraper, and warehouse to create the Merchandise Mart, which at the time was the biggest building in the world.
Merchandise Mart was lined with bronze-trimmed stalls, terrazzo tiles, and larger than life busts of men inducted into the Merchandise Mart Hall of Fame, who still overlook River Park. In its many lives, Merchandise Mart was once owned by the Kennedys and home to the now-defunct Illinois Institute of Art. As Fortune 500 companies like PayPal and Allstate have moved in, the building has continued to expand its enormous footprint, adding walking bridges and esplanades to cater to the thousands of people who pass through its corridors.
In 1998 Vornado Realty Trust purchased the building. The company has spent the past 25 years updating, retrofitting, and renovating the structure. Now, rebranded as THE MART, the building is officially reintroducing itself into the world.
More than 250 of THE MART’s tenants are design showrooms, and Gensler’s transformation maximizes the potential for the building’s creative class. The South Lobby, which has preserved many of the building’s Art Deco features, has been updated with new furnishings sourced exclusively from THE MART’s showrooms. They’ve also added a 21,000-square-foot conference center and workspace that allows designers to show off their products, as they did at NeoCon 2023.
But THE MART is not just a place for working. It’s also a home away from home. New additions include a health center, new retail stores specializing in beauty and wellness, and a tenant-exclusive speakeasy that will allow different creative offices to mix and cross-pollinate ideas.
One of the most exciting features is River Park’s makeover. The privately owned building has gone public, taking features normally hidden away on a rooftop and making them available to anyone who comes to the riverfront. River Park’s upgrades include a plaza for pedestrian traffic, a grassy central lawn, new landscaping with native plant species, al fresco seating, and new food and beverage offerings.
At night, one can gaze up from River Park and view a stunning projection that spans THE MART’s 2.5 acre facade. Since 2018, ART on THE MART has been the world’s largest outdoor art space, showing works by renowned artists like Nick Cave and Derrick Adams. Gensler designed the latest work, “Building Light,” which shares stories of urbanization through time-lapses. The work will be on view until September 8, 2023.
When a designer falls into a creative groove, THE MART’s new amenities will keep them active, fed, and inspired. With open floor plans, relaxing common spaces, and more venues for socializing, new collaborations are sure to sprout from this oasis of design.