Thursday, July 26, 2012

White and Red and Louis all Over: Target opens in Sullivan's Carson Pirie Scott

 click images for larger view

Target has come to the Loop.  The New City Target store that has just opened in the former Carson Pirie Scott department store at State and Madison designed by architect Louis Sullivan, is bright, clean and handsome.   But, actually, Target Corp. has come back to the Loop.  Are they redefining what constitutes a downtown department store?

Architectural historian Joseph Siry has written that Marshall Field always denied his palace on State Street ever was a "department store."  He insisted it be considered as a dry goods store, instead, offering discriminating products in a limited number of categories to his elite clientele.

The opposite of this was The Fair Store, a few blocks down on State, which chose to build its fortune on "the immense economic strength of VOLUME."  In contrast to Marshall Field's, The Fair offered its customers an enormous array of products at cheap prices, everything from toys, furniture, and kitchen equipment to groceries and dental work.

In between these two approaches, in both strategy and geography, was the Schlesinger and Mayer Department Store, the upscale equivalent of The Fair.  It was located at what was considered the most valuable piece of real estate in Chicago, the southeast corner of State and Madison, valued at the end of the 19th century at $2 million.  When it came time to build new and larger, Schlesinger and Meyer turned to one of the Chicago's most prominent architects, Louis H. Sullivan.  Working with his former partner Dankmar Adler, who handled mechanical aspects of the building, Sullivan created what has come to be recognized as one of the finest buildings in modern architecture, clean, clear and majestic, saved from minimalism by Sullivan's fecund ornament.

The new store, with its rounded corner and that luxurious cast-iron ornament around the huge shop windows, opened for business October  12, 1903.  Despite such economies as substituting terra cotta for the planned exterior marble, it came in massively over budget - $1,650,000 versus the originally projected $1,250,000.  That, coupled with the lost revenue during the store's construction, was enough to push Schlesinger and Mayer out of business, and within a year, the far more famous Carson Pirie Scott became the hermit crab finding its new home in Sullivan's masterwork.

Carson's became Gimbels to Marshall Field's Macy's, and for decade after decade, both thrived on State Street.  Then people began moving to the suburbs, and the primacy of downtown began its long decline.  In New York, Gimbels closed shop in 1986.  In Chicago, Carson's, after bouncing around among various owners, shut down on State Street in 2006.
Carson Pirie Scott in its final days
On a parallel path, the tobacco company that had come to own Marshall Field's (don't ask - The Fair wound up with Mobil Oil) sold it to Dayton-Hudson  Corporation, which not long after was renamed for its booming division, Target Corporation.  In 2004, Target sold Field's to Macy's, and two years later the Field's name disappeared from everything but the commemorative plaques.

Now, eight years later, Target Corporation has  returned to State Street, in the first two floors of the former Carson Pirie Scott store.  Did I mentioned Marshall Field owned the land under the Carson's store?  Update your scorecard now.

There was a lot of concern expressed about what Target would do to Sullivan's design, but, in truth, most of the damage had been done long ago.   The ornament elevator grills that are now museum pieces were dismantled, the staircases removed, the original Sullivan restaurant and rooms modernized out of existence.

Still, at the start  of the 21st century, the building's latest owner, Joseph Freed, undertook a sensitive and ambitious plan: repairing the terra cotta, restoring Sullivan's cast iron ornament, and recreating Sullivan's long-missing rooftop colonnade.  Now, Target Corporation has created a new store design that has repaired, cleaned, and re-imagined the selling floors in a manner that is not unsympathetic to Sullivan's original design.

One very change major change is along State Street.  While, originally, the upper panes of each large window was filled with Luxfer prismatic glass to bring light deep into the store, the large display windows below did not offer an open view into the selling space.  "The individual bays of display windows," writes Siry, "were conceived as showrooms analogous to the chambers of an art gallery."  Each windowbox was six to eight feet deep, a small room for scene setting.
At Target, those windows have now been opened up.  Where once you had racks of merchandise against the back walls of the display window boxes, there's now a spacious windowside corridor, creating a navigational spine between the store and State Street, visible just outside.
Indeed the new transparency of the display windows could be a continuing realization of Sullivan's plan for an open selling space.    As Siry writes, older stores were often a number of individual buildings cribbed together, with obstructive interior partitions common, if inescapable.  In contrast, unbroken interiors came to be seen as a sign of modernity, as Dry Goods Reporter noted that "partitions make a store seem crowded, cut off the light, and make the arrangement of counters and departments like so many stalls . . ."
In the City Target on State, the previously tan column capitals are no more.   A small description of the renovation in the store says, "Target had the building's historic column capitals meticulously repaired or replaced and repainted white . . . When the building opened at the turn of the last century, Sullivan designed all elements to be in harmony - white marble floors blending with white painted plaster columns, capitals and ceiling."
While much of the Target installation includes high shelving, threatening to turn the space into a series of warrens, the 20-foot columns and completely open space above still imparts the sense of continuity and openness.
This is not your standard big box store, but an example of a new concept.  At 124,000 square feet and 89,000 square feet of selling space, State Street is the largest "City Target" to date, but it's still substantially smaller than a suburban superstore, which can clock in at 180,000 or more.  According to a Reuter's story, even the trucks supplying the store with its merchandise are six inches shorter than the norm, to fit under the tracks of the Loop L.
It's a new experiment in extending the retailer's reach to the inner cities they've traditionally ignored.  It's a risk, because it's a lot more expensive to rehab a century-old building than constructing a standardized warehouse store on a tabula rasa lot.

It's also different in layout.  A typical big box retailer usually consists of a massive rectangular floor plan converging on an endless bank of checkout lanes at the front of the store.

You can't walk into Target on State and get the lay of the land by just looking ahead of you.  The layout seems almost a throwback to an old-fashioned hardware store that expanded over time.  It offers up a succession of nooks and crannies that you don't realize are there until you stumble upon them.  I can't say whether the impact on sales will be good or bad, but to me the irregularity is one of the new store's charms.
This effect becomes even more pronounced as you make your way up to the second floor.  You may head up the escalator wondering if you had missed a department you had been looking for downstairs, but once you're at the top and start walking, it's soon revealed to you that there's about three times more space on the second floor than on the first, and it stretches all the way  back to Wabash . .  .
. . . where the restored and repainted cast iron columns of an older building look fresh and handsome.
It may not be the grand food hall former Mayor Richard M. Daley long envisioned for State Street, but the Wabash segment of the second floor offers the widest selection of food in the Loop, including vegetables and fruit.

The curved entrance foyer at the corner of State and Madison endures, handsomely, although a new chandelier looks a bit like a fluorescent bug zapper.
Spanning the two floors of shop windows are a series of tall Target-red panels.

As Target describes it . . . 
Sullivan's cast-iron ornamentation was revolutionary for its time.  Today, his remarkable designs are echoed in two-story, perforated metal screens.  Patterns of spiraling ornament - generated from photos of the rotunda ironwork - are combined with subtle Bullseyes to celebrate the union of Sullivan and Target.

When I was discussing the new Target with Chicago Cultural Historian Tim Samuelson, he suggested that those metal screens have a relation to the lace-like carvings of the red mahoganny panels that were found in the restaurant and elsewhere in the original store.
 You can't go home again.  Once the great department stores like Field's or Filenes or Hudsons were one of the most distinctive ways that a city defined its individual character.  Every city had at least one, with a rich history of tradition tied to local entrepreneurs.  Now those once-cherished names have all but disappeared, subsumed into a handful of surviving national chains.   In business and in culture, the triumph of the Supply Chain marches on.
Except . . . .   What is Target, but The Fair Store of today, a general store for the mass market?  The Target on State raises the possibility of a new hybrid, a leavening of the formless banality of the big box warehouse store through the tradition of classic urban architecture.  The eye-popping color and the wall-sized graphics of the Target on State are not subtle, but are they anything other than a continuation of the movement towards ever-increasing simplicity that was a hallmark of Louis Sulivan's original design?


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