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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|
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.
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 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.
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.
As Target describes it . . .
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.