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The Fascinating History of Macy’s on State Street in Chicago

June 28, 2016 | Shopping | Keri Hanson
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Macy's State Street Chicago

The old-world grandeur of the Macy’s on State Street building in Chicago belies the cutting-edge nature of the fashion and decorative wares that fill its elegant spaces. Towering granite columns front the 9-story structure, flanking its gracious main entrance, and two massive Great Clocks punctuate the corners of the store on Randolph and Washington Streets.

Visitors who pass through the majestic portico have an opportunity to step back in time via several examples of rare and exquisite craftsmanship—the spaces are peppered with opulent architectural features ranging from sparkling Austrian chandeliers and Circassian walnut wood panels to a flowing indoor fountain and an awe-inspiring domed glass ceiling.

A Rich Legacy: Marshall Field’s

The neo-Renaissance-style building, which opened in 1893, was designed by Charles B. Atwood of the famed architecture firm D.H. Burnham & Company and first served as the home of another groundbreaking emporium—Marshall Field’s. Macy’s acquired and renamed the Marshall Field’s department store in 2006, and designated it as the company’s Midwest region flagship.

The store’s grand edifice, which evolved over a 22-year-period (1892-1914), is a fitting framework for a retail enterprise that was responsible for many notable innovations. The building contains several atria and was designated a National Historic Landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in June of 1978.

Like R. H. Macy who founded Macy’s, the State Street store’s namesake, Marshall Field, was a true retailing pioneer. He was born in Conway, Massachusetts in 1835 and arrived in Chicago in 1856, when he began working as a stock clerk for Potter Palmer and Company. He then moved on to Cooley, Wadsworth and Company, quickly rose through its ranks and, in 1867, became part owner of Field and Leiter, which became Marshall Field’s in 1881.

Renowned as a forward-thinking manager, Field was the first major retailer to offer revolving credit; money-back guarantees and unconditional refunds; free delivery; female staffers; a European buying office; a bridal registry; in-store dining; and in-store book signings.

Hallmarks of Invention

Architectural features of the Marshall Field & Company State Street building that visitors won’t want to miss include:

The Tiffany Ceiling

 Louis Comfort Tiffany Ceiling at Macy's on State Street

Visitors to the Macy’s store can’t help but look up when walking through the building’s first-floor cosmetics department—it provides a distant view of a shimmering vaulted ceiling that covers 6,000 square feet and comprises 1.6 million pieces of iridescent glass. The 5th floor provides an up-close view and it’s simply jaw-dropping. 

The dome ceiling was designed by renowned glass artist Louis Comfort Tiffany (it’s the largest Tiffany mosaic in existence) and crafted by a group of 50 artisans who worked atop scaffolds for over 18 months to complete the project.

The Great Clocks

 Great Clock, Macy's State Street Chicago

Visitors to Macy’s often meet at the Great Clocks, located at the corners of the building. The first clock was installed in 1897, at the corner of State and Washington.

According to legend, Marshall Field decided that this corner should have a clock after he discovered notes wedged in the corners of the store’s new glass plate windows that pinpointed times and places to meet friends, family members and business associates. Field determined that a clock could serve as a rendezvous spot for shoppers and also make them mindful of the time.

It didn’t take long for the Chicago Tribune to report that Chicago women in Chicago were telling others to “meet me under the clock at Marshall Field’s!”

As a result of the clock’s soaring popularity, a second clock was added at the corner of State and Randolph in 1902. For five years the designs of the clocks didn’t match, but in 1907, the original clock at State and Washington was replaced with one that is identical to the second clock.

Designed by Pierce Anderson who worked for the firm that designed the building, each clock is made of 7¾ tons of cast bronze and hangs from ornamental ironwork. Originally the clocks were black, but over time they assumed a distinctive green patina. The clocks are impulse operated from a master timepiece located in the store that is checked twice daily with the Arlington time signal and corrects the clocks each hour.

The Burnham Fountain

Another captivating architectural element in the store is the Burnham Fountain,    also known as the “Lost Fountain.” It’s made of 6 tons of cast iron and holds 700 gallons of water.

While the original plans for the State Street Building included this fountain, Marshall Field regarded vetoed its construction. But, 100 years later, during the building’s restoration, the original plans for the fountain were found and it was decided that the Burnham Fountain would be the perfect final touch for a new atrium added in 1992. It also makes for a great in-store meeting spot.

The Walnut Room

The Walnut Room, Macy's State Street Chicago

No one who enters the Macy’s on State Street store would want to miss the grand Walnut Room restaurant with its stunning Circassian Walnut paneling (installed over 100 years ago) and Austrian chandeliers.

This was the very first restaurant in a department store and it is also the longest continuously-operating restaurant in the nation. It opened in 1907 as the South Tea Room and in 1937 became known as the Walnut Room. Each year, a 45-foot-tall tree, known as the Great Tree, adorns the restaurant from late November to early January and sets the space aglow with 15,000 lights and 1,200 themed ornaments. 

The creation of the restaurant is attributed to a Mrs. Hering, an enterprising sales associate in the Millinery (Hat) Department. The story goes that she shared her lunch, a homemade chicken pot pie made from her grandmother’s recipe, with a hungry client who was so grateful that she convinced Mrs. Hering to make more pies and invited friends to dine and view the latest hats the next day. Marshall Field’s is said to have heard the laughter emanating from the back room of the millinery department, taken a look at what was going on and determined that he should open a tea room. Mrs. Hering’s chicken pot pie, handed down from her grandmother’s recipe, is still one of the most popular dishes on the present-day Walnut Room’s menu.

Macy’s Preserves and Expands on Historic Traditions

Macy’s has sustained various cherished traditions launched by Marshall and created special guided tours that offer visitors the chance to learn about the State Street store’s stunning architectural features and its fascinating history—including Macy’s ongoing innovations. Three such tours are:

  • Historic Tour and Walnut Room Dining Experience This total experience at the historic Marshall Field’s building includes a 60-minute Historic Store Tour (see description below) and lunch at the Walnut Room. Cost: $40 per person. Contact: VISITMACYS.CHICAGO@MACYS.COM
  • Historic Store Tour—highlights of this 60-minute tour include the Tiffany ceiling, the Burnham Fountain, the Walnut Room and a taste of Frango® Mint Chocolates. Cost: $12 per person. Schedule: Every Friday at 11:30 am. Contact: VISITMACYS.CHICAGO@MACYS.COM
  • Holiday Traditions Tour—this 60-minute tour includes the history of Macy’s holiday traditions from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, animated store window displays, the 2-story Great Tree in the soaring Walnut Room restaurant and a taste of Frango® Mint Chocolates. Cost: $12 per person. Schedule: Fridays at 11:30 am in November and December. Contact: VISITMACYS.CHICAGO@MACYS.COM

Explore additional group experiences here. Visitors can book these tours and get information about other aspects of the store and Chicago at the in-store Chicago Visitor Information Center.