The Fair Department Store
Life Span: 1897-1984
Location: Northwest Corner State and Adams Streets
Architect: William Le Baron Jenney and William B. Mundie
The Inter Ocean, September 12, 1897
Chicago is not to be outdone in the matter of big stores. She now claims the largest store in the world. A giant structure of terra cotta and steel, towering majestically, head and shoulders over any of its kind on earth, the crowning glory of twenty-two years of typical Chicago push, pluck, and energy. The ambition of the proprietors of the Fair, to have the largest store in the world, is at last realized, and in a way the city may well be proud of. No handsomer or more substantial building can be found within its gates. Not only in size and magnificence is the new Fair a marvel, but it is also a record-breaker from the point of rapid construction.
With characteristic enterprise its proprietors determined to accomplish a feat in rapid building never equaled before. As far as can be ascertained, it is estimated that the erection of this building consumed a little more than half the time previously taken in the erection of any building of similar construction. An idea of the marvelous rapidity with which the work was pushed can be formed by the time taken to build the last section, 143×140 feet, nine stories and basement, on the corner of State street and Marble place.
On May 24 last excavation was begun and finished on June 21. On June 24 all concrete piers were finished and ready for foundation stools and basement columns; 4,125,600 pounds of structural iron was erected in twenty-four days; 185,000 square feet of fireproof tile arches were set in twenty-one days; 400 steel columns were fireproofed in five days; 1,846,000 feet of flooring were laid in eleven days; 40,000 square feet of polished plate glass were set in five days. Nine stories of elevation, including all terra cotta courses, including 400,000 brick, were set in thirteen days; 60,000 square feet of plastering was finished in nineteen days; five elevators were consstructed in twenty-nine days; 20,000 square feet of roofing were done in three days; 5,000 wagon-loads of sand were used in making mortar, and an average of 1,000 men were employed every day. Jenney & Mundie are the architects.
To the George A. Fuller company is due the credit of this wonderful performance. They have again demonstrated that they beat the world in the matter of fast building, the Fair building breaking all previous records for fireproof construction.
To execute the order for the iron construction the great plant of the Carnegie steel works set aside all other contracts and put their entire force working on the iron for the Fair building. The principal subcontractors who contributed to this lightening work for the George A. Fuller Construction company were the Pioneer Fireproof Construction company, who furnished the fireproof material; the Northwestern Terra Cotta company, who furnished the terra cotta; H. S. Tobey, plastering contractor; the Winslow Bros. company, who furnished the ornamental iron for the building; the Crane Elevator company, who furnished the elevators; Adams & Kimbark furnishing the electrical plant, E. Baggott the plumbing, and John Davis the steam pipes.
The Fair building as it appears now. The view as from the southeast corner of State and Adams streets, overlooking both frontages, that of State street, from Adams to Marble place, and that of Adams street, from State street to Dearborn street. The block of ground in the very heart of the best portion of the shopping district. All the transit lines of the city are ready of access, North, South, and West Side cable lines passing the building on three sides. It will be observed that while the structure is an architectural creation, the needs of trade, adequate light, and convenient entrances, have been most carefully conserved. The building represents the very latest development of steel fireproof skeleton construction. It is worth of note that the pioneers in this movement, Jenny and Mundie, designers of the first building, of the kind in the world, are the architects for the Fair. Their success in this building has been notable.
WEIGHT, 797,000,000 POUNDS
In order to appreciate the magnitude of this work, and the skill with which it was executed, it must be taken into consideration that the enormous amount of material was handled on the busiest part of the busiest street in Chicago, and that in carrying on the work the business of the Fair was practically undisturbed. Some idea of the immensity of the entire building can be obtained from the enormous amounts of materials used in its construction. The total weight of the building is estimated in the neighborhood of 797,000,000 pounds; the following quantities having been used:
- 19,177,000 pounds of structural iron
1,193,060 pounds of cast steel footings
834,000 square feet of fire-proof tile arches
1,726 steel columns
751,476 square feet of marble flooring
214,184 square yards of plastering
13,000 barrels of Portland cement
139,000 square feet of polished plate glass
650,000 square feet of roofing
18,000 wagon loads of sand used in making mortar
54,700 loads of dirt were hauled away in making excavations
Ten boilers and ten engines, with a total of 1,500 horse power, are required to run the big electric light, heating, and elevator plants. Thirteen series arc dynamos produce 845 arc lights, four Westinghouse incandescent direct connected dynamos feed 8,000 incandescent lights. Eleven passenger and seven freight elevators are in the building. The entire store will be equipped with the Grinnell automatic fire system, making the spreading of a fire an impossibility. Thousands of gallons of water would pour down from the pipes in the ceiling if ever a heat of 150 degrees would reach them.
The Fair Store Fire-Proof Construction
The Inland Architect and News Record
In this great store there are over 31,700 feet of counters. Think of it! Nearly six miles, or seventy blocks of counters. There are two immense light shafts in the store, 47×55 and 47×51 feet, respectively, permitting a flood of daylight to enter the store. In fact, the store is bright as day everywhere. In all, 1,587 big windows keep things light and bright. The great ceiling, eighteen and one-half feet high on the main floor and fifteen and one-half to thirteen and one-half high in the upper floors, permit an abundance of fresh air and light, as well as producing a large and grand effect, unequalled anywhere. The aisles are unusually wide, insuring the comfort of customers. Four large stairways lead from the basement to the upper floors. Spacious toilet and waiting-rooms are on the second floor, as are also a nursery and writing-room, as well as a sickroom for customers who may be taken ill in the store at any time. No expense has been spared with an eye to the accommodations of customers.
The show windows are a sight in themselves. Think of a stretch of 650 feet of plate glass, behind which all kinds of merchandise are artistically displayed. The corner window on State and Adams streets is said to be the largest show window in the country. The Fair is a city in itself, employing 3,000 employes. Sixty wagons and 200 horses are used in the delivery of goods. In fact, a volume could be written about this grand structure, and when one looks back at the small beginning of the now largest store in the world the story of its success is even more marvelous than the magnitude of this building. No words can too highly sing the praises of the progressiveness of its proprietors. No sudden influx of capital has made this store great. Its progress has been of its own making, steadily and constantly forging ahead, a succession of successes. By dint of tireless energy, keen foresight, putting their shoulders to the wheel, and paying strict attention to their business, and their business only, they have scored one of the most wonderful successes in the history of the mercantile world. A brief history of the Fair is apropos.
EARLY HISTORY OF THE FAIR
In the fall of 1875 the Fair was established by E. J. Lehmann in a small, one-story store, 16×80 feet, sixteen feet north of the corner of Adams street on State street. The original space occupied by the Fair was therefore but 1,280 square feet. The total capital was less than $1,000. A diminutive department store, the stock was composed of jewelry, notions, pictures, chinaware, and some articles of hardware. The policy was to buy and sell for cash only, and to sell for less than prevailing prices elsewhere. Quick sales at small profits was the motto. It was here that odd prices originated; by asking a uniform small profit on all goods, it made off prices a necessity as well as a novelty. Before this time an article which a merchant bought, for instance, for 5 cents would be sold at other stores for 10 cents. The Fair sold the same article for 6 to 7 cents.
Following the panic of 1873 the Fair started when there was a great demand for cheap goods and low prices. It did not take people long to discover that it opaid them to buy here. If they bought an article which did not please them, they could bring it back and have it exchanged or get their money back, as they desired, which at that time was an unknown accommodation. The small store prospered, so much that in 1977 the next store north on State street, with a sixteen-foot frontage, then occupied by a milliner, was acquired, giving a total of thirty-two feet frontage on State street. In 1878 the store south on the corner of State and Adams street was taken in, this store at that time being operated by McNamara’s candy store. This gave to the Fair a State street frontage of forty-eight feet. Immediately afterward two vacant stores on Adams street were acquired, giving total frontage of forty-eight feet on State street and 140 feet on Adams street, a growth of five and one-half times its original size in a little more than two years and a half. New lines of merchandise were constantly being added to this stock, and by this time the Fair sold a little of everything. The next year, 1879, W. F. Nelson’s paint store and Magner & Winslow’s meat market, having a frontage of forty-five feet on Adams street, were added to the Fair.
FIRST LARGE STOCK PURCHASE
Then it was that the first large stock was bought, that of Stein’s dollar store, which doubtless will be remembered by many who were familiar with State street in those days. The stock was over $50,000, and was sold at the sheriff’s sale to the highest bidder. The Fair secured it. It was a daring purchase, but proved to be a big success. The stock was sold at low prices and created a great deal of talk. The business increased faster than ever. The demand for more kinds of merchandise and larger assortments were so pressing that in 1880 a five-story and basement stone front building, forty-six feet on State street, then occupied by James P. Dalton’s house-furnishing store, was leased. This was the first high store the Fair occupied, all the balance were only one-story high, with no basement. Adjoining the Faiur stores on Adams street wasa block still fresh in the minds of many Chicagoans, built by Marcus Stearns, during the panic of 1873, when there was a demand for cheap stores and flats. it was known as the Economy block. It contained eight stores on Adams street and ten stores on Dearborn street and eighteen flats above these. One by one the Fair began to occupy these stores and flats, until in 1884 it had absorbed the entire Economy block, and acquired an additional 165 feet of frontage on Adams and 190 feet on Dearborn street. Among these stores was Alexander Bros.’ restaurant, which was purchased and occupied by the Fair.
In 1885 another large stock was bought, that of the Famous, then doing business on the northwest corner of State and Quincy streets.
The store had been closed by the sheriff; the stock was immense. Once more the Fair was fortunate in securing a great quantity of general merchandise, far below the market value. The sale of this stock proved even more successful than the first big purchase, and added greatly to the Fair patronage.
The Fair Store
INCORPORATION OF THE BUSINESS
In 1886 the business had attained such large proportions that it was decided to merge it into a corporation. The capital stock was $200,000, Otto Young becoming one of the incorporators, and from that time on taking an active part in the direction of the business.
An amusing incident is chronicled of Mr. Young’s first large purchase. In 1887 a merchant named Sherik ran what was known as The Bankrupt Store, at the corner of State and Marble place, immediately adjoining the Fair stores. He failed, and the stock was ordered sold by the court. It was but a few minutes before the sale that Mr. Young heard of it, and, going in without knowing the value of the stock, bought it with the leasehold for $40,000, and went back to the Fair to draw the check. While he was drawing the check his partner, Mr. Lehmann, asked him what it was for.
“To pay for the Sherik stock and lease.”
“What is it worth,” asked Mr. Lehmann.
“I do not know, and I don not care,” was the reply, which almost threw his astonished partner off his feet.
“You are paying $40,000 for it, and do not know what it is worth?”
“Yes,” said Mr. Young, as he signed the check.
“What is the meaning of this?” asked Mr. Lehmann.
“It means that the lease is worth that much,” said Mr. Young, as he walked out. Just how much the lease is worth Mr. Young does not say, but he realized $75,000 for the stock and got the lease for nothing, adding a five-story building, with forty-eight more of State street frontage to the Fair.
Robinson Fire Map
FULL BLOCK SECURED
Then there remained but two stores in the entire block not controlled by the Fair, occupied then by Estey & Camp’s piano house and Grant’s coffee store, with a frontage of forty-six feet. The continual growth of the Fair made it a necessity to secure these stores, and in 1888 they became part of the Fair, and thye desire of the proprietors to spread the business over the entire block was at last realized. The growing business made an increase of the capital necessary, and in 1888 the capital was increased to $500,000. The growth from 1888 to 1890 was phenomenal, necessitating an increase of capital to $1,000,000 and the formation of plans whereby more selling space could be obtained.
It was in this year that the idea of obtaining long leases in the ground and erecting a substantial mercantile building became operative. A ninety-nine-year lease was secured from the Marcus Stearns estate for the entire Economy Block, 190 feet front on Dearborn street by 165 feet on Adams street, on which the Fair was erected, in 1891, the first section of the new completed building, a magnificent nine-story and basement modern fireproof department store. Despite this great acquisition of space, it became apparent soon after that nothing but a building covering the entire block would prove adequate for the constantly growing business. Long leases were secured for the additional property, and on Dec. 28, 1896, the wreckers began demolishing the old buildings on the corner of State and Adams streets.
BUSINESS NEVER INTERRUPTED.
During the entire rebuilding the business of the Fair continued uninterruptedly, and they have, during the entire time, kept open State street entrances. When the wrecking began on Dec. 2 the entire State street corner and all the low buildings on Adams street back to Marble place were torn down, leaving nothing but the five-story brick building on State street and Marble place. Long covered runways are constructed on all floors joining this building with the Dearborn street one, and while the throngs of shoppers were trading inside, above and below them and on all sides the work of construction was going on.
A most remarkable piece of work was accomplished in the transferring of the stock from the old five-story building to the new corner. Up to 6 o’clock in the afternoon of Dec. 26 business was being conducted in the old building as usual. There were no indications that a great transformation scene was about to take place. At 8 o’clock Monday morning, Dec. 28, the new corner was open for business, all the departments and stocks were in their proper places, the old building was deserted, and the passers-by saw only an empty, gloomy structure, already in the course of demolition, once the pride of that part of State street. The entire stock had been moved, counters and shelving placed, and the entire store cleaned and ready for business in a day.
Sporting Goods and Furniture Departments
STOCKS AND ASSORTMENTS ENLARGED
In the new building the stocks and assortments have necessarily been greatly enlarged and include everything necessary to clothe man, woman, or child from head to foot, or to furnish the house from top to bottom. The departments are distributed as follows:
The light, airy basement is devoted to the sale of house furnishings, hardware, and woodenware, these mammoth departments occupying the entire space.
On the first floor, near the Adams and State street entrances are jewelry, watches, clocks, silverware, cutlery, drug sundries, optical goods, and stationery. Toward the center of State street, at the extreme front, are the ladies’ gloves, ribbons, handkerchiefs, vellings, neckwear, notions, embroidery, laces, and trimmings. Back toward the immense lightwell the greatly enlarged silk, velvet, black and fancy dress-goods departments will be found. Toward the North State street entrance are the linens, leather goods, and a series of special bargain squares. Toward the center of the store and in front of the elevators are the candy and soda departments.
A little further back are the hosiery, books, stationery, and umbrellas. Along the Dearborn street front are shoes, blank books, office supplies, men’s furnishings, drugs, hats and caps, cigars and tobacco.
On the second floor will be found the immense cloak and suit, fur, millinery, fancy goods, and ladies’ and children’s underwear departments. Also the bicycle, sporting goods, hair goods, horse goods, and men’s and boy’s clothing.
On then third floor are the pictures and frames, trunks and satchels, china, crockery, and glassware, stoves, musical instruments, artists’ materials, toys, willowware, and Japanese goods departments. On this floor is also found the restaurant, with a seating capacity of 400, where a general and very excellent bill of fare is served; also the kitchen and steam laundry.
The fourth floor is devoted exclusively to the sale of furniture, carpets, rugs, curtains, upholstery, and wall paper.
The fifth floor is occupied by the mammoth grocery department, and also for lunchrooms and cloakrooms for the hundreds of employes.
On the sixth floor are the carpet fitting and sewing-rooms. All carpets are sewed by electricity. Five yards of heavy Brussels, Axminister, or Wilton, or velvet carpets can be sewed in one minute, and the stitch is far stronger and more even than handwork, that could not be done in ten times the time. On this floor is also the mail-order department and a number of reserve stock rooms.
On the seventh floor is the receiving-room, a busy place, indeed. Hundreds of cases of merchandise from all parts of the world are received and handled here daily. Seven freight elevators and a corps of men are kept continually busy bringing goods up and down from different floors. The balance of this floor and entire eighth and ninth floors are used for reserve stock rooms. Great quantities of merchandise of all kinds must be kept in reserve at all times to be drawn on from the retail floors as needed.
OF HISTORICAL INTEREST
It is interesting to note that one-half of the property on which the Fair stands was at one time owned by Marshal La Valette, a marshal under the first Napoleon, who later on became Postmaster General of France. In 1837 he sold the half block, 190 feet on State street by 185 on Adams, along with the entire block now bounded by Jackson and Adams streets, Fifth avenue (Wells Street), and Franklin street, for $9,000. The value of these y=two pieces of property today is no less than $4,000,000.
In 1871 Marcus Stearns, who for many years had owned the other part of the Fair site, 190 feet on Dearborn street by 165 feet on Adams street, determined to offer at public auction this piece of property. Accordingly he scattered circulars broadcast, announcing that on Tuesday, October 10, 1871, there would be sold at public auction, in Stearns’ subdivision, as he called it, valuable central property. The circulars pointed out the fact that across the street was the postoffice, the famous Bigelow house, and that Potter Palmer ran a magnificent hotel but a block away. W. A. Butters & Co. were named as the auctioneers. The sale promised a big attendance, but on Oct. 9, the day before the time set for the sale, the big fire came roaring along, and there was no more thought of auction. In after years, as Marcus Stearns saw this property increase in value, he must indeed have congratulated himself that the fire prevented him from parting with it. What was worth hundred is worth many thousands today.
FIRST BRICK BLOCK ON FAIR SITE
The first brick building in Chicago, and built of the first brick made in Chicago, was erected on a portion of the Fair site at about where No. 75 Adams street is now. It was a one and and half story house, about twenty feet square. The bricks were red. The man who made the brick was Henry S. Lapham, now living, a resident of Branch county, Michigan.
Early in the spring of 1833 he came to Chicago with a man named Ingersoll, who had been to Detroit in search of a brickmaker. He was an agent for Mr. Nobles, who was about to start a brickyard. Arrived here, he found three frame houses, three places where goods were sold, and a number of loghouses, occupied by French traders and half-breeds. Mr. Nobles abandoned the idea of brickmaking, but a man named Tyler K. Blodgett, who had thought of the same business, but had given in up (concluding two yards could not be supported) now agreed upon terms with Lapham as foreman of his yard. This was located on the north bank of the main river, about forty rods east of the North branch (Dearborn and Clark Streets). They readiy found clay. They made their brick in much the same manner as at present, except they were molded by hand. There being no bridges, the bricks were conveyed across the North branch to the now West Side, then across the South Branch to the now South Side, the workmen constructing their own bridges of bents covered with poles. The first owner was Mr. Blodgett, then Mr. Bond, last M. C. Stearns. It stood until the big fire claimed it for ashes.
The Fair Advertisement
June 10, 1897
THE FAIR SCHOOL
The Fair gives to its cash girls the advantage of attending school. Every morning from 8 to 10 a hundred or more cash girls may be seen on the third floor, in the southwest portion of the restaurant, going through their exercise, the same as they would in any public school. Reading, writing, spelling, grammar, geography, history, and arithmetic are taught. A competent teacher has for five years had charge of the class. Any girl who has not had the opportunity to avail herself as thoroughly as she might of our public-school system is allowed, upon coming to work at the Fair, to pursue her studies very much in the same way as if she were in school. It is doubtful if any school in the land can produce such a studious, attentive class. In deportment and scholarship they rank high, and many a teacher in the regular schools would be proud of such a class as this. Every year at the regular school closing time these children hold their closing exercises, have recitations, singing, etc., invite their parents and friends, the same as is done in the public schools. In fact, they go their non-working cousins one better, as on that day the management provides them with all the ice cream and cake they can eat, and eat they do.
The Fair believes in the progressive system. As soon as any of these girls can be promoted to wrappers, it is done; then they are made inspectors; afterward clerks. The proficient then become heads of stocks, and are then in line for assistant buyerships; and cash girls in the Fair have become buyers.
The shipping-room of this vast establishment is a sight. Here it is that mountains of merchandise come every day for delivery. Clock-like regularity alone prevents this great accumulation of goods becoming mixed up. Everything works as smoothly as if only occasionally a sauce pan or dress pattern came in. The ushers, as they are called, roll the goods in on big trucks from the various departments and distribute them in the north, south, east, or west rooms, as the destination calls for. A “caller” is ready to sing off the name of the article and name and address of the purchaser to the bill clerk, who enters them on the drivers’ delivery sheet. Another man is ready to place these goods, after they have been entered in this particular driver’s bin. At regularly appointed hours the drivers gather up their loads, secure a duplicate copy from the entry clerk of all goods charged to them, assort their load, and out they go.
As said before, a volume could be written about the greatest store in the world. Food for thought can be found in almost any point. Chicago may well be proud to claim it as hers.
There can be no question but that the Fair had a great deal to do with building up State street. By its enterprise in constantly attracting so many people to its location, the Fair attracted many merchants to this vicinity, thereby creating a demand for adjacent property, and adding greatly to its value. Before the Fair commenced business, things were pretty quiet on this part of State street, but iun a few years it became the busiest part of this great retail thoroughfare.
The Fair, 1902
LEFT: Advertisement fior The Fair’s 40th Anniversary in October 1915.
RIGHT: The Fair celebrated their 42nd year in 1917 with four bands playing in their store.
E. E. Sheets on the main floor, State Street side.
Paul Biese on the main floor, Dearborn side.
Ralph Foote on the third floor, Adams Street side.
Charles A. Lawrence in the restaurant on the seventh floor
The Fair Store
Sanborn Fire Map
Since Forty Years Ago
By Forrest Crissey
The Fair Advertising Section
December 5, 1920
Announcement of the purchase of The Fair Store by S. S. Kresge (K-Mart) on March 17, 1925.
Remodeled entrance of The Fair Store
In 1900, when annual sales were about $8 million, the store had nearly 3,800 workers; by the 1910s, floor space reached nearly 800,000 square feet. The Fair had 5,500 workers, making it one of the largest employers in the city. During the 1920s, the Fair was purchased by S. S. Kresge & Co., the Detroit-based dime store chain (which would eventually become known as Kmart). Under the new ownership, the Fair opened a branch in Oak Park in 1929; during the 1950s, it added locations in Evergreen Park and Skokie. In 1957, the Fair was purchased by Montgomery Ward, a larger Chicago-based competitor.
One more Fair Store would open, at Randhurst Mall in 1962. However, the Randhurst store would also be the first converted to the Montgomery Ward nameplate, in August 1963; the other locations would convert to the parent company’s name plate in 1964. The flagship building on State Street was closed and demolished in 1984.
The Montgomery Ward Flagship Store
Lois Fryndej says
Looking for a picture of my grandfather that hung in The Fair Store as he was employed there and was in charge of the store. His name was Arthur Henry Johns. Appreciate any help.
Remember going to the Fair store downtown as a child at Christmas time ….i believe in the basement at Christmas time there was a toy land with rides any pictures of this or am i recalling some other store
Florene Roberts says
I have been looking for some one who remembers the rides at Christmas. There was a monorail on the ceiling. I got a snowman balloon inside a clear balloon with snowflakes on it every year.
I remember the rides! I believe it was in the late 50s that I went with my Mom. Magical ??
randell morelli says
My grandmother worked in the drapery dept. For over 40 years when Montgomery wards bought the fa ir she lost her pension I remember going to visit her and getting food from the counter on I think the 3rd floor the lunch counter was so 1950 thanks grandma love you
elizabeth creasap says
Just a note, My Mother last name Lehmann, went down town to pay a bill for my grandma, at one of the department stores, I don’t know which one , the clerk asked my other if she was related to the LEHMANN DEPARTMENT STORE, she said no!
Don Glut says
As I recall, the monorail on the ceiling was at the downtown Sears. It ran through the toy department. When you got off, you walked down a ramp that led to two bins of free toys, one per kid, the blue bin for boys and the pink for girls. The Fair had an amusement park type train that ran on tracks in the toy department. The Fair also had a walk-through enchanted forest, with recreations of scenes — most of them miniature dioramas, but also large trees with faces. Anybody have any photos>
Lynn Medoff says
Does anyone remember a carousel in the early 1960s at the Fair building?
I remember going on rides in the basement at Christmas time. Are there any pictures?
Bob Dubois says
I remember the mono rail at sears also the train ride at the fair department store in the toy department. I lived on the south side of Chicago. Took two street cars and then the subway to downtown Chicago. Got off the subway at marshal fields. My !mom told me that the real santa was at marshal fields. Had to see him there. Also had to see the Lionel trains in the toy department. Anyone have pictures of the train ride at the fair deal I department