John M. Smyth Block
Life Span: 1890-1958
Location: 150-166 W. Madison (Madison & Halsted)
Chicago Tribune, April 4, 1880
Old citizens remark that there is nothing in the somewhat dramatic commercial history of Chicago to completely parallel the growth of the furniture trade of West Madison street, that little river of trade that floats the commerce of the great West Side. These “old timers,” who remember that along shortly after the War time there was but one general dealer in carpets and furniture to supply that large residence district, liken the number of houses that now line the street to nothing but the “innumerable hosts” of Scripture. No other interest of the street has developed with such continuously rapidity, West Madison street being to-day regarded as the base line of furniture supplies for the entire western half of the city. They account for it in the way the business got a start, by the splendid method of its inauguration, the controlling and determining influence of a magnificent early prestige. John M. Smythe, founder of the business (on that street),—in sole control during the early period referred to,—and long in a position that made him largely responsible for the Future of the Interest, happened to be a “strong man,”—that is to say, he appears to have been an impersonation of commercial genius, adding to a clear spirit of inviolable commercial honor and to strong elements of personal popularity, that large and comprehensive theory of mercantile success which insists upon legitimate, consecutive, and permanent growth as essential to any correct measurement of prosperity. He not only founded the trade,—he nursed it with the characteristic habit, the natural solicitude of paternity, looking to its future, studying the tendencies, the emote directions of Fortune, and looking to the capacity of years rather than od passing days. He was not long in getting up a “boom,”—not long in what is called “striking a big trade.” But this was not “Prestige.” It wasn’t the transient hang of a “big run of custom” that enabled him to compass remote ends. It was in his method of making popularity permanent that he revealed the genius of success.
Liberal advertising secured the attendance of a large local population. But the attendance at first was an attendance of curiosity, of inquiry, of experiment. The advertiser, however, had not reckoned without his host. He had studied public requirements. He had made infallible provision for redeeming all public promises. Mr. Smyth proposed to establish a trade that would grow,—an “interest,”—in which the public would be a silent partner. A period of large transient profits, succeeded by the alienation of all “organized custom,”—was not the scheme. The inaugural period was only spring time,—a slow seed time,—not a hurried harvest day. And only by gradual organization of prosperity, by making his own interest harmonize with the interest of the public; by trading in no goods but the best, making his carpet stock, for instance, an absolute representative selection of only the the best, most warrantable, and most reputable in the world; never placing his mercantile character in peril by any species of misrepresentation; treating the trade lie as the shame of commerce; taking from the dollar its almightiness and subordinating profits and transactions to the Sovereignty of a Name,—in this way is that he developed a commercial and personal reputation that in the course of a year or two made the pioneer furniture store of West Madison street the centre of the trade for the entire West Side. Later, Mr. Smyth began manufacturing, and introduced a line of custom-made fancy furniture and upholstered goods for which there is to-day a larger popular demand than for any other brand in the market. Still later, he inaugurated the John M. Smyth time-payment system, since so atrociously perverted by imitators. This was not only a most creditable scheme of public accommodation. It was an immense trade success,—a boon to many thousands of families. Sales increased by compound multiplication, and the house is to-day the centre of the retail traffic of the city. The old salesroom, 134 West Madison, is now an ante-room to a group of accessory store-houses of factory depots,—Mr. Smyth being at present the largest manufacturer of fine furniture for retail trade in the Northwest. On the whole, it may be said that such instances as the foregoing,—such illustrations of the power of character and of individual foresight to influence and determine the future of a great trade interest on a thoroughfare like West Madison street, are very rare in commercial history.
Chicago Tribune, April 18, 1886
John M. Smyth Block
Robinson Fire Map
Chicago Tribune, April 13, 1891
Fire swept both sides of Madison street for 200 feet west of Union street yesterday afternoon, involving a loss of $639,000.
The heaviest loser is John M. Smyth, whose “Town Market” occupied the greater part of the six-story building from 150 to 164 West Madison street, on the south side of the street. This building, which belonged to Mr. Smyth, was a ruin inside of two hours, only a small portion of the exterior walls remaining standing. The fire started at the rear of the Smyth building soon after 4 o’clock. It spread with such rapidity that the people connected with Kohl & Middleton’s Museum, which occupies the first three floors of 152½, had barely enough time to escape. In a few minutes the whole building was a mass of flames. While but little air was stirring, the current of air formed by the flames was sufficient to create a bridge of fire over the street so that the fire was plainly seen a mile away.
Directly across the street, on the northwest corner of Union and Madison streets, stood a landmark—the old Union Street Police Station, a three-story brick structure, which was abandoned as a police station when the Desplaines Street Station was completed. It has lately been occupied by A. H. Peats, dealer in wall-paper, and was filled from basement to roof. All this inflammable material ignited and burned fiercely. This is the first instance recorded since the summer of 1874 in the history of Chicago when a fire jumped a street.
Spread to Other Buildings.
From Peats’ establishment the fire quickly spread to the three-story building directly west. The ground floor of this building is known as the Recess Saloon and the upper floors are used as a gambling house. The fire spread so rapidly that a number of the players were unable to gather up their “chips” in time to save them.
West of the Recess Saloon came in order Joseph Stein’s shoe store, a frame building; No. 153, Baer Bros., hats and caps; W. Bratkowsky, shoemaker; Adams’ barber shop; M. Irmann’s cigar store. The Patterson house, a lodging house, occupied the upper floors of Nos. 155 to 159. These buildings stand next to the Haymarket Theater Building. It was apparent from the start that they were doomed and the most strenuous efforts of the firemen were directed to saving the theater building. The fire reached the upper floors of the building, but fortunately for the safety of the theater it is separated by an open court from that part of the building devoted to office purposes. The closing iof the iron shutters opening on this court from both sides effectually prevented the fire from reaching the theater proper.
The rapid spread of the flames is partly attributable to the fact that there was another fire in progress when this blaze started, so that the engines did not arrive as promptly as was desirable. When the fire was at its height there were thirty-six steamers, a stand-pipe, and seven trucks engaged.
The firemen worked hard throughout. When the fire was blazing on both sides of the street they stood actually between two fires, though the blaze was fierce enough to blister the paint the store fronts half a block away.
The Sufferers of the Blaze.
In the Smyth Building, John M. Smyth’s establishment occupied the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth stories of Nos. 150 and 152, three top floors of No. 152½, and the entire six floors of Nos. 154 to 164.
A. Kaempfer, jeweler, occupied the ground floor of No. 150, and Neely Bros., boots and shoes, the same floor at No. 152. On the floor above were the offices of Justice Jarvis Blume and Daniel Scully. Kohl & Middleton’s Museum was on the first, second, and third floors of No. 152½.
A Vast Crowd attracted.
Seldom has a larger crowd been attracted by a fire. It is estimated that 150,000 people saw the fire. They came from all parts of the city. Within half a mile radius the streets and thoroughfares leading to the fire were gorged. The fire ropes were stretched an even half block distant from every approach to the fire, but at several points the ropes were broken down and the policemen were obliged to use their clubs to prevent the crowds from filling work space of the fire companies.
After the fire, Madison street between Union and Halsted looked like a street after the big fire of 1871. It was filled up with brick and débris so that it will be necessary to clear it for the cable to pass. The cable-cars were not run on Madison street last night, though the Milwaukee avenue line was running as usual.
At 10 o’clock the fire was still burning spitefully, but with no further danger of a spread, and most of the companies were ordered to their houses.
Inter Ocean, August 16, 1891
RISING FROM ITS ASHES
April 12 last one of the of the most destructive fires of recent years occurred on West Madison street. The mammoth buildings occupied by John M. Smyth and Kohl & Middleton on the south side of Madison street were reduced to ashes, and on the north side of the street also several large buildings were burned.
After the fire the American Philistine—fortunately there are a few of them in Chicago—and made the prophecy that it would be several years before even an attempt would be made to remove the debris, and the charred ruins would remain an eye-sore for many moons.
A Chicago fire seems to reduce the materials of a burning building to some mysterious kind of seed, which, as soon as the smoke and heat have passed away, springs up as if by magic and blossoms out into a structure more magnificent than the first.
Before Oct. 1 several fine new buildings will occupy the ground referred to by the prophetic Philistine.
Perhaps the most handsome of the edifices now in course of construction will be the John M. Smyth building. The first foundation stone was laid June 15, two months ago to-day. Since that time three stories have been built. Taking into consideration the fact that the structure has a frontage of 204 feet, and a depth of 180 feet this accomplishment appears remarkable.
Mr. E. F. Wilcox, the superintendent, said yesterday that the entire building, eight stories, would have been complete by now if delays had not been caused by the mass of the ruins.
The front is built of light colored stone, and many of the blocks are of such great size that the work of putting them is place has been necessarily slow. The plans are drawn after the mills construction idea. The floors are supported by heavy iron pillars, upon which rest great pine timbers. The flooring is four inches thick, so that the building is practically free from the dangers of total destruction by fire.
Over 200 men are employed on the building, and the noise that they make has caused a reduction in the price of house and room rent for blocks around. At the other building on the opposite side of the street there have been fatal accidents, but the men on the Smyth building seems to bear charmed lives.
Night before last a workman on the building, whose name could not be learned, lost his balance and fell from the fourth floor to the basement. In his descent he struck several beam. A crowd of workmen rushed down to pick up the supposed lifeless and bleeding body, to send it to Kisner’s, but when they reached the basement they found the man sitting on a nail keg rubbing his shins and trying to execute the feat of swearing five minutes without using the same word twice. The pile of sand which he found in the basement reduced the “dull and sickening thud” to a “kadumi.”
Thus it is said that the men who are using their energies to beat the record in the building line are protected, as if it, by some secret charm.
The Standard Guide to Chicago For the Year 1891
The John M. Smyth Block.This is the largest commercial structure on West Madison street, as well as the finest. It is occupied almost wholly by the furniture establishment of John M. Smyth, although in the eastern part a portion is given over to Kohl & Middleton’s Dime Museum, which will be moved into Madison Hall, it is understood, when that building is completed. Mr. Smyth was the originator of the installment idea in the furniture business, and has built up an immense trade and a large fortune. This establishment occupies acres of floor space, employs an army of men and has outfitted many thousands of the happiest and prettiest homes in Chicago and vicinity.
John M. Smyth Block
The Standard Guide to Chicago For the Year 1891
The Standard Guide to Chicago For the Year 1892
The New John M.Smyth Building.— The Standard Guide for 1891 contained an engraving (above) and a description of the John M. Smyth building on Madison street. The book was scaroely issued before this handsome structure was destroyed by fire. Upon the ruins has arisen a building far more costly and elegant in every detail than its predecessor. It is the handsomest structure in Chicago devoted to retail furniture trade and the most imposing structure on this side of the river. It is eight stories in height and cost over $300,000. The building has a frontage on West Madison street of 205 feet, the end wings having each a frontage of forty feet extending back to a depth of 180 feet to School street in the rear, while the center portion with a frontage of 125 feet is 125 feet deep thus having a court for shipping purposes. The court is covered by a trussed glass roof. The exterior of the first two stories is built of tool, dressed blue Bedford stone. Above this Bedford stone is used. The feature of the front is a grand central entrance, being a double arch forty feet wide. The rest of the front is chiefly of plate glass windows, no iron structure being visible on the outside. The central part of the building 125×125, contains a grand vestibule, finished in marble. The main offices are situated on the first floor, these with the entire interior are elaborately and beautifully finished. Two grand stairways lead to the upper floors and in addition there are two passenger and four freight elevators. The interior finish is of West mill construction, long leaf Georgia pine timbers, which are used in the floor, being four inches thick, and a finish of maple. The building is warmed by steam, while 300 arc electric and 600 incandescent together with innumerable gas jets flood it with light. The burning of the John M. Smyth building filled the whole neighborhood with disaster. It was one of the most wicked fires ever witnessed on the West Side. The fire crossed the street to the buildings opposite, several of which were reduced to ruins and for a time the new and magnificent Haymarket building seemed doomed to destruction. While the fire was at its height and half a million dollars worth of property was going up in smoke, Mr. John M. Smyth was approached by a reporter of a morning paper and asked what he thought of it, He said in reply, ” As soon as we can remove the debris, we will put up a much handsomer building.” The debris was scarcely cleared away before the work of erecting the new structure had begun. John M. Smyth was the originator of what has come to be knoAvn as the installment idea. From a small beginning his establishment has grown until it is the largest of its kind in the United States if not in the world. Years ago Mr. Smyth was a newspaper man, but left that business before the great fire. He is a well-read, scholarly, refined gentleman, a splendid conversationlist and one of the most popular men on the West Side. For years he has been prominent in politics, a pursuit which he has followed more for recreation than for profit. He is usually to be found in his office from early in the morning until late at night, but is never so rushed with business that he fails to meet his customers with an affable smile or allows them to depart without a courteous hand-shake. You will be interested by a visit to this building. Every floor is an exhibition in itself . It would be impossible to compute the number of customers of this establishment, but it is estimated that John M. Smyth has given a start to over fifty thousand young married people during the past ten years.
John M. Smyth Letterhead
John M. Smyth Catalog Covers
1910 & 1912
John M. Smyth Catalog of Cameras and Talking Machines
Chicago Tribune, April 15, 1917
Chicago Tribune, November 22, 1953
After carrying on its business on the west side for some 86 years, John M. Smyth company, late this week or early next—the date has not been set—will foresake its old address at 703 Madison st. and open doors of its handsome new store at 703 Michigan av. between Madison and Washington sts. By moving to Michigan av. the famed furniture company will bring to that renowned boulevard one of Chicago’s oldest business names.
The change is something more than just another store moving from one location to another. The Smyth store for decades has been a west side landmark, tho its customers come from every part of the city. There is no telling how many Chicago families set up housekeeping with furnishings from its sample stocks. And its presence gave dignity to an area which for years has been gripped by blight.
Run by 4 Grandsons.
And of more than passing interest is the fact that company operations are in the hands of four grandsons of John M. Smyth, an Irish immigrant, who on April 17, 1867, founded the company with a capital of $250. William P. Smyth, president, was born in 1903, and John M. Smyth III, vice president in 1915. The other officers are Nelson E. Smyth, secretary, and Edward Smyth Patera, treasurer. John and Nelson are brothers and cousins of others.
The company’s new Michigan av. headquarters, remodeled and modernized, are of historic interest, for the site once was occupied by Montgomery Ward & Co. The eight story structure was acquired about a year ago after the Smyth company was forced to vacate its old home because of the construction plans for the northwest superhighway.
Tho it is true there has been a strong decentralization movement, which has resulted in enlarged outlying area shopping centers, the company’s president is most optimistic about the future of Chicago’s central district.
Billboard promoting John M. Smyth’s new location on Michigan Avenue, in 1953.
Faith in Downtown
Smyth told the writer:
We believe the downtown area will continue to fill a prime shopping need for the entire Chicago area. We fully expect that there will be a noteworthy increase in sales volume of the downtown store in the next ten years. Our own experience has been that a majority of the people seeking home furnishings prefer to buy in a large store with wide selections.
In the move from the old home to the new the company will retain the friendly atmosphere so familiar to thousands of Chicagoans. A number of old features will be found again in the new home and a model apartment.
The first floor is highlighted by a deep arcade which runs along the front front of the building, making for a peasant window shop. The seven upper floors, which have more floor area than the old building, are devoted to the sale of furniture, floor coverings, fabrics, and other items of home furnishings. The Enjay Construction company did the remodeling and L. P. Sumarkoff was the architect.
Reached Chicago in 1848
To return briefly to a period when Chicago was a much different town, the founder arrived here with his parents who were Irish immigrants. He was born at sea, off the coast of Newfoundland in July 1843. The parents spent several years in Canada before coming to the United States.
When he was only 13 the senior John M. Smyth started his business career to help support the family. He is reputed to have been an office boy of Joseph Medill, the great editor of The Chicago Tribune.
When 24 young Smyth with a partner, Thomas Mitchell, set up in business in an area in which many members of Chicago’s high society lived. The area in the 1880s and up to 1900 was served by five or six good furniture stores. Smyth bought his partner out and went on to make a fortune in his business.
Gives Reason for Success
Sometime after the death of the founder, on Nov. 4, 1909, his son John M. took over. Once asked to give a reason for the company’s success he observed:
The life of a store is not its stocks. It isn’t in its costly fixtures. It isn’t in pride of surroundings of fine mahogany or gleam of glass. There’s got to be something a bit spiritual in a store that is to live. There has to be feel. I don’t know just how to say it, but here in this store, I can sense it. My father brought it here and it is still here. I hope it will always be here as long as these walls stand.
John M. II dies in 1948. Now the grandsons of the father are seeking to carry on the spirit of the firm. And possibly they may be able to do something that neither John M. nor John M. II was ever able to do—get Chicago to pronounce Smyth as if it were just plain Smith.
Chicago Tribune, April 10, 1956
Ebony, April, 1963
Shopping for furniture inside the fashionable John M. Smyth Michigan Avenue store,
Crain’s Chicago Business, April 2, 1994
John M. Smyth Co.’s Homemakers division routed Levitz Furniture Co. the last time the two warehouse-style store chains competed in Chicago. But Smyth wasn’t so certain that it could prevail a second time as Levitz readied a new foray into the marketplace.
Whether or not Levitz was successful in its $50-million bid for Smyth, the Boca Raton, Fla.-based chain was determined to return to Chicago. It left here in 1980 after three furniture warehouse stores failed to catch on.
Levitz had been combing Chicago and the suburbs for sites for more than a year. Real estate sources say the company is finalizing plans to develop two sites, including one in Vernon Hills, in addition to the six Homemakers stores it’s buying.
Smyth was pulling in good earnings from its annual sales of $61 million, insiders say.
But its 78-year-old chairman, John M. Smyth, grandson of the founder, was ready to relinquish control. None of Mr. Smyth’s four children was involved in the 120-year-old business, and there were reportedly no nieces or nephews (brothers Nelson and Robert had senior management positions) interested in carrying on, either.
Mr. Smyth couldn’t be reached for comment.
A 1989 deal to sell the firm to a Chicago investment group, Knightsbridge Partners, fell through over financing problems. In recent years, day-to-day operations have been managed by President Kenneth Curtis, 50, a former sales rep.
“In my opinion, Mr. Smyth’s decision to sell was based partly on estate-planning considerations. He’s been practically the only family member involved in the company,” said Patrick J. Nolan, senior vice-president and chief financial officer of Levitz, which raised $192 million in an initial public offering of stock last year.
Levitz sales are estimated at close to $1 billion from 121 stores in 25 states in the fiscal year ended March 31. The chain is staking out other major metro markets and plans to open its first New York City store this fall.
The Homemakers format-superstores measuring 150,000 square feet-was borrowed in the 1970s from Levitz’s groundbreaking prototype. “The acquisition will be a perfect fit for us,” Mr. Nolan asserted. “We’ll get a great name and selling base. If we’d had to build our own stores, it could have taken us some years to penetrate the market.”
Competitors believe Chicago wouldn’t have supported three big chains-Levitz, Homemakers and Wickes Furniture Co., which has nine stores in Chicago. Such names as Colby’s and Homer Bros. have disappeared and Maurice Mandle & Co. is in the final throes of a going-out-of-business sale.
“There are only so many ways you can slice the cake,” said Gary O’Reilly, owner and president of O’Reilly’s Fine Furniture Inc., a three-store chain in Libertyville that has seen its gross margins reduced from 41% to 35% since 1991. “Even with an improving economy, I don’t think Chicago is big enough to support Wickes, Homemakers and Levitz.”
Robert Zierk, owner of the three-store Zierk’s Home Furnishings Inc. chain in Naperville who worked at Smyth for 26 years, wasn’t surprised by the company’s sale. “I have five children and they all work with me here,” Mr. Zierk said. “But that’s unusual. Many children of retailers look at the long hours that their parents must work and decide to do something else.”
The Levitz deal points up another trend. “Furniture retailing has been a mom-and-pop industry for years, but now, we’re likely to see more and more consolidation,” said Mr. Curtis, who is uncertain about his future after Homemakers is sold. “The big are only getting bigger.”
John M. Smyth closed their last stores in 2005 after nearly 140 years.