Chicago Tribune, November 30, 1910
What is the busiest, most congested, and richest spot on the face of the globe?
Is it in London, Peking, Calcutta, Cairo or New York?
It is none of these great centers of population.
It is in Chicago, the great central market of the wester prairies, by the inland sea. It is in a town only seventy-five years old. Could there be a more striking demonstration of the greatness to which the city has achieved than the international preeminence of Chicago’s loop district as a center of trade and commerce between men?
It takes only half an hour to walk around the loop. It would take well over ten years to interview all the business firms in this district, at the rate of ten a day. In one building alone there are reckoned to be not less than 3,000 distinct and separate organizations though many firms have only part of the office, or even desk room. Another building in the loop has as many 10,000 occupants, another more than 7,000, another 5,000. The elevators of one structure carry up and down every day not less than 30,000 people.
There are more skyscrapers in the loop than in any other part of the earth of equal dimensions. Of the 120 high buildings in Chicago, ninety are in the loop.
Population of Loop a Million.
On many days the population of the loop is not fewer than a million persons. On State street alone there are often as many people to be found as in the whole city of Buffalo. About 70,000 men, women, and girls work as employees in the stores, and on bargain days fully one-half of the feminine population of the city crowds into this neighborhood. Of all the business men, clerks, stenographers, etc., in Chicago fully two-thirds, when they have had their breakfast in the morning, head directly for the loop district.
Nearly 1,600 passenger trains, through and suburban, at and depart from the six principal railway passenger stations of Chicago. Most of these passengers make directly for the loop district on incoming trains and leave its vicinity on outgoing trains. Forty per-cent of the mail of the city is estimated to be gathered and delivered from and to the loop district. There are at times more people in the loop than in the whole of Nebraska or the combined population of the six states of Delaware, Idaho, Nevada, North Dakota, Utah and Wyoming.
World’s Greatest Shopping Center.
In no other city in the entire world are there so many gigantic retail stores to be seen standing almost shoulder to shoulder in such a little space. Eight stories alone are reckoned to take in not less than $100,000,000 in the course of a year. The wealth of Rockefeller would not be nearly enough to buy State street and its stores. The expenses of one firm alone total as high as $45,000 a day, and the same company employs 9,000 workers. On State street is to be seen absolutely the finest retail store on the face of the earth. In no city or country are finer goods to be bought than those displayed in this district.
Ground on State street is priceless. Some property has been appraised as high as $40,000 a front foot. A lineal inch of it would keep a family in comfort for several years. The buying of 300 yards of State street would beggar several millionaires. If a man could lie down and measure off his own length and own that much ground he never would have to work again.
The loop is unique in that members of nearly profession in existence are to be found there. It is safe to say that there is scarcely any business on earth but has a representative in the loop. It is at once the center of the city’s amusements, shopping, business, political, legal, and labor affairs.
There are more advertising writers in the loop than in all the rest of Illinois. There are hundreds of doctors, dentists, druggists, etc. Space in the loop is valued so much by physicians that several of them use the same office in a large building, one occupying in the morning, another in the afternoon, and one in the late evening.
The loop is the center for Chicago’s intellectual activity. A goodly number of novels, serial stories, magazine articles, etc., are written in or near the loop. Many literary men are said to walk around this district gaining inspiration. Nearly all the promising artists and musicians of Chicago work in around the loop.
When a Chicago talks about the delights of Chic ago, speaks as he may about the frightful congestion of the loop, this place generally is the first spot he makes for when he gets back from another city, and, though he berates it, he voluntarily stays in it for man a long hour.
Thousands of Chicago women go down to State street in the early morning and pass a long but not wearisome day in going the rounds of the stores. It is safe to say that, if the average Chicago woman were given $100 or $1,000 for spending money, she could be found in one of six Chicago stores within forty-five minutes afterward.
Upward of $1,000,000 a day is spent in the retail stores, restaurants, cigar stores, saloons, etc., in the confines of the loop.
The Big Nine State Street Stores—Carson, Pirie, Scott & Co., Marshall Field, Mandel Bros., Charles A. Stevens & Bro., The Fair, Siegel Cooper & Co., the Boston Store, Rothschild’s and Hillman’s.
In May, 1911 the Chicago Police’s Traffic Department performed a study on the importance of traffic officers at several loop corners and had them removed for a short period of time. Several of the “after” photos has been circulated to illustrate the chaos of the traffic situation was in the loop. The photos below is an example of the corner of State and Madison when the policemen were removed and when they returned to duty.
The Police Were Removed from This District, State and Madison Streets, for Three and One-Half Minutes.
Flow of Traffic One Minute After Blockade Shown in Above Cut Had Been Lifted,
Chicago Tribune, July 22, 1916
THE BUSIEST CORNER.
Will you kindly inform me what is considered the busiest corner in the world?—”B.B.”
There is no busier place in the world than New York. Says one who ought know where of he speaks: “The busiest corner in that great city is supposed to be the junction of Frankfort street and Park row.” Careful computation, based upon continued observation, gives 740,000 as the average number of human beings who pass that corner daily. Of course some go back and forth and are counted more than once, but the number of passengers is rated as above. The next heaviest stream of humanity flows through Picadilly, London, according to recent computation. If these calculations erroneous, we look to the constituency for correction.
Valentine’s Manual of the City of New York for 1916-7
BUSIEST CORNER IN THE WORLD.
The question was recently asked as to the busiest corner in the world and the reply was made that while no exact figures were available several experts considered it to be Fifth Avenue and Forty-second Street. Attention is, therefore, called to the figures collected by the New York police and published December 12. This traffic count showed the city’s busiest corner to be Park Row and Frankfort Street, where for twenty-five days an average of 296,200 pedestrians and 6,700 vehicles passed daily between 8:20 A.M and 6:30 P.M. Fifth Avenue and Forty-second Street averaged 113,780 pedestrians and 18,800 vehicles.
Chicago Tribune, November 21, 1916
Chicago Tribune, November 21, 1916
CHICAGO’S BUSIEST CORNER.
Please advise me through your Corner which of the two corners in Chicago, Washington and State or Madison and State, is considered the busier point of traffic and whether or not there is any busier corner in Chicago?—INQUIRER.
Some weeks ago we answered a query respecting the busiest street corner in the world. Yours is of similar import and it will be correctly answered by readers competent to speak advisedly upon the subject.
Dry Goods Economist, April 7, 1917
No one, excepting the late Bill Nye, ever accused Chicago of being unduly modest, and yet the above title is no idle boast. State Street itself is ten miles long, but its great retail section is less than half a mile in length. And yet within the brief space of seven blocks are located seven department stores, each one doing a retail business that must aggregate millions of dollars annually; there are also exclusive men’s and exclusive women’s stores, claiming to furnish all that may be demanded by the sex catered to; there are the largest retail millinery stores, shoe stores and jewelry stores of the city; there are a number of other exclusive stores, and there are specialty shops without number, that crowd the floors of a half-dozen skyscrapers like the nests of chimney swallows.
No city in the world, it is safe to say, could meet the challenge of being able to show an equal volume of retail trade carried on within a similar space.
Basis of Big Business
This does not mean, of course, that all the retail business of the city is done here; there are good stores and large stores outside “the loop.” But it does probably mean that Chicago people buy a greater proportion of their goods of the big department store than do the people of any other city. As one retailer puts it: “All the people buy their goods there some of the time and some of the people buy their goods there all of the time.”
Nor do they come to the department store for manufactured goods only, as is fully attested by the fact that the grocery department of one department store (and this not the largest of the seven) sells annually 2,000,000 pounds of sugar and 3,000,000 pounds of flour.
Serves Extensive Territory
I could find no one bold enough to estimate, either in dollars or in percentage of the city’s total retail trade, the annual volume of business transacted within these blocks, but anyone who knows anything about the city realizes that it must be something enormous.
Chicago extends along the lake front for 27 miles; at various points it reaches inland several miles; the census of 1910 gave it a population of over 2,000,000. It has not stood still since then. And even this does not exhaust the clientèle of the big stores, for the city, like a great magnet, draws trade from 50 miles and more away. And as to the area served by the mail-order departments of these stores, only the parcel post systems can tell how wide it is.
World’s Busiest Corner
One point in this seven blocks, the corner of State and Madison Streets, is called the world’s busiest corner, and a publication which modestly terms itself “The World’s Greatest Newspaper” claims to have proved, by the infallible recordings of the adding machine, that more people pass this corner in twenty-four hours than pass any other angle of any other block of the earth’s surface.
Real estate in the section under consideration, as one humorist has declared, brings a price of so much per carat. That is, of course, an exaggeration, but a pardonable one, for the record price is said to be $30,000 paid for one front foot on the east side of State Street between Madison and Washington.
The most desirable real estate in the half-mile could be bought no more easily than one could buy a canvas by Raphael or Leonardo—it simply is not for sale. And if the stories were ever written (as probably they never will be) of how various pieces of land were for years coveted, bid on and finally bought, the steps that led to their purchase would read like the chronicles of some ancient siege, stubbornly fought for years and at last triumphantly won.
World’s Biggest Store
Several of the larger stores are old for Chicago, though all of their buildings are new. One was founded in 1867, another in 1866 and a third in 1855.
The proud distinction of conducting the largest retail business in the world is conceded to one of these stores. Its customers are served by an aggregate of 9,500 employees (in the retail department alone), and during a busy day the number of visitors to the store has often exceeded 200,000, meaning, if, you will stop to figure it, that for that day one person out of every ten of the city’s population passed through the doors of that one store.
No wonder that a London dry goods man, after visiting the establishment, named it, as he did, in an article in the DRY GOODS ECONOMIST—”the cathedral of all the stores.”
Expansion Near Limit
There are now only two directions in which State Street’s retailing expansion is possible—up and down. Within comparatively recent years all the larger department stores have literally “gone up in the air,” some of them to a height of nearly 300 ft., though a city ordinance now limits all buildings to a height of 200 ft.
Similarly, there are in many of the stores three basements; a first basement, used for sales space; a second basement, for shipping, and a third for boilers and machinery. Foundations rest upon solid cement caissons, sunk to bed-rock, 100 to 110 ft. below the surface.
In some of these basements one finds switch tracks of the Illinois (Chicago) Tunnel Co., for Chicago has some 60 miles of subway.
Origin Is Uncertain
Just how it got there no one seems to know. Indeed I heard it stated that 19 miles of it was already there when first the city discovered that it had any, though this may be a slander. The average man naturally knows little about it, for the subway trains carry no passengers. What they do carry is an accumulation of freight which but for them would make the loop a nightmare.
One Reason for Congestion
How so large a volume of business came to be centered in one spot is a long story, involving the technicalities of the Chicago street railways. The old cable system, which brought passengers from the north, west and south, delivering them in the heart of the city (in the vicinity, say, of State and Washington Streets), would not permit of switching—each car must circle a block, due to the necessity of following the cable.
To-day cable cars are replaced by trolleys and elevated lines, but franchises covering this circling of squares, or “looping,” were not affected there by (indeed, the business already built up in this section loudly demanded the continuance of such a system), and the congestion at the heart of the city has, therefore, never been reduced.
There was a time when the aim of the average department store seemed to be to handle as many varieties of goods as possible. Even to-day one of them publishes a list of 100 different departments. But the inclination to “spread out” in this direction seems now to have passed its meridian, and instead of adding Specialties in grindstones or coffins State Street merchants are to-day giving an in tenser cultivation to the lines they already carry.
This is noticeably true of men’s wear. State Street used to be, and in a sense it is still, the women’s street of Chicago, but side by side with exclusive women’s stores one finds exclusive men’s stores, furnished with like elegance and containing merchandise suited to every degree of taste and affluence. And all of the department stores devote much time, floor space, energy and money to the sale of men’s clothing, furnishings and shoes.
It was at the Panama-Pacific Exposition that I spoke to a lady about the beauty of some of the fashion displays in the French pavilion. “Yes,” she admitted, “but I saw nothing there that was any better than what I say in————’s Windows.” And later when I made the comparison for myself I had to admit that she was right.
Artistic Show Windows
There are windows on State Street to day as beautiful from an artistic point of view as any commercial exhibit one could have seen in San Francisco. One of them, by the way, disappears during the day and at night rises mysteriously from what had appeared to be the solid concrete floor to block the main entrance and flash its enticing splendors in the face of the theater crowds.
Model cottages and model rooms for the display of merchandise are familiar devices, but they are not familiar on the scale that one sees them on State Street.
Here one can sit down before an open fire in an oak wainscoted room that would do justice to an English manor or a French château. He may visit, in the same building, replicas of shops in Tokio, Constantinople, Vienna and Bombay.
Many Store Restaurants
Practically every department store, besides having a restaurant for its employees, where food is served at cost or below cost, has a restaurant, or in some cases several, for its customers.
One of these, to pick almost at random, is decorated in the Tudor style, with pendant ceiling and with portraits, in the manner of Holbein, of lords and ladies from the court of the much-married Henry VIII. In another of these department store restaurants 4000 guests can be served at one time.
The artificial ice plant in one of these stores has a capacity of 125 tons a day. A city of 100,000 inhabitants could be well lighted by the electric light plant of another, and a smaller community might easily be served by its laundry, which has a capacity of 3000 pieces per day.
Most of the stores, of course, carry credit accounts; but one, which stands close to the top in the volume of its business, sells for cash only. “When our wagon stops at your door,” they advertise, “your neighbors know that your goods are paid for.”
Big Crowds Make Problem
The mere handling of the crowds inside the stores is of itself no small problem. From 11 until 2 the elevators, large and numerous as they are, are commonly packed, and all day they are never idle. One or two of the stores have in part relieved the congestion by the installation of moving stairways, one having, it is claimed, the most complete system in the world.
The data containing the delivery systems of the State Street stores would easily make an article in itself. One store utilizes 287 delivery trucks, making deliveries within a territory comprising 430 square miles.
Another store describes in one of its advertising booklets the method of loading its delivery trucks; none of them are loaded on the street, but
though many of them weigh five tons each, they are lifted seventeen floors or lowered three, and then loaded on the floor where the
goods can be most conveniently handled. The furniture shipping room on the fourteenth floor has many thousands of square feet of cement, where trucks are parked while being loaded—200 ft. above street level.
Could the delivery systems of the State Street department stores be all combined into one mammoth parade it is more than likely that the length of the column would exceed that of any procession that has ever passed through the city.
Personally Conducted Tours
The amount of gratuitous service which customers receive in some of these department stores is little short of amazing. In one store, at each hour of the day, beginning at 9 in the morning, a guide takes visitors through the store, pointing out the chief objects of interest: the mosaic dome of favrile glass—the largest single piece of mosaic glass in the world; the recreation room and academy belonging to the employees’ welfare department; the cold storage, containing a million or more dollars’ worth of customers furs, wraps, and rugs left there for safe keeping.
Often during the busier hours the parties, for days at a time, consist of from thirty to fifty persons, whose transportation from floor to floor demands the service of two or three elevators.
I asked my guide the amount of the store’s floor space, and she told me 46 acres (more than four times the area of a California fruit farm), with 5 acres additional in another building across the street. The aisle carpets, she said, if spread out in one continuous strip, would reach 62½ miles. While making the rounds one felt quite as if he were a tourist being shown Hampton Court or an Italian palazzo.
Practically all the stores have women’s rest rooms with trained maids in attendance. The customer who wishes her shoes polished or her nails manicured finds someone at hand to do it. If she wishes to write a note, desk and stationery are at hand. If she prefers to sit for a while and read amid surroundings which are, perhaps, unfamiliarly luxurious, there are the daily papers, the current magazines and even books of verse or prose by the most popular modern writers.
All the larger stores contain pocket editions of the most up-to-date modern hospital, with doctor and nurse in attendance, and the service is gratuitous to customer or to employee.
Other Conveniences for Public
In some of the rest-rooms are offices where gas, electric and water bills may be paid without collection charge. There are, of course, telephone booths. Telegrams and cablegrams may also be sent and advertisements placed in any of the city papers without extra charge.
There are branches of the United States Post Office, not alone for the posting of letters and sale of stamps, but for the sale and cashing of money orders and the receiving of money for deposit in the United States Postal Savings Bank. In several stores there are also branches of the Chicago Public Library.
Scope of Information Bureau
The service of the information bureaus is almost omniscient. Here the stranger can everything about the arrival and departure of trains, ocean steamers, lake steamers, time tables, routes of suburban, elevated and street railways, location of Points of interest throughout the city, attractions at the various theaters, etc. One of the stores publishes a regular bulletin, “News of the Week in Chicago,” which is distributed free to visitors. Theater tickets may be purchased or travers’ checks.
If expecting a call or having appointments may leave a list of the stops likely to be made in the store, and thus, through the personal service department, may be located at any time.
For the Little Ones
Mothers with infants will find ample nurseries set apart for them and their charges, and if they desire it, can be Supplied with certified milk, hot or cold.
For older babies there are the bewildering children’s play rooms, furnished with merry-go-rounds, sand piles, toboggan slides, games and other attractions, all presided over by an expert. In some of the toy sections they have children’s days when they entertain, for instance, the Boy Scouts or the Camp Fire Girls, giving them free run of the department within certain limits, supplying a whole equipment of new toys and apparatus for their amusement, and even serving refreshments.
Some Big Deals Put Over
There is one particular in State Street stores are naturally and properly reticent. They leave you to guess the volume of their annual business, and they do not encourage the amateur to publish his guesses. But purely for its spectacular interest, one or two of them have given some figures on a few items, and these furnish a hint as to what the aggregate must be.
Thus there is one store which confesses to having bought at one time 20 carloads of writing tablets, at another time, 16 carloads of sporting goods, and on still another occasion 17 carloads of trunks and valises—this lot consisting of 4,950 trunks and 35,000 bags, grips and telescopes. There are stores that have sold in one day 15 to 20 tons of candy. They have even made startling records on items which the average man does not know that the department store carry—40,000 live frogs in a season, sold for bait, and in one year 20,000 genuine Harz Mountain singing canaries. Long ago, when the bicycle was Young America’ craze and delight, a State Street department store sold 1000 of them in one day.
If one can imagine the managers of ten leading stores getting together and matching stories on a wager, it is probable that their veracious revelations would outdo the best achievements of the late Baron Munchausen.
LEFT: Just a half second’s glimpse through the camera’s eye at the great crowds of Christmas shoppers that jammed the loop all day yesterday, as seen at State and Madison streets, the world’s busiest corner. It won its right to the name all over again during the day.
RIGHT: More of the same, this time on State between Monroe and Adams streets. And they’re all buying generously, but rather critically and with an eye to getting their full money’s worth, merchants assert.
Ad “Stunts” of Other Days
It is doubtful whether during the fifty years of the street’s business growth there is any sort of advertising stunt or give away game which has not been pulled off by Some One to attract business, though, of course, the day of freak advertising is now long past for all of them.
Boys’ suits have been sold for 25 cents or sold for $1 with a dollar watch thrown in. One store, in campaigning to establish a reputation for truth in its£ went so far as to advertise and sell Silver dollars for 90 cents and $5 gold pieces for $4.75.
Teaching the Employee
Much of the success of the big State Street stores had been due to the thoroughness of the training of the employees and to the scope of their welfare work.
The executives of these stores appreciate the value of the trained clerk and the importance to the store of preserving his or her health; therefore, every effort is made to keep the efficiency of the salesforce up to the highest possible standard.
Salesmanship, merchandising and local geography—the city and its environs—arithmetic, spelling and penmanship, etc., are taught to the newcomers, in classes. For their welfare physicians, nurses and hospital equipment of the best are provided. There are matrons whose duties extend even to the betterment of conditions in employees’ homes.
Chicago Tribune, December 23, 1922
JUST A GLIMPSE AT A STAGNANT TRAFFIC POOL. All yesterday the loop streets were jammed with holiday shoppers. This photo of the “world’s busiest corner” illustrates how well-nigh impossible it was to keep moving. And thr photo doesn’t even show the great jam in the streets caused by the street cars.
State Street Corridor
State & Madison “X”
Excerpted from New York Central Lines, Industrial Directory an Shippers Guide, 1920-1921
The Loop District of Chicago is known the world over as being the world’s busiest business section. In 1828 this entire district was fenced in as a cow pasture. To-day 350,000 workers come to it every morning, and in 24 hours there may be counted in this area 20,000 street cars, 150,000 vehicles, and a pedestrian population of 1,000,000. Madison and State Streets is “the world’s busiest corner.”
Excerpted from Main 13, May 1922
There are about 450 policemen who, in Department parlance, “work out of ‘The Traffic,’” most of whom are detailed in the down-town district in and around the loop. When one considers that State and Madison St. is reputed to be the world’s busiest corner; that an average of over 282,000 vehicles, including Michigan Boulevard through traffic, pass through the Loop each day; that street cars, trucks, pleasure autos and pedestrians are equally assertive of their right to rush along pell mell-it becomes apparent that but for the traffic officers the situation would be chaos. Another glimpse at statistics shows that fit the peak of the day’s hustle there are 57 vehicles per minute using the block between Adams and Jackson on Michigan Blvd., and that, taking the main traveled of the Loop as a whole, there are 10 to 15 vehicles a minute using each important block during the busiest hour.
Chicago Tribune, May 10, 1993
J. Linn Allen
Time was when Chicago news editors used to dismiss stories with little local relevance by saying, “It’s a long way from State and Madison.”
These days, State and Madison is a long way from the old State and Madison. The one-time “world’s busiest corner” isn’t quite what it used to be.
“No way,” said Freeda Kosick, the 20-year manager of a currency exchange tucked in below the stairs in the grimy lobby of the desolate, nearly empty Chicago Building on the southwest corner of the famous intersection.
“Thirty-five or 40 years ago it was real, real busy. But downtown has changed a lot,” she said.
All downtowns have changed since the suburbanization of America sucked buyers out of the central cities and into the shopping malls, and State and Madison is no exception. The city’s street numbers still start there, but for most people in the Chicago area, thoughts of shopping start elsewhere.
But changes aren’t always for the worse, and recently the intersection has taken on a new look, demonstrating that a good part of its vibrancy and appeal still survive.
The long-empty Wieboldt’s store on the northeast corner has been spiffed up by a new owner as 1 N. State, with Filene’s Basement and T.J. Maxx as lead retailers.
And the wreckers are busy demolishing the building just south of the Chicago Building on State Street to make way for a Toys “R” Us store scheduled to open next Christmas.
Michael Miller, senior vice president for real estate at Toys “R” Us headquarters in Paramus, N.J., didn’t know people used to refer to the corner as the “world’s busiest.”
But, he said, “we think it’s a very heavily traveled intersection.”
The luring of suburban-type retailers such as T.J. Maxx and Toys “R” Us marks another turn for the intersection, whose history began when Chicago pioneer Potter Palmer decided to turn downtown 180 degrees by changing its retailing focus from east-west to north-south.
Until the late 1860s, stores gathered along Lake Street, a muddy thoroughfare parallel to the Chicago River. But Palmer, an industrious dry goods merchant from New York, had a vision for what was called the Old State Road.
Though derided by contemporaries, Palmer began to buy up cheap land occupied by shanties and amassed a mile of frontage along State with the idea of turning it into a dazzling retail strip.
By 1870, he had developed more than 30 buildings along State Street, anchored by a six-story retail store known as the “Marble Palace” at State and Washington that housed the dry goods company that Palmer had sold to Marshall Field and Levi Leiter.
The 1871 Chicago Fire destroyed all his State Street holdings, but Palmer built again on an even more lavish scale, establishing the State Street corridor as Chicago’s premier shopping artery, with his new-and fireproof-Palmer House Hotel at State and Monroe.
The early 1900s marked the golden era for State and Madison.
The landmark Carson Pirie Scott store on the southeast corner, designed originally by Louis Sullivan and finished off by Daniel Burnham in a one-two punch of great Chicago architects, was completed in 1905, making State and Madison the hub of a retailing promenade.
The shopping stretch extended at least from Randolph, where the Marshall Field Store stood, to Adams, site of the Fair Store. (The latter was an 1800s version of a discount store, and the building in 1965 became the Montgomery Ward store, which was demolished in 1985.)
The 16-story Chicago Building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, was built in 1904 with a design by the firm of Holabird and Roche.
The northwest corner of State and Madison was occupied by the Boston Store, a retail establishment dating to 1873 that took over 17-story quarters built over a period between 1905 and 1917.
In 1912, a Mandel Brothers store opened on the northeast corner, and Chas. A. Stevens also moved in. Wieboldt’s later took over the site from Mandel Brothers.
With a few changes, primarily the conversion of the Boston Store to combined retail and office space, the intersection maintained its vitality through the 1950s, its luster only mildly dimmed by the Depression and World War II. In 1939, a government survey showed 265,376 pedestrians and 24,898 autos poured through it in a 12-hour period.
State and Madison Streets
As late as 1959, the Chicago Transit Authority proclaimed State and Madison the busiest corner in the Loop, with 178,021 pedestrians and 20,014 motor vehicles moving through in an 11-hour period. The “world’s busiest corner” sobriquet was still common currency.
But by the 1970s, State Street was perceived as locked in a losing battle with the customer-devouring suburban shopping center behemoths. Caught up in mall fever, the city widened the retail artery and banned autos, transforming it into an Eden for buses, pigeons and street evangelists-but not particularly for shoppers.
By 1990, the corner’s fortunes seemed to have reached their nadir. The Wieboldt’s and Stevens stores were closed, Carsons had been acquired by financially shaky P.A. Bergner & Co. (which filed for bankruptcy in 1991) and talk of demolition was swirling around the Chicago Building. The offices on the remaining corner were occupied by government agencies such as the Chicago Housing Authority-not exactly the most glamorous tenant.
But for the Tucker Companies, a Northbrook-based commercial real estate firm, the name State and Madison still had magic, and the firm bought the Wieboldt’s store building in April of 1990.
“State and Madison has always been the hottest psychological phrase to Chicago real estate people,” said Norris Eber, Tucker’s senior vice president of asset management. “It was always a buzzword as I grew up in this town.
“It appeared to deteriorate in the ’70s and ’80s, but it’s always been a buzzword as the ultimate intersection, the zero-zero line,” he said.
Eber said that even though the Wieboldt’s space, occupying the first four floors of the 16-story building, had been unoccupied for four years, the rest of the building was leased up to office tenants.
“What we saw was the opportunity to capture the location and the people around it by going to the simple philosophy of retail merchandising with storefronts on the street,” Eber said. “The doubting Thomases said, `Why State Street?’ We said we thought it always had been a great location and again could be.”
Tucker put $78 million into the building, comprising the purchase price and a $25 million redevelopment, and the company’s highest expectations were more than met with TJ Maxx and Filene’s Basement, Eber said.
Not only is weekday traffic bountiful at rush hour and lunchtime, but weekends-even Sundays-have been “fantastic,” he said. The State Street storefronts are all leased and all but one on Madison and one on Wabash are occupied or in lease negotiation, Eber added.
Meanwhile, W. Harris Smith, the owner of the lease on the Chicago Building property, remains committed to a plan for a $5 million renovation that would convert it to 48 rental apartments plus retail stores on the lower two floors.
Smith, president of Creative Construction, bought a 50-year lease on the property, which is owned by the Board of Education. The site included adjacent land now being prepared for the new Toys “R” Us.
He is still searching for financing for the Chicago Building project, saying he is “relatively confident” it will come this year. At the same time, national mass appeal retailers commonly found in suburban shopping malls are expressing “tremendous demand” for storefronts on the corner, he added.
“I think in the recent past there has been a realization that State Street is not going to be the premier retail street in the city. That has been given over to North Michigan Avenue,” he said.
“But in the most perfect scenario, State Street would evolve into a second-tier shopping street, and things are beginning to happen that may make that come to fruition. The Toys “R” Us deal is one of those things,” he added.
More evidence of State’s healthy second-tier status came in a marketing analysis done a year ago that said State Street was the third most frequently shopped location in the area, after Woodfield Shopping Center in Schaumburg and Water Tower Place on North Michigan.
Smith also noted that the State-and-Madison hub has been strengthened by the construction of the Harold Washington Library as a southern anchor, the renovation of the old Goldblatt’s store at Jackson and the $120 million Field’s renovation on the north end of the retail strip.
And he takes further encouragement from plans for a $30 million “de-malling” of State Street and the routing of light rail cars down State as part of the downtown circulator system, which is scheduled to start service in 1998.
“The circulator will be a tourist attraction,” he said. “Additionally, it’s generally agreed that the malling of State Street was a mistake.”
State Street merchants (many of whom backed the original malling of State a dozen years ago) now want the cars back and the sidewalks narrower to bring back the hustle-bustle air.
“People like to be in a crowd, especially at holiday season,” said G. Brent Minor, chairman of the State Street Council and vice president of LaSalle Talman Bank.
“If you spread a sidewalk to two, three times as wide and spread the people, it doesn’t bring the element of excitement that it used to have,” he said.
Carsons is also looking forward to better days, with its parent, Milwaukee-based Bergner, reporting high operating profits and expecting to emerge from Chapter 11 this spring. State Street store director John Kline said he is hoping soon to begin a revamping of the store’s first floor.
Meanwhile, in her burrow under the Chicago Building stairway, Freeda Kosick is quite content with her location. “Business isn’t down in the currency exchange; it has increased,” she said.
Her problem is that redevelopment of the building, in which she is one of three remaining businesses along with a jewelry store and a restaurant, could mean she gets booted out. “Eventually they’ll have to do something with it,” she said.
Her assistant, Trudy Doke, a clerk there for nine years, also sees a comeback for State and Madison.
“In the coming years maybe there will be a complete new look here,” she said. “There’s always hope.”