Former Wards Corporate Headquarters and Mail Order Warehouse in Chicago


Montgomery Ward Company Complex, Chicago Illinois
From the west, showing west facade of Catalog House, north end and west facade of old Administration Building, north facade and west end of new Administration Building, and west facade of Research and Development Center. Taken near junction of North Branch of Chicago River with North Branch Canal (1977)

According to distinguished historian Daniel J. Boorstin Montgomery Ward "proved the success of the mail order idea." In addition to demonstrating the feasibility of a new method of retailing, says company historian Frank B. Latham, Ward also "profoundly influenced … living conditions." For the first time, many rural Americans had access to a greater variety of material goods and at lower prices to boot. In fact, according to eminent historian Allan Nevins, within a few years after Montgomery Ward and Company was established in 1872, it "was boasting--and justly--that it had saved the consumer millions merely by forcing local dealers to sell their wares at fair prices."

The secret of Ward's success, says Boorstin, "was not a secret at all, but simply to be honest, give good value and always let the customer be the judge." This formula not only made Ward a wealthy man, but it set a standard for the mail order industry which other firms like Sears, Roebuck, and Company found it necessary to emulate in order to compete and, in the final analysis, established the consumer trust which made a large scale mail order industry possible.

After 1900 Montgomery Ward and Company was surpassed by Sears, Roebuck and Company as the Nation's largest mail-order firm largely due to the great promotional and advertising ability of its principal founder Richard Warren Sears. In the years since, Wards remained second to Sears in catalog sales and generally followed that company's lead in adopting new selling techniques and in branching out into the retail store field.

By the 1970s, Montgomery Ward served over 30 million customers in its 2,100 outlets and sold almost $5 billion in merchandise yearly.

Since 1909 the Montgomery Ward and Company Complex, located on Chicago's near north side and situated along the east bank of the North Branch of the Chicago River, served as National headquarters for the country's oldest mail-order firm. The two earliest structures, the old Administration Building and the Mail Order House, remain and still exhibit much of their original architectural vitality. Both are constructed of reinforced concrete and were designed by Hugh Garden, a second-generation Chicago School architect and member of the distinguished firm of Schmidt, Garden and Martin. The Mail Order House, renowned for its use of the wide horizontal or "Chicago" window, has been described by noted architectural historian Carl Condit as "one of the most powerful works of utilitarian architecture that our building art has produced." Although an earlier Ward headquarters and catalog house, located at the corner of Michigan and Madison Avenues and in use from 1888 to 1909, is extant, it has been so extensively altered, particularly on the upper and lower levels of its exterior facade, that it shows little resemblance to its original purpose.

Detailed History of the Montgomery Ward Company

Building Description

Since 1909 the Montgomery Ward and Company Complex, located on Chicago's near north side and situated along the east bank of the North Branch of the Chicago River, served as National headquarters for the country's oldest mail-order firm. The two earliest structures, the old Administration Building and the Mail Order House, remain and still exhibit much of their original architectural vitality. Both are constructed of reinforced concrete and were designed by Hugh Garden, a second-generation Chicago School architect and member of the distinguished firm of Schmidt, Garden and Martin. The Mail Order House, renowned for its use of the wide horizontal or "Chicago" window, has been described by noted architectural historian Carl Condit as "one of the most powerful works of utilitarian architecture that our building art has produced." Although an earlier Ward headquarters and catalog house, located at the corner of Michigan and Madison Avenues and in use from 1888 to 1909, is extant, it has been so extensively altered, particularly on the upper and lower levels of its exterior facade, that it shows little resemblance to its original purpose.

When Montgomery Ward founded the firm in 1872, he rented a single 12-by 14-foot room in a building at 825 Clark Street. One year later this space was too small, and the company moved to 159 West Hubbard Street. By 1874 business was booming to such an extent that another move was warranted, this time to much larger quarters at 246-254 Kenzie Street. Two years later, Ward moved his operations to 228-230 South Wabash, where they remained for the next 12 years. In 1888 Montgomery Ward and Company purchased a building on the northwest corner of Michigan and Madison Avenues and over the years increased its size to meet the expanding company's needs. By 1906, however, the Michigan Avenue facility was too small, and high real estate costs precluded further expansion in that area. The company purchased tracts of land north and south of the Chicago Avenue bridge along the east bank of the North Branch of the Chicago River and hired the distinguished architectural firm of Schmidt, Garden, and Martin to design a new facility. Under Hugh Garden's direction construction was started on the Administration Building and Mail Order House that same year. Although the Administration Building was completed in 1907, the gigantic Mail Order House was not finished until late in 1908, and Montgomery Ward and Company did not transfer its entire operation to the new complex until early in 1909.

In later years, Montgomery Ward and Company added to the complex several warehouses, a Merchandise Research and Development Center, parking ramps, and in 1974 a 26-story office building. Since the 1960's the company has spent $50 million in expanding and remodeling the complex both to serve their own expanding needs and as part of a conscious effort to revitalize the declining near north side.

Administration Building. Until 1974 this eight-story, rectangular shaped structure of white-painted reinforced concrete served as Montgomery Ward and Company's national headquarters. The eastward-facing building measures 14 bays wide and has a reinforced concrete frame which rests on 40-to-50-foot wooden pilings. From the one-story base, adorned with sword and torch-like motifs, vertical piers rise uninterrupted until they culminate in a parapet decorated like the base. Each bay contains three double-hung windows which are divided by continuous narrow mullions. The spandrels appear recessed, but individual window sills are distinct, creating a crisp contrast to the dominant verticality. The piers situated near the center and corners of the structure are wider, have individual double windows, and culminate in arch-like forms above the eighth floor windows. The tower, which rises four stories above the edifice at its northeast corner, was added apparently in 1929-30. Its pyramidal roof is crowned with a 22-1/2-foot bronze statue designed by J. Massey Rhine and entitled "Progress Lighting the World." Originally this figure topped the old Montgomery Ward Building located on Michigan Avenue, and its placement on the new tower was obviously an effort to link the old and new. The tower has no windows except near the top, where small windows pierce its face, and its only adornment consists of motifs like those on the base and parapet.

In 1974 the headquarters operation was shifted to a new 26-story skyscraper located approximately 60 feet east of the old building. The old headquarters, well-maintained and freshly painted, served as a center for Montgomery Ward and Company's Buying Operations. The only major exterior change has been the sheathing of portions of the base on the north end and east side with red marble.

Mail Order House. Located approximately 40 feet north of the north end of the Administration Building, this eight-story structure of white-painted reinforced concrete measures 270 by 800 feet and is capped with a flat roof. Roughly trapezoidal in shape, the building bends to conform to the shoreline of the North Branch of the Chicago River and covers several acres. When opened in 1908, the Catalog House consisted only of the three southernmost sections and measured 270 by 500 feet. Nearly 19 million cubic feet of concrete was used in its construction, and to distribute this material properly, it was necessary to use 4 huge steel derricks. The reinforced concrete frame rests on wooden piles with concrete caps. The piers are constructed of spiral hooping set within the concrete, and all columns, floors, and walls are constructed of reinforced concrete.

The treatment of the facade is characteristic of the Chicago School. Garden, says the Commission on Chicago Historical and Architectural Landmarks, "as a second generation follower of the school, employed ornament which is subordinated to and dictated by the structural and functional nature of the building." Simple carved bands cap the piers between the windows at each level, and the projecting courses are omitted only between the second and third floors. Here rosettes replace the brick on the spandrels, and the vertical piers become dominant. At the third level, sword-like motifs, similar to those on the Administration Building, adorn the piers between the windows.

The most noticeable exterior aspect of the structure is its rows of wide horizontal or "Chicago" windows. These were necessitated because the building had long work benches and conveyor belts which required much light. Between the rows of windows are continuous spandrels with narrow projecting bands at their tops and bottoms. Faced with red brick, the spandrels were designed to create a contrasting band with the concrete and reinforce the feeling of length, but this effect has been partially lost because the entire building has been painted white.

Inside, the structure contains miles of chutes and conveyors, storage lofts, and all the facilities necessary to fill the thousands of orders received daily. The first floor contains a railroad shed which can accommodate 24 freight cars. The most noticeable physical feature of the interior are the huge octagonal-shaped concrete pillars and supports which run the entire length of the building.

Since opening the Mail Order House in 1908, Montgomery Ward and Company has increased its size on at least three occasions between 1909 and 1960 to give the structure its present dimensions. These additions, all on the north end of the original building, follow Garden's general design and do not detract from the beauty of the original structure. Except for the covering of white paint, exterior alterations appear minimal. A portion of the south end has been converted into a retail store but interior change has been confined primarily to painting the concrete columns, ceilings, and walls and covering the floors with linoleum.

Montgomery Ward Company Complex, Chicago Illinois From the west, showing west facade of Catalog House, north end and west facade of old Administration Building, north facade and west end of new Administration Building, and west facade of Research and Development Center. Taken near junction of North Branch of Chicago River with North Branch Canal (1977)
From the west, showing west facade of Catalog House, north end and west facade of old Administration Building, north facade and west end of new Administration Building, and west facade of Research and Development Center. Taken near junction of North Branch of Chicago River with North Branch Canal (1977)

Montgomery Ward Company Complex, Chicago Illinois West facade of Catalog House (1977)
West facade of Catalog House (1977)

Montgomery Ward Company Complex, Chicago Illinois From the east, showing east facade of Catalog House, east facade and portion of north end of old Administration Building, and portion of north end of Research and Development Center (1977)
From the east, showing east facade of Catalog House, east facade and portion of north end of old Administration Building, and portion of north end of Research and Development Center (1977)

Montgomery Ward Company Complex, Chicago Illinois From the west, showing west facade and north end of old Administration Building, and portion of north end of Research and Development Center (1977)
From the west, showing west facade and north end of old Administration Building, and portion of north end of Research and Development Center (1977)