Montgomery Ward & Company Northwestern Catalog House, Saint Paul Minnesota

Date added: April 07, 2022 Categories: Minnesota Commercial Department Store

When completed in the early weeks of 1921, the Montgomery Ward facility consisted of two reinforced concrete sections: the Administration Building, which overlooks University Avenue to the north, and the Operations Building, situated about 80' to the south.

The three-story Administration Building presented a dignified and inviting facade to the busy street. Paved walks provided access to the three entrances, and wide steps led to each doorway. Columns and pilasters gave the building a mildly neo-classical look.

Although simpler in design, the Operations Building echoes the original classical detailing of the Administration Building. Its articulated skeletal structure continued the vertical emphasis established by columns and pilasters in the first building. The Operations Building is nine stories high with two parallel wings extending to the south, giving the building a "U" shape. Three train tracks run into the courtyard created by the wings; tracks also run along the east and west sides of the building. Single-story train sheds provide shelter for loading and unloading merchandise.

From the north wall of the Operations Building rises a tower to a height of about 257' above the ground. Said at the time to be the tallest reinforced concrete structure in the country (and perhaps the world), the tower helped identify the building and made it an immediate landmark in the area.

The Administration and Operations Buildings were connected by an enclosed, three-story walkway bridge that stretched between the structures. At grade level, an arched opening, flanked by two smaller portals, allowed cars and pedestrians traveling the length of the alley to pass beneath the bridge. A tunnel joined the buildings' basements.

A boilerhouse, powerhouse, and smokestack were erected about 220' behind the original east wing of the Operations Building.

In 1920, the Chicago-based Montgomery Ward & Company had been in business for nearly fifty years. Its mail-order venture had developed to such an extent that the company began establishing catalog houses outside its home base. Ward's selected Saint Paul as the site of its "Northwestern House" and commenced construction on seventeen acres immediately south of University Avenue in the Midway District.

A more convenient location would have been difficult for Montgomery Ward to find. University Avenue, which runs from east to west, bisects the Midway and connects the downtowns of Saint Paul and Minneapolis. In 1890, University Avenue became host to the area's first interurban streetcar line, marking the beginning of the corridor's use as the main thoroughfare between the cities. This era ended with the construction of Interstate 94, one block to the south, in the 1960s. In the intervening years, industrial sites, shopping areas, and residential districts sprang up in the Midway area.

Nine railroads passed through the area in the early twentieth century, an essential factor for Ward's freight-reliant business. Other businesses were also attracted by the Midway's railroads, paved roads, and streetcars, and by the proximity to both downtowns, stimulating a building boom in the area. In 1920, an estimated 66,000 people passed through the Midway daily.

Soon after Montgomery Ward moved into Saint Paul, the company began to establish "outlet stores" at its various catalog houses in an effort to sell off overstocked merchandise more quickly. In 1923, the basement and western half of the Administration Building's first floor were converted into a store. Not long after, competition from Sears, Roebuck and Company and from growing chain stores forced Ward's to expand its retail venture. The Administration Building's interior was remodeled to house a full-fledged retail store, and the first two floors were devoted to that purpose. The third floor remained reserved for administrative offices.

The structures were demolished in 1995 and replaced with a new retail building for the department store. The company fell into bankruptcy in 2000 and closed all of its remaining US stores in 2001.

Building Description

The Administration Building originally measured 586'-0" x 84'-0". The building had three stories and a basement.

The 1920 portion of the Operations Building was divided into East Section 1, 141'-0" x 221'-0", and West Section 1, 121'-0" x 221'-0". Both wings had nine stories and a basement. The tower, about 257' in height and 50'-0" square in plan, was part of the 1920 section. The train shed between the wings was 77'-0" x 381'-0"; train sheds along the east and west wings measure 24'-0" x 442'-0" and 24'-0" x 221 '-0", respectively. East Section 2, added to the southern end of East Section 1 in 1926, had dimensions identical to East Section 1. The 1964 addition to the south wall of West Section 1 is about 140' x 260' and only three stories in height.

The boilerhouse measures 50'-0" x 113'-0" and the powerhouse 48'-0" x 67'-0". The two single-story buildings are attached. They were built 221' behind East Section 1, allowing space for the later addition of East Section 2. The smokestack, which rises from the boilerhouse, is 200'-0" high with an interior diameter of about 14' at the base and 8' at the top.