The Atrium as Field Daze
Field’s flagship store unveils a new old feature
Crain’s Chicago Business
August 5, 1991
Crain’s covered the design aspects of the real estate trade as well as the deal aspects—it’s all money to those guys—so I covered Field’s new atrium. Not a patch on the old ones for which that store is already noted, but I thought it would be rude to say so out loud.
Did I say that I did not coin the title?
Atriums have become as commonplace an amenity in shopping environments as restrooms. But Chicago's newest retail atrium is more than commonplace: It has transformed the Holden Court alley that separated the east and west sides of Marshall Field's flagship State Street store into a handsome 11-story court.
The designer is HTI Space Design International NY, a firm known for "high-profile retail environments," meaning, one supposes, the kind where the cost shows.
In due fashion. Field's promoters describe their newest space as "stunning," "dramatic," "monumental," and "spectacular." The only way an atrium could live up to these fevered expectations would be if it burned down at night.
Still, the atrium's opening earlier this summer marks a major milestone in the $110-million renovation of the State Street store, scheduled to be finished by mid-1992.
Of course, there are risks in making a retail environment more interesting than the goods for sale in it—that's happened to Water Tower Place, where gawkers seem to outnumber shoppers.
But this atrium is a very Field-sian space: the atrium as afternoon tea, done in limestone (well, it looks like limestone), brass, mahogany, and marble in Field's trademark green. It offers neither the marked-down monumentality nor the sleekness of its North Michigan Avenue counterparts. This is generic space meant to divert but not disturb.
The revamped atrium's announced purpose is to simplify customer travel from floor to floor by means of its banks of escalators and glass elevators, as well as to provide a new point of orientation within the store.
Smart thinking. Today's Field's shopper is more likely to drop by on a lunch break than indulge in a weekend browse, and reducing travel time within the store is crucial to clock-conscious shoppers. Indeed, part of Field's remodeling has moved ready-to-wear clothes to lower floors, closer to the street.
The atrium's unannounced purpose, however, is to remind the shopping public that Field's had atriums back when cows were still grazing on North Michigan Avenue.
Architecturally akin to warehouses, culturally akin to the famous European purveyors of posh, the pioneering U.S. department stores of the last century sought to re-create bustling shopping streets indoors, offering glitter and glitz in a setting of architectural drama.
In its State Street store, built beginning in 1902, Field's dazzled its early customers with wide aisles that mimicked the street outside, a colonnaded arcade that ran the length of the main floor and not one but several atriums. In all, 13 levels of retailing were connected by a novel, continuous, vertical people-mover system—the escalator.
For all their presumed posh, the new stores at the turn of the century offered only middling-quality, mass-produced goods. As the historian Richard Sennett once noted, retailers such as Potter Palmer knew they had a problem in stimulating people to buy goods that were both nondescript and unnecessary.
Their response: Create a kind of spectacle out of the store that would endow the goods, by association, with an interest they might intrinsically lack. Architecture didn't just house selling space, it became selling space.
The new Field's atrium understands that maxim: The merchandise available on each floor is better exposed than ever, which makes riding the new escalators a form of vertical browsing. Explains Field's President Gary Witkin, "Because the store's vistas are now open and more enticing, customers can see merchandise that perhaps was not in their line of vision before."
Atrium malls like Water Tower Place thus were merely updated versions of the department store as the institution came to be refined on State Street nearly a century ago.
Like the malls. Field's housed many small "shops" under one roof, offering all the services one could buy on the street, from hair salons to lunch, in an environment cleansed of the street's clamor, stink and inconvenience.
Field's especially is not just a big-city department store but a monument to big-city department stores from Chicago's golden age of retailing. Mr. Witkin describes the latest atrium project not as an innovation, merely an "updating."
It's interesting, therefore, to compare the newest Field's atrium with the similarly scaled version by Daniel Burnham & Co. that pierces the store's north State Street section.
The two have some features in common, such as barrel-vaulted skylights and grillwork, although the new one is less ornate. Indeed, its period references, such as the old-fashioned street lights and a cast iron fountain (constructed after turn-of-the-century plans found in the store's archives) that decorate its floor seem a little too cute. This is a postmodern pastiche that might have been outfitted from goods stocked in Field's architecture department, if it had one.
Of course, the first Field's borrowed many of its motifs, too; its atriums were close kin to the light courts that first appeared in office buildings in the days before electric light and later were adapted and enhanced as an esthetic feature.
Today's version is entirely esthetic: The diffuse light comes not from the sun but from a half-mile of fluorescent tubing that glows behind white acrylic panels.
By the way, if you want to show off for your tourist friends, that new fountain weighs "almost six tons," says Field's. There's a department store for you—they even sell their fixtures by the pound. ■
Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.
One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
See Home Page/Learn/
Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.
The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.
The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.
A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.
Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."
Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards, posters, and videos.
The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.
“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered."
The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like.
The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly.
An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
author of Abraham
Lincoln: A Life
One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.
Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018
A lively and engaging study . . . an enthralling narrative.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
Journal of Illinois HIstory
A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Journal of the Illinois
State Historical Society
to read about
to buy the book
SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.
The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more. Of particular note are its Prairie State Books, quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.
The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to
The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.
Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order
by book title.
Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.