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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. ■




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