Marshall Field’s Store
111 N. State Street
Rome has Michelango’s ceiling in the Sistine Chapel, and Chicago has Tiffany’s ceiling in Marshall Fields. Though the comparison is slightly exaggerated, the biggest difference between the two is that few people in Chicago ever actually think to look up at the Tiffany ceiling – most don’t know that it’s even there. Marshall Field’s is full of surprises.
At the turn of the 20th century, Chicago, a capitalist dreamland, was a place where dreams could come true. Marshall Field (1834-1906) is the manifestation of that idea. Born on a farm in Massachusetts, Field moved to Chicago to make something of himself. He started off working as a clerk in a dry goods store, and worked his way up to owning the most influential department store of his day, and the largest retail center in the world. An innovator in customer service, he coined such phrases as “give the lady what she wants” and “the customer is always right.” He had the first “money-back guarantee,” bridal registry, and free delivery service. His store was the first to have in-store bathrooms, food service, animated window displays, and escalators. Clearly Field saw it to his advantage to have every amenity available that might help keep women in his store all day, every day, with their husbands’ expense accounts at their fingertips. And it worked. According to Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller, Outliers, Field remains the 34th richest man in world history in current US dollars (Bill Gates is 37th). At the time of his death, Marshall Field owned more property than anyone else in the country (much of which was in Chicago).
The Marshall Field’s Company has gone through many alterations since its conception in 1868 as the Field, Leiter and Company (with Potter Palmer as a silent partner). Upon Levi Leiter’s retirement in 1881, it officially became Marshall Field & Company. The building itself has also gone through a number of changes over the years – the most significant being its razing in the 1871 Great Chicago Fire (and another fire in 1877). The building which stands today was built in parts between 1893 and 1914, designed by Daniel Burnham and Company. Burnham designed a classic Chicago School style building. Typical of the style, it is visually divided into thirds, has a skeletal frame, big Chicago windows, and minimal ornamentation.
The building’s only noteworthy exterior ornaments are also its icons: two massive bronze clocks weighing more than seven tons each (1907). Marshall Field first installed a clock on the building’s northwest corner in 1897 to encourage promptness when he noticed that many were using the corner as a meeting spot.
The lesser known but undoubtedly most prized element of the store is its ceiling and chandeliers designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany. The largest Tiffany dome in the world of its kind, and containing 1.6 million pieces of Favrile glass hand-blown by Tiffany’s workshop, it took fifty men a year and a half to complete under Tiffany’s supervision. So it may not be the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but it’s a ceiling not to miss.
Though the Field family sold the department store chain in 1982, it went through a number of various owners before 2005 when Macy’s moved in upsetting many prideful Chicagoans. On a lighter note, when you next visit Marshall Field’s (or Macy’s if you prefer), be sure to visit the fifth floor to do a little lingerie shopping. It’s the only place in the world where you can shop for bras with a Tiffany ceiling as your backdrop.