Then and Now: The Chicago locations where Sears and Montgomery Ward became giants

Then and Now: The Chicago locations where Sears and Montgomery Ward became giants

The end of the twentieth century would see the decline of two mail-order giants: Montgomery Ward and Sears. Although other retail and e-commerce giants have long held their place as consumer favorites, the two companies have left an indelible mark on Chicago and its landscape. In fact, every company at one time had a building that was the tallest in the city. Some of the structures that once housed these giants are still standing, while others have been radically altered or have undergone a major name change. Explore the history of six Chicago locations connected to Montgomery Ward and Sears below.

The original Montgomery Ward warehouse at Clark and Kinsey Streets

Historic photo of the Ward Warehouse at Clark and Kinsey Streets
Current day photo of Clark and Kinsey Streets
Photos: (1) Internet Archive (2) Ken Carle/WTTW

Montgomery Ward, one of the nation’s oldest mail-order companies, got off to a rocky start. Not long after a traveling salesman named Aaron Montgomery Ward began stocking up on inventory for his new mail order company, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 burned much of the city, taking Ward’s inventory with it. Ward’s company reorganized, operating out of its first warehouse near the intersection of Clark and Kinsey Streets. What began in 1872 as a one-page catalog selling items to rural farmers became a large mail order, and later retail, operation. The warehouse is long gone, with modern glass office buildings standing in its place today.

Montgomery Ward Tower, Michigan Avenue

Historic photo of the Montgomery Ward Tower Building on Michigan Avenue
Current day photo of the Montgomery Ward Tower Building on Michigan Avenue
Photos: (1) Greenhouse Pictures / Alamy Stock Images (2) Ken Carl / WTTW

In 1898, Montgomery Ward built a tower next to its Michigan Avenue warehouse as its new headquarters. At 394 feet and 22 stories, it was the tallest building in the city at the time, and would hold that title until the Wrigley Building was completed in 1922. The building itself has been likened to a “crowded beehive.” Visitors to the building can climb to the observation tower to catch a glimpse of Chicago. At the top of the tower there was a sculpture called “Progress Lights the Way for Trade.” It was similar to the gilded weathervane statue of the goddess Diana atop the agricultural building at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. A third similar statue, called the Spirit of Progress, would find its home in Montgomery Ward’s next headquarters (more on that below). Today, the building at 6 North Michigan Avenue, now condominiums, looks very different from the original structure. In the 1920s, additional floors were added. The pyramidal portion of the tower (along with the statue) was removed in 1947, shortening the building to 282 feet.

Montgomery Ward Warehouse Complex, 618 West Chicago Street

Historical photo of the Montgomery Ward Depot
Current day photo of the Montgomery Ward depot
Photos: (1) Chicago History Museum, ICHi-173785 (2) Ken Carle/WTTW

By the mid-1880s, Montgomery Ward had become a mail-order giant. It was in fierce competition with Sears but was an otherwise thriving operation. To keep up with demand, it moved to a sprawling complex, complete with an office building and an 8-story, 1.25 million-square-foot mail order warehouse, in 1908. (Additional warehouses were built in subsequent decades). The Order House was located along the North Branch of the Chicago River and was so large that some employees navigated its halls on roller skates. The Spirit of Progress statue is located on top of the Administration Building, which is located just south of the Mail Order House across Chicago Street. It is similar to the sculpture that was on top of the Montgomery Ward Tower on Michigan Avenue, and thus the statue of Diana from the World’s Fair of 1893. Today, the Administration Building is home to residential units, and the Mail Order House serves as an office building. The complex is a National Historic Landmark and is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Original Sears warehouse

Historical photo of the original Sears warehouse
Current day photo of the original Sears warehouse
Photos: (1) Sears Archive (2) Meredith Francis/WTTW

Although it was not the first building for Sears, Roebuck and the company, the company’s first large warehouse space was called the Enterprise Building in the West Loop. The building, which they began using in 1896, extends over the entire block between Fulton, Jefferson, Wyman, and Desplaines streets. According to the company’s history, it expanded several times until Sears moved into its Homan Square complex. Today the building has been converted into residential units.

Sears Human Square Tower and Administration Building

Photos: (1) Danvis Collection / Alamy Stock Photo (2 & 3) Ken Carl / WTTW

As Sears grew as a company and outsold Montgomery Ward, it moved to a large complex in Chicago’s Homan Square neighborhood. The 40-acre campus, designed by the architecture firm Nimmons and Fellows, includes a printing building for its catalog, a merchandise building, and an administration building. The campus included perks for its employees, including a YMCA, athletic fields, classrooms, and a health clinic. The administrative building still stands today. The commercial building was demolished, but a freestanding tower remained.

Willis Tower

Historical photo of the Sears Tower under construction
Today's photo of Willis Tower
Images: (1) ST-13002157-0015, Chicago Sun-Times Collection, Chicago History Museum (2) Ken Carle/WTTW

One big thing has changed since the Willis Tower opened in 1973: its name. Formerly known as the Sears Tower (and perhaps still known by that name by many Chicagoans), the building took approximately three years to construct. It was built as a shiny new headquarters for Sears, which had left its headquarters in Homan Square for what was at the time the tallest building in the world. Architectural firm Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill designed the 110-story building. But after just two decades, the company ended its catalog operations and moved to a new headquarters in Hoffman Estates. By 2004, Kmart had purchased Sears, and in 2018, the two companies reorganized through bankruptcy. In 2009, Willis Group acquired the naming rights under the terms of the lease. The Willis Tower looks much the same as it did in 1973, although it now has added glass Skydeck balconies that allow visitors to step out onto a glass platform protruding from the building and look directly down onto the street more than a thousand feet above.

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