600 West Chicago: A Landmark in Retail History

By Alex Bean on February 17, 2016

TOURSDAILY

Before joining Chicago Detours, I spent several years working for Groupon in their main office at 600 West Chicago Avenue. Being the curious type, I often wondered about the building’s origins and history. Now I’m in the position to put that curiosity to use as a tour guide and blogger with Chicago Detours.

600 west chicago montgomery ward catalog house historic image
600 West Chicago in its heyday as the Montgomery Ward Catalog House. Image Credit: Wikimaps

Montgomery Ward and the Golden Age of Mail Order

600 West Chicago was constructed in 1908 by Montgomery Ward. The Chicago-based retail company. began its existence in 1872 as a dry-goods mail order business. They specialized in shipping goods to rural and suburban customer who could not easily come into a big city like Chicago to shop. In its heyday, the Montgomery Ward catalog offered both small essentials, like soap or clothes, and gargantuan products, like an entire house. Around the turn of the 20th Century, the company had outgrown its original operations in the Loop and decided to build its own corporate campus.

That’s where the building now known as 600 West Chicago comes in. Montgomery Ward built it in order to handle the massive work of receiving, processing, and shipping millions of catalog orders. It rises eight stories and hugs the North Branch of the Chicago River for over 1,000 feet. 600 West Chicago was the largest re-enforced concrete building in the world upon its completion. According to information from the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, the commercial operations within this gigantic building were vast. In order to handle the shipping demands, 600 West Chicago housed its own U.S. Post Office branch. To supplement that, the ground floor had a shipping platform with berths for up to twenty-four railroad freight cars. Miles of chutes, conveyors, and storage lofts moved goods around inside the building.

Ingenious Logistics

All of this was before the age of email, so the building had an interior infrastructure for getting message to different floors. Montgomery Ward hired couriers, nicknamed “pickers,” who would roller skate around the building to deliver messages and packages. You can see some of them in the photo below. Hearing about this always makes me think Disney will hear about this and create a Newsies-style musical about the roller-skating Pickers.

600 West Chicago Montgomery Ward Pickers Roller Skates
“Pickers” roller skated between departments when 600 West Chicago was the Montgomery Ward Catalog House. Photo Credit: 600 West Management

For decades, 600 West Chicago was home to the massive work of shipping and processing orders and storing goods. Eventually, Montgomery Ward left the catalog business in favor of department store retail. There was still enough shipping work to do that little changed at 600 West Chicago. In honor of its place in the commercial history of the country, 600 West Chicago was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 and was designated a Chicago Landmark in 2000.

Spirit of Progress Montgomery Ward 600 West Chicago
The Spirit of Progress statue caps Ward’s Administration Building across from 600 West Chicago. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

600 West Redevelops and Diversifies

By 2000 Montgomery Ward had fallen on hard times. Competition from other department stores and the burgeoning online retail economy ran Ward’s out of business. Developers have since bought all three buildings on the corporate campus – 600 West Chicago, the Administration Building from the 1920’s, and an office tower from the 1970’s.

Today the buildings are a mixture of commercial, office, and residential units. Along with Groupon, other major tenants include the Big Ten Network, Wrigley, and Dyson. The neighboring Montgomery Ward buildings were converted into condos. Those tenants mean that restaurants like Japonais and Snarf’s moved in and food trucks often surround 600 West Chicago. With the old Cabrini-Green site next door entering a similar redevelopment phase, 600 West Chicago is emblematic of the changes wrought by the past century on the Near North Side.

– Alex Bean, Chicago Detours Tour Guide