Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The new face of State Street

In lavishing praise upon the big box chain Target for their plan to open a store in Louis Sullivan's masterpiece, the former Carson Pirie Scott Building on State Street, Mayor Daley in his typical "there you have it" fashion said this:

"State Street's not just State Street,....It's Michigan Avenue, it's Wabash, it's Dearborn, it's Wacker, it's Clark, it's Roosevelt Road. It's all of it. It's not -- it has to be more than just one street, and that's what it is. I mean, everything's connected."

Now I'm not entirely sure exactly what he was getting at, but one point I'm able to gather is that he feels State Street is no longer the State Street it once was.

The Huffington Post in their story about the new Target posted an on-line poll asking their readers the following:

How do you feel about Target moving in?

Great! More convenience, low prices, what could be wrong?

Terrible. Another giant corporation draining the character from our city.

I didn't vote because I could have easily chosen both options.

Those of us long time Chicagoans still think of State Street as special, the heart and center of our city, the street of (among other things) grand department stores, perhaps the greatest concentration of them anywhere in the world. We once proudly boasted that the intersection of State and Madison Streets, the location of the Carson's Building, was the busiest intersection in the world. Back in the day, State Street was definitely NOT Roosevelt Road, Wacker Drive, Michigan Avenue, or any other street in Chicago or anywhere else. State Street was State Street, period.

As for the building, it was the pinnacle of the career of Louis Sullivan. It was also The Master's swan song as never again would he see a commission as grand as this. Two magnificent curtain walls flanking a beautiful rounded bay and a highly ornate but not over the top arcade express all that Sullivan and the Chicago School of Architecture stood for. It is arguably the greatest building in Chicago.

Target on the other hand, is the epitome of automobile culture, of one stop, no frills, in and especially out convenience shopping. It symbolizes the suburban shopping strip, the vast wasteland located in Anywhere, USA. And it symbolizes a culture that cares only about corporate image and the bottom line, little if any at all for local history or culture.

I should know. Hardly a week goes by when I am not to be found at the local Target. As for the experience of shopping there, well I'll just say I simply cannot afford to pay for a pleasant shopping experience, so I shop at Target. In other words, I'm just as much to blame for this sad state of affairs as anybody else.

We have to face the fact that the State Street of our childhood is gone and is not coming back because the era of the department store is also history. Like me, most people love to wander around them and reminisce about the great department stores, but they prefer to spend their hard earned cash in the places where it goes the farthest. Volume is the name of the game and the big boxers have turned low overhead, sophisticated distribution models, and marketing into an art form. No company without their vast resources can possibly compete with them.

Which is precisely why I'll be buying my milk, toothpaste and paper towels at the new Target on State Street when it opens sometime next year. It will be convenient for me as it is smack dab between work and the train. I won't have to drive to the one in our neighborhood so often.

The building, now officially called the Sullivan Building, has undergone a massive restoration which began in 2006, ironically the same year that Carson's (as it is known in Chicago) announced it was leaving. Most noticeable is the reconstruction of the original cornice, the collumnade and the facade of the top floor. Save for one temporarily boarded up window, never in my life, and probably not since it was built at the turn of the last century, has the building looked so good. It has also been empty for the past five years. As we saw in the case of Block 37 a couple of blocks away, the city believes that something, anything in fact is better than vacant space in the heart of the Loop. Having spent some time in the new behemoth development (I can't bring myself to call it a building) that occupies the entire Block 37, I would have to say, well, maybe something could be said for nothing.

That's not to say I think that the Sullivan Building should remain vacant, not in the least. I think that if designed properly, the new store that the company in a departure from their traditional business model is billing as an "urban Target", will be a welcome addition to the Loop. These days after all, the Loop is a heavily residential neighborhood. I've often asked myself: "where do all those people shop?"

That said, while it will serve those of us who are already there, it's hard to imagine that a Target store would be a big draw to bring people into the Loop. Ideally I think it would have been better to have something a little more special, a destination, say like what Marshall Field's used to be. On the other hand it could have been much worse, it could have been a Walmart.

My biggest fear like everyone's, is that in their zeal for corporate identity, the Target folks will destroy the character of the building. Goodness knows the company has splattered their unavoidable logo everywhere possible, as Edward Lifson pointed out a few years ago on his blog. One only needs to look two blocks to the north to see what happened to the aforementioned late, great Marshall Field's store. While the company that bought it (ironically from the Target company), had the sense to leave the Field nameplates in front of the building, they have done everything possible in the name of corporate identity to destroy the character of the old Chicago institution by removing practically every vestige of the Field's legacy.

Now it's true that as a department store, Carson's was no Field's, neither as a store nor as an icon. Frankly I don't know many people who even miss it. It's also true that Sullivan designed the building to be a retail store, not an art museum, a school or anything else. It is entirely appropriate that it should continue to function as such. But the building is special and I would urge the brass at Target and their designers to downplay their "image" as much as possible, and let the design of the great building take center stage. They now have in their possession of one of our city's crown jewels, let's hope they don't mess it up.


Pete said...

I think it's the best option for that space, and is infinitely better than having it vacant. Obviously retailers aren't clamoring to get onto State Street any longer, as the mostly-empty Block 37 indicates. Getting Target is a big win for the Loop retail market (although probably bad news for the nearby Sears). While it won't be a draw for outsiders, it should get plenty of business from Loop office workers and residents.

I found it strange that with all the fuss over Fields changing to Macy's, you barely heard a peep when Carsons closed. Carsons has always been just as much a part of the fabric of the city as Fields (with both also suffering from the indifference of their out-of-town owners) but for some reason Carsons never gained the iconic status that Fields enjoyed.

James Iska said...

I recall that the comapny that owned Carson Pirie Scott announced they were moving out of State Street around the same time that the Berghoff, as we knew it was about to close.

Those were truly dark days for the Loop.