State Street's 'Marble Palace'

October 12, 2011

The ad was prominently placed, in the upper-right corner of the front page of the Chicago Tribune of October 12, 1868. "REMOVAL AND OPENING" its headline read. Field, Leiter & Company was coming to State Street.

Marshall Field--the man, not the store--had arrived in Chicago in 1856 at age 21. Within a few years he'd become a partner in Potter Palmer's thriving dry goods store on Lake Street. In 1867 Palmer sold his share of the business to Field and Levi Leiter.

Palmer was now concentrating on real estate. Lake Street had always been Chicago's shopping street. But Lake Street was only a block from the river and the produce market and all their odors. Palmer thought State Street was the avenue of the future.

Palmer began buying and building along State. On the northeast corner of State and Washington he erected a six-story, marble-clad commercial structure. He had little trouble convincing his former partners to relocate there--even at a stiff rent of $50,000 a year.

So over ten nights in October 1868, Field and Leiter moved their stock from Lake Street to the new store. At 10 a.m. on the morning of the 12th, the doors were thrown open and the public admitted. Field and Leiter, along with their junior partners, greeted the arrivals. Each man who entered was given a cigar, and each woman was given a rose.

The Tribune called the store's opening "the grandest affair of its kind which ever transpired in Chicago." Customers were amazed at the elegance of the marble palace. They also appreciated the store's liberal refund policy--if you decided to return something, you'd get your money back, cheerfully and with no questions asked. As Field himself put it, he would "give the lady what she wants."

The marble palace lasted only three years, until it was destroyed by the Great Fire. Field and Leiter rebuilt on the site. By the time Field bought out Leiter in 1881, State Street had become Chicago's main shopping street.

Marshall Field died in 1906. One year later, his company opened the world's largest department store on State Street. The building remains today, operated as a branch of Macy's.