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Trending Now: Play the 5,000-Year-Old Royal Game of Ur

History 

The Royal Game of Ur received its name from a British archaeologist named Sir Leonard Woolley in 1928. He was part of a team that excavated five worn boards at the Royal Cemetery of the Sumerian City of Ur. These ornate boards, made of wood, lapis lazuli, and inlaid shell are expected to have been made between 2600-2400 B.C. Making the Royal Game of Ur the oldest tabletop game.

Game of Ur
The Royal Game of Ur, made of wood, lapis lazuli, and inlaid shell, 2600-2400 B.C.

Also known as the Game of 20 Squares, it appears to have been immensely popular with people of all classes according to archaeological evidence. With the game being so widely played, it spread across many Middle Eastern countries we know today. Iran, Syria, Egypt, and Lebanon are a few to name. Archaeologists have also discovered that when no board was available, players scratched it into clay or rock. 

Even though the Royal Game of Ur was very popular in ancient Mesopotamia for 1,000 years, its popularity and instructions waned as more games were introduced.

Consequently, figuring out the rules of the Royal Game of Ur was no easy task. It took Irving Finkel, a curator and Assyriologist at the British Museum to uncover the instructions of this ancient game. Dr. Finkel received a crumbling clay tablet from an antiquities dealer in the 1980s. It was inscribed with what appeared to be the rules of a game.

His research led him to Itti-Marduk-balatu, the author of the 177-176 B.C. tablet. Later, Finkel was able to decipher the rules by comparing them with other games.

This led to an understanding that the Royal Game of Ur is a race between two players. With the single goal of getting all 7 pieces across the board before your opponent.

So How Does One Play The Royal Game of Ur?

 

Playing a Game of Ur
The Royal Game of Ur with player pieces

Fast forward to today. The Royal Game of Ur is back in the mix, and attracting fellow gamers near and far! Here are the rules:

  1. Throw the dice to decide who plays first – highest score goes first, if it’s a draw, throw again.
  2. Players take turns to throw three binary lots and move one of their pieces.
  3. Only one piece may be moved per throw of the dice and pieces must always move forward around the track.
  4. If a counter lands upon a square occupied by an opposing counter, the counter landed upon start’s from the beginning.

Finally, if you weren’t planning on time traveling several thousand years ago to discover an ancient Ur board. Get your very own modern Ur board in this New York Times article!

Check out the not so distant relative of The Royal Game of Ur, Backgammon.

 

Women in Architecture: Mary Jane Long

As part of our ongoing “Women in Architecture” series, we’re spotlighting a designer who left a powerful presence on the architecture of 20th century England, Mary Jane Long. From juggling the construction of a library for three decades to teaching at Yale, Long was always engrossed in her work. Learn more about her impressive life and accomplishments below: 

The Life of MJ Long

MJ Long was born on July 31, 1939, in Summit, New Jersey. Long graduated as the valedictorian of her high school class in 1956 and excitedly moved to Montreal, where she began her undergraduate studies in journalism at Smith College. Shortly after though, she discovered her love for architecture and enrolled in Yale’s four-year architecture program. 

During her time at Yale, Long was surrounded by some of the 20th century’s most celebrated architects, including James Stirling, Richard Rogers, Norman Foster, her professor Paul Rudolph and her future husband, Colin St John Wilson. After meeting at Yale, Wilson and Long moved to London together, where she began working in his office as an architect in 1965 and later married. 

The British Library, designed by Long and Wilson, 1973

Notable Works and Achievements

Much of Long’s work was created in tandem with her husband at his architecture firm. One of their first projects was Spring House in Cambridge, which was completed in 1965 and featured a mixture of traditional US, UK and Scandinavian architectural elements. Unique characteristics of the home include a roof clad in concrete Roman tiles, reclaimed brick and specific lighting conditions for several rooms.

Long’s next major project took nearly 30 years from start to finish to complete, but it immediately became a beloved masterpiece across the United Kingdom. Originally part of the British Museum, the British Library officially found its own home in 1973 with the help of Long and Wilson. Home to nearly 14 million books, the library is one of the largest in the world. Along with designing the library itself, Long was responsible for designing the King’s Library – the glass-enclosed sculptural centerpiece of the building. 

The National Maritime Museum, designed by Long and Wilson, 2003

Other notable builds designed by Long include the Pallant House, an extension of an elegant Georgian build, and the National Maritime Museum in Falmouth, England, a grand timber shed paired with a concrete lighthouse completed in 2003. 

Until her passing in 2018, Long brought her unique design perspective with her wherever she went, always building with utmost attention to detail. Her distinguished career solidified her as one of England’s most acclaimed architects whose designs still influence the daily lives of many today.

Trending Now: Backgammon — Fun and Then Some!

If you’re feeling sheepish about using your “free time” to settle into the card room at Optima Verdana® with a friend, relative or neighbor — and a backgammon board between the two of you — worry no more. You are about to engage in a high-value activity with a game that is a perfect combination of relaxation and stimulation.

That’s because backgammon, one one of the most classic board games, is a treasure trove that offers you far more than entertainment.

If you haven’t had the opportunity to discover its delights, backgammon is a two-player game. It uses a board with a series of narrow color-coded wedges and two sets of 15-pieces, one for each player.There is also a pair of dice and a cube used for betting, called a doubling cube. The ancestors of backgammon date back nearly 5,000 years to Mesopotamia and Persia; the earliest record of backgammon itself dates to 17th century England, where it descended from an earlier game called Irish.

Backgammon involves plenty of strategy, coupled with the luck related to rolling the dice at the beginning of each player’s move. With each roll of the dice, you must choose from numerous options for moving your pieces, while anticipating possible counter-moves by your opponent. And when you get the doubling cube involved, you raise the stakes during a game. What fun!

And the good times don’t stop there. Backgammon has the potential to boost memory and cognition abilities, regardless of your age, since the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus are given a workout. These areas are responsible for memory formation and complex thought processes. And with the exercise your brain gets through playing, you’ll also decrease the risk of cognitive diseases, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. 

Optima Lakeview’s game room, Chef’s kitchen and dining area

Playing backgammon is fun and confidence-building. When your opponent pulls ahead or you roll double sixes three times in a row, you can’t help but crack a smile. And that means your endorphins are flowing and your blood pressure decreases — as you experience a moment of pure pleasure — all the while enjoying the company of another person. If you are able to organize regular sessions of backgammon with a group of people, imagine how good it can feel to sharpen your skills and strengthen your relationships.

It’s somewhat of a cliché to say that games are for all ages. But a simple truth about backgammon is that it is a fantastic way to teach math and probability concepts to children, while providing a forum for children and adults to relate on a level playing field. Literally.

Backgammon boards/sets come in all shapes and sizes. Choose the one best suited for you and your comrades and head up to the Optima Verdana® game room!

Tales from Wilmette: How an old laundry became a center for pioneering climate research

As the town of Wilmette continues the celebration of its 150th anniversary, it stands to reason that its rich history is full of fascinating stories and quirky characters. One such story comes to us from the annals of the Wilmette Historical Museum (WHM), which published a fascinating article entitled, “The Cold War on Washington Street,” detailing how Wilmette’s SIPRE – the Snow, Ice, and Permafrost Research Establishment was founded. The article’s author, Patrick Leary, retired from the WHM in 2020 after a 21-year tenure as its curator. As the piece unfolds, Patrick explains:

“By 1950, as American troops fought in the Korean winter and the chill of the Cold War settled over the world, U.S. Army planners had come to realize that they needed to know much more about the icy regions that lay between America and the Soviet Union. Most urgently, they needed to know how to build things – roads, radar stations, underground bunkers, airfields, missile silos – in places where the ground is forever frozen, the ice is a mile deep, and the snowfall never melts. This intensive research program required a special laboratory like no other, and in 1951, the Army found just the right place for it: an abandoned laundry at 1215 Washington Avenue in Wilmette, half a block west of Green Bay Road.

They called it SIPRE – the Snow, Ice, and Permafrost Research Establishment. As a location, Wilmette had the advantage of being within easy reach of researchers at Northwestern University, while the sturdy, three-story structure itself, with its big rooms and alley-side garage, well suited the Army’s purposes.”

Wilmette’s old SIPRE location at 1215 Washington Ave in Wilmette

Patrick explains how the SIPRE staff of civilian scientists and engineers set out to understand polar conditions. They carried out their work by analyzing ancient ice crystals taken from the depths of glaciers in the Greenland ice cap that were mined during summer expeditions and shipped by refrigerated plans and trucks to the lab on Washington Street. SIPRE’s work continued in Wilmette for ten years, during which time the staff grew from 17 to more than 80, and its footprint expanded to new office space in the Odd Fellows building and a lab in Evanston. In 1961, SIPRE relocated to Hanover, New Hampshire near Dartmouth University when it merged with another agency to become the Cold Regions Research and Engineering laboratory.

The history of this fascinating organization comes to life through Patrick’s thoughtful reflections on how a unique moment in world affairs and America’s response intersects with Wilmette’s own story. You can read the full story here.

Women in Architecture: Lilian Rice

As part of our ongoing “Women in Architecture” series, we’re spotlighting an eco-conscious architect of the early 20th century, Lilian Rice. Inspired both by the historic Spanish Colonial design she grew up in and the organic philosophy that influenced her throughout college, Lilian Rice left an impressive mark on the architecture of Southern California. Learn more about her extraordinary life and work below:  

The Life of Lilian Rice

Born on June 12, 1889, Rice grew up in National City, California, just south of San Diego and only 10 miles north of the Mexican border. Her father, Julius Rice, was a prominent educator in the state and her mother, Laura Rice, an amateur painter and designer, both empowered her to pursue her interests in education and the arts. 

Growing up, Rice was heavily inspired and influenced by the abundant Spanish Colonial culture and architecture in the area, including the many adobe homes. In 1906, she moved to Northern California, where she started attending school at the University of California, Berkeley, where she studied architecture. Rice joined the school’s Architecture Association shortly after and quickly rose to a leadership position. At school, she also discovered her philosophy of holding a deep respect for each project’s surroundings and striving to protect their natural environments. 

Lilian Rice, The Claude and Florence Terwilliger Home, 1925, Courtesy of Don Terwilliger

Following her graduation in 1910, she moved back home to National City to care for her mother and acquired a job working with San Diego architect Hazel Wood Waterman – the city’s first female architect. While working for Waterman, Rice also spent time teaching at San Diego High School, leaving her influence on many future architects, including Samuel Hamill, FAIA. 

Notable Works and Achievements

In 1921 Rice’s career catapulted when Richard Requa and Herbert Jackson hired her as an associate in their architecture firm. During her first year, Requa and Jackson assigned Rice with designing a Civic Center for Rancho Santa Fe – an up-and-coming subdivision – which she eventually gained leadership over in 1923. 

Lilian Rice, The ZLCA Rowing Clubhouse, 1932, Photograph by Diane Y. Welch

From then on until 1927, the majority of Rice’s work involved developments and expansions within Rancho Santa Fe. Many of the projects she designed in the subdivision are listed in the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, including the Claude and Florence Terwilliger House and the Reginald M. and Constance Clotfelter Row House. In 1928, after she had received her architect’s license from California, Rice made the ambitious decision to open her own architecture firm.

Following the launch of her firm, Rice began working outside of Rancho Santa Fe, allowing her to step away from the Spanish Colonial style she was known for into more organic approaches. Even throughout the depression, Rice’s career excelled in the 1930s when she designed some of her most familiar works, including the Paul Ecke Ranch home, and both a boathouse and a clubhouse for the San Diego ZLAC Rowing Club in 1932.  

Lilian Rice, Mixed-use building holding La Valenciana Apartments and Rice’s office, Rancho Santa Fe, 1928

Alongside her work, Rice has been a recipient of many architecture awards and achievements, including: 

  • AIA Honor Award, Chrstine Arnberg Residence, 1928
  • AIA Honor Award, ZLAC Rowing Club, 1933
  • AIA Honor Award, La Valenciana Apartments, 1933
  • 11 buildings listed to the National Register of Historic Places

Through her diverse catalog of architecture projects, Rice filled Southern California with more than 60 unique homes. And while the Spanish Colonial Revival was prevalent at the time, Rice was one of the leading architects who helped make it widespread throughout the state, leaving a reputation little can compare. 

Lakeview’s Hidden Architectural Treasures

Filled with an appreciation for arts, culture, and everything in between, Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood is home to some of the city’s most brilliant and iconic buildings. Forever inspired by the architecture surrounding us, we’ve been out and about to spotlight a few of the many architectural treasures found near our newest development, Optima Lakeview:

Landmark Century Cinema

Landmark Century Cinema, one of the neighborhood’s most opulent structures, opened its doors in 1925 at 2828 N Clark Street. The structure, originally named Diversey Theater, was designed by Edward Eichenbaum of Levy and Klient, a prominent architectural firm that was known for their theater designs at the time. The stunning theater was built with a Spanish Baroque Style façade which has remained in excellent condition throughout the building’s life.

Throughout the building’s nearly century-long existence, it has undergone several renovations and name changes. In honor of the Century of Progress World Fair hosted in Chicago from 1933-34, the building became the Century Theater. With the name change came a complete remodeling of its interior space, which introduced various Art Deco elements to the theater. 

In 2000, the Landmark Theater Chain bought the property, prompting the name change to Landmark Century Cinema. With the purchase came further restorations and renovations across the historic structure. Today, Landmark Century Cinema exhibits its original Baroque terracotta facade and updated neo-Art Deco interior. 

The vibrant interior of Schubas Tavern

Schubas Tavern

What was once a beloved tied house – a bar created to serve only a single brand of beer – is now a historic tavern featuring some of Lakeview’s most stunning interior and exterior architecture. Built by architectural firm Frommann and Jebsen, Schubas Tavern originated as a Schlitz Beer tavern in 1903.  

The company operated the tavern for over 80 years until the building was bought by Schubas in 1989. With restoration at the front of their minds, Schubas refreshed the historic bar’s 30-foot Brunswick mahogany bar, tin ceilings, walnut wainscoting along with exterior fixtures that included the famous Schlitz globe logo. Often frequented for its showstopping concerts and events, one of the most significant renovations for the building was its timber performance stage, which has been host to a variety of big names, including Janelle Monet, Billie Eilish and The Nationals.

The bar’s newest architectural addition, Tied House, exhibits a modern reinvention of the iconic tavern. The new restaurant and bar utilizes traditional tavern materials, including brick patterns, copper accents and ceiling tiles, while transforming them in a modern fashion. 

The Classical Revival Style façade of the Marshfield Trust and Savings Building

Marshfield Trust and Savings Building

Dramatically rising from its compact triangular lot at 3325 N Lincoln Ave, the former Marshfield Trust and Savings Building showcases various unique architectural elements that still radiate today. The historic bank building was constructed in 1924 by Architect William Gibbons Uffendell and Contractor Arthur Brundage, who would later become President of the International Olympic Committee.

The lanky flatiron building, which utilizes Classical Revival Styles of architecture, showcases an ornate terracotta exterior that features various elaborate designs. Two-story arched windows stretch along both sides of the building’s façade and meet in the middle to reveal the building’s main entrance, which is framed with an eye-catching bracketed cornice above its doors. 

With the opening of Optima Lakeview fast approaching, we couldn’t be more thrilled to continue showcasing what makes our new vibrant community so special.

Women in Architecture: Charlotte Perriand

A trailblazer for women designers, Charlotte Perriand always found a way to reinvent her work with the ever-changing aesthetics of interior design and architecture in the 20th century. She forged herself as a leader of the avant-garde cultural movement, which influenced new perspectives and values in the design world. Today, as part of our ongoing “Women in Architecture” series, we’re exploring the life of this exceptional designer and some of her most celebrated creations. 

The Life of Charlotte Perriand

Perriand was born in Paris, France in 1903. She lived with her mother, who was a talented seamstress, and her father, who worked as a tailor in the city. Because of the lively energy of her surroundings, Perriand found a deep appreciation for city life but also relished her frequent visits to her grandparents’ home in the French Alps, where the natural environment was peaceful and calm. 

At a young age, Perriand discovered a passion for the arts. As her talents continued to flourish, Parriand’s mother encouraged her to push herself by attending École de l’Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. From 1920-1925 she studied under the renowned artist and decorator Henri Rapin, who helped bring her unique ideas to life. 

During her time at École de l’Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs, Perriand learned to incorporate popular aesthetics such as ornate patterns, warm materials like wood and soft textiles like cotton. Dissatisfied by the status quo, Perriand pushed her interests and fed her curiosity by enrolling in classes made available through large department stores that housed their own design workshops. Encouraged by the reactions to her creations that incorporated glistening surfaces, reflective metals and blunt geometric forms, she began to submit her work to expositions throughout Paris. Perriand’s most notable entry at the time was Le Bar sous le toit, or Bar in the Attic, at the prestigious Salone d’Automne, in1927. This installation of furniture, finishes and a built-in bar reflected the current machine-age landscape and displayed a bold design featuring nickel and other metals. Emboldened by the reactions of her peers, Perriand quickly began embracing these taboo materials in her work, conveying exciting new interpretations of modern design. 

An initial sketch for Bar in the Attic, Charlotte Perriand, Paris 1927, courtesy of Intérieurs Fig. 40
An initial sketch for Bar in the Attic, Charlotte Perriand, Paris 1927, courtesy of Intérieurs Fig. 40

Career and Achievements

After the success from Bar in the Attic, Perriand had a difficult time discovering what her next move should be in the art world. She took advice from a friend, jewelry designer Jean Fouquet, and immersed herself in the intensive literature of Le Corbusier. Dazzled by his work, Perriand reached out with her portfolio for a position at his atelier. After a hasty dismissal, she showed Le Corbusier her acclaimed Bar in the Attic project, which caused him to reverse his decision and hire her on the spot. 

The Grand Confort, designed by Charlotte Perriand, Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret
The Grand Confort, designed by Charlotte Perriand, Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret

While working for Le Corbusier and his cousin, Pierre Jeanneret, Perriand contributed to the design of some of their most celebrated furniture pieces: the basculant sling chair (known as LC1), the Grand Confort (LC2 and LC3) and the chaise lounge chair (LC4). However, her impact reached far beyond furniture; Perriand brought to life the trio’s vision of modern luxury as Equipment for the Home for the 1929 Salon d’Automne, which included an entire apartment set with a bold kitchen and bathroom. 

Perriand left Le Corbusier’s atelier in 1937 after ten years of extraordinary growth and accomplishment. Her expertise led her across the world, but she eventually traveled back to the French Alps, where her roots enticed her to work on her largest – and final – project, Les Arcs. Composed of three different structures and built over a nearly-20 year period, Les Arcs brought to life a new style of living with an open-plan interior and an exterior integrated into the surrounding natural environment. 

Les Arcs, designed by Charlotte Perriand, courtesy of Matthew Rachman Gallery
Les Arcs, designed by Charlotte Perriand, courtesy of Matthew Rachman Gallery

The bedrooms of the famous ski resort were built with minimal design elements. Thoughtful design was instead prioritized in communal spaces, like the great rooms, where windows opened to vibrant sunlight and views of the pristine natural surroundings. 

Throughout her illustrious career, Perriand preferred to look to the future instead of reflecting on her previous work. And on this life journey,Perriand established herself as a fearless forward-facing designer who was eager to reinvent her design philosophy over and over.  

Chicago Modernist Gems: A Visit to the Schweikher House

As we continue to discover Modernist treasures in and around Chicago, we came upon the work of Paul Schweikher, a visionary architect who studied, lived and worked in Chicago between 1938 and 1953. It’s a welcome surprise that Schweikher House, his home and professional studio, are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and are open for public tours.

About the Architect

Paul Schweikher graduated with an engineering degree from the University of Colorado Boulder and moved to Chicago to study at The Art Institute. In the 1930s, he began a collaboration with George Fred Keck, a visionary Modernist architect known for his design of the House of Tomorrow at the Century of Progress International Exposition. Equally impressive, Schweikher’s work was included in a major architectural exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1933, the Work of Young Architects in the Middle West. Schweikher went on to establish an architectural practice in 1934; it was in this practice that he designed some of his most celebrated commissions including the David B. Johnson House (Chicago, 1936), Emerson Settlement House (1939, Hinsdale, IL) and Louis C. Upton House (1950, Paradise Valley, AZ).

After being named chairman of the Yale School of Architecture in 1953, Schweikher became head of the Carnegie Mellon School of Architecture in 1958 and retired in Sedona AZ in 1970.

The Schweikher House

Schweikher built the house in 1937-38, after being inspired on a trip to Japan to study the country’s architecture. As both his private residence and his professional architecture studio, the building reflects a unique amalgam of Prairie, Japanese and vernacular architecture — with a strong modernist underpinning.

Photo courtesy of the Chicago History Museum/Hedrich Blessing Archive
Photo courtesy of the Chicago History Museum/Hedrich Blessing Archive

The one-story, T-shaped house was a complete remodel of an old barn situated on a 7-½ acre plot of farmland on the outskirts of Chicago in Roselle, IL. Schweikher chose common materials including brick, red cypress wood and glass to reflect his interests in sustainability and engineering. He designed the interior as distinct areas for sleeping, living and working, connected to allow for a constant flow of natural light and air. He built a massive fireplace in the living room to establish the house’s character, while giving the Chicago common bricks center stage. Inspired by the Japanese minimalist architecture he had seen on his travels, Schweikher included a passive solar room, exposed wood beams, built-in furniture, a soaking tub, concealed storage in the paneling in each of the rooms, and shoji screens throughout the building. 

After nearly a decade of serving as the Schweikher home and studio, the house was featured in the May 1947 issue of Architectural Forum magazine. By that time, the surrounding gardens designed by Franz Lipp, one of the country’s foremost landscape architects, had matured magnificently. In 1948–50, Schweikher made a series of additions including a formal studio that cantilevers over the large back yard and connects by a breezeway to the main building. 

In 1953, when he took up his new position at Yale, Schweikher sold the home to Martyl and Alexander Langsdorf. Over the ensuing decades as owners and occupants, the Langsdorfs maintained the building and grounds with meticulous care, and spearheaded the effort to have it listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987. In 1999, they sold the Schweikher House to the Village of Schaumburg in 1999 so it could be preserved as a public house museum, allowing this treasure of timeless architectural value to be experienced, enjoyed and learned from by all.

Photo courtesy of the Chicago History Museum/Hedrich Blessing Archive
Photo courtesy of the Chicago History Museum/Hedrich Blessing Archive

Scheduling a Visit

The Schweikher House is located at 645 W Meacham Road in Schaumburg, IL. Tickets to docent-led tours can be purchased online; a reservation is required.

Scottsdale Public Art: Knight Rise

One of the many reasons we love Scottsdale is its appetite for some of the country’s most thoughtful architecture and art installations. Found in the Nancy and Art Schwaim Sculpture Garden at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, a very short drive from Optima Sonoran Village, is one of those extraordinary displays, Knight Rise by James Turrell.

This inspiring work of art frames the dynamic colors of Scottsdale’s sky through an oculus or skylight. The skyspace is situated at the peak of a concrete dome with concrete benches encircling the room. Knight Rise gives guests their own unique experience with every visit. As the sky overhead changes constantly, so do the perceptions of light and color being framed through the skyscape, inviting visitors’ imaginations to run wild. In a simple, physical act of viewing the sky purely as light, hue, and texture, the artwork completes itself. More specifically, an engaged visitor completes the experience that is Turrell’s artwork.

Part art, part science, the skyspace is an unparalleled creation, and only 14 others are open to the public across the country. Those who experience Knight Rise find it to be meditative and inspiring; a space where one can find tranquility and peace within the confines of the concrete space.

Vibrant sunlight coming in from Knight Rise illuminates the concrete surface of the installation’s interior
Vibrant sunlight coming in from Knight Rise illuminates the concrete surface of the installation’s interior

Knight Rise was completed in 2001 by Turrell, known as a “sculptor of light.” He is an artist of international acclaim considered to be one of the most significant and influential artists working in the world today. And while many artists use paint to replicate light, he uses light itself — sometimes manmade, sometimes natural — to create visual effects. Turell has been creating skyscapes across the United States for nearly five decades, mastering his craft along the way. Inspired by legendary artists from Monet to Mark Rothko, Turell tangibly employs color as the focal point of his practice. 

Knight Rise is a permanent installation located in the Nancy and Art Schwalm Sculpture Garden at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. To experience Knight Rise, visit the Museum anytime from 11 a.m. – 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Chicago Skyscraper History: the Merchandise Mart

Chicago has earned its place on the architectural map with endless distinctions, including being home to the tallest building in the world for 25 years and to numerous acclaimed architects like Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright, Marion Mahony Griffin and Jeanne Gang. But did you know that it’s also home to the world’s largest commercial building? Today, we’re taking a look at the history of the city’s beloved Merchandise Mart

How It Came to Be

As dated infrastructure (like the abandoned railroad yards in the downtown area) proliferated in the early decades of the 20th century, more and more land development opportunities opened up. In hopes of beautifying the frontage along the Chicago River, Marshall Field & Co. announced their purchase of one of the largest available sites, at the junction of the River’s branches. The company began construction in 1928 and when the Merchandise Mart opened in 1930, it achieved the company’s dream of becoming a dedicated wholesale center for architectural and interior design vendors and trades serving the entire nation. And, with 4 million square feet on 25 floors under a single roof spanning two city blocks, it became the largest building in the world.

Merchandise Mart, Courtesy of Jeremy Atherton

TheMART was imagined as a city-within-a-city. Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, the architects behind the structure’s streamlined look, took inspiration from traditional Art Deco architectural elements, including ribbon piers to define windows, setbacks and pavilions atop each corner to disguise the bulk of the building. Marshall Field himself was involved in the building’s design; his love for art inspired him to employ Jules Guerin to create 17 murals on the interior lobby’s frieze. Each mural details trade throughout the world and depicts the products, transportation and architecture of 14 countries.

TheMART was also a monumental experiment in state-of-the-art engineering and modern materials. At a cost of $26 million, it took advantage of construction techniques normally used in the building of big dams and employed nearly 5,700 workers at the height of the Great Depression.

theMART in the Modern Era

Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, theMART faced a handful of modernization projects. One was designed by Helmut Jahn to connect the building with the Apparel Center located across Orleans Street with a pedestrian bridge. The building was LEED Certified Silver in 2007, followed by LEED Gold Certification in 2013 and in 2018.

In recent years, as the contract furniture industry has evolved from a focus on a wholesale hub and independent manufacturer showrooms, the Mart has repositioned itself as a destination for innovation, creativity, technology and entrepreneurship. Rebranded “theMART,” the building remains the world’s largest commercial building, and has become home to a host of changemakers, including Motorola Mobility, 1871, Yelp, PayPal and MATTER, as well as Fortune 500 companies Conagra, Allstate, Kellogg, Beam Suntory, and Grainger.

Art on theMart, Art Institute of Chicago’s exhibition, Monet and Chicago, April, 2021

Today, theMART continues to celebrate an appreciation for architecture and art. The building now hosts a digital art display popularly known for “Art on theMART,” to showcase the work of prominent artists on the south façade of the structure. 

With our love for all things “forever modern” at Optima, we are proud to have this magnificent example of design innovation and tireless reinvention in our midst.

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