600 West Chicago: A Landmark in Retail History

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  (sometimes sailing right past the building when I lead a private Boat Tour) and blogger with Chicago Detours.

600 west chicago montgomery ward catalog house historic image

Montgomery Ward and the Golden Age of Mail Order

Montgomery Ward, the Chicago-based retail company constructed 600 West Chicago in 1908. Ward’s, founded in 1872 as a dry-goods mail order business, specialized in shipping goods. Back then, rural and suburban customers 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 (just a block from where our Loop Interior Architecture Walking Tour concludes) and decided to build its own corporate campus.

Montgomery Ward built 600 West Chicago 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. Upon completion, 600 West Chicago was the largest re-enforced concrete building in the world. 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 needed an interior infrastructure for circulating messages. 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

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

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.

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. Developers converted the neighboring Montgomery Ward buildings 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

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Ellen

Private Tour Coordinator and Tour Guide

There is no shortage of things to discover in Chicago—I love being an urban explorer and uncovering its hidden places. I have an MA in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and I have worked as a museum educator and kindergarten teacher. My desire to learn new things fuels my passion for educating others, which I get to experience every day as a Chicago tour guide. I live in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park.

“Our guide Ellen was exceptional and gifted with a great personal touch.”
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Jen

Tour Guide

Whether you are a first-time visitor or a lifelong resident, the vibrant history and modern majesty of Chicago never ceases to amaze. I’m a graduate of Columbia College with an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Art. I’ve worked for many years as an educator at City Colleges of Chicago. As tour guide at Chicago Detours, I integrate my enthusiasm for culture and architecture with my passion as an educator. West Town/Noble Square area is home for me.

“Jen was a perfect storyteller and kept us spellbound for hours.”
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Elyse

Tour Guide

With our Chicago neighborhoods, vibrant cultural institutions and nearly two centuries of larger-than-life stories, there’s never a dull moment here! I’m a fifth generation Chicagoan and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to guiding tours, I’m a creative writer and amateur genealogist. I also enjoy the city’s dynamic theater scene. You can also read overlooked stories from 19th-century newspapers on my “Second Glance History” blog. I live in River North.

Anthony

Tour Guide

Chicago is unique as it always evolves into the future while holding on to the past. I’m fascinated by how people latch on to old architecture but happily pave over others. My background is in theater and performance and I’ve been a tour guide here for more than 10 years. Currently I’m finishing my Master’s in Public History at Loyola University because I love to teach the history of this scrappy city. I’m in the Edgewater neighborhood.

Marie

Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

Chicago’s history is so fascinating, you could spend a lifetime uncovering its secrets…I’m willing to give it a try! I have an M.A. in US History from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and then pursued doctoral studies in Urban History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I love to learn new aspects of Chicago’s rich history and then share my knowledge as a tour guide with Chicago Detours. I live in Ravenswood.

“Marie was a bubbling fountain of information and contagious enthusiasm.”
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Sonny

Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

As a fourth generation Chicagoan, I have been living and loving Chicago by bike, on foot, public transit or automobile. I am a graduate of UIC where through the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, began my eagerness to understand the nature, history and impacts of urban planning and development. It is incredibly rewarding to give back to this wonderful city by helping out in the office of Chicago Detours. I live in the incredibly diverse neighborhood of Albany Park.
“Sonny was extremely knowledgeable about all things Chi-town.”
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Alex

Content Manager and Tour Guide

Chicago has so many neighborhoods, buildings, and by-ways that it’s hard to go long without seeing something new, or something familiar from a new angle. I studied Cinema History for my M.A. from the University of Chicago. I’ve worked as a culture writer for various publications and as an educator of the humanities at the City Colleges of Chicago. I’m thrilled to share my love of this city’s busy past and unique architectural spaces with Chicago Detours. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park.

“Alex was fascinating to listen to. He clearly knows his history and it shows.”
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Amanda Scotese

Executive Director and Tour Guide

I’m an interpreter of personal stories from the past and the city’s landscape. I love to imagine what originally happened inside old unmarked buildings, and what forces have shaped their design. I studied Chicago history, architectural history, and anything Chicago-related through my M.A. in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. My love for stories was enriched by my B.A. in Literature from the University of Michigan. I’ve written travel articles for publications like Rick Steves’ Italy best-selling travel guides, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of West Avondale.
“You can TELL Amanda is hyper-passionate about doing the research and getting the story that nobody’s heard before.”
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