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Mart’s personality has evolved before

The Merchandise Mart under constructibefore its 1930 opening. | Sun-Times Library

The Merchandise Mart under construction before its 1930 opening. | Sun-Times Library

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Updated: September 8, 2012 6:05AM

Google Inc.’s arrival promises a new personality for the Merchandise Mart, but the building has seen that before.

It was conceived by Marshall Field & Co. as a wholesale center for just about anything retailers might want to buy. They could compare goods under one roof.

But the building opened in 1930, six months into the Great Depression, and Field’s wholesale business waned during the decade. In the 1940s, it became host to government offices serving the war effort.

With peace, the leases lapsed. In 1945, Joseph Kennedy bought the mart for what was regarded as a fire-sale price, $12.5 million, and revived it as a showroom center and a producer of trade shows, which remain its core.

Offices continued in the mix. With 25 floors extending nearly two blocks, the mart has had enough space to try different things.

To many people, it was known for decades as the home of NBC’s Chicago operations for television and radio. It used to have a bank on the Art Deco main floor — not a puny branch but a real bank with officers behind dark-wood desks.

In the 1990s, with vacancies increasing, mart managers hatched a plan to make it a retail center. Carson Pirie Scott opened a two-level store on the building’s western end, but it was gone by 1998.

The mart has never been well-configured to draw shopping throngs. Its retail component of 100,000 square feet is mostly on its second floor, which connects to the CTA.

The mart has a first-floor restaurant, currently a Nick’s Fishmarket. Several other concepts previously were in that space, which has had a hard time drawing business outside of when trade shows operate at the mart.

The Kennedy family sold the mart, the adjoining Apparel Center and some out-of-town properties in 1998 for $575 million.

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