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The Atwood Stairs at Field's

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With the announcement that Marshall Field's is up for sale it looks like the Target Corporation's decade-long program of tweaking and polishing the State Street flagship store has come to an end. Physically, the store looks great, and it's ironic that the most recent project--and what is now probably the final one--revealed a treasure, unseen by the public since before World War II and hidden in recent years behind a wall in a boutique selling pricey Christmas ornaments.

Just inside a Washington Street entrance near Wabash, a newly restored flight of cast-iron and mahogany stairs now leads down to the lower level. This, the store's oldest section, opened just in time for the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893, and the Italian Renaissance design came out of the office of that man of big plans, Daniel Burnham, and his chief designer, the enigmatic Charles Atwood. Atwood also designed what many thought the most beautiful building of the fair, the Palace of Fine Arts, now the Museum of Science and Industry. According to Tony Jahn, Marshall Field's archivist and historian, the one-story stair is all that survives of Atwood's original stairway, which used to go all the way up to the tenth floor. But what it lacks in length it makes up in style.

The stair is a relic of the days when Marshall Field's served the carriage trade, and the design clearly announces that fact: it's a dainty beaux arts confection, dripping with foliated garlands and fluted medallions and masks. It's a beauty, all right, with its satiny wood and finely molded iron. It was, however, just the sort of thing to draw the magnificent scorn of Louis Sullivan, who had no use for thin-blooded historicism. "A weak-rooted cutting from the eastern hot-house" is how he dismissed the store in Kindergarten Chats. "It is all connectives, that connect nothing; prepositions that prepose nothing....It is 'perfectly fine'; 'awfully lovely'; it's 'just grand'--and all about what? Nothing! It's the young miss in architecture."

Well, there's Sullivan for you. You'd think that flirting was a capital offense. But what looked ridiculous and pitiful to him a century ago seems perfectly charming and delightful to me. Then again, what do I know? When Target bought Field's in 1990, I thought "There goes the neighborhood." Now I have to say they did right by the place, and with this gemlike project they ended on a good note. Let's hope Field's new owners show it the same respect.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Murphy.

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