Mr. Selfridge and Chicago – A Backstory

“I am glad to get a breath of the old Lake Michigan ozone. This is the first time I have had it in a year.”
Harry Selfridge on visiting Chicago in 1908

Harry Gordon Selfridge, known as “Mr. Selfridge” on PBS Masterpiece Classics, was a Chicagoan by achievement though not by birth.

Harry Selfridge 1910

Harry Gordon Selfridge 1910

Harry Selfridge was born in Ripon, Wisconsin in 1856. In 1879 he started as a clerk at Field, Leiter & Co., was made a partner in 1891 and received an interest in the store that was now called Marshall Field & Co. In 1904 he sold his interest for $1.5 million. He purchased the Louis Sullivan designed building of Schlesinger & Mayer for $5 million and then sold it to Carson, Pirie, Scott & Co. He used the proceeds of these transactions to help finance construction of his London emporium, Selfridge & Co., designed by Chicago architect Daniel Burnham. Selfridge & Co. opened in 1909. (Mr. Selfridge, to the right, circa 1910).

Miles Berger (author of They Built Chicago) tells the story of the construction and sale of the Schlesinger & Mayer property (now the Sullivan Center), but Harry Selfridge’s name doesn’t appear until the denouement. The man behind the transaction was Otto Young – a merchant prince, land baron and financier who Berger refers to as the Titan of State Street. In 1904 Young was the mastermind behind a complex set of transactions that left him in control of the land and the buildings to be occupied by Carson, Pirie, Scott & Co.

Carson Pirie Scott & Co.

Carson Pirie Scott & Co.

Schlesinger and Mayer had occupied the choice State and Madison location since 1881. To remain competitive with more modern additions to State Street, they demolished their existing store and hired Louis Sullivan to design a nine story Madison Street section of the new building, which was completed in 1899. The corner building, Sullivan’s masterpiece with its geometric forms and botanical motifs above the entrance, was completed in 1903.  Construction cost overruns, high rents to corner land owner Marshall Field, and loss of business during construction placed a substantial burden on Schlesinger and Mayer.

Schlesinger sold his interest to a third-party in 1902 to inject cash into the enterprise, but it was not enough.  Mayer saw expansion as the only means to generate more revenue and save the business.  He turned to Otto Young who owned the parcels on State Street towards Monroe. Young offered a lease at six times the rate Mayer was paying to Field. Mayer was apparently willing to pay, but in the words of the Chicago Tribune, “insurmountable differences arose involving the building to be erected and the deal fell through.”  Mayer and Young than played a high–stakes game to block each other from acquiring frontage on the city block bounded by State, Madison, Wabash and Monroe.  Mayer’s resources were severely strained.  He would even have sold out to Young, when Harry Gordon Selfridge made an offer to buy the business and the buildings.

Selfridge took possession of the property in June 1904 and immediately sold the buildings and leaseholds to Otto Young who leased the buildings back to him. Selfridge then sold the business to the Carson Pirie Scott & Co department store group.  After the fact it became known that Young was the majority, silent player in the transaction. Otto Young got the State and Madison leaseholds and buildings, Mayer got out of retail, and Selfridge eventually used his profit to build his London store.

Miles Berger speculates that the “insurmountable differences” that killed the earlier deal was Young’s insistence that expansion of the Schlesinger and Mayer building toward Monroe be designed by Daniel Burnham and not by Louis Sullivan. For Berger, the most notable snub in the history of Chicago architecture.

fair store stats with Lehmann name

The Fair Store

Mr. Selfridge left for London with millions of dollars in capital and decades of retail experience. He most certainly also took with him knowledge of the property acquisition strategies honed by his first employers Marshall Field and Levi Leiter, Chicago’s biggest property owners, and by his recent silent partner Otto Young. In the mid-1890s, Young had completed a long-term plan to acquire all the parcels on the south half of the block bounded by State, Dearborn, Adams and Monroe. The Fair Store was built on this largest consolidation of downtown property in the city’s history.  Selfridge’s version of this speculative acquisition plan was to slowly buy up (and eventually demolish) a series of Georgian architecture buildings on the then unfashionable western end of Oxford Street to build his department store.


Selfridges Department Store

Harry Selfridge wanted to bring to London the latest selling ideas that he and others had so successfully developed in the United States. He also wanted to execute those ideas in a Chicago style department store with huge window displays to entice the passing public and wide well-lit interior aisles to showcase the best selection of goods. He hired Daniel Burnham who had recently designed Marshall Field’s main store.  Besides being the designer, Burnham’s role was to convince the London County Council that a five-story high steel frame building with wide spans between beams was safe. Burnham had earlier played this role for William Le Baron Jenney. Jenney’s design for the Home Insurance Company (completed in 1891) was one of the first applications of iron and steel frame construction with masonry curtain walls hanging from the metal frame.  In response to fears voiced by skeptics, the Home Insurance Company asked to call in an outside expert to verify that the building would stand.  Daniel Burnham was hired and pronounced that the design was sound.

As reported in early 1908 in the Chicago Daily Tribune, Harry G. Selfridge “won a signal victory in his year-long fight to put a ‘Chicago building’ in Oxford Street in staid old London.” The obstacles were the “uncompromising attitude of certain owners of old buildings that had to be pulled down, and …the medieval building regulations of the London county council.”  With true booster flair, the Tribune noted that “the councilors admitted the soundness of American building methods” and that a bill to permit these methods will be sent to parliament.

The story of Young and Selfridge’s role in the Carson, Pirie, Scott transaction is drawn primarily from Miles L. Berger, They Built Chicago: Entrepreneurs Who Shaped A Great City’s Architecture, Chicago: Bonus Books, 1992, pages 141-147.

Burnham’s assurances to the Home Insurance Company is from Donald L. Miller, City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America, New York: Simon &  Schuster, 1996, page 342.

“Marshall Field’s Career as Merchant and Financier,” Chicago Daily Tribune, Jan 17, 1906, Pro Quest Historical Newspapers, Chicago Tribune (1849-1989), accessed through Chicago Public Library.

“H.G. Selfridge Wins Fight with London County Council,” Chicago Daily Tribune, February 9, 1908, Pro Quest Historical Newspapers, Chicago Tribune (1849-1989), accessed through Chicago Public Library.

“Harry Selfridge Home Again: He Grows Young in London,” Chicago Daily Tribune, March 16, 1908, Pro Quest Historical Newspapers, Chicago Tribune (1849-1989), accessed through Chicago Public Library.

“H.G. Selfridge Dies; Conquered London’s Trade,” Chicago Daily Tribune, May 9, 1947, Pro Quest Historical Newspapers, Chicago Tribune (1849-1989), accessed through Chicago Public Library.

Nina Metz, “’Mr. Selfridge’: the man who invented retail therapy,” Chicago Tribune, March 28, 2013, downloaded April 19, 2013.

“Harry Gordon Selfridge,” Wikipedia

“Selfridges, Oxford Street,” Wikipedia

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4 Responses to Mr. Selfridge and Chicago – A Backstory

  1. Harold C. Barnett says:

    Thank you Donna for getting the comment field active.


  2. Linda Williamson says:

    Your statement regarding Otto wanting to hire Burnham vs. Sullivan is correct. Otto felt that Sullivan was a drunk and he wanted nothing to do with Louis Sullivan. Otto worked on several other projects with Daniel Burnham including the Reliance Building now known as the Burnham Hotel.


    • I know that Sullivan was an alcoholic and Berger implies that was a reason for Young’s not wanting to work with him. Sullivan was a great architect and a tragic figure.
      Thank you for your interest in my blog.


  3. Pingback: Formerly Known as Marshall Field’s Christmas Windows | Been There, Seen That

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