Wards: the first cookie-cutter?

Wards Headquarters in Chicago

In 1996 I began work on a project that revealed a great deal about the emerging national economy based on chain department stores. The large, two and a half story, downtown building had been covered in sleek aluminum panels during the 1970s. Once the panels were removed and the gleaming white terra cotta facade was exposed, one certainly wondered why cover the building and do so much damage to the building?

But, it is what we Americans do to try to modernize and keep up with the Joneses (what is the plural of Jones?). So began the restoration saga of this building, aided by the original blueprints created for Montgomery Wards. The Wards corporation was begun by Aaron Montgomery Wards in 1872 as a catalog store, meaning you could order things through the catalog that you may view at local catalog outlets. But you couldn't buy those items on display.

1929 Wards Store in Plymouth

That all changed when one gentleman walked into a Wards catalog store in downtown Plymouth, Indiana in 1926. As the story goes, the man broke a tool and desperately needed to replace it immediately. He persuaded the manager of the catalog store to sell him the tool that day, and the rest, well, is history. The popularity made the Plymouth store the first retail store for Montgomery Wards, headquartered out of Chicago.

Restoring the Spirit of Progress

By 1928, only two years later, Wards had opened 244 stores. By 1929 that number had grown to 531-one of which was a new gleaming store in Plymouth opened just days before the stock market crash. Wards adopted a model for its many stores; these were largely constructed in white terra cotta, some with brown brick, and terra cotta details. A few things are dead give-aways of these stores, should you be on the hunt.

Wards Store Restored, 1997

Typically the stores have large upper story windows in either two or three bays; the window openings are curved in the upper corners. The stores also often had terra cotta urns of flowers on piers extending above the parapet. But the primary indicator, though not found on all Wards buildings, is the depiction of the "Spirit of Progress" and sometimes called the "Lady of Industry" that was inspired by the 1893 Chicago Exposition. In 1929 Wards had a large sculpture of the Spirit commissioned (17' tall) and placed on a four story tower it added to its Chicago headquarters on the Chicago River. Unfortunately the Plymouth store's Spirit had its top half broken off to add the modernizing metal panels. We were able to recreate the top perfectly.

A Wards Store in Texas

This all came back to me when my friend at Down the Road sent me a flicker page with a collection of Wards buildings around the country. It is fantastic to see so many in good condition and repurposed. Do you have one?



Adam said…
Thank you so much for linking to my spirit of progress gallery. It is interesting to see so many of them at one time.
hoosier reborn said…
Thanks for putting your gallery together...it was a real pleasure to see the many slight variations in the stores. The Plymouth store originally had urns rather than obelisks at the top, but the urns had been removed and the project couldn't afford replicas so the obelisks were purchased from a salvage store in Chicago and I believe they came off a theater in the city.
I own one of these in Brownwood Texas. Interest to learn how you came by the plans and how you restored the terracotta?
hoosier reborn said…

I wish I could remember the name of the company from Chicago who found those for us. That was in 1996. They had an archive on the Wards' buildings and put us in contact with a company out of California who could reproduce the terra cotta pieces that were gone.

J B Moore said…
I'm an Architect in Ann Arbor Michigan who would love to talk to you about your experience restoring the old Wards store.

hoosier reborn said…
I did a quick google search and I believe I found your contact information. I will try to contact you on Monday.


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