Monkey Wards on the Midway

Founded by Aaron Montgomery Ward in in Chicago, Illinois, Montgomery Ward was conceived as a dry goods by mail business in 1872. Ward had spent time as working as a traveling salesman. He noticed that his country customers all wanted city goods, but the places they shopped lacked competition and folks ended up paying too much. Ward hoped that by that by cutting out the middle man, he could make a better variety of goods available to rural customers that would pay by mail and pick up at the closest railroad depot.

Ward grew his business slow and steady. His catalog became known as the “Wish Book” and could be found in every corner of the country. In 1904, the company was mailed out three million catalogs. In 1908, the Montgomery Ward opened a 1.25 million foot building on Chicago River. In the years before the Great Depression, Ward’s built enormous distributions centers in St. Paul, Portland, Fort Worth, Kansas City, Oakland and Baltimore. The giant reinforced concrete warehouses were often largest industrial structures in the cities where they went up.

In 1920, Montgomery Ward completed their fourth distribution center in St. Paul, Minnesota. The building at 1450 University Avenue West was had 2,500 employees. The structure contained more than 1 million square feet under roof and those 27 indoor acres made it it the largest building in St. Paul. The gargantuan warehouse stood behind a 5-story administration building that faced University Avenue. The original landscaping included an expansive lawn and park area similar to the Brown and Bigelow building just down the street.

In 1926, Montgomery Ward and Company dispensed with their mail-order-only business model and opened the first retail Ward’s store in Plymouth, Indiana. 244 stores were opened in the following two years and by 1929, Ward’s was operating 531 retail outlets across America. The St.Paul distribution center added a store facing University Avenue. The catalog giant’s flagship store in Chicago was located on Michigan Avenue between Washington and Madison.

The Montgomery Ward Building stood as a landmark for over 75 years. It was the tallest structure in Saint Paul’s Midway District and the tallest building ever demolished in St. Paul. After the last piece of the went down in 1996, the site was redeveloped as the Midway Marketplace shopping center. The new building includes a small ornamental tower in deference to the original. Across the river in Minneapolis a similar structure for Sears, completed 7 years after the Montgomery Ward Distribution center was built was refurbished and turned into an office, residential, and retail complex and renamed the Midtown Market. The Baltimore Montgomery Ward Warehouse and Retail Store was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2000. The Kansas City distribution center has been renovated for an indoor flea market. In Fort Worth the old Ward’s warehouse has become condominiums and shops. Portland’s Montgomery Wards building has been converted for office use.