The Fair

Firm founded 1875, bought out 1957

Loop store: South State Street at Adams Street
Built 1891, demolished 1984

The Fair was one of several major department stores that operated along Chicago’s State Street during the early twentieth century and helped transform the city’s Loop district into a bustling center of entertainment and leisure. Known for the affordability and practicality of its merchandise, The Fair never attracted the so-called “carriage trade.” Instead, it catered primarily to Chicagoans of more modest incomes: middle-class professionals, working-class men and women, and first- and second-generation immigrants. One of the store’s most widely dissiminated marketing slogans promised “‘Everything for Everybody under one roof’ at a cheap price.” Women who shopped at The Fair rarely saw imported French dresses in the latest styles for sale or high-priced, fine English porcelin tableware on display. But they often found low-priced alternatives that looked every bit as good as what was sold at the city’s more upscale department stores.

The Fair was founded by Ernst J. Lehmann. Born in Germany in 1840, Lehmann came to the United States with his parents at the age of two. After several years in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, where Lehmann’s father worked as a basket-maker, the family moved to Chicago. The younger Lehmann briefly held a job as a bell boy at the old Clifton House hotel at Madison Street and Wabash Avenue, then opened a small jewelry store on Clark Street. “He was,” according to the Chicago Tribune, “a shrewd business manager and gained a wide reputation by the cheapness of his goods and by his practical business methods. The profits he made were utilized in the gradual enlargement of departments… and embracing almost everything in the way of goods for which there was popular demand.” Lehmann bought and sold goods on a cash-only basis. His policy was to sell for less than prevailing prices elsewhere and to make up for the smaller profits with higher sales volume. Breaking with the custom of pricing goods in five-cent increments, Lehmann offered goods at odd prices, allowing customers to save a few pennies on every purchase. He also advertised extensively. The Fair was the first department store to place a full-page advertisement in one of Chicago’s newspapers.

In 1875, buoyed by his success, Lehmann moved his business from Clark Street into a larger building near the corner of State and Adams Streets. He named his new place The Fair. Through this new store, Lehmann helped set the pace for the development the modern department store by gradually expanding his original business to include many different lines of merchandise. In addition to jewelry, Lehmann’s new store sold men’s and women’s clothing, hats, shoes, notions, pictures, and household goods. In 1877, Lehmann expanded into a former millinery shop to the north of his new store. One year later, he occupied the former McNamara candy store to the south. One building at a time, his store continued to grow. On a couple of occasions, Lehmann not only leased the building, but purchased the entire stock of the former occupant as well. By 1882, The Fair had grown to occupy every building along the north side of Adams between State and Dearborn Streets. As one description of the store put it: “It is in reality an aggregation of specialty stores under one vast floor, the trade of any one of them being a respectable business for any first-class city.”

The store’s expansion continued during the 1890s. In May 1890, Lehmann finalized a set of leases that gave him control of the entire half block between State, Adams, and Dearborn Streets. This cleared the way for the replacement of The Fair’s existing home—a mix of two- to five-story commercial buildings and converted tenements—with a new twelve-story, $3-million modern store building. Construction of the new store proceeded in stages from west to east. As each section of the new store was completed, stock would be shifted over to the new section to make way for the demolition of one or two more of The Fair’s former buildings. Completed in 1897, the new store was said to be two and a half times as large as the famous Bon Marché department store in Paris. The building was of steel construction, with a brick and terra cotta exterior. It was equipped with all the most modern amenities, including a Westinghouse electric lighting system, eleven passenger and seven freight elevators, and a fully automatic Grinnell fire suppression system. The store contained an estimated 31,700 linear feet of sales counters on six retail sales floors. Two, twelve-story light shafts allowed sunlight to permeate the interior of the store. And huge, plate-glass show windows lined the sidewalks surrounding the new store.

As the store expanded, however, Lehmann’s health suddenly worsened. In 1890, his wife gained legal authority to have Lehmann committed to a mental institution. For nine years, he resided at the Bloomingdale Asylum for the Insane in White Plains, New York. He died there in January 1900. The exact cause of his illness and death are not clear, but the Chicago Tribune at the time attributed his death to the pressures of running a business and gaining sudden fortune. “Instead of running one large store,” the paper mused, “he was in reality running scores of them. To keep the details of this largely ramified business in his head was no ordinary task. It occupied all his time and absorbed all his energies. It gave him no time for rest…. The result was inevitable. Overwork and the weight of unaccustomed wealth broke him down physically and mentally….”

Following Ernst Lehmann’s death, ownership and daily operation of the store passed into the hands of other family members, who more or less continued to run the store as it had always been run. In 1905, Ernst Lehmann’s widow, Augusta Lehmann, became the sole owner of the store when she bought out her husband’s former partner, Otto Young. The store’s annual profits at this time were between $800,000 and $1 million, and the entire business was valued at approximately $10 million. Throughout this period, The Fair continued to promote itself as a discount department store geared toward the needs of the city’s less well-to-do residents. In 1915, a commemorative booklet published by the store proclaimed that The Fair “is still, as it always has been and undoubtedly always will be, the store of the people, the down-town shopping center for the Savers, the market place for the Thrifty.”

By the early 1920s, the daily operation of the store became more than Augusta Lehmann or the other family members could handle. In 1922, they hired the respected manager of the Mandel Brothers department store, D. F. Kelly, to take charge of The Fair. Then, in 1925, the Lehmann family agreed to sell the entire business to a syndicate headed by chain store magnate S. S. Kresge. “The reason for the sale,” E. J. Lehmann explained, “is that we find ourselves unable to give the business the attention it deserves.” D. F. Kelly stayed on as president and general manager of the store.

Good economic times during the late 1920s helped push The Fair’s earnings to unprecedented levels and enabled the opening of the store’s first suburban branches. Net profits in 1928 surged to nearly $1.7 million, an increase of more than ten percent over the previous year, and sales figures hit all-time highs in September and October 1928, when the store set new records for the highest grossing two-month sales period. In 1928, store executives also approved an ambitious store expansion program that resulted in the opening of two branch stores—one on Milwaukee Avenue and another in Oak Park—in 1929.

The Fair’s reputation as a low-price retailer and its association with the Kresge Corporation allowed it continue to thrive during the lean economic years of the Depression and the Second World War. However, during the 1950s, new trends in the retail merchandising industry favored larger, national department store chains over smaller stores like The Fair, increasing the number of buyouts of smaller stores by national chains. In 1957, retailing giant Montgomery Ward and Company, looking to expand its operations in the Chicago area, purchased The Fair’s Loop flagship store and three suburban branches from Kresge. At first, Ward’s retained The Fair name in deference to local tradition and shopper loyalty, but eventually placed the Montgomery Ward and Company name on all four stores. The changeover at the Loop store occurred in May 1964. In conjunction with the name change, Ward’s officials undertook a major remodeling of the 74-year-old store.

Despite these initial investments, executives at the Mobil Corporation, owners of Montgomery Ward, gradually came to view the Loop store more as a piece of valuable downtown real estate than as a historically significant and still economically viable retail outlet. In 1984, they announced plans to close the Wards store, demolish the nearly century-old building, and erect a 72-story office tower dubbed Dearborn Center in its place. Accordingly, the Wards store closed in January 1984 and demolition of the building began the following April. But a downturn in the office real estate market forced Mobil’s real estate subsidiary, Dearborn Land Company, to shelve the office building project. Proposals to sell the site to the federal government for offices in 1985 and efforts to revive the original redevelopment project in 1988 and 1992 all foundered. The site sat vacant until 2001, when construction of a 39-story, mixed-use retail and office complex designed by Catalan architect Ricardo Bofill began.

Branch Stores

Like the heads of other Loop department stores, executives at The Fair perceived the rapid growth of outlying residential districts and nearby suburbs during the 1920s as a potential threat to the firm’s long-term future inasmuch as customers who moved to the suburbs might opt to shop closer to home. Looking to remain competitive in a changing marketplace, store directors reportedly approved an extensive expansion program in 1928. One location mentioned as a possible site for The Fair’s first outlying branch store was the northwest corner of Lawrence and Western Avenues in the Lincoln Square business district. The Fair, which already owned part of the site, purchased additional property there in December 1928. Real estate insiders claimed the firm was planning to construct a six-story store on the site. But Fair executives, if they ever had such plans, opted not to build a store at that location. Instead, The Fair gained its first branch store not through new construction, but rather through the purchase of an already well-established retail store located on Milwaukee Avenue.

Milwaukee Avenue Branch Store

The Fair established its first branch location through the purchase of the E. Iverson and Company department store at 1335 North Milwaukee Avenue in early 1929. Founded by Emil Iverson after a twenty-five year association with the J. M. Carroll and Company department store at 780 North Milwaukee Avenue, Iverson’s had grown to become one of the largest retail establishments along Chicago’s busy Milwaukee Avenue. The store’s founder died in 1913 when a car he and three of his colleagues were travelling in collided with a freight train at a railroad crossing in Riverton, Illinois, near Springfield. Iverson had been in Springfield lobbying the state legislature to defeat a bill establishing a 54-hour work week for women employees of department stores and other places of business.

The Fair, Oak Park, ca. 1930

The Fair, Oak Park, ca. 1930

Oak Park Branch Store

In April 1929, Fair president D.F. Kelly, announced the acquisition of a three-story commercial building owned by the Robert E. Nicholas Company, an Oak Park hardware outfit, on the northwest corner of Lake and Marion Streets in downtown Oak Park. The Fair equipped the one-year-old building with all new fixtures and stocked it with merchandise more in keeping with its Loop store. In 1936, The Fair nearly doubled the size of its Oak Park store by purchasing the three-story building immediately to the west of the original location and undertook a major store modernization program that included the installation of a modern air-conditioning system, new elevators, new shop windows, and a large exterior neon sign emblazoned with the store’s name. In 1964, the Oak Park branch store was remodeled and reopened as a Montgomery Ward store. The Ward’s store in Oak Park closed in the late 1970s. A 1979 proposal to convert the store into a multi-level shopping mall never moved beyond the planning stage. Various shops and offices have occupied the building since the 1980s.

Other Branch Stores

Additional branches of The Fair opened at the Evergreen Park shopping center in 1952, the Old Orchard shopping center in Skokie in November 1956, and the Randhurst shopping center in 1961. The Randhurst branch was remodeled and converted to a Montgomery Ward’s store in 1963, followed by the Old Orchard and Evergreen Park branches in 1964.

Internet Resources
Photograph: State Street at night, looking south, showing the street lights, store lights and signs of the toy and doll bazaar, 1906 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: Exterior view of The Fair building, 1926 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: President and general manager of The Fair Store, Dennis Francis Kelly, holding a child, standing next to a man dressed as Santa Claus, 1926 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: Pedestrians crossing the intersection of Adams and State Streets, 1927 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: D.F. Kelly, president of The Fair, 1928 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: Santa Claus and children with toys in the office of E. J. Lehman’s Fair Store, 1929 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: Exterior view of The Fair building, 1964 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: Exterior view of The Fair building, 1964 [Library of Congress]

Sources: Forrest Crissey, Since Forty Years Ago: An account of the origin and growth of Chicago and its First Department Store; The story of centralized shopping under one roof; Its unique location and events connected with its History(Chicago: The Fair, 1915); Chicago Tribune, 1 Jan 1883, 20; 27 May 1883, 7; 10 May 1890, 3; 11 Aug 1890, 3; 30 Dec 1896, 4; 12 Sep 1897, 33; 7 Jan 1900, 6, 36; 22 Feb 1925, pt. 1, pg. 3; 13 Dec 1928, 30; 11 March 1929, 27; 20 Apr 1929, 24; 8 Aug 1936, 21; 8 Jan 1938, 21; 31 Dec 1949, pt. 1, pg. 5; 1 Nov 1956, pt. 4, pg. 13; 26 June 1957, 1; 27 June 1957, B9; 9 Aug 1961, B5; 28 Apr 1964, pt. 3, pg. 5; 18 May 1964, pt. 3, pg. 8; 27 Mar 1985, 4; 22 Dec 1987, 1; 1 July 1988, 3; 10 June 1992, 3; Oak Leaves, 10 Oct 1979, 9.

Image source: Village of Oak Park, Greater Downtown Development Master Plan (Oak Park, IL: Village of Oak Park, 2005), 33.