Conserving a Mart Treasure

The Merchandise Mart, an Art Deco landmark towering 25 stories and occupying four million square feet, rests along the Chicago River as the epicenter of downtown Chicago life, culture, media, and business. Finished in 1930 The Merchandise Mart today serves as a monument to early 20th century merchandising and architecture. 

The next time you visit the Mart, look up: the building’s lavish riverside entrance features a 17-panel mural created by Jules Guerin (1866–1946), one of America’s most important muralists of the 20th century. Titled Merchandise Around the World (1930), the mural is visible, way up towards the high ceiling, between square marble pillars that form a colonnade in the main atrium. The delicately colored panels with metal leaf background details each feature a market scene from a different country. Pictured scenes include Turkish rugs and textiles being sold in a bazaar next to a mosque; silk and pottery markets near Japan’s Mount Fuji; sleighs carrying furs in Russia, and a caravan of camels carrying Egyptian cotton past a pyramid. 

After 80 years, 38,000 daily visitors, and few previous cleaning attempts, Merchandise Around the World needed expert TLC. The Conservation Center dispatched four technicians who worked over night using just delicate cotton swabs for more than 630 hours. Says Amber Smith, The Center’s Senior Painting Conservator, “Once the panels were cleaned, the lobby immediately became brighter. We hope visitors to the Mart will again appreciate Guerin’s masterpiece for Chicago.”