It’s a Chicago holiday tradition that continues today, even though it’s no longer the iconic Marshall Field’s flagship store: having lunch beneath the Great Tree in the Walnut Room restaurant.
Today, while scores of people line up for a table next to the sizable stroller parking lot, many head up to the 8th floor for selfies with the tree top as backdrop. Once seated, diners are treated to a visit from a fairy princess (?) along with their chicken pot pie.
I love taking my tour guests to see the Walnut Room and, with the help of historic images, imagine the elegance of days gone by. Most people have strong personal memories of the Marshall Field’s era, when everything was impeccable.
The Macy’s website inaccurately proclaims the Walnut Room “the first restaurant ever opened in a department store,” but the truth is actually more interesting. New York City and Philadelphia stores had in-store eateries as early as the 1870s, while The Fair in Chicago opened a type of cafeteria in its State Street store in 1885. Marshall Field believed firmly that merchandisers should not get in the business of feeding customers.
Until Mrs. Hering and Harry Selfridge changed his mind in 1890. Mrs. Hering was a saleswoman in the millinery department who heard her customers complain that there was “not a decent place to eat on State Street.” Mrs. Hering set a table and shared her homemade, family-recipe chicken pot pies with her grateful customers, who began bringing their friends for a little lunch in the millinery department.
As he always did, Harry Selfridge recognized a profitable opportunity when he saw one and convinced his boss to give it a try. After all, if ladies didn’t have to leave the store to find sustenance, they would spend more time shopping at Field’s.
Marshall Field’s opened its first tea room in 1890 with five tables and the finest silver tea service. In 1893 the tea room was expanded to the entire 4th floor in the oldest section (Washington & Wabash) of the store – just in time for the Columbian Exposition. The tea room then served 1,500 people per day. On the menu next to the famous chicken pot pie: corned beef hash, chicken salad, orange punch in an orange shell, and rose punch ice cream with dressing – and a red rose at each plate.
While not the first restaurant in a department store, it was the first elegant, full-service dining establishment within a department store. Being Marshall Field’s, of course it was.
The building that houses the Walnut Room today (Washington & State) opened in September 1907. What became the Walnut Room also opened that year and was one of several restaurants – and the largest – on the 7th floor. It was originally called the South Grill Room and featured more hearty fare than tea room dainties. But it proved popular with the ladies.
Later the restaurant was renamed for the warm wood paneling that surrounded diners: Circassian walnut. Austrian crystal light fixtures and a central fountain with palms completed the elegant atmosphere.
It was December 1907 and into the soaring restaurant space came the first Great Tree… delivered at night when the store was closed.
For over five decades the Great Tree was a 45-foot real tree, hauled up the light well in the store, monitored by firefighters, and gloriously decorated by Field’s design staff. In the early 1960s, the store made the switch to an artificial tree. Interesting to note – and thanks to my friend and long-time Field’s employee, John Barone – the Walnut Room ceiling used to be two stories taller; he believes it was lowered by two floors in the 1940s to make more space for storage (you can see the change in the photographs).
The tree in the featured image is 1959.
Generations have made annual holiday visits to the Walnut Room to have lunch under the Great Tree, and that nostalgic experience continues today.
~ Images via Chuckman Chicago Nostalgia and Marshall Field’s archives ~
Such a great memory to sit by that tree every Christmas!
Isn’t it, Teresa? I’m so glad Macy’s is continuing the tradition.
I’m searching for the recipe for the lemon squares made at Marshall Fields Tea Room in the 1960’s
Hi, Judith – If you haven’t already, perhaps try contacting Bill Daley: http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/chinews-bill-daley-20130507-staff.html
]was there also a sandwich cafeteria. You told the server what you wanted on your sandwich.
Thanks for that, Bernice. Was this cafeteria separate from the Walnut Room, but on the 7th floor?
I remember that cafeteria. When I was a kid in the 1950s I had a fixation on cafeterias. One of my favorites was on the 7th floor on the Wabash side of the building just south of the Narcissus Room. My grandmother used to take me there on our Loop outings.
Christmas at Marshall Fields was Joy to anticipate all year long. It included a visit to Santa Claus, Mrs. Claus, Aunt Holly & Uncle Mistletoe. Then a trip to the Walnut Room for a “grown up” lunch under the magnificent Christmas tree. Lunch was always topped off with a Snowman Sundae. It was a perfectly magical time. Even the trip on the IC from South Shore was a treat. For my sister & I this was in the 1940’s. Rita McMahon Ehrle in Oklahoma
Thank you for sharing your wonderful memories, Rita!
What a wonderful memory, Rita. I am reading your description while we are waiting for the bill from today’s lunch in the Walnut Room.
What I most remember were the beautiful crystal chandeliers that hung over the main floor. I don’t know when they were removed, but it must have been over 40 years ago. Can you throw some light on that subject?
Hi, Marlene and thanks for your comment! During my recent research for my Christmas tours of Field’s, I came across a c1960s photo of the main floor with the chandeliers! They are not in the early historic photos of the store, but came later (not sure when). I will share the photo on my blog here in a few minutes so you can see it. Thank you again!
I haven’t been able to find your photo. Were you able to post it?
Hi, Marlene – here it is: https://wp.me/p4pd7b-RC
[…] worth popping over to Wendy City Chicago to read more on the history of the Walnut Room, and she shares some interesting historic […]
Hi Wendy! I have many fond memories of this tree as a child in the ’60s. Do you know the approximate year of the b/w photo at the top of your very informative article?
Thanks for your comment, David. That photo is from 1959.
Is there a book that features the Walnut room at Christmas and the history?
Hi, Cheryl – Thanks for your question. Christmas on State Street: 1940’s and Beyond (2002), Robert P. Ledermann has some nice photos. And Marshall Field’s: The Store that Helped Build Chicago (2010), Gayle Soucek has some good all-over Field’s info.
I’m curious about the photo captioned “Bringing the tree in, 1961.” Comparing it with the other photos in the article, it looks as though the lowered ceiling is not there in the “1961” photo, while in the “1959” photo it is. I admit that I’m working only from these photos since I’ve never seen the actual room, but is the date on the “1961” photo certain?
Thank you for your comment, Martin. Good eye! Actually we’re talking different rooms here. There is a 13-story tall light-well in the northwest corner of the store. That’s where the fresh trees were brought in and up to the 7th floor (until they went to artificial trees in the early 1960s). The southwest corner of the store has the famous 6-story space with the Tiffany ceiling. Above that ceiling on the 7th floor is the Walnut Room restaurant with yet another multi-story space. That is where the Great Tree is displayed.
I have some owl ornaments, similar to the Aunt Holly & Uncle Mistletoe ornaments that hung on the Walnut Room tree. I have never seen a photo of owls on the tree, and wonder about the theme and year they were used. I got them from the warehouse sale of display props when Fields was sold.
My mom and I went there every Christmas. We’d get chestnuts from a street vendor, walk the amazing story windows (my memories start late 80s and go to mid 90s), then go inside to see Santa. Afterwards, sometimes just us, sometimes with a friend and their mom, we’d have lunch in the Walnut Room. I felt like such an adult, I got to wear my favorite dress, we’d sit by the tree and it was just so magical. I miss the Cinderella theme. The characters throughout the store just kept fueling my child’s wonder. I was allowed to get the commemorative glass mug each year, and I always felt happier when I drank from it. While they’ve been lost over the years due to moves, I actually bought a pair on eBay for my mom for this past Christmas, along with a ton of the Marshall Fields hot cocoa powder. I know Macy’s has made it their own. I wish I could go back and pay attention more. It was truly magical.
Such wonderful memories! Thanks for sharing them, Laura!
Alice July 23, 2022
I am working on a memory book for my family. One of the questions asked “what was your favorite store when you were a child? In 1940 my family moved from Florida to Glencoe, IL. Mom and I would take that North Shore to Wilmette and the the El to Chicago. I am writing down many memories of Marshall Fields in my book.The Christmas windows, lunch in the Walnut Room, 3rd floor waiting room and the fruit drink bar, toy department, mint fancos and so much more.I am even making the Marshall Fields Special sandwich for my beach family this summer. Yes – it will always be my favorite store. Wish it was still there and no Macys.
Thank you for sharing your memories, Alice! So evocative. Glad you have those precious memories to hang on to.
Wendy, I’m questing for information on the ornaments Waterford supplied or the Great Tree sometime from 1995-2005? I have ornaments but no information and you seem to be the only resource so far.
Thanks for your comment. I don’t know much about ornament specifics but here are some links to maybe get you closer:
This whole thread is people discussing ornaments and gifts at Field’s: http://fieldsfanschicago.org/blog/index110107123107.html
A bit of info and photo: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/154389093445331895/
Ebay always worth a look: https://www.ebay.com/itm/165622927859
I think there are a few Field’s Facebook groups – you could ask people there. https://www.facebook.com/groups/fieldsfanschicago/posts/10159670645009347/
And just interesting to know: https://wgntv.com/news/cover-story/treasure-trove-of-festive-finds-unearthed-in-marshall-fields-vault/
[…] like WendyCityChicago.com, claim that in-store restaurants were already established (in America), earlier in the 1870s, when […]
[…] of Chicagoans came here to eat or, like me as long ago as the late 1980s, to see the grand tree. Looks like they are still coming for both purposes, so at least Macy’s has that going for […]