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 ~