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Wednesday, May 22

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Architecture Thu May 09 2013

Mr. Selfridge: The Chicago Connection


PBS' current "Masterpiece Classic" series is set a century ago in London but has a strong Chicago connection. "Mr. Selfridge" is an eight-part series about the founder and founding of Selfridge & Co. in London. The program can be seen at 8pm Sundays on Channel 11, Chicago. PBS streams the series too, so you can catch up with most of the past episodes.

Harry Gordon Selfridge, played by Chicago actor Jeremy Piven, was born and raised in Wisconsin. He came to Chicago in 1879 and worked for Field, Leiter & Co., became a director of Marshall Field and later manager of the State Street store. He sold his interest in Field's in early 1904, bought the firm Schlesinger & Mayer (including the famous store building at State and Madison designed by Louis Sullivan) and renamed it H.G. Selfridge & Co. Selfridge sold that business to Carson, Pirie, Scott by the end of that year.

Selfridge's wife, Rose Buckingham, was part of a wealthy Chicago family. Her cousin, Kate Buckingham, funded the Buckingham Fountain on Chicago's lakefront as a memorial to her brother Clarence.

Selfridge apparently had the wanderlust because he looked toward London as a place to establish what he envisioned as a new kind of department store. He moved his family to London and opened Selfridge's in 1909. He brought fashionable selling ideas from the US to what he considered a dreary London retail environment. Selfridge's was a large and beautiful store where women were encouraged to shop for pleasure, not just necessity. They could view and even touch the merchandise, and lunch in elegant restaurants at modest prices. Selfridge also incorporated celebrities of the day, such as suffragettes, ballet dancers and aviators, as part of exhibits and events in the store. These themes about Selfridge's retail vision are historically accurate, as are the portrayals of some of the characters. Chicago and Marshall Field's are mentioned occasionally in the programs.

There's another Chicago connection to this retail story. Selfridge chose legendary Chicago architect Daniel H. Burnham to design his new London store. Burnham's firm had also designed the original part of Marshall Field's State Street store (now Macy's) as well as Wanamaker's in Philadelphia and Filene's in Boston. He was the impresario of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago and an urban planner and builder who won commissions all over the country.

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James McKay / May 20, 2013 7:17 PM

Excellent story and background information. Thank you!

It's simply amazing how Selfridge's London flagship looks so much like the State Street Marshall Field's.

Sandra / March 28, 2015 5:25 PM

I knew some of the Chicago connect but didn't know about Burnham. Also, did not know Jeremy Piven was from Chicago. Thanks for the details.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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