It’s been 22 years since the last of the 17 Polk Bros. stores closed their doors.
Now, a whole new generation of Chicagoans will know the story of what was once a retailing institution — and Navy Pier will be the beneficiary.
The $20 million “legacy gift” from the Polk Bros. Foundation will bankroll and rename four major elements of the soon-to-be transformed Navy Pier that might otherwise have to wait without the foundation’s largess.
The four elements include:
♦ Polk Bros. Park on what is now Gateway Park at the front entrance to Navy Pier.
♦ Polk Bros. Performance Lawns at the south end of the Navy Pier entrance plaza, complete with two stages for arts and cultural programming. One stage will jut into the water, offering the audience a stunning view of Lake Michigan as a backdrop. The other stage will allow the crowd to face the stunning Chicago skyline.
♦ An interactive Polk Bros. Fountain with more than 250 programmable jets that will be converted into an ice rink during the winter months.
♦ A Polk Bros. Promenade leading to Navy Pier with a so-called “welcome pavilion” that offers skate and bike rentals.
The legacy gift is timed to coincide with the 100-year anniversary that Navy Pier will celebrate in 2016. The $20 million will be paid over five years. The Polk name will remain on the four features for 25 years, under the deal.
The agreement has been portrayed as a “naming rights” deal. But in most such deals, a company signs on as an advertising tool — and there are no more Polk Bros. stores to benefit from the publicity. In that sense, this deal is more like what happened at Lurie Children’s Hospital and the Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park: a wealthy Chicago family or a family foundation gives a generous gift to an institution in exchange for the ego gratification of having its name on the edifice.
In the case of the Polk family, it’s about what descendants call “family legacy.” It’s chance to show a whole new generation of Chicagoans who never got a chance to shop at Polk Bros. what the chain of retail furniture and appliance stores meant to Chicago for 55 years.
“ When I used to go in and do site visits for the foundation, people remembered Polk Brothers. Now, I have to ask. And everybody who arrived here after the mid-`90’s doesn’t remember Polk Brothers,” said Sandy Guthman, daughter of Samuel Polk, one of six founding siblings.
“So, this is a way of telling the story — just sort of reminding people that this was a business that was successful because of Chicago. So, we’re turning it around and giving it back to the people of Chicago.
Guthman recalled the “salad Sundays,” when all of the color television sets at Polk Brothers stores were tuned to the Bears game and Chicagoans who couldn’t afford color TV would “come and stand in the aisles all afternoon.”
Bruce Bachmann is the son of Goldie Bachmann, “the only Polk sister.”
Bachmann traced the rich history of the company founded by Romanian immigrants.
It started when the youngest Polk sibling, Sol, wandered into the General Electric Pavilion at the 1933 Century of Progress, found a steam iron that was the talk of that world’s fair and started selling irons door-to-door.
Hard work, marketing genius and, what Bachmann called “oddball-type promotions” turned Polk Brothers into the nation’s largest retail appliance discounter.
That’s even though Sol was forced to run the company from afar while being stationed in England during World War II.
“When you bought a major appliance, you had the opportunity for $5 to have a five-foot Santa Claus given to you. It came in two pieces, but we were instructed never to have that Santa Claus leave unassembled. There were people with Santa Clauses on the hoods and trunks of their cars, hanging out windows. At one time, hundreds of thousands of these were scattered all over Chicago,” Bachmann recalled.
“The poor people who put the Santa Claus on their front lawn didn’t realize that it was the best advertising vehicle. No matter how much advertising you put into the newspapers, there’s that Santa Claus on everybody’s lawn and there was only one place to get it: Polk Brothers.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel called the Polk Brothers success story the “ultimate story of America.”
“What started off as…a schmata dealer turned out to be an amazing business,” Emanuel said, using the Yiddish word for rag.
As for the $20 million gift, the mayor likened it to the generosity of the Adler, Shedd and Field families that gave Chicago its great lakefront museums.
“This is a testament to a generation of people who not only made well but realized that the test wasn’t what you accumulated, but what you gave back to make sure future generations of children and families had a great life,” the mayor said.
“It’s not just the generosity of the gift. It is generous without a doubt. It is the generosity of the spirit I wanted to pay tribute to. The lake is our front yard. This is going to be our front door.”