What’s That Building? The Former Real Estate Legacy Of Sears
The last Sears store in Chicago will be closing its doors this summer. As the company’s Chicago legacy comes to an end, Crain’s Chicago Business reporter Dennis Rodkin gives a chronology of its real estate in the city and discusses Sears’ place in Chicago retail history.
Richard Sears moved R. W. Sears Watch Co. to Chicago on Dearborn Street north of Randolph Street, which he sells in 1889 before he moves to Iowa.
Sears came back to Chicago and founded Sears, Roebuck & Co. with Alvah Roebuck in a building on Van Buren Street east of Halsted Street.
Sears opened the Enterprise Building, which occupied a full block at Fulton, DesPlaines, Jefferson, and Wayman streets. It was expanded several times and had 500 employees in "the greatest mail order house on earth."
Sears bought 41.6 acres in North Lawndale and petitioned the City Council to close one-block stretches of Spalding and St. Louis avenues to help create its campus. Building the half-mile long complex took 7,000 men, 23 million bricks, and 15 million board feet of lumber.
The $5 million complex at Homan and Arthington streets, all designed by the architecture firm Nimmons & Fellows, includes the printing building, where the catalog was printed for a few decades, and a 3 million-square-foot mail order building that was the biggest business building in the world. All but its brick Italianate tower was demolished in the redevelopment into the Homan Square neighborhood complex.
The complex included a power plant, formal gardens, and athletic fields that were later replaced by surface parking lots.
Sears opened its first brick-and-mortar store in the Homan and Arthington complex. It included an eyeglass shop and a soda fountain. Sears stayed in the eyeglass business for decades after that and opened an optical shop in the Sears Tower when it opened in 1973.
Sears opened three department stores in Chicago: in Lincoln Square, Avalon Park, and Marquette Park.
Sears opened a downtown Chicago store in an 1890s building on State Street between Congress Parkway and Van Buren Street. Sears sold everything from tombstones to milking stalls in its eight-story downtown Chicago store, which it occupied until 1986.
Sears built a store at 63rd Street and Woodlawn Avenue that had two key innovations: It was mostly windowless, it was air-conditioned, and it relied mostly on escalators. Based in part on the success of the windowless Sears Pavilion at the Century of Progress World's Fair on Northerly Island, this store was Sears' first without windows.
The tradition in department stores had been to use big streetfront windows to display the merchandise. But Sears, a relative newcomer to retail stores, wanted to create an entirely controlled interior, including lights and other distractions. Sears was relying on the strength of its name, built up over almost half a century, to bring people into stores, not pretty objects in the windows.
Over time, as Sears and other department stores shifted most of their effort to suburban malls, windowless stores became the norm. The few stores already built eventually got their windows covered.
A Sears store opened at Six Corners in Portage Park on Irving Park Road. It borrowed some of the art deco lines of the Engelwood store, and some of those art deco ribs and other detailing are still visible in 2018. Like the Englewood store, the Portage Park building is essentially windowless, except for a large showcase window on the corner that's still there today. But, it has no tower.
Allstate, a spinoff of Sears, was headquartered in rented space in the Civic Opera Building in the Loop for several years in the 1940s but wanted a place at the Homan and Arthington complex. Its new headquarters was a modernist, horizontally banded building designed by the architecture firm Carr & Wright — the successor to Nimmons & Fellows, which designed the original complex 40 years earlier. In the early 2000s, the building was proposed for condos, but today, it's empty and boarded up.
Sears announced it would build the 110-story Sears Tower about 4.5 miles and a little bit north of the Homart and Arthington complex. It opened on Wacker Drive in 1973. Designed by Skidmore Owings & Merrill, it became one of the great icons of Chicago.
1976 to the present
Sears closed several Chicago stores beginning with its Englewood store in 1979, and stopped publishing its mail-order catalog. In 1988, it moved its headquarters out of the Sears Tower to a sprawling, futuristic new complex in Hoffman Estates called Prairie Stone.
In 2004, Sears announced it was being acquired by Kmart Holding Corp. for $11.5 billion. The merger was completed in 2005, creating Sears Holdings Corp. And in 2009, the name Sears was taken off the 110-story tower on Wacker Drive, now to be known as the Willis Tower, for a major tenant.
More recently, Sears announced in January it would close 39 stores and announced in mid-April the closing of another 18 stores, including its last store in Chicago in Portage Park. There are stores in seven suburban locations and offices in Hoffman Estates. But Sears, which had 3,500 stores in 2010, will have about one-seventh that many by this summer.