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Was Sears’s bankruptcy predicted by its architecture?

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Art Deco grande dames, sleek midcentury modernism, aspirational skyscrapers, and bland box stores are all in the beleaguered retailer’s repertoire

Exterior of the Sears Roebuck & Co. store in Jackson, Mississippi.
Bettmann Archive, Getty Images

This month, Sears, the 125-year-old retailer, filed for bankruptcy and announced the imminent closure of over 140 stores across the country. Though the figure seems small, consider this: The retailer’s architectural empire once included 3,500 stores, but had dwindled to about 820 at the beginning of 2018. Only 500 are expected to survive the year.

Once a model of success that changed the way Americans shopped—and even how they built homes—the retailer’s rise and fall could have been predicted through its architectural choices.

Sears, a business that’s existed in three centuries, has seen its fair share of architectural styles and outlived many of them: Art Deco grande dames, World’s Fair showpieces, sleek midcentury modernism, aspirational skyscrapers, and bland box stores. As Sears ramped up its ambitions and set itself apart from other retailers, its architecture followed. And as the company slipped into mediocrity—which some trace to the late 1970s—so, too, did its architecture.

In 1934, Sears presented a warehouse as part of the “Century of Progress” World’s Fair,
Getty Images

The Roaring ’20s and Sears’s retail expansion

Sears began as a watch and jewelry mail-order company in 1892. It soon expanded its offerings to include the everyday products and goods people typically bought from local general stores, which had limited inventory and erratic pricing. The variety of products Sears offered at constant prices—and a money-back guarantee if customers didn’t like their purchase—helped the company take off. It eventually became the country’s largest mail-order business.

In 1925, Sears decided to build brick-and-mortar retail emporiums to attract more customers. It recognized that there was a demographic shift afoot in the early 20th century; populations were moving from rural to urban areas and Sears followed them.

The person in charge of developing the expansion was Robert E. Wood. Wood believed the locations would have to be different both from existing downtown department stores and also from smaller general merchandise establishments in order to be successful. Sears built its first store in a somewhat remote location in Chicago, which was accessible by public transit, but especially accessible by car. Wood’s strategy paid off. By 1929, Sears was the third-largest department store in the country, with over 300 locations.

Sears paid close attention to its corporate, industrial, and retail architecture and worked closely with the architect George C. Nimmons on establishing the aesthetics of its physical presence.

First came distribution centers and manufacturing plants with magnificent classical detailing. In “Sears, Roebuck, and the Remaking of the Department Store, 1924-1942,” architectural historian Richard Longstreth writes:

The new plants did not look as much like other industrial buildings as they once had, nor could the be confused with other commercial, institutional, or governmental types. They were proud beacons of modernity that stood alone in appearance as well as in location, ranking among the most conspicuous buildings in their respective metropolitan areas, rising above the modest residential neighborhoods of their core constituents—landmarks of a great mercantile enterprise and of a new kind of store.

This same ethos eventually extended to retail architecture. In Houston and Miami, and across the country, Nimmons designed monumental buildings for Sears. While Sears’s products focused on practical, utilitarian, everyday items, its architecture was distinctive.

In addition to building entirely new structures, Sears often renovated existing buildings when it expanded its retail operations into a new city. This helped the stores speak to the local culture. In the early days of Sears stores, local managers were able to select the merchandise that would best suit their customers in an effort to boost sales.

Sears, Roebuck and Company Store, Woodward Ave. in Highland Park, Michigan. Historic Architecture and Landscape Image Collection, Ryerson and Burnham Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago. Image #60317.

The 1930s–1950s: Art Deco masterpieces, midcentury modernism, and the shopping mall

Despite the Great Depression, Sears continued to grow—albeit at a slower pace than the previous decade. It opened 16 new stores between 1932 and 1942 but they were larger and reflected changes in merchandising and selling. The company established a “Store Planning and Display” department in 1932, which focused on ways to make shoppers buy more.

Under the leadership of Leslie S. Janes, Sears organized layouts to promote circulation, designed more theatrical displays, and offered merchandise displays where customers could shop without needing help from associates. Above street level, Sears eliminated windows, which helped lower operating costs. It also offered ample off-street parking.

In 1934, Sears opened a space in Englewood, a neighborhood in Chicago’s south side, which featured many of these new retail design strategies. The outside was clad in Indiana limestone with black granite trim and featured Art Deco detailing. The inside had escalators between the floors, was fully air conditioned and artificially lit, and offered over 48,000 different products. At the time, the Chicago Sunday Tribune called it: “The first application of modern functional design to department store architecture.”

Recognizing that more and more people were driving, Sears began to install service stations at its department stores. It also oriented its stores away from the street and toward parking. Customers could get their cars washed, brakes inspected, and wheels aligned while they shopped. Throughout the 1930s, the Store Planning and Display department experimented with ways to make Sears stand out in the retail landscape.

Elevation, Sears, Roebuck and Co., Karl Schneider, 1942–45. Graphite and colored pencil on tracing vellum. The Getty Research Institute, 850129
Courtesy Getty Research Institute
Prefabricated Standard Fronts, Karl Schneider, 1942–45. The Getty Research Institute, 850129
Courtesy Getty Research Institute

The next strategy focused on ways to standardize its stores. Karl Schneider, an architect who worked with modernist gurus Walter Gropius and Peter Behrens, introduced a functionalist aesthetic to Sears. Schneider drafted ideas for prefabricated stores and many ideas for a standard model, as Marlyn Musicant writes in a Getty Research Institute story about his contributions to the company’s architectural language:

“The new facades and standard stores featured symmetrical arrangements of large plate glass windows and surface treatments that would have conveyed European modernism, illustrating the widespread adoption of modernism as a vernacular style for commercial architecture.”

A midcentury Sears department store.
The LIFE Images Collection/Getty

However after WWII, its competitors were catching up and latching on to new trends that Sears wasn’t: the mall. “Sears’s prewar stores set major precedents for a spectrum of attributes that were fast becoming industry standards,” Longstreth writes.

During the 1950s, Sears followed its customers yet again as they moved to the suburbs and began focusing on opening stores in malls as an anchor within larger developments.

The 1960s and sky-high aspirations

Business remained strong in the 1960s, as Sears’s play to suburban shoppers paid off. By 1969, the company was the largest retailer in the world with around 350,000 employees. That same year, the company broke ground on a new headquarters in Chicago: The 110-story Sears tower designed by architect Bruce Graham. When completed in 1973, it was the tallest building in the world.

While commissioning such a dramatic building was a profound statement in the health—and future health—of the company, a few economic shifts were coming into focus that would prove detrimental. Sears was losing marketshare—fast.

The Sears Tower was the tallest building in the world when it was completed in 1973
Hedrich-Blessing Collection/Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

The 1970s and an appeal to genericism

In the early 1970s, Sears circulated 315 million catalogs annually, making it the country’s largest publisher. Amid a recession, shopping habits changed during this decade as discount retailers like Walmart and Kmart and big-box specialty retailers—like Home Depot—gained market share. Sears’s business performance suffered. Shoppers were either spending money at discount retailers or higher-end department stores and the middle market, where Sears comfortably sat, began to feel pressure.

In 1978, Sears began refocusing its operations, cut advertising and marketing positions, and pared back suppliers. Its five-year plan read: “We are not a fashion store. We are not a store for the whimsical, nor the affluent. We are not a discounter, nor an avant-garde department store. We are not, by the standards of the trade press or any other group of bored observers, an exciting store.”

But that strategy wouldn’t pay off.

A Sears in Illinois, photographed in 1983.
Lee Balterman/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

The 1980s and attempts at relevancy

In the 1980s, Sears diversified its business to include real estate and financial services (it already had a robust store credit business). But it didn’t completely abandon retail. An attempt to revive its image by opening the 226,000-square-foot “store of the future” at the King of Prussia Mall was met with lackluster impressions.

A 1983 Washington Post reviewer described Sears’s changes as “not unique for the retailing industry” and that the retail design looked “little different from what shoppers already see in other stores.” The New York Times pointed out that Sears’s upscaling happened well after its competitors.

Sears’s attempts to stay on top of retail weren’t enough. By 1991, Walmart eclipsed it as the country’s largest retailer. In 1992, Sears posted a $4 billion loss.

Sears architecture today

The 1990s were tough for Sears and some former executives point to this decade as being the nail in the coffin for the retailer. It sold the Sears Tower in 1994 and struggled with profitability in the years that followed. Much of its focus wasn’t in physical space. The company closed its catalog operations and tried to refocus to e-commerce, but with little success.

Crosstown Concourse, in Memphis, is a mixed-use development in a former Sears warehouse.
Selavie Photography

Instead of being known for pioneering architecture, Sears was becoming known for abandoned buildings. The decline continued through the 2000s. Between 2010 and 2017, Sears went from 3,500 stores to just 695.

In 2015, Sears sold hundreds of its properties to a real estate investment trust, which is doing quite well financially as Sears retail flounders. Today, real estate—versus a retail business—is Sears’s most valuable asset.

Now, former Sears buildings are fast becoming redevelopment opportunities. Crosstown Concourse, in Memphis, is now a mixed-use development, designed by Looney Ricks Kiss in association with Dialog, in a former Sears warehouse. A former department store in Santa Monica is being recast as a mixed-use project for the area’s growing tech economy.

Today, the vestiges remain of Sears even if the retailer seems faced for a sunset. While Sears the shopping destination might shutter, its architecture endures.

Correction: A previous edition misidentified the location of the Woodward Avenue store in an image caption.