The Sears, Roebuck and Co. Complex, North Lawndale
930 S. Homan Ave.
When we think of the Sears Tower, the building that inevitably comes to mind is what was once the world’s tallest tower in downtown Chicago when completed in 1973. However, maybe instead we should think of North Lawndale’s tower — the original Sears Tower. When completed in 1906 it was the centerpiece of the world’s largest commercial building, a fitting home for what would later become the “World’s Largest Store”.
How large was the world’s largest commercial building? The Merchandise Building (where mail orders were processed) of the Sears Roebuck & Co. complex totaled 3.3 million square feet and spanned two city blocks. The 14 story tall tower stood at the center of the building’s eastern façade and was its most notable feature. The tower is most famous for broadcasting WLS-AM (World’s Largest Store) radio out of its eleventh floor. The Merchandise Building has since been demolished leaving the tower standing alone.
But it doesn’t stand entirely alone. A number of the original buildings from the Sears complex, all designed by Nimmons & Fellows and completed between 1905-1906, remain. Some of the surviving buildings include the Printing Building (out of which the legendary Sears Roebuck & Company catalogue was printed), the Advertising Building, Administration Building (housing the offices of Sears executives such as Richard Sears himself and Julius Rosenwald), and the Power House which supplied the heating and cooling to the entire 5 million square foot complex.
The Sears Roebuck & Company store may have grown to be the world’s largest store, but it started out as one of the smallest. Richard Warren Sears (1863-1914) got his first big break in Redwood Falls, MN when a local jeweler refused a shipment of watches from a Chicago wholesaler. The wholesaler offered to sell the watches to Sears for half their retail value. Sears didn’t blink at the offer, and bought all of the watches, and then quickly sold them for $2 more than what he had paid. He continued the relationship with the wholesaler and then eventually started making his own watches for the Sears Watch Company. This is how he met and partnered with watch-maker Alvah C. Roebuck. It didn’t take long for Sears’s aspirations to grow, and in 1893 he opened up the Sears Roebuck & Company (Roebuck sold his share of the company by 1895, though his name still remains attached to the company) – selling everything under the sun.
Despite coming into the mail order business twenty years after Montgomery Ward, it didn’t take much time at all before Sears surpassed the company in sales — making $11 million by 1900. His success was due in great part to innovative marketing ideas such as printing his catalog smaller than his competitors so that it would end up on the top of mail stacks in American homes (realizing that people usually stack from large to small with the smallest on top), and printing his order forms in German and Swedish to appeal to the country’s growing immigrant population.
The innovative nature of the company was further reflected in the organization of the Sears complex. At its height the headquarters in North Lawndale employed 22,000 people. The complex had its own private power plant, hospital, volunteer fire department, cafeterias (3 meals a day for 35 cents), and flower gardens. With so many amenities offered by the company, many of its employees lived just a short walk from the complex in North Lawndale. The Sears headquarters was truly a city within a city.
North Lawndale was a tourist destination for years, but it hit difficult times in the 1960’s. The neighborhood began to suffer from over crowding, and was devastated by the 1968 riots following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The neighborhood was delivered its final blow when the Sears headquarters moved downtown to the new Sears Tower (now Willis Tower).
North Lawndale has never fully recovered from this series of events, but in recent years signs of improvement have begun to show, thanks to the Foundation for Homan Square. The Foundation provides mixed-income housing for the community and a number of resources to help their neighbors thrive. In 2001 the Homan Square Community Center was built on land once occupied by the Sears Merchandise Building. A state of the art facility, it offers area residents affordable health care, a gym and fitness center, a theater, swimming pool and more. 2009 marked the opening of Power House High, a charter school in a renovated LEED Platinum building, once the Power House for the Sears Roebuck & Co. Headquarters.
There are plans that someday the tower will also be renovated into a cultural center – a home to music, dance and the visual arts. The Foundation even aspires to build a culinary institute adjacent to the tower with a rooftop farm to feed students and the surrounding community. Such big and innovative plans are only fitting for the old home of the [once] World’s Largest Store.
American Urbex features an excellent article on the past to present history of the Sears Roebuck & Co. Complex, and offers a number of useful links on the subject. Read it here. The Sears complex of buildings became a landmark of the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. Read the nominating report for the buildings here. The Sears website also has its own archives of company history found here.
If you still want to learn more about the original Sears complex, this episode of WTTW’s Chicago Tonight offers a wonderful history of the buildings — past, present, inside and out.