Sears' West Side Campus: the original Sears Tower in Chicago presides over a transitional neighborhood

Posted on September 7th, 2012 by

The original Sears Tower, 930 S. Homan Avenue, Chicago
Photo credit: flickr user Zol87, June 3, 2009

While in Chicago, many tourists make a stop at the former headquarters of Sears located in the tallest building in the United States. The views of Chicago’s Loop from the top of what’s now known as the Willis Tower are stunning. An equally interesting view can be seen from the top of a different tower just four miles west of the Loop. This somewhat lesser known building, commonly referred to as “the original Sears Tower,” is found on the 40 acre North Lawndale campus that Sears called home for many years. The 249-foot building, originally surrounded on three sides by the massive Merchandise Building, now stands alone on a much smaller footprint facing Homan Avenue. Saved from destruction and later restored, this still empty but beautiful and striking building symbolizes both the history of Sears’ commercial might and the aspirations of the redeveloping community around it.

View of the Merchandise Building and Sears Tower
Photo credit: Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress, circa 1920s

Sears consolidated its operations in North Lawndale in 1906, a site considerably removed from its former location, a mishmash of unconnected warehouses in the West Loop. The new complex was built along the B&O rail line, but the surrounding neighborhood was primarily residential, not industrial. In the years after Sears opened its Homan Avenue campus, upwardly mobile Jews from areas closer to downtown settled in North Lawndale. The neighborhood, close to centers of employment and situated between two of Chicago’s beautiful west side parks (Douglas Park and Garfield Park) became a prosperous Jewish community filled with elegant greystone homes and successful businesses, theaters and community organizations.

With the help of his friend Henry Goldman, Julius Rosenwald led Sears to a successful IPO in 1906 and oversaw the construction of the Sears, Roebuck Complex on Homan Avenue. Rosenwald assumed greater and greater leadership in the company and took over as president from Richard Sears in 1908. Rosenwald competently managed the three million square foot campus (the largest business building in the world at the time) which featured a complex pneumatic tube system, a scale model of the interior of one of the pre-fabricated bungalows Sears sold and a chemical laboratory for testing new merchandise. An open invitation to members of the public went out in the Sears catalogue, and many people toured the facilities each week.

Sears was the largest employer in the area and the Homan Avenue campus became a self-sufficient town center for its employees. Along with its factory, rail yard and distribution center, the site also contained its own power plant and fire station along with a variety of amenities for employees such as a YMCA, a public library, a cafeteria and a dining room. Later, in 1925, the first Sears retail store opened at the Homan Ave campus. Under Rosenwald’s leadership, Sears was booming, and its campus, which resembled a modern day suburban office park, was sprawling by early twentieth century standards, with surplus space left open for future expansion. This space was put to good use, as the company provided gardens, tennis courts and baseball diamonds for its employees. The Sunken Garden park with its Greek Pergola, provided by Sears as a respite for its workers during day, can still be seen on Arthington Street.

The Sunken Garden and Pergola, circa 1910
Photo credit: flickr user rich701

Sears began to move out of the Homan Avenue complex in the 1970s. Since that time, as other employers eventually moved to the suburbs as well and the area’s original residents followed suit, North Lawndale became an impoverished area with rundown housing stock and few amenities for residents. Beginning in the early 1990s, affordable housing was built on the site as part of a comprehensive development known as Homan Square. Rosenwald would likely have approved of an initiative like this, given the passion he displayed for modern, affordable housing in the construction of the Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments in Bronzeville, on Chicago’s South Side. Homan Square is a mixed-use development that makes use of the site and some of the buildings of the former Sears headquarters. In addition to new housing, a large community center with indoor pool and gymnasium was built more recently at Homan Square, providing a vital amenity for North Lawndale residents. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the reuse of the Sears complex and grounds is the rehabilitation of the Power House Building, which once provided electricity for Sears’ operations. Power House High is a tuition-free charter high school that won awards in 2009 for its creative reuse of the remarkable building. Also known as The Charles H. Shaw Technology and Learning Center, the rehabilitated school made use of sustainable materials and building methods and preserved many of the large industrial machines left over from when Sears occupied the building. A PDF document detailing the historic features of the building can be found here.

View of North Lawndale from the Sears Tower
Photo credit: flickr user Ian Freimuth, October 16, 2011

The history of the neighborhood around the Sears complex is reflected in its housing stock. As you can see in the picture above, taken from the vantage of the Merchandise Building Tower, vintage working class two and three flats stand alongside elegant early twentieth century single-family greystone homes. Interspersed throughout, but especially in the foreground, are some of the recently constructed townhomes that make up the Homan Square development on what used to be the grounds of the Sears complex. By building affordable housing alongside retail, community services and schools, and integrating it all into the existing neighborhood, the Homan Square development is leading the charge in revitalizing North Lawndale. The community today is very different than it was in 1906, but the Sears campus is once again at the center of it.

By Michael Rose