Sears, Roebuck and Co.

Founded in 1893, Sears, Roebuck and Co. was the country’s largest mail order concern by 1900. In 1904 Sears, Roebuck and Company purchased 4l.6 acres on Chicago’s west side and commissioned the architectural firm of Nimmons and Fellows to design a plant. The Thompson-Starrett Company received the construction contract, and ground was broken on January 24, 1905. The proposed complex was “so large that they were compelled to ask the City Council of Chicago to close certain streets so that they might build over them. Since its construction in 1905-6, the Sears, Roebuck and Co. Complex was symbolic of the company’s dominance of the mail order industry. The complex contained the printing plant that for many years produced the Sears Catalog, the company’s principal selling instrument; the nine-story Mail Order Plant whose 3 million square feet of floor space made it the world’s largest business building at the time; the one-story Power Plant which provided heating and cooling for the entire complex; and the original Sears Tower.

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Seven thousand men were hired for the project, and each day 60 freight car loads of building materials were used. Eventually, 23 million brick and almost 15 million feet of lumber were consumed in the completing the project. By October 1906 the Mail Order Plant was complete, and on January 22, 1906, the company transferred its entire operations to the new facility. In later years, Sears added to the complex a merchandise manufacturing facility, a sunken garden, parking decks and lots, an automotive center, an Allstate Insurance Building, a distribution facility, a construction and display building, and numerous support structures. Until 1973, when the 110-story Sears Tower, the world’s tallest building, was completed in downtown Chicago, the Sears, Roebuck and Co. Complex served as the firm’s headquarters.

Of the original 41.6-acre complex, an area of 16 acres was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1978. The Mail Order Plant was demolished except for the tower to make way for the Homan Square Community Center Campus.

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In the 1920s extensive athletic facilities were added and athletic field events. They encouraged after-work socialization to keep high morale among their employees. Included were a clubhouse and tennis courts, and the Sears Department of the YMCA. Events included an annual track and field competitions, and company baseball teams.

Sears created their own services for effective use, much advanced beyond what was required at the time: a company fire department, with volunteer firemen, and early use of fire sprinklers; 200,000 gallon water tank, water use and fire prevention purposes; newspaper publicity office; testing laboratory for new products; cafeteria – originally men and women were separated, and multiple levels of service for all employee lunch and breakfast; and the Sears Bank – services for employees on site. The electricity supplied by the power house operated the ventilating system, escalators, and transmission belts for carrying merchandise between the stock departments and the shipping departments. Over nine miles of pneumatic tubing quickly transported letters and other papers from one department to another.

By 1926, the first ground level parking lots replaced the athletic fields. This happened at the same time that a strategic shift from catalog sales to retail stores had started with easy auto travel making travel to a store more practical. The first Sears retail store opened in Chicago on February 2, 1925 in the Merchandise building. This store included an optical shop and a soda fountain.

Richard W. Sears, founder of the company, aptly called it a “city within a city.”