Friday, March 29, 2013

The Architecture of The Age of the Supply Chain: The Epic Saga of Sears in Chicago

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 If I told you that Amazon.com and Wal-Mart are mere retreads, you might be skeptical.  Yet over a century ago, just one company perfected the underlying ideas that each of these corporations have leveraged to unprecedented power.  That company was Sears, Roebuck.  Looking at the hapless wreck that is today's Sears after having been “kidnapped by K-Mart” in a 2004 merger, it is easy to forget that, for the better part of the 20th century, it was among the world's most admired and emulated companies.
Image Courtesy The Chuckman Collection
And if you're up to a little archeology, you can reconstruct for yourself the empire of Sears through  the mortal remains of its architecture, in a collection of historic buildings in North Lawndale.  The collective memory they contain underscores the fallacy of breaking of modern history into various ‘ages’ - the industrial age, the post industrial, the age of capital, the age of data, etc.   In point of fact, stretching back to the moment when mechanical manufacturing first began to displace human labor, we remain within the epic sweep of a single continuous movement:  the Age of the Supply Chain.

The Age of the Supply Chain has four basic pillars:  automation, standardization, consolidation and, lastly, innovation, in support of the first three.  The effects on human beings is variable - they can be liberating or enslaving, degrading or ennobling - but the underlying dynamic is indomitable:  producing ever more goods and services with an ever decreasing component of human labor.
The massive complex Sears built around Homan and Arthington in the first decade of the 20th
Century was an explosive punctuation point in the timeline of the Age of the Supply Chain.  Its sheer scale and volcanic energy was as destructive and transformative as a meteor reshaping a terrain as it slams into the earth.  Today, that once decisive moment is long dispersed, implied by the void where the massive two-block long Merchandise Building once stood, its small, tall tower, still standing in surreal isolation, looking almost like a toy.  Some surviving buildings have been repurposed.  Others, abandoned and rotting, are like deposed monarchs who have lost their kingdom and now walk the streets seeking alms.

A Brief History of Sears 
Railroads - and the way they could condense time and distance - were the life force of the rise of the Era of the Supply Chain, and they ran deep in the DNA of Sears.  Richard Warren Sears was a stationmaster for the Minneapolis and St. Louis Railroad.  A commodities trader on the side, he came across a shipment of watches that had been refused by the recipient.  He bought the lot at deep discount, and resold it for a handsome profit, sending samples to the other station agents down the road and enlisting them as his agents.  Within six months, his new venture had netted him $5,000.


Sears moved to Minneapolis, hired watchmaker Alvah Curtis Roebuck and founded what would become Sears, Roebuck and Company.  After sell-offs, failures and restarts, Sears hired a young Julius Rosenwald, who had been introduced to him by a Rosenwald brother-in-law who had made a killing after securing the exclusive soft drink franchise at the 1893 World's Columbia Exposition.  If Sears and Roebuck were Wozniak and Wayne, Rosenwald was the company's Steve Jobs, the visionary who would revolutionize mail order.  And after that, the iPhone to Rosenwald's iPod, a Robert E Wood, who came to Sears from Montgomery Wards after he became restless with the older company's stagnation,  would take Sears towards still one more revolution, this time in retail.
former Sears Warehouse on Fulton Street
By 1895, sales had doubled to $745,000, and the companies 80 employees worked in four different buildings around Fulton and Desplaines.  Sears did the marketing, Rosenwald, strategy and reforming the company's chaotic administration.  Inspired by the mail order business A. Montgomery Ward had created, he expanded the Sears catalog.  It took until 1900 for Sears to overtake Wards in sales - over $10,000,000,  By 1901, there were 2,500 employees, and by 1904, it was clear Sears had outgrown its Fulton Market location.   Express companies handling shipments threatened to cut the company off, as the ever-increasing stream of wagons were now jamming the streets to the point of paralysis.

The New City Rises

In 1904, Rosenwald acquired a huge, 41.6 acre tract of land, 537 feet wide and a half-mile long, five miles west of the Loop, in North Lawndale, described as “one of the best residence districts of our city.”  Rosenwald enlisted the architectural firm of Nimmons and Fellows, which had designed his own home on south Ellis, to create a massive complex that would cost $5 million and house over 9,500 employees.  E.C. and R.N. Shankland were the structural engineers, Thompson-Starrett of New York the contractors.
The site was nestled deeply within Chicago's intricate matrix of rails.  For commuters, the Garfield Park branch of the West Side Elevated  ran in an alley a block to the north, between Harrison and Flournoy, with stations both at Kedzie to the east, and St. Louis to the west.  Within the Sears site, St Louis was eliminated as a street to provide an uninterrupted sweep for the sprawling new complex.  For freight, the Baltimore and Ohio's Altenheim subdivision ran at the southern end of the site, connecting the old Grand Central Depot downtown to the Belt Line Railroad at Chicago's western edge and beyond, giving Sears access to trains from 30 different railroads.

On January 24, 1905, construction began, employing 7,000 workers and artisans.  Each day, 60 freight car loads of materials were delivered to the site - 30 of brick, 20 of lumber, and 10 of sand, cement, crushed stone and other material.  23 million bricks were used.  On one single day, 353,000 bricks were laid.
Sears Power House under construction
The massive Merchandise Building was of timber-frame construction, and the order for yellow pine timber - so slow to combust that it was said to be given a higher rating from insurance underwriters than even concrete - was reportedly the largest in history.  Over 13 million board feet would go into the buildings, exhausting the capacities of 75 mills in four different states.  Four million board feet were used just for the forms for the 1563 belled caisson foundations drilled down 40 to 90 feet deep.  There were nearly 3 million board feet of maple flooring.  Up to 7 million board feet were stored on the site at a given time.
The Tower itself, 50-foot square and 240 feet high, was of steel construction, and completely fireproof, as on the floor just below the spacious, two-level observation floor at the top, were three massive tanks holding 200,000 gallons of water.  That room is now empty, but you can still see the outline of the tanks impressed on the concrete floor.  Other floors in the tower were taken up with testing laboratories for the company's products.
The Merchandise Building was completed in October, and on January 15, 2005, the entire complex was turned over to Sears.  Within a week, over 200 wagons had completed the move from the company's previous Fulton Market home.

The cost was $4,282,000.  Factoring in equipment brought the price tag up to $5.6 million.  The 366,234 square feet of ground area was packed with nearly 2 million square feet of floor space and a total enclosure of nearly 25 million cubic feet.  The Merchandise building was 1,100 feet long, built around a central open court 230 by 80 feet.  At the rear were two annex buildings, and between them a large rail depot, 60 feet wide, designed to handle up to 200 cars a day brought in and out of position by electric engines.  There were two sets of switches, one for incoming freight and one for outgoing. 
The Supply Chain Explicated:  Architectural Fulfillment
Department of Interior, Cut-a-way Axonometric of Merchandise Building
 56 different departments were set up within the Merchandise Building, fire walls with double fire doors dividing the building into 12,000-square-foot bays, columns placed at 14-foot centers.  The structure and its furnishings were engineered to make order fulfillment relentlessly efficient, a precise science.  Two systems - one for bringing goods in, the other for shipping them out - intertwined in a way to insure the “incoming system never interrupts outgoing.”  The processing of incoming goods began along the outer edge of the building and moved in, to the appropriate department in the warehouse, where they were stored according to their catalog number.  The processing of outgoing orders, received via pneumatic tube from the Administration building, started from the center of the Merchandise Building  and moved outward.
A series of seven spiral chutes, eight feet in diameter, brought merchandise down from the higher
floors in baskets, using centrifugal force to regulate the speed so that “even glass wares will go down without breaking.”  Items came down onto conveyor belts that ran around all four sides of the internal court, to be sorted by clerks and placed on another conveyor belt headed to whichever of the three shipping rooms - for mail, for express, or for freight - was indicated on the routing ticket.  There the items were placed in a basket marked by order number.  The baskets were placed on long rows of shelves until everything required for a given order was collected, at which point it was sent down a slide to a packer, who quickly determined the size box was required, called out its number, and was handed the appropriate container.  Empty boxes were brought in overhead, via another system of conveyors.
Orders ran as high as 40,000 a day, each with one to twenty items.  Smaller products were processed in the Merchandise building, bulkier items and pre-packaged products such as groceries were handled in the annexes.  All order were shipped within 24 hours of receipt.

Across the street, the new power plant had a 6,000 horsepower capacity, with three giant generators and a massive steam turbine.  Subterranean tunnels were the nervous system of the complex, bringing both power and water, and tickets and orders via the pneumatic tubes. Next door to the power plant was the steel-framed Administration Building, originally two stories, containing executive offices and clerical operations.
postcard image courtesy The Chuckman Collection
By 1920, after the structure had been expanded to five stories, fifty 16 to 17 year-old girls opened the up to 180,000 letters received each day.  There were 500 typists, and operators at 12 addressograph machines were kept busy preparing mailing labels for 65 million catalogs.
The building had five separate restaurants, and their 100 workers could feed 8,400 employees in an hour and 20 minutes.
image courtesy The Chuckman Collection
To the west of the Administration Building was the Printing Building, of timber framed construction.  At its peak, 23 rotary presses produced 40 tons of promotional material a day, including two million catalogs, each of which ran over 1,000 pages and weighed four pounds.  The typesetting department, alone, employed 300 workers.
The complex had its own post office, hospital, and in-house medical staff, a recreation room, a room circulating books from the Chicago Public Library, even its own fire station. 
Image courtesy of The Chuckman Collection
Across the street, a 100-foot-long, Doric-styled Pergola fronted a sunken garden, complete with a lake stocked with goldfish and three fountains, “so that our employees may be attracted out of doors during the noon recess, because a change of environment and attractive surroundings send them back to work again greatly refreshed and forgetful of the little annoyances of the morning.”

All the buildings were faced in dark red brick with trim supplied by the Northwestern Terra Cotta Company.

As architects Nimmons and Fellows wrote for Architectural Record . . . 
Given the material at hand for construction and the structural features for decoration, the brick and terra architecture of Tuscany naturally suggested itself as appropriate . . . [and] suggested the addition of color for backgrounds to accent such decoration.  Consequently, the lunettes and frieze of the Merchandise Tower are of glazed blue terra cotta; also the backgrounds of the book marks which decorate the Printing Building and also discs of the Power House are of white and blue glazed terra cotta.
The frieze of the Administration Building is developed but not copied from the scheme of marble inlay of San Miniato at Florence.  Decorated moldings were avoided on account on expanse and the ornamentation was so concentrated as to obtain the greatest value possible.  The sills and lintels were necessarily of terra cotta, used as fireproof covering for the steel, and these are made the chief features in the decoration; consequently, the horizontal lines are emphasized. 
The only places where an elaborate treatment in composition was permitted were the top of the tower and its entrance and the main entrances and vestibule of the Administration Building.  When one considers that over seventy-five hundred employees pass through these entrances many times each day, the money spent to make them attractive is well invested.
A quarter-century before, in 1881, George Pullman had built a company town just south of Chicago so large and so impressive that it became a global tourist attraction, and a popular side trip for visitors to the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition.  Now, Sears put it into the shadows.  “I believe,” remarked one observer, “you could bundle the entire Pullman plant, including not only the factories but the workingmen's houses, the town market and the theater, into the single Merchandise Building of Sears, Roebuck and Company and still not fill it.”
image courtesy of The Chuckman Collection
Reaching out to the consumers in small towns and rural areas, Sears offered an alternative that would wipe out the traditional general store with wider selection and often dramatically cheaper prices. The creation of the parcel post system in 1913 further decreased Sears' cost of shipping and made its products affordable to additional consumers.  By 1914, sales passed $100 million; by 1919, $234 million, with profits of $18 million.

The Second Revolution: The World's Greatest Retailer

On February 2, 1925, under the direction of Robert E. Wood, Sears opened its first retail store in the Merchandise Building, setting the stage for Sears becoming the Wal-Mart of its day.  A second store  - which survives to this day - opened in 1928 at Lawrence and Winchester, followed by a growing list of locations in Chicago and beyond.  The first year, less than 5% of sales came from retail; by 1931, retail represented half of the company's sales.  In 1932, Sears spent a million dollars to make William LeBaron Jenney's landmark 1891 Second Leiter Building its State Street flagship.
historic photograph courtesy Nadig Newspapers
More decisively than their downtown locations, which the company shared with old-line department stores conceived back in the time of the horse-and-buggy, Sears new locations grabbed hold of the emerging economy of the car, opening stores in outlying areas with easy access to automobiles.  In 1928, Sears began selling tires and auto accessories under a new brand, Allstate, which, three years later, started on the path to becoming one of the country's largest insurers.  Over time, Sears became not just a retailer, but a manufacturer of many of the products they sold, creating major brands such as Kenmore applicances, Craftsmen tools,  Coldspot refrigerators, which the company brought in noted industrial designer Raymond Loewy to style.

On April 12, 1924, Sears grabbed hold of a revolutionary new marketing medium - radio - through the creation of station WLS (‘World's Largest Store’), broadcasting from the top of the Homan Street tower.   A week later, it aired the first edition of National Barn Dance, a country music program that soon became phenomenally popular, most particularly with the rural listeners who were key Sears customers.

Sears' low prices allowed the company to thrive even during the Great Depression.  By 1937, sales
had topped half a billion dollars.  In 1942, Sears opened a store in Havana, and put itself on the road  to becoming a retail powerhouse, not just in the U.S., but throughout the America's.  By 1947, sales topped $4 billion.  $5.00 out of every $100 spent in the U.S. on general merchandise wound up in Sears cash registers.

Sears created its own real estate division, Homart Development, which was a key player in the boom in shopping malls in the 50's, 60's, and 70's, guaranteeing the store a place next to the most prestigious department stores in every city.  In 1964, Sears surpassed A&P grocery stores to become, like Wal-Mart today, the world's largest retailer.  In 1973, it had 837 retail stores, 12 catalog plants, and sales over $11 billion.  It proclaimed its greatness by building the world's tallest building, Sears Tower, even as it was all about to unravel.

Decline and Fall, Sears and North Lawndale

It had been a long time coming.  In the decades after the 1906 completion of the new Sears complex, population in North Lawndale more than doubled, becoming, especially, a center of life for Russian Jews, with the Jewish population hitting 65,000 by 1946.  Then the neighborhood was hit - hard - by the white flight of the 1950's.  By 1960,  91% of the residents were Afro-American.  As population boomed, the housing stock came under increasing pressure.  Density increased, the population grew poorer, but no new housing was constructed, and the existing stock was often allowed to decay.  Martin Luther King Jr. came to live in North Lawndale for a time in 1966 to bring attention to the substandard conditions.

And then, in 1968 after King's assassination, riots broke out, and fires were set throughout the neighborhood, destroying residences and much of the white-owned commercial district on Roosevelt.  Owners could no longer get insurance, and North Lawndale went into a calamitous free-fall.  The very next year, Sears announced it would build a sparkling new skyscrapers that would allow it to flee the neighborhood, leaving behind in North Lawndale a wasteland that it now made even more desperate.

Even as it moved into its shiny headquarters, Sears was a company beginning to lose its way.  It let new mass merchandisers like Target, K-Mart and, ultimately and most fatally, Wal-Mart catch it unawares.  Instead of the innovation and vision of Sears, Rosenwald and Wood, the company suffered through holding-ground managements whose brightest ideas seemed to short-sighted cost-cutting and shaking down governments for tax breaks and financial rebates.  Growth stalled, sales slumped.

In 1987, operations at the Merchandise Building ceased.  A once great company made the news only for its latest failures.  Merged in 1993 with a K-Mart one analyst recently called “terminally challenged”,  Sears survives less as a retailer than as a real estate play.  In 1990's, it closed out its holdings in North Lawndale.  In 1994, it sold off the original Sears Tower, and the Merchandise Building was demolished.  Around the same time,  another massive Sears complex - a 1920 facility in Philadelphia clearly modeled after Chicago, right down to the central clock tower - was wired with 15,000 pounds of explosives and within mere seconds 25,000,000 cubic feet of construction was reduced to rubble.

In a bit of poetic justice, its former North Lawndale site is actually faring a good bit better than Sears, itself, right now.  In 1989, developer Charles Shaw began work with new mayor Richard M. Daley to develop a plan to reinvigorate the neighborhood, rebranding it as ‘Homan Square’.  The five-stage plan, calling for the construction of 600 new housing units and redevelopment of the old Sears structures, met with fierce opposition from distrustful community residents fearing being forced out by gentrification.
Shaw died in 2006, and many of the more ambitious aspects of his plan, including converting the 1949 Allstate Building into 238 condos, never got off the ground.  Still, there's clearly a new vitality in North Lawndale today.
Streets of old brick and greystone houses look fresh and enduring. The Homan Square Community center opened in 2001. On a former parking lot behind the Pergola, new homes were constructed.  In all, over 200 housing units have been added to the community.  In 2007, a new school, Holy Family Lutheran, was constructed on the cleared site west of the old tower, and in 2009, Henry Ford Academy opened in the old Power House building.

The Afterlife: Road's end along The Age of the Supply Chain

For most corporations, it's one great idea and out.  Sears had two, and could have had more, if their institutional memory had endured rather than simply been discarded.  Sears stop publishing their "big book" catalog in 1993.  The next year, Jeff Bezos founded Amazon.com.  As Sears started with watches, Bezos started with books, both of them on their way to phenomenal success through a general merchandise catalog, differing only in the way they reached their customers.  If an entrepreneurial character had survived at Sears, it might have seen that the answer was moving their catalog - and their amazing fulfillment system - to the internet.  Instead of creating Amazon.com, Jeff Bezos might have followed Sears, Rosenwald and Wood in the line of great Sears Roebuck presidents, and Chicago would have been at the center of it, rather than shuffled off to the sidelines.  The great Merchandise Building, already paid for, would have found new life as a booming, integral piece in the new hyper-efficient supply chain.  That's not the way the world works, of course, but it's still a highly pleasurable - and informative - alternative reality to contemplate.

Instead, when you walk down Arthington today, you feel the unease of the gravesite.  The monuments survive; the inhabitation does not.  The unease is felt not only through the absence of people but, appropriately for a company that built its success on the automobile, the absence of cars.  Sprawling surface lots and multi-story garages, all completely empty.
Large structures - the Allstate, the Printing Building - abandoned.  The restored buildings are beautiful but eerily silent.  You stand in the lovely Pergola, looking across the garden to the Administration Building, and you have a sense of a once great purpose,  now vanished except for the structures it excreted
You stand before the great Tower, now so isolated as to appear stripped naked, and you try to imagine the life it once sustained, the streams of hopeful young women passing through its doors.
image courtesy The Chuckman Collection
You walk just to the south of the Merchandise Building, mingling with the spectators ringing the huge athletic field where a football game is taking place.
You see them watching, laughing, flirting.  Some of the men, and especially one young woman seems to see you, seems to be trying to make sense of the strange jeans and sweatshirt you're wearing so different from their own more modest and quaintly formal attire.  You can hear but barely the sound of the game and the chatter of the spectators, just beneath the threshhold of comprehension, a butterfly-wings aural blur. 
When you walk amidst the surviving buildings on the silent streets, you want to see the ghosts, the ghosts of those who spent so much of their lives here, who gave these buildings meaning.  You want them to fill the empty sidewalks once again so you can walk in their midst, to fill in the blanks the now disused buildings have left behind, to experience the vitality and lifeforce that created these coral reefs of the urban experience.
The ghosts linger.  They clearly have something to say to us, something important, not for them, but for us. They try to speak to us, but their words, like their presence, are as elusive as a mirage.  In the unnatural silence, we struggle to hear what they have to say.



Note:  This article draws on many sources, but here are three of the most important:

Historic American Buildings Survey is an absolutely invaluable account on the Sears complex, its origins and history, as well as its condition in 1994, the year the report was issued, just before the Merchandise Building was demolished.  The report includes hundreds of historic and current photographs and drawings.

The 1906 Architectural Record also includes two separate accounts of the complex.
Designing a Great Mercantile Plant, June, 1906, beginning on page 403, Nimmons and Fellows identified as the authors, with numerous photographs.

Read Also:  Handsome Allstate, Looking for Good Hands

2 comments:

Scott Johnston said...

That was a great article. Amazing how large their operation was even back 100 years ago.

Anonymous said...

You mention the possibility of the old Sears building serving Amazon.
For perspective, I suggest a trip to Phoenix, where Amazon has one of its major warehouse operations. I suspect the great Merchandise Building - several copies of the great Merchandise Building - would fit inside.
Great article!