Essay

Restoring the Sears, Roebuck & Company’s Sunken Garden

May 30, 2024

Since Sears, Roebuck & Company left their 1906 headquarters in North Lawndale in 1987, buildings on the campus have been slowly and patiently adaptively reused. What’s next? The restoration of the Sears Sunken Garden.

Contributors

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Sears Sunken Garden and Pergola, Chicago, circa 1940. Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey, Library of Congress.

“YOUNG WOMAN-18 TO 23 YEARS OF AGE. for letter inspection; must be able to write a fair hand: a good English education absolutely necessary; salary, if can qualify, $8 to $10. Apply at once from 8 to 10am, Employment Department, Merchandise Building, SEARS, ROEBUCK & CO., Homan-av. And Harvard-st.”1

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Aerial view of Sears Roebuck & Company Mail Order Plant and surrounding neighborhood, Chicago, circa 1950. Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey, Library of Congress.

So reads an employment advertisement from 1907 published in the Chicago Tribune for a position at the Sears, Roebuck & Company headquarters—at the time the largest business building in the world, located in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood.2 The headquarters were brand new and set on a massive campus that included a Merchandise Building with a fourteen-story tower, the Advertising Building and Power House, and the Administration Building, where the future employee with “a fair hand” would have ended up working. If hired, she would have begun the day by passing through the terracotta entrance of the Administration Building, a member of the massive clerical force that helped Sears, Roebuck & Company build and maintain their mail-order catalog business. Sears had gained a reputation for exceptional customer service, and a liberal return and exchange policy. Founder Richard Sears, who had begun his career in retail selling watches and jewelry through a catalog business, believed that customers would be offended if they received typed correspondence regarding their catalog purchases, so letters to customers were handwritten.

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Employees write letters to customers from the Administration Building, Chicago, circa 1910. Marian S. Carson Collection, Library of Congress.

The size of the complex, nearly 40 acres, and the volume of the workforce, over 9,000 people, was a testament to the significance of the Sears catalog to turn of the twentieth-century American life, and the company’s dominance of the mail order system. Millions of people, particularly in rural communities, received the Sears catalog in their homes, and purchased a broad variety of products through a cash on delivery system via what Sears called their “Cheapest Supply House on Earth.” At a price of fifty cents a catalog, customers could browse through thousands of items, from soap to cabinet organs to camera equipment to rifles to buttons and groceries. The twelve-hundred-page catalogs featured thousands of detailed illustrations and product descriptions. The catalog was functional, but also aspirational. “The catalog was required reading in millions of homes. More than that, it was juicy reading,” wrote Louis E. Asher, a former Sears employee in the book Send No Money. “It was a dream book, a wish book, and the whole family cried for it.”3

Sears, Roebuck & Companies’ mail order catalog model provided Black Americans, particularly those living under de facto or de jure racial segregation, with a reprieve from a system of commerce that was often demeaning or provided access to inferior products.4 Instead of enduring a trip to local white-owned stores that relied on discriminatory practices, Black customers could order the same products available to white customers.

As early as 1902, employees like the one the advertisement was looking for had access to an employee savings and loan program, insurance, a recreation room, and a library with books supplied by the Chicago Public Library system. Also within the complex were an athletic field and running track, sixteen tennis courts, and clubhouses for men and women. “We believe these surroundings inspire our workers to better things and make for contentment and happiness” stated Sears promotional literature in 1920.5

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A glimpse of the Administration Building, Chicago, circa 1910. Marian S. Carson Collection, Library of Congress.

The Administration Building overlooked another amenity across Arthington Street, a “sunken garden” with walking paths, formally arranged flowers and plants in undulating and circular beds, a reflection pool, and a classically inspired pergola. To the right of this formal arrangement was a smaller informal section with shade trees. Each entrance to the park was designated by statuesque concrete planters.

The Sears, Roebuck and Company Park, commonly known as the Sears Sunken Garden, was completed around 1907, shortly after the Sears campus opened. The pergola was designed by Nimmons & Fellows, architects of the original buildings within the campus. Aligned precisely with the main entrance of the Administration Building, the columned pergola was finished on each side by two Doric temple pavilions clad in white stucco, each topped with a clay tile roof. Seating located underneath the pergola provided views of the reflecting pool’s aquatic plants and goldfish. Worker events were regularly held within the sunken garden, including performances by the 60-piece Sears, Roebuck and Company Band.

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Sunken garden and pergola, Chicago, circa 1910. Marian S. Carson Collection, Library of Congress.

As rural Americans began moving to cities in earnest, the mail-order industry began to slow. Sears responded by opening the first brick and mortar Sears store inside the North Lawndale campus in 1925. By 1929, there were over three hundred Sears stores across the country, with a flagship store in Chicago’s Loop located on State Street and Madison Avenue.

While Sears presented a working environment that looked to achieve employee satisfaction and happiness through amenities and benefits, the company was staunchly anti-union. After the passage of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, Sears provided seed money toward the founding of Labor Relations Associates of Chicago, the first national union busting agency, and hired its founder as director of employee relations. While Sears stores nationwide served Black customers, Black employees were often relegated to janitorial positions, or had jobs in food service, or in Sears warehouses.

The Sears headquarters had caused the population of North Lawndale to surge, with Russian Jews being the largest residential group. By 1946, the neighborhood housed one quarter of Chicago’s Jewish population.6Beginning in the late 1940s, the City of Chicago began clearing a path for the Eisenhower Expressway, which would slice through Chicago’s West Side, just four blocks north of the Sears campus. While North Lawndale had shifted from majority white to majority Black by 1960, the workforce at the Sears campus did not mirror that shift, with most of the workers commuting from other parts of the city, and more and more by car. Housing around the Sears campus—once dense with two-flats—was cleared for surface parking lots, yet remarkably, the sunken garden remained.

By 1969, Sears was the largest retailer in the world, and would commission Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to design a new headquarters in Chicago’s Loop. By 1973, the headquarters had been transferred to the new Sears Tower, at 233 South Wacker Drive. Employees continued to work at the North Lawndale campus until 1987, when Sears announced it would restructure its operations, ceasing operations in Homan Square.

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Sears Tower, View from highway, Chicago, 1974. Balthazar Korab, Korab Collection, Library of Congress.

Designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1978, the complex became a complicated adaptive reuse challenge within a neighborhood that had experienced public sector, and now private sector, disinvestment over time. There were buildings of architectural significance, such as the Power House and the Administration Building, but there were also surface lots and parking structures, products of a time when employees of Sears would commute to the campus from elsewhere, looking to transition from their cars to their workplaces with minimal interaction with the broader neighborhood. In 1993, Sears recruited a development entity, the Homan Arthington Foundation (now the Foundation for Homan Square) to oversee the redevelopment of the site.

Adaptive reuse of the campus would happen slowly over the next thirty years. In 1993, the Merchandise Building was demolished, with the exception of the tower. That same year, the first phase of new single-family homes were built on land that had originally been housing but had been bulldozed for surface parking lots by Sears in the 1950s. Two more phases of new housing would follow in 1995 and in 1999. The North Lawndale YMCA opened on the former site of the Merchandise Building in 2000, and seven years later, the pre-kindergarten through 8th grade Holy Family Lutheran School joined the YMCA on the former site. In 2009, the Power House was rehabilitated, becoming the Charles H. Shaw Technology and Learning Center, a public charter high school. In 2014, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago began holding classes in the former tower of the Merchandise Building, renamed Nicols Tower, the same year the campus became a designated Chicago Landmark. In 2017, Mercy Housing, a nonprofit housing developer, transformed the former printing facility into 181 rental apartments, 115 units for residents at or below 60 percent of Area Median Income (AMI), and 66 units supported by the Chicago Housing Authority, for residents that earn 30 percent or less of area AMI.

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Looking toward the Administration Building from the pergola, Chicago, 2024. © Elizabeth Blasius.

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Looking across the pergola and garden, Chicago, 2024. © Elizabeth Blasius.

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Looking across the pergola and garden, Chicago, 2024. © Elizabeth Blasius.

Through the redevelopment and adaptive reuse of much of the campus, the sunken garden remained. It had been a part of the institutional memory of the Sears complex for both employees and people living in the community during Sears’s heyday, a site of weddings, graduation photos, or for some, a quick stopover after paying a Sears bill. While the sunken garden remained intact and the landscape continued to be maintained by the Foundation for Homan Square after Sears had left the campus, the reflecting pool had been removed over time, and the materials of the pergola, including the wood lattices and the stucco of the Doric columns and temples, were in need of repair and restoration. In 2021, the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council (NLCCC), a consortium of community organizations, business owners, and elected officials, created a separate committee to focus on better utilization of green spaces and vacant lots. The Greening, Outdoor space, Water, Soil & Sustainability (or GROWSS committee) began hosting collaborative design workshops on how to redesign the garden. Participants were asked what kind of experiences and plants they wanted from the garden. Friends of Sears Sunken Garden (FSSG), a 501c3, was established in 2021, a direct outcome of the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council’s 2018 “Quality of Life Plan” that recommended repairs and improvements to the neighborhood’s public gathering places.

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Collaborative design workshop, Chicago. © Odile Compagnon.

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Collaborative design workshop, Chicago. © Odile Compagnon.

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Collaborative design workshop, Chicago. © Odile Compagnon.

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Collaborative design workshop, Chicago. © Odile Compagnon.

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Collaborative design workshop, Chicago. © Odile Compagnon.

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Collaborative design workshop, Chicago. © Odile Compagnon.

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Early drawing by North Lawndale resident Mamie Gray. Courtesy of Odile Compagnon.

While the landscape architect responsible for the original formal garden design of the Sears sunken garden remains unknown, in 2021 the FSSG recruited Piet Oudolf and Roy Diblick to collaborate on a new design for the landscape that integrates what GROWSS gleaned from the collaborative design workshops. Known for the naturalistic plantings and lush prairie of Millennium Park’s Lurie Garden, Oudolf, a Dutch plantsman, and Diblick, a resident of North Lawndale, created a plan for the landscape that will bring back the reflecting pool, and fill the garden with regionally durable perennials and native plants. The project will add forty-three trees and a hundred shrubs, and pathways will be modified to increase accessibility. The historic pergola will be restored. Oudolf and Diblick are joined by Annamaria Leon, co-owner of Homan Grown L3C, landscape architect Chris Gent, and historic preservation consultant Lynette Stuhlmacher of Red Leaf Studio, Inc., who are all a part of the interdisciplinary design team. The project has yet to break ground and fundraising is ongoing. In 2023, the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation awarded Friends of Sears Sunken Garden one million dollars towards the $5-6 million needed to fully restore and maintain the garden.7

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Sears Sunken Garden concept design. Courtesy of Christopher Gent.

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Sears Sunken Garden concept design. Courtesy of Christopher Gent.

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Sears Sunken Garden concept design. Courtesy of Christopher Gent.

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Sears Sunken Garden concept design. Courtesy of Christopher Gent.

The restoration of the Sears Sunken Garden, as well as the greater Sears, Roebuck & Company campus, will be a blueprint for how to manage the reuse of the architecture, space, and infrastructure of corporate campuses—an action that has proven to require patience, collaboration, and community engagement. Sears, once one of United States’ most powerful businesses, was unable to compete with Amazon, and filed for bankruptcy in 2018. In 2024, the failure of Amazon seems unlikely relative to its current corporate power and cultural influence, yet Sears found itself in a similar situation at the turn of the twentieth century. Like Sears, massive companies like Amazon and Google have accumulated immense sections of the cities they are headquartered in to accommodate employees, and have furnished them with exercise facilities and even gardens. Like Sears, these companies have used these amenities to nurture a direct relationship with their employees—but also to discourage them from participating in collective bargaining.

At the headquarters of Amazon and Google, amenities like public space are often hidden behind security pavilions, or accessible only through key card access, yet the Sears Sunken Garden never found itself behind a fence. Nearly every new development project requiring municipal or public approval (or asking for subsidies) includes a promise of parks and open space. While these projects, and others like them, claim that these public spaces are a principal design element and a way for these initiatives to connect to the community, the way that they operate once put into service is often quite different than the retreats they claim to be. Privately owned public space as a developer amenity discourages lingering too long, or after hours, and its architecture often operates defensively. Although the sunken garden was owned by Sears (it is now owned by the Foundation for Homan Square), the garden was accessible and usable to the neighborhood broadly. This history of community use undoubtedly contributed to its continued maintenance and care after Sears left North Lawndale.

The sunken garden looks out at another part of the Sears Complex awaiting a pivot toward adaptive reuse. The five-story, 239,000-square-foot Administration Building is one of the last within the collection of the Sears Complex to be renovated. A contributing building to both local and national landmark districts, located within the Homan-Arthington Illinois Enterprise Zone and the Northeast Cook Illinois Opportunity Zone as well as the Homan/Arthington TIF district, the building is a prime candidate to use a number of financial incentives based on its historic status and its location, and was noted as one of Landmarks Illinois “Most Endangered Historic Place in Illinois” in 2024.8 An amenity like a shady pergola surrounded by gardens full of prairie grass across the street, the type that might have appealed to a worker at the turn of the twentieth century, might attract a new resident, or encourage a former one, to return.

Acknowledgements

The author would like to thank Odile Compagnon, AIA, Christopher Gent, and the Friends of the Sears Sunken Garden.

Comments
1 Advertisement, Chicago Tribune, October 18, 1907.
2 History,” Sears Archive. Accessed May 20, 2024.
3 Sears, Roebuck and Company Complex, National Register of Historic Places Inventory–Nomination Form,” National Park Service, United States Department of the Interior. Accessed May 21, 2024. See: Louis E. Asher and Edith Heal, Send No Money (Chicago: Argus Books, 1942), 55.
4 Lauretta Charlton, “Back When Sears Made Black Customers a Priority,” The New York Times, October 20, 2018.
5 History,” Sears Archive. Accessed May 20, 2024.
6 Amanda Seligman, “North Lawndale,” Encyclopedia of Chicago. Accessed May 28, 2024.
7 Trey Arline, “Sears Sunken Garden In North Lawndale Gets $1 Million For Restoration,” Block Club Chicago, October 17, 2023.
8 Sears Administration Building: 2024 Most Endangered Historic Places in Illinois,” Landmarks Illinois. Accessed May 29, 2024.