Old Sears Catalog Warehouse Distribution Center and Store Abandoned in 2021

Sears, Roebuck & Company Mail Order Building, Los Angeles California
Date added: January 09, 2024 Categories:

Originally constructed in 1927, the Los Angeles building housed Sears, Roebuck & Company's warehouse, distribution, and merchandising facilities for the entire southwestern United States, as well as one of the company's early retail stores. As such, the Los Angeles building played a critical role in the success of the company.

Sears, Roebuck & Company was synonymous with the surge in the mass consumer market in America during the early and mid-twentieth century. Established in 1886 by Richard Sears, the company became one of the largest mail-order businesses in the country and the seventh-largest corporation in the world. By 1927, Sears provided goods to eleven million customers, equaling one out of every three American families, and distributed over seventy-five million catalogs per year.

Julius Rosenwald, who assumed operation of the business in 1895, leaving Richard Sears to market the company's products, is largely attributed with the success of this mail-order empire. Under Rosenwald, Sears came to encompass all the processes of a capitalistic enterprise, including the processes of extraction, fabrication, distribution, and consumption. He sought to offer rural customers a broad range of products, and developed a new business ethic that promoted customer satisfaction. The company slogan, "Satisfaction Guaranteed or Your Money Back," for example, reflected this new philosophy. A new emphasis was also placed on economies of scale and the streamlining of product distribution, as business expanded and a new operating infrastructure was created.

The infrastructure necessary to sustain the company's expansion rested upon ten (later twelve) mail-order centers strategically located across the country. Constructed between 1906 and 1928, these centers handled the processing and distribution of orders from customers, and were specifically located so that most customer orders could be filled in three to four days. In these buildings was captured the scale and ambition of the country's rapid expansion and improving the standard of living. They remain architectural centerpieces in the neighborhoods they occupy and some are, to this day, among the largest structures in their respective regions.

During the late 1920s, as more people began to live and work in American cities, a shift emerged in the consumer market as retail stores eclipsed the success of the older mail-order businesses. To capitalize on these changes, Sears, Roebuck & Company hired General Robert Wood in 1924. Formerly employed by Montgomery Ward, the company's major competitor, Wood launched a campaign to pursue new retail markets found in the rising American working class.

Wood built upon the success of Sears' established mail-order business by building a network of retail stores around the existing mail-order centers and distribution infrastructure. In fact, many of the mail-order centers constructed in the late 1920s, including the one in Los Angeles, incorporated retail stores in their original design as a result. Wood's strategy was a success. Between 1925 and 1927, twenty-two Sears' stores opened in major United States cities. In 1929, there were three hundred twenty-four stores, and by 1932 the company's retail sales surpassed those of the mail-order sales.

Sears, Roebuck & Company sold most of its mail-order centers in a wave of restructuring starting in the 1980s. Only the Los Angeles distribution center continued to function, while the centers in Philadelphia and Kansas City were demolished. In 1994 the company left the mail-order business discontinuing the publication of its catalog. While the warehouse space in the Los Angeles building became obsolete, the retail store continued to operate.

The Sears, Roebuck & Company Mail Order Building in Los Angeles was the seventh mail-order center built by the company and was only the second constructed on the West Coast, the other being located in Seattle. The facility provided mail-order service to markets in California, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, western New Mexico, and Hawaii, as well as parts of Asia. It also contained the company's twelfth retail store and one of the few built in conjunction with a mail-order center.

The only comparable building in California to the subject building was the Montgomery Ward Building in Oakland. It was an eight-story, 950,000 square-foot store and mail-order warehouse of reinforced concrete frame and slab floors which was originally constructed in 1923. It was thereafter expanded by the addition of connected warehouse buildings and a multi-story parking garage. It became the first branch of Montgomery Ward Company in California, and distributed merchandise throughout the western states, much of it manufactured by local enterprises.

The history of Montgomery Ward Company is similar to that of Sears, Roebuck & Company. In 1872 Aaron Montgomery Ward, a traveling salesman created a single-sheet catalog with one hundred sixty-three items that customers could order through the mail. By 1883, the catalog had expanded to ten thousand items covering two hundred forty pages. Like Sears, the company entered the retail business in the 1920s, opening its first store in Plymouth, Indiana in 1926. By 1928 the company had two hundred forty-four stores. In 1930, Sears proposed a merger of the two companies, but Montgomery Ward Company declined the offer. The company's position began to shift in the 1960s as Sears, and J.C. Penney began to dominate the market. Later those companies would see their positions decline as the likes of K-mart, Target, and Walmart expanded. The catalog was discontinued in 1985 so that the company could focus on its retail stores.

The following year the company ceased operations in Oakland and vacated the building. Plagued with financial problems during the 1990s, the company filed for bankruptcy in 2000. The site in Oakland was eventually sold to the school district, and the building was demolished in 2001 after a lengthy legal battle to save it.

The Los Angeles building was one of the ten original mail-order distribution centers commissioned by Julius Rosenwald and designed by George C. Nimmons. A native of Wooster, Ohio, Nimmons began his career in the Chicago office of Burnham & Root, where he worked as a draftsman for ten years. At the age of twenty-eight, Nimmons served as Superintendent of Buildings for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition under the direction of Daniel Burnham, his employer who was appointed Director of Works.

In 1897, Nimmons formed a partnership with William K. Fellows. They designed several large commercial buildings in Chicago, including the first Sears, Roebuck & Company mail-order center in 1906. Following the completion of the Sears' Chicago Center, Nummons and Fellows received commissions to design additional mail-order centers.

Nimmon's partnership with Fellows lasted until 1910. From 1910 until 1933, the architect remained in private practice as principal of the George Nimmons & Company and subsequently the firm of Nimmons & Company. He then partnered with George W. Carr and Clark C. Wright until his retirement in 1945. Nimmons is responsible for a large number of buildings found across the county. Examples of his work include the Reid Murdoch Building (Chicago 1913-14), Lake Shore Place (Chicago 1924-25), the Sears, Roebuck & Company mail order plants in Chicago, Dallas, Seattle, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Memphis, and Boston, and numerous other Sears, Roebuck & Company stores and facilities. The four-building complex in Chicago (1905-06) served as the company's headquarters until 1973. It also included the printing plant that for many years produced the Sears Catalog.

All of the mail-order centers share a common design vocabulary, which isn't surprising as the same architect designed them for the same purpose. A central tower flanked by lower masses is found in all of the buildings. The older buildings, like the one in Chicago, were finished with red brick with stone trim. The later buildings, like the one in Los Angeles, adopted the Art Deco style and were either finished in concrete or stucco. Two of the ten - those in Philadelphia and Kansas City - have been demolished.

Similar to other structures designed by Nimmons, the function of the Los Angeles building determined its design. The lower two stories, which housed the 57,600 square foot retail store, provided a wide base out of which the mass of the structure was erected. The retail store required a much larger floor area than the mail order departments housed in the rest of the building. Similarly, the mail-order departments were best arranged over each other in a multi-storied configuration. This design provided light for offices in each level and interior space for the movement of merchandise throughout the building. The 226-foot tower was likewise designed to house a large water tank that supplied the building's gravity-fed sprinkler system.

One of the most significant aspects of the building is its reinforced concrete construction. A relatively new use for large commercial and industrial buildings in the 1920s, reinforced concrete construction reduced the overall cost of constructing large buildings and provided architects with more freedom to manipulate the form and ornamentation of their designs. Using reinforced concrete, the structural load-bearing capacity of a building could be carried in floor slabs rather than in more traditional beams and girders. This innovation saved on overhead room and reduced the floor-to-floor heights required in multi-story buildings. The reinforced concrete construction also provided the means to ornament the building with elaborate Art Deco style details without employing other materials.

Building Description

The Sears, Roebuck & Company Mail Order Building is located on a 22-acre parcel of land at the southwest corner of Olympic Boulevard and Soto Street. Constructed of reinforced concrete, the building has an irregular plan and a flat roof. A wide two-story base surrounds the building's nine-story mass. The tall central tower divides the primary elevation. The tower, steeped profile, and cast stone ornamentation around the entrances are all evocative of the Art Deco style. The two-story sections on the front (north) facade, as well as portions on the east and west, were covered with a flat-panel cladding system in 1964. A series of additions were made to the rear of the building between 1929 and 1964. Nevertheless, the building continues to retain sufficient integrity to convey its feeling, association, location, setting, materials, and design.

The original portion of the building has a rectangular shape with an east-west orientation. The central tower provides a strong vertical emphasis to the mostly nine-story mass of the building. Its form and ornamentation are the focal point of the design. Windows are stacked vertically in two columns and run up the center of the tower on all four sides. As the tower rises to the top it steps back and is vertically articulated with narrow bas-relief panels. The two wings on either side of the tower are identical in design. Along the primary elevation, these wings step down to eight stories. Cast stone elements and other formed concrete decorations mark the roof parapets.

The retail store is located in the lower two stories of the north end of the building, which fronts Olympic Boulevard. This portion of the building was remodeled in 1964. Originally it was designed in an A-B-C-B-A pattern with the main entrance located at the base of the tower. The design of the main entrance repeated the design of the tower in that it stood out from the rest of the base. Massive piers to each side stepped up as they rose vertically. Bas-relief panels accented the top of each pier and three more were positioned above the side-by-side doorways. This set of doorways was framed by bas-relief work.

Above the doorways were multi-paned windows. The middle bays were more simply detailed the outer bays, which featured ornamentation similar to that used on the tower and main entrance. Secondary entrances were located on the east and west sides, and were probably more heavily used than the main entrance as they were related to the surface parking lots on each side of the building. The fenestration on all floors consisted of large metal-frame industrial windows set in large horizontal openings between the piers. Many of the windows contained paired sets of operating casement sashes. Metal fire escapes climbed the building on the east and west elevations, and a series of basement-level loading docks characterized the south elevation. Elevators used by the mail order departments were located at the southeast and west corners.

Additions were planned for the south end of the building as the business grew and that turned out to be the case. The first addition was made in 1929. The existing Art Deco style entrance on the west elevation dates from this period. Other additions followed in 1940, 1959, and 1964. The 1929 and 1940 additions are illustrated on the 1950 Sanborn Map in section 10 page 15 of this application. Each addition consisted of reinforced concrete construction, but the engineering was different in each phase. Steel-framed casement windows continued to be used but were slightly different in each addition. In some cases, window openings on the side and rear additions have been closed. The 1940 alterations also included the existing signage on top of the tower.

The upper floors of the north end and all of the south end of the building were used by the mail order department. Many of the upper floors retain the open floor plans. Most remain unaltered. The reinforced concrete construction that characterizes the building, including the structural columns and solid floor slabs, is visible throughout the interior. The original building features mushroom-shaped columns and solid floor slabs, while the additions employ the more traditional use of square columns and concrete beams and girders.

On the east and west sides of the building are surface parking lots. On the rear, the loading dock is set just off 12th Street. There are a few mature specimen trees, mostly Chorisia speciosa along the front (north) elevation. They do not appear to have been part of a designed historic landscape plan. The property is otherwise void of plant life.

Sears, Roebuck & Company Mail Order Building, Los Angeles California

Sears, Roebuck & Company Mail Order Building, Los Angeles California

Sears, Roebuck & Company Mail Order Building, Los Angeles California

Sears, Roebuck & Company Mail Order Building, Los Angeles California

Sears, Roebuck & Company Mail Order Building, Los Angeles California