Historic Structures

Sears Store Building, Miami Florida

Date added: November 16, 2022 Categories: Florida Commercial Department Store Art Deco

Built in 1929, the Sears Building is one of the finest examples of Art Deco style architecture in Miami and embodies the distinctive features of that style as applied to a large, commercial structure. The building, moreover, is the earliest known example of the Art Deco style in Dade County, predating the Art Deco buildings on Miami Beach by almost six years. The opening of the Sears store on Biscayne Boulevard marked the culmination of efforts to establish a new shopping area for Greater Miami. The building, therefore, reflects the city's changing attitude toward commercial development in the late 1920s, brought about by the growing use of the automobile which led to the decentralization of shopping areas.

During the late 1920s, Sears, Roebuck and Company was opening a new store every two working days. South Florida's first Sears store, selling only tires and auto accessories, opened in 1928 in an older, four story building at 835 West Flagler Street. The immediate success of this store and a careful survey of the community by company experts prompted Sears to build a larger retail department store on Biscayne Boulevard in the following year. Groundbreaking for the new store took place on May 15, 1929, and the official opening was held on November 14, 1929. Constructed at a cost of $750,000, the Biscayne store was the thirty-third store in Sears' southern territory and the third store in Florida.

Heralded as a great event for Miami, the opening of the store captured the City's attention. During the opening ceremonies, Mayor C.H. Reeder characterized the new store as "the finest store in the south." The Miami Daily News published a special, eight-page supplement on Sears, and the opening received widespread publicity elsewhere. As a result, more than 6,000 people visited the store during its first two hours of operation.

Designed by the prominent Chicago architectural firm of Nimmons, Carr and Wright, the Sears building is typical of the many stores that the firm designed for Sears and reflects the firm's philosophy in the design of these buildings. The choice of "modern" design to express the form and proportion of the entire composition and its parts is evident in the Biscayne Boulevard store.

The Biscayne store embodies many design features of Art Deco style architecture, the style most closely associated with Sears stores built during the 1920s. Foremost among these is the central tower, a trademark of Sears. The pronounced verticality of the tower is emphasized by the building's engaged fluted piers, a feature typical of the Art Deco style. Also noteworthy is the variety of low-relief ornamentation, highlighting such building features as the tower, entrance, and roof line. Although the store on Biscayne Boulevard is one of the hundreds of Sears buildings constructed throughout the country during the early twentieth century, it is the only such building in South Florida.

The development of Biscayne Boulevard into a major commercial thoroughfare was a business venture unparalleled in Miami's history. The Boulevard was envisioned by the Biscayne Boulevard Company as a complete shopping center, carefully designed for beauty and comfort, while at the same time located outside of the downtown district. Characterized as the "new Fifth Avenue of the South," the Boulevard became the forerunner of the modern shopping center, as developers began to recognize the increasing importance of the automobile.

The Sears store, located at the foot of Biscayne Boulevard where a traffic circle marked one of the busiest intersections in Miami, served to anchor the Biscayne Boulevard development. In deciding to locate its new retail store here, Sears officials stated that although the Boulevard was far removed from downtown Miami, customers would use their cars to get to the store. Therefore, the abundance of parking spaces was of prime importance in the selection of a location. In basing its decision on such a factor, Sears foreshadowed the course of development in Miami for the next several decades.

Although the Sears store opened just as the country was entering the Depression, it survived and even flourished. The Burdines Department Store next door, however, did not, and Sears soon expanded into that two story building. The Sears building remained relatively unaltered during its history, and those changes and additions that have been made do not compromise the integrity of the building.

In June 1983 officials closed the oldest South Florida store.

Building Description

The Sears, Roebuck and Co. Department Store is a four-story Art Deco style commercial building located at the entrance to uptown Miami. Rectangular in plan, the building features a seven-story tower placed on a 45 degree angle on its southeast corner. The building is of reinforced concrete construction with a smooth stucco surface and is decorated with a variety of low relief ornamentation. Although several additions have been made to the building, none compromise its basic integrity. Several smaller buildings and a surface parking lot are also located on the property, which covers an entire city block.

Located on the northwest corner of Biscayne Boulevard and N.E. 13th Street, the Sears, Roebuck and Co. Department Store is a detached building that fronts directly on the sidewalk. Topped with a flat roof, the building originally featured four bays across the east (front) facade and six bays across the south facade. The verticality of the building is emphasized by engaged, fluted piers which divide each bay and by the octagonal tower. The tower, the Building's most prominent feature, is decorated with intricate, low-relief ornamentation, executed in a variety of stylized designs as was typical of the Art Deco style. A panel of birds and flowers adorns the lower portion of the tower, while ziggurats, floriated patterns, and a zig-zag decorative band outline the parapet. Atop the tower are two large Sears signs that replace the original vertical sign running the length of the tower.

The main entrance to the building is located in the second bay on the east facade and features a pair of modern, aluminum and glass doors, topped with a transom. The entrance is flanked by heavy, fluted piers and is topped with a panel containing the store's name. Store windows on the first story are fixed, with four large glass panels. The original transoms over the windows are now covered, and metal awnings have replaced the original striped, canvas awnings. Windows on the other three stories are grouped in threes and are double-hung metal sash with one-over-one lights.

In addition to the ornamentation on the tower, the main building is embellished with a band of chevron designs along the parapet and zig-zag motifs between the first and second-story windows. A floriated band is located above the second-story windows over the main entrance. The vertical fluting which separates each bay is further emphasized on the first story by slightly projecting fluted piers topped by stylized ziggurats.

Large additions have been made to the building at two different times in its history. In the early 1930s, a two-story structure directly north of the Sears store was annexed. This building, also constructed in 1929, originally housed a Burdines Department Store. That store, however, was forced to close shortly after opening because of the Depression. Although not part of the original Sears building, the annex maintains a continuity of design due to its similar scale, setback, and use of materials. The building features a stepped facade in the central bay, highlighting the main entrance. The recessed doorway is flanked by native keystone and is topped with a large panel of glass block. Keystone also defines the foundation of the building. Large store windows with metal awnings are located on either side of the main entrance.

A one-story service station was added to the south facade of the Sears building in 1934. This addition was enclosed, and a second and third story were added in 1958. This addition, located on the western three bays of the south facade, respects the main building in scale, materials, and detailing. The southern end of the addition features an octagonal corner, echoing the octagonal tower. Low relief ornamentation decorates the first story, while the second and third stories are plain. Awning windows, grouped in banks of four, pierce the upper two stories. Also located on the southwest corner of the site are a two-story automobile service station with two attached service bays and an open garage. The remainder of the site is a surface parking lot.