Sears Roebuck Department Store, Spokane Washington

Date added: February 04, 2022 Categories:
SOUTHEAST CORNER (1930)

Richard W. Sears began the company which bears his name in 1886. As a young railroad agent in Redwood, Minnesota, Sears came across a shipment of watches a jeweler refused to accept. Knowing the demand for watches among railroad workers, Sears contacted the watch company and obtained the watches at a considerable discount. He then proceeded to write his fellow workers describing the watches and offering them at an exceptional price. Sears soon sold out of his stock and made a good profit. He then quit as a railroad agent and started selling watches by catalog.

By 1887 Sears' growing business required that he hire a watch repairman. He hired Alvah Curtis Roebuck who later became a partner in the firm. By the turn of the century, Sears, Roebuck and company had expanded its catalog selection to include everything from watches and clothing, to furniture and farm equipment. Sears catered in particular to the needs of rural populations.

In 1924 Robert Wood, an ex-army general, was hired by Sears to develop the company's retail chain stores. Wood had previously worked for Sears competitor, Montgomery Ward for whom he had experimented with retail stores. Sears opened its first retail store in February 1925. Seven more stores opened that year: four were in mail-order plants (Chicago, Seattle, Dallas, and Kansas City), and three were built as retail stores (one in Philadelphia and two in Chicago.) In October, a retail store was opened in Evansville , Indiana, the first in a city without a catalogue plant.

Sears classified its retail outlets into three types of stores. The "A" store, the major department store, contained almost all of the items featured in the catalog. The next class was the "B" store which was smaller and usually consisted of space leased in an existing building. The reduced store size somewhat limited the amount of merchandise in stock and catalogue orders remained an important component. The "C" store, in turn, featured only hardware and household items, neglecting clothes and furniture. The "C" stores were usually located in the suburbs or in small towns.

During the late 1920s and early 30s, Sears was in fierce competition with Montgomery Ward and J.C. Penney for strategic locations for their stores. Also competition from J.C. Penney was cutting into the catalogue business of both Sears and Wards (Penney had opened 548 stores between 1920 and 1926.)

By 1928 Sears had opened 37 Class A stores, 150 Class B and 5 Class C stores. In 1927 Montgomery Ward had set a goal to open 1500 retail stores by the end of 1929, (and compromised on 500 as more realistic) and at the beginning of 1928 had opened only 37. At the end of 1928 Sears had 192 stores with a gross sales volume of $107,179,000 for 30.9 percent of its total sales. Montgomery Ward had expanded to 244 retail stores but with a sales volume of $48,000,000 for 22.4 percent of its total.

By the end of 1929, when construction of the Spokane store commenced, Sears had a total of 48 class A, 237 Class B, and 34 Class C stores. The retail stores percentage of total sales volume had risen to 46.3 percent.

Even though the store in Spokane was constructed in the central business district, it was Sears philosophy to locate Class A stores in outlying shopping districts rather than in central cities. Also most of Sears retail stores occupied leased space. As late as 1932, 345 of its 385 stores were leased.

Situated in the midst of a vast rural/agricultural area, Spokane served as a major retail, financial, and service center. This proved an ideal location for a major Sears retail facility. Sears scouts had apparently had their eye on Spokane for more than a year before finally settling on the old Inland Electric Terminal Building (constructed in 1906.) According to a 30 July 1929 front page article of The Spokesman-Review. Sears had just purchased the property from the Great Northern railway and would take possession on 1 September. Montgomery Ward, which had its new retail store under construction a block to the northeast, had apparently held an option on the site prior to purchase by Sears. Sears moved rapidly. It was reported that Sear's engineer Wallace DeWitt (who grew up in Spokane) was in the city to gather building information so as to plan construction of the new store. By September plans were drawn. A Review article of 4 October, reported that the Sears, Roebuck plans were on file at city hall and that the building permit was being awaited.

Construction began in October. An article in the Review's October 27th edition included a photo of the excavation site and noted the unusual scene it portrayed. The caption indicated that a pile driver was inserting cedar piles into the fill which comprised the site and then boxing them with cement to provide piers for the new building. The main thrust of the article, however, was to provide a history of the site itself. Back in the early days, the site had been a ravine through which a small creek trickled. After the city's disastrous fire of 1889, the ravine became a depository of conflagration debris: "broken bricks, parts of old stoves, ruined safes, broken dishes, battered and twisted bed frames - everything that went into the construction and furnishing of early-day homes that flames could not consume."

The building rose rapidly and the new Sears and Roebuck store was opened on 27 February 1930. The entire front page of the Second Section of The Spokesman-Review edition of that day was devoted to the store's opening. Mayor Leonard Funk turned the key to open the doors and allow the thousands of spectators to inspect the $500,000 store. The Spokane Sears store was the 72nd class "A" store constructed in the United States.

The store was opened in a period of fierce competition among department stores, shop owners, and other merchants for retail dollars in Spokane. From the 1900s to the 1960s most Spokane merchants had their businesses downtown, and shoppers sought goods within the shops of the city center. Indeed, Montgomery Ward had completed its seven-story edifice (reinforced concrete, Art Deco) a year before Sears opened its store. S.H. Kress also entered the Spokane retail picture in 1929. Kress built a four story store (terra cotta, Art Deco) one and one-half blocks east of the Sears store.

Local businesses like Davenport's and Haddad's specialized in merchandise and apparel aimed at an upper end market. The locally owned Crescent and Palace department stores concentrated on upscale clothing and home furnishings. In contrast, the Sears and Montgomery Ward chain stores offered a wide range of affordable merchandise which appealed to a broad clientele and satisfied many needs.

Of the locally-owned department store operations, the original Crescent store building has been demolished, and the Palace now houses Nordstrom. The latter building was constructed in 1909, but the exterior has been significantly altered. The second Crescent store, an impressive Neoclassical building elegantly clad with terra cotta (Wall and Main), was erected in 1919 and was later operated by Frederick and Nelson. The Kress building has been altered and retains none of its original integrity. The Montgomery Ward building was remodeled in the 1980s to house the Spokane City Hall.

Sears finally began to realize its retail philosophy of locating its stores in the suburbs in the late 1950s. An article in The Spokesman-Review on 19 June 1959 announced that Sears Roebuck had purchased 12.3 acres of land and would build a new ultra modern store in the northtown district of the city. Sears would be an anchor for the new Northtown Shopping Center.

In June 1961 Sears opened its Northtown store and in August sold the downtown building to the Comstock Foundation. The foundation, a charitable trust, was established by the late Mrs. Joisie C. Shadle in honor of her father, J. M. Comstock. He was Spokane's mayor for a two-year term circa 1900 (The Spokesman Review, 12 December 1969.) On 27 September 1961 the Comstock Foundation granted the building to the city of Spokane for its new main library with the stipulation that Comstock be used as the building name. A $300,000 bond issue was approved by Spokane voters on 13 March 1962 to make the library conversion.

Spokane architect Carl W. Vantyne was commissioned to oversee the remodeling of the Sears Building. Gus J. Bouten Construction of Spokane completed the remodeling work and by early March had the building ready to be occupied. The library opening was described by the Spokane Daily Chronicle in its 4 April 1963 edition. "At the stroke of 9 City Librarian R. Bruce Carrick put the key into the lock and seven seconds later the glistening doors swung open to admit the first patrons." Mayor Neal Fosseen presided at the 22 April dedication of city's the new main library.