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Why Did Sears Spurn the Tower?

 Small-town America's retailer goes home again

Chicago Times

September/October 1989

A writer who gets a Flora Skelly as an editor is a lucky man. This is one of the several pieces I wrote for her while she edited the short-lived Chicago Times. Oh, if only its publishers had been as good at their jobs as she was at hers. As for the topic, this was one of several pieces I did about Sears over the years; others are here and here.


Only a savvy old merchandiser like Sears Chairman Ed Brennan could have sold the governor of Illinois, the General Assembly, and the mayor of Hoffman Estates a suit with no pants and make each think he got a bargain. In June, those eager shoppers paid an anything-but-everyday low price—tax breaks and infrastructure improvements on nearly 800 acres of eminently developable land worth nearly a quarter-billion dollars over the next 20 years—to buy Sears a home for its 5,500-employee Merchan­dise Group. Presumably the deal dis­suaded the retailer from moving the group lock, stock, and spread sheet to the Sunbelt. Considered on an acreage-per-job-retained basis, the deal set a prec­edent that was ominous in its generosity. If Ameritech or Amoco threatens to leave, the gov will have to give them Kane County, just like the feds gave Utah to the Mormons.


Like some small-town coquette, Sears made good use of her suitors from the South. But, while she flirted with smooth talkers from Dallas and Charlotte, N. C., all she really wanted to do was to settle down with the boy next door. Sears is a Chicago company in more than its address, run by a Chicagoan who plans to keep his headquarters operation in the Tower downtown. Sears is no more likely to let its most essential division set up shop in North Carolina than the governor is to relocate his Department of Revenue to Muncie. But Thompson had to take Sears’ threat to leave seriously, at least in public, if only to forestall comparisons with such leaders of his national party as Reagan and Bush, who have pledged that Republicans will never negotiate with blackmailers.


Officially, Sears needs to move the Merchandise Group from the Tower to save money, an argument used by most corporations that want to relocate. The fact that savings are seldom as sizable as projected has not slowed our footloose executives, however, because money is never the sole motive behind a move. History, corporate culture, even what the management experts refer to delicately as the company’s life-cycle stage, all impel Sears on its present flight from the Tower and its urban setting.


Take history for a start. The yearning to sprawl among the parking lots of Cook County, by the firm whose name graces the world’s ultimate high-rise structure, would seem to repudiate Sears’ own past. Instead, the move to a virgin site on the booming periphery of the urbanized area recalls the old Sears. In 1904, Sears began construction of its mammoth catalog center—the “largest commercial building in the world”—on 40 acres of vacant land on the patchily settled western edge of the city five miles west of the Loop, an area that was then “suburban” in density and ambience if not by governmental jurisdiction.


Various accounts describe the Homan Avenue complex as mimicking a small town in scale and atmosphere—made of brick, only nine stories tall, its parts visible, relations between them coherent. Its broad central corridor was inevitably likened by visitors to a Main Street, while the company gardens across the street were a plausible town square; in its latter days, besieged by the ghetto, it had even acquired its own police force.


But in 1974 Sears made for a more secure fortification in the Loop. As an icon for the company the Sears Tower was satisfactory—utilitarian and banal, in no way a disgrace but somehow a disap­pointment, a Sears suit of a building. (Tourists in New York look at the Empire State Building; in Chicago they look from the Tower.) In his telling and premature history of Sears’ revival in the early 1980s, The Big Store, author Donald Katz observes that the Tower reflected what he called the “B store” aesthetic of the company’s then-chairman.


Yet the Tower also says “city,” being at once massive, impersonal, mysterious in its workings, and, if appraisers are correct, overpriced. And Sears ain’t city; indeed, old-timers confided to Katz their opinion that the company started downhill when it left its old West Side headquarters for the Tower.


Some kinds of businesses relish the chaos and abrasion of the city. When the Randolph Drive lease of the Leo Burnett Company expired not long ago, that advertising firm considered moving its 2,000 employees to Northbrook. But that meant losing valuable employees who relied on public transit to get to work. Besides, explained a Burnett VP to Grain’s, “We need the vitality of the city.”


At Sears on the other hand a detestation of the city is part of the company tradition. According to Katz the typical Searsman was a spiritual small-towner, no matter where he was from. Chicago boy Brennan, for instance, grew up in the old Irish ghetto of the West Side, which like most of the city’s ethnic enclaves was a small town in everything but name.


That ethos was expressed in the perennial resentments of the company’s far-flung field operations staff for the presumptions of their Chicago-based parent, such as affirmative action plans. The field’s prejudices had been seconded, after all, by “the General” himself, chairman Robert E. Wood, who presided over Sears during that quarter century when the company transformed itself from a mail order house into the world’s most phenomenal retail store chain. Wood had contempt for New York City, ethnics, liberals, Europe, and “some” Jews, as recorded by even such friendly biographers as James C. Worthy. Any place or person whose name could be mispronounced to sound like “cosmopolitan” was suspect during Sears’ golden age. As a result, the menu on every board at Sears, from the directors to the dining room, is bent toward blandness.


Provincialism is hardly unique to the executive class at Sears, of course. Americans in general share an historical distrust of cities rooted in just such alienation. Sears’ genius was to see within it a grand marketing strategy. Sears’ customers were the millions just up from the farm who settled in the not-quite-urban sub­urbs and bungalow belts. Sears was heir to the tradition not of the pushcart pedd­ler but of the Yankee trader who plied the back roads. When the car made it possible for customers to deliver themselves to the goods, Sears hurried to make it easy. If Sears did not invent the strip shopping center it was among the first to exploit it, and its stores thus became both agent and consequence of de-urbanization. Sears’ first free-standing stores in Chicago opened in the mid­-1920s, not downtown but on West Lawrence and East 79th; the State Street store did not open until 1932, several years and hundreds of stores later.


Mark Girouad, author of Cities and People, has observed that suburbs thrive on every settled continent because the people who run the world hate cities. They forbear the city as a place to do business but take extraordinary precautions to avoid its contagions. The typical chief executive lunches in private quarters, travels in company cars, enters and leaves company headquarters via private garages. If he ventures out for the arts, often it’s at members-only fund-raising performances; if he dares to take in a ball game it is taken from a sky box, out of earshot of the boozy egalitarians shouting abuse at him from the cheap seats.


The street offers only noise, danger, and insult. More crimes are committed inside than outside Chicago’s posh clubs, but the street is where the powerful feel most vulnerable. The traffic cop who challenges a jaywalking captain of industry with a brusque “Watch it, buddy!” can cost Chicago more jobs than a dozen tax hikes. Unable to banish such upstarts, the corporate chieftains prefer to banish themselves. They take their companies and go home.


Relocation consultants may not consider executive anxiety about the city in their site analyses, but architects certainly do. Most corporate headquarters buildings speak more honestly of their owners opinion of the city than do their vice-presidents for corporate relations. (To its visitors, for example, the Tower offers a grandiloquent gesture of welcome, but to everyone else on the street it offers a cold shoulder in the form of blank walls.) William H. Whyte, writing in City: Rediscovering the Center, calls the brutishness of such details “a declaration of distrust of the city and its streets and the undesirables that might be on them.”


The qualities of the city that make it economically essential are its unpre­dictability, its variety, even its inefficiency, if we take that word to mean the way the city provides a dozen means for every conceivable end. Those qualities do not endear it to people whose working lives are devoted to controlling the people and processes around them. (Katz offers a revealing scene in which an annoyed Brennan, while waiting for his car, picks up bits of paper littering the Sears garage.) The manager’s impulse to control is undone, even mocked, by every encounter with the city.


Looking back, it seems plain that Sears was never going to build at the O’Hare Airport site offered by City Hall, no matter how many ribbons the Daley economic development team wrapped it with. That 220-acre site would have been ideal in key respects, being easy of access by el from the city and by air from the distant outposts that supply Sears stores. The problem was that it was too small. Putting the Merchandise Group at O’Hare would have required building at essentially urban densities, and that is not what Sears had in mind at all. The company wanted land, lots of land, with a starry sky above, land for a low-rise, campus-style complex, and demanded it so fervently that state negotiators later described the demand for space as being of emotional importance to Sears.


In physical terms the campus model is an apt one for the modern suburban office complex, which shares its isolation, its scale, its park-like setting, its putative social self-sufficiency, its profligate use of land. It allows the expression on a grand scale of that lust for lawn that explains both the gardening styles of the cultural upper middle class and its otherwise inexplicable appetite for golf.


Sears’ insistence on a large site for its Merchandise Group may not have been principally aesthetic in motive, not even principally economic. The secret, dirty appeal of a large site is the control it makes possible. Corporations tend to be as anxious about public opinion as any other arriviste, forever worrying that who he is seen sitting next to will reflect poorly on his reputation. Even if it does not itself develop the land buffering its new group offices, Sears will be able to ensure that whoever does will contribute to an atmosphere conducive to the work of choosing the colors for next year’s toilet seat line. That means no water slides, no downscale pleasure resorts, no interesting buildings.


No interesting people, either. The winos and bag ladies may be left behind in the city, Whyte observes, but the guards and fences and surveillance cameras are usually brought out to the suburbs with the desks and coffee machines. Some of Sears’ black employees allege that the move was made to a distant and expensive suburb in order to whiten the company’s clerical and support staff without attract­ing the attentions of federal discrimination watchers. But Sears’ institutional prejudices, to the extent they exist, are more likely aimed at groups whose deviance from the corporate ideal is not yet protected by statute—like people who return from lunch smelling of garlic.


Corporations behave more like humans than most people think, including many of the people who run them. Often reckless in youth, the successful ones also grow fat and sclerotic in middle age, foolish, even addled, in their dotage. That Sears still has its wits about it at 103 may be credited to marriages with such energetic entrepreneurs as chairmen Wood and Julius Rosenwald.


Since the mid-1970s, alas, Sears has aged fast. There is a natural tendency among mature companies to turn their gazes inward; a company the size of Sears must spend most of its energy just man­aging itself. This natural trend toward self-preoccupation is the corporate equivalent of senescence.


Sears has been slow to react to competition from younger, more aggressive discount chains, and its forays into stock brokerage and commercial real estate have stumbled. Like many an elder it no longer understands the new generation, who as shoppers are more fickle, more sophisticated in their tastes than was the postwar generation that made Sears rich.


Under such circumstances, the decision to build the Tower must be described by any honest historian in terms of vain-glory rather than of triumph. A project that occupied 20 years of the company’s century, it is today an empty boast: The company in 1972 actually expected that all the building’s 110 stories would be needed by 1983 just to house its own burgeoning staff; today Sears rattles around in the building like an empty nester stuck with a house bigger than she needs.


Whyte among others suggests that companies move to the suburbs when they tire of dealing, when their executives stop building and start presiding. Moving from city to suburbs, in such circumstances, is less relocation than retreat, less retrenchment than retirement. Sears, in its dotage, is trying to go home. It may happen that Sears’ merchants, embattled and confused as they are, will find a haven in the suburbs and rediscover their soul. But the suburbs in the 1990s offer calm at the cost of isolation.


Sears became Sears because the people who made the decisions about what to sell in its stores and catalogs knew so intimately the ambitions of their customers, the kind of people who filled the flats of the old West Side and a hundred neighborhoods like it across the country. Few of the people who shop at Sears live in places like Hoffman Estates. The closest a lot of Sears execs come to meeting a potential customer face to face these days is when they order lunch in the Loop. Even that contact will be lost when Sears’ homesteaders load the wagons for the trek northwest—an enterprise that no longer knows where it belongs, heading for a town that’s nowhere, in search of an era that no longer exists. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

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The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

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“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

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The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

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The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

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SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

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