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Why Did Sears Cover Up Its Windows? It Wasn't Always That Way

By Patty Wetli | September 14, 2017 6:07am
 Sears' darkened windows are about to see the light of day. Why were they covered in the first place?
Sears' darkened windows are about to see the light of day. Why were they covered in the first place?
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DNAinfo/Patty Wetli; Screenshot

LINCOLN SQUARE — The darkened windows of the Lawrence Avenue Sears are about to see the light of day for the first time in decades as the former department store is slated for redevelopment into a mixed-use apartment-retail complex.

Architectural renderings of the property's proposed facade turn the clock back nearly 100 years, calling for the exposure of the building's long concealed second-story windows.

The question is: Why were they ever covered?

The short answer is that the building, 1900 W. Lawrence Ave., fell victim to changing fashions in design.

The much longer explanation can be found in a relatively obscure scholarly article, "Sears, Roebuck and the Remaking of the Department Store, 1924-42," published by professor Richard Longstreth in the June 2006 edition of the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians.

According to Longstreth's meticulous research, the Lawrence Sears dates to 1925, one of seven original stores constructed by Sears when the then mail order giant entered the brick-and-mortar retail business. 

Sears executives were so skeptical of this departure from the company's catalog roots that they had initially hedged their bets by opening their first stores inside existing mail order distribution plants, Longstreth wrote.

The success of that pilot program gave Sears the confidence to build stores from the ground up, expressly for retail. The Lawrence store was part of this first "purpose-built" group.

A number of the building's details represent early Sears' trademarks: solid and dignified, to the point it could be mistaken for a civic institution; sprawling horizontally on cheaply acquired land (less expensive to build than vertical); with a tower (to camouflage a rooftop water tank) that served as a "beacon to motorists," according to Longstreth. 

None of this was accidental.

"Sears's management paid attention to the appearance of its facilities," Longstreth wrote.

The company was particularly proud of the abundance of natural light that could be found in its stores, situated on wide open tracts, where its buildings had room to let the sun in versus densely packed Downtown districts.

"Sears christened its new buildings 'daylight' stores," according to Longstreth.

But less than a decade later, the company would do a complete 180-degree turn, stunning the industry with the introduction of a "windowless" design for its Englewood store.

The store, at 63rd and Halsted, was the first to be designed with full air conditioning, which coupled with advances in fluorescent lighting, led Leslie Janes, head of Sears' influential store planning and display department, to make a "bold and risky" proposition: "Windows would be virtually eliminated above street level," Longstreth wrote.

The idea was not uniformly lauded.

"The proposed exterior treatment was the source of considerable alarm at first," according to Longstreth.

"The biggest trepidation among company executives was that the public would find a 'windowless' store forbidding on the outside and confining within. Sears, after all, had previously promoted the abundance of daylight as a hallmark of its buildings," he wrote.

Janes argued that windows were "undesirable," stating that "sunlight would discolor merchandise and open windows allowed in noise and dirt."

He pointed to the popularity of Sears windowless pavilion at the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition as precedent for his Englewood plan, and ultimately Janes won out.

When it opened in 1934, the windowless Englewood Sears was hailed as a "pivotal work that would have a decisive impact on stores of the future," according to Longstreth, setting a trend still very much evident in retail design today, from suburban malls to big box stores like Target.

The move to windowless also had an impact on stores of the past, with Sears altering its earlier buildings, including the one on Lawrence, to reflect the new normal.

The Englewood store was demolished in the 1970s, but the Lawrence Avenue building hung on through decades of financial woes at Sears.

Now it's about to enjoy a second life, with a new purpose, and its old outlook.

The Lawrence Avenue Sears as it stood when it closed in 2016. [DNAinfo/Patty Wetli]

The Lawrence Avenue Sears, as it was originally designed. [Screenshot from "Sears, Roebuck and the Remaking of the Department Store, 1924-42"]

The influential windowless Englewood Sears [Screenshot from "Sears, Roebuck and the Remaking of the Department Store, 1924-42"]

The latest proposed rendering of the Lawrence Sears redevelopment. [Springbank Capital Advisers]