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Inside Sears Crosstown

On August 8, 1927, Mayor Rowlett Paine snipped a red ribbon to officially open the brand-new Sears, Roebuck Catalog Order Plant and Retail Store on North Watkins. Many thought the builders were crazy to erect the store so far out in the suburbs – only the 14th one since Sears had decided to open retail stores just two years before. But the gamble paid off. Newspapers estimated that some 47,000 shoppers showed up on the first day alone, and Sears Crosstown quickly grew into one of the largest retail centers in the city. It was certainly hard to miss the building, an 11-story behemoth embracing more than 650,000 square feet when it opened, with expansions over the years adding greatly to its size. More than a million bricks went into its construction, and one of the building’s most unusual features is a 75,000-gallon water tank mounted in the top of the tower as part of the fire-protection system.

Sears became a trading hub for some 750,000 people in a seven-state region, and the Crosstown warehouse handled merchandise for more than 750,000 shoppers in that area. A service station was added on Watkins, then a farm center across the street. In the 1940s, the company opened a distribution center on Broad, and in 1956 opened a modern department store at Poplar and Perkins.

Then the mail-order business began to collapse, and Sears was forced to shut down its giant warehouses across the country. In 1983, the company closed its retail store at Crosstown, instead offering only surplus goods there, and finally closed the massive catalog distribution center in 1993. The building that newspapers described as “an epoch-making event in Memphis history” when it opened 70 years ago has been vacant ever since.

The Sears Crosstown location has been closed for over a decade. Memphians of a certain age will remember when this was the store to shop. Surface parking spaces were few, so the parking garage was quite a big deal when opened to the public. The garage was often full on weekends and certainly on traditional pre-holiday shopping days. There is an underground tunnel running from the garage to the main retail area of the buildiing, so you could park and get in and out of the store without every being exposed to the rain, etc. Ride the elevator to the basement and take the tunnel down and over to the basement store level...where the pets, toys, sporting goods, and fresh popcorn and ICEE's were. From there, you'd take the escalator up to the ground level and follow the floor left through womens clothes, past the "old" front door on Watkins, and left again through the fabrics and into the furniture department. Today, I'm not aware of any Memphis shopping that offers that courtesy.

Sears sits on 19 acres and includes a tower that is the tallest building between downtown and Clark Tower in East Memphis; an 11-story warehouse with a two-story addition; and a parking garage. The top of the tower includes an executive office (reputed to be quite plush by old-timers who have seen it) and a red, 75,000-gallon water tank that supplied a sprinkler system.

Sears closed the last vestiges of its retail, catalog shopping, and warehouse operations in 1990. In 2000, Sears sold the property to Memtech LLC for $1.25 million. Beyond its incorporation in Delaware and its name, which evoked images of Memphis and technology, Memtech was an unknown quantity.

Sears Crosstown -- especially the tower section -- has its fans among preservationists. It was recently named one of the 10 most endangered historic buildings in Tennessee by the Tennessee Preservation Trust.

The prototype for possible renovation of Sears Crosstown is a similar Sears building in Boston near Fenway Park, which was renovated to include a movie theater, retail, and housing.

The building has been abandoned for over a decade, ignored by the many cars that drive past every day. Urban explorers find the building quite interesting, as you can imagine. These pictures were borrowed from

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