Sears, Roebuck & Company Mail Order Building

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Sears, Roebuck & Company Mail Order Building

Sears, Roebuck & Company Mail Order Building, located in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, California, was built in 1927 as a distribution center for the company's mail order department.

The building served that function until 1992, when Sears closed its Los Angeles distribution center and sold the building. Though Sears still operates a retail store on the ground floor, the rest of the enormous complex has remained vacant since 1992. The 1,800,000-square-foot (167,000 m2) complex, considered one of the iconic landmarks of LA's Eastside, has been the subject of several renovation proposals since the mid-1990s. In 2007 and 2008, Boyle Heights native Oscar de la Hoya made two bids to acquire the property, with plans to convert the complex into retail and residential space.

Construction and architecture

In December 1926, Sears, Roebuck and Company of Chicago announced that it would build a nine-story, height-limit building on East Ninth Street (later renamed Olympic Boulevard) at Soto, in the Boyle Heights section of Los Angeles. The building, intended to serve as a mail order distribution center for the Rocky Mountain and Pacific Coast states, was constructed by Scofield Engineering Company. Architectural work was handled by George Nimmens Company.

The building was erected in just six months using materials that were all made in Los Angeles County, with the exception of the steel window sashes. To accomplish the feat, the contractor had six steam shovels and a large labor force working night and day shifts. It was reported that rock and sand for the cement work were being delivered to the site at the rate of twenty carloads daily. When the building was completed in late June 1927, the Los Angeles Times reported that the construction was believed to have set a record: “All records for the erection of a huge structure were believed to have been broken when last week the Scofield Engineering Construction Company turned over the new $5,000,00 department store and mail-order house at Ninth street and Boyle avenue to Sears, Roebuck & Co., having completed this height-limit project in 146 working days, or 171 days of elapsed time.” On completion, the building had nine stories and a basement, with a total floor area of approximately 11 acres (45,000 m2). The building was one of nine Sears mail order distribution centers built between 1910 and 1929.

Operation of the building from 1927 to 1991

From 1927 to 1991, the building was operated both as a mail order distribution center serving the Western United States and as a retail store operating on the ground floor. The sprawling mail order distribution center was a marvel of modern technology when it opened, with employees filling orders by roller skating around the enormous facility, picking up items and dropping them onto corkscrew slides for distribution by truck or rail. The building was one of the largest in Los Angeles, and it attracted more than 100,000 visitors in its first month of operation, not including shoppers at the ground floor retail store.

Over the years, the building’s 226-foot (69 m) Art Deco tower and “Sears” sign became a “beacon for Eastsiders returning home on area freeways,” and has been described by the Los Angeles Conservancy as “one of the dominant visual icons of the Eastside” of Los Angeles.

Closure in 1992

After 64 years of operations at the site, Sears announced in May 1991 that it would close its regional distribution center in Boyle Heights. The distribution center was closed in January 1992, eliminating jobs for 585 full-time workers and 775 part-timers. The facility’s general manager said at the time that the Boyle Heights center was the most expensive that Sears operated, in part due to the fact that the facilities were “outdated.”

Vacancy and redevelopment plans

Though Sears continues to operate a retail store on the building’s ground floor, the remainder of the large complex has remained vacant since 1992. In 2004, developer MJW Investments announced that it had acquired the building and had plans to make the long-shuttered building into the centerpiece of a proposed $350-million, 23-acre (93,000 m2) retail and residential redevelopment project. MJW planned to convert the Sears building into 480 condominiums, 180 apartments, and 750,000 square feet (70,000 m2) of stores and restaurants.

However, MJW’s planned redevelopment was met with heavy resistance in the Boyle Heights community. Many feared the development could spawn a gentrification of the area, squeezing out low income housing. Others complained that the proposal for 150 affordable housing units was not enough and not the right kind. Others expressed concern that the large retail development would squeeze out small businesses with roots in the community. In May 2006, after two years of delays, MJW announced that it would not move forward with its redevelopment plans and was putting the building up for sale. MJW announced that it had paid $40 million for the building and invested another $10 million in the project.

Boyle Heights native and boxer, Oscar de la Hoya, who used to shop as a child at the Boyle Heights Sears store with his mother, stepped in to try to revive the redevelopment effort. De la Hoya, with investment from other developers, made bids to acquire the property in 2007 and again in 2008, but neither bid was consummated.

Historic designation

The Boyle Heights Sears building was designated a Historic-Cultural Monument (HCM #788) by the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission in August 2004, and was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in April 2006.

Building Activity

  • OpenBuildings
    OpenBuildings updated a digital reference
    about 6 years ago via Annotator
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    OpenBuildings updated a digital reference and added a digital reference
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