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Sears long ago left the building, but Memphis has witnessed a Crosstown revival

Neal GouletComment
Crosstown Concourse in Memphis, Tenn.

Crosstown Concourse in Memphis, Tenn.

Crosstown Concourse wasn’t much on our radar when we visited Memphis, Tenn., for a long weekend in late February.

We had so many other stops on our to-do list, from Graceland and Sun Studio to the National Civil Rights Museum and Beale Street to craft beer and barbecue.

I vaguely knew that Crosstown Concourse was a former Sears distribution center, but I was unprepared for the enormity of the complex (it’s the largest commercial building in Tennessee) and unaware of what it had meant to Memphis back in the glory days when Sears was the city’s largest employer and America’s No. 1 retailer.

At French Truck Coffee on Crosstown’s first level, while my wife and son ordered (my next cup of coffee will be my first!), I struck up a brief conversation with a young woman behind the counter. I inquired about the colossal Art Deco building in which the coffee shop was a mere speck.

She knew some of the history, but most important steered me to the website/podcast “99% Invisible,” specifically an article titled, “Ghost Plants: Reusing Huge Abandoned Sears Buildings Across Urban America.”

One of those ghosts happened to be what is now Crosstown Concourse.

What the Memphis Business Journal once dubbed “the Mount Everest of abandoned Memphis commercial properties,” Crosstown Concourse is a sad reminder of what retail in America used to look and feel like and what we have lost in the digital age.

Yet it’s also a shining example of how persistence and innovation — and even a little benign neglect — not only can save historically and architecturally significant buildings but also make them thriving destinations once again.

It reminded me of the American Tobacco Historic District in Durham, N.C., which transformed what had been the largest tobacco operation in the world into a thriving mixed-used complex across from the home of the legendary Durham Bulls baseball team.

‘Even an in-house hospital’

Richard Warren Sears started selling watches in 1886, which led to a massive mail-order business and ultimately a brick-and-mortar empire that ruled the retail landscape for decades.

Originally built in 1927, Sears Crosstown had been a massive Sears distribution center and retail store.

Sears built 10 of these similar properties across the country between 1910 and 1930, according to the Memphis Business Journal. The 99% Invisible story juxtaposes black-and-white photos of the Minneapolis, Boston, Los Angeles and Memphis locations.

Building Design + Construction noted: “Sears shipped everything the consumer could wish for from these massive warehouses: Kenmore appliances, Craftsman tools, kits to build a house. You could order a hound dog. Or a donkey.”

When the Memphis complex opened on Aug. 27, 1927, one-in-four Memphians passed through the doors, according to WebUrbanist.com.

Sears spent a cool $5 million on what was to be their eighth regional distribution center, raising the roof in an astonishing 180 days! … Planners didn’t skimp on the amenities, either: Sears Crosstown boasted a soda fountain, a luncheonette, a cafeteria exclusively for employees, even an in-house hospital.

But the retail store closed in 1983 and the rest of the complex followed suit in 1993. Crosstown Concourse’s website noted that it stood as a “beacon of blight” for 20 years until 30 funding sources and 40 founding tenants came together to save it between 2010 and 2017.

Based on what the complex has become, it was well worth the wait.

Today, the 10-story, 1.5 million-square-foot “vertical urban village” is a “creative cauldron” that includes 265 apartments, a gym, theater, art gallery, stores, restaurants, doctor and dentist offices, a pharmacy, even a charter public high school. The uses seem endless, which helps explain why some 3,000 people per day cycle through the complex.

We didn’t have nearly enough time to explore Crosstown Concourse, where a Black History Month event was taking place that Sunday afternoon. We had lunch at Farm Burger but regrettably didn’t venture down to the far end where Crosstown Brewing Co. recently became the city’s newest craft brewery.

If we get back to Memphis, perhaps we’ll start at Crosstown Concourse. Heck, we could even stay there: rooms can be rented overnight.