PUBLISHED IN THE MEMPHIS BLOG online publication – COMMERCIAL APPEAL
Architecture can flatter the skyline with its curvaceous silhouettes and distinguishable profiles. The Sears Crosstown building on the other hand is, more often than not, ignored. The building commands the sky with its 14 stories and 1.4 million square feet, but most people are busy looking at eye-level on a street running through Midtown to North Memphis and hosts a vibrant nightlife of clubs, trolley-goers, and pedestrians. When people do take the time to look up, it’s to wonder “What’s going on in there?” Usually they are thinking about the present, wondering if anyone has broken in looking for a place to sleep. While neighbors functionally “step around” it, the Sears Tower is a favorite topic of urban planners, land developers, and Memphis historians. These were some of the 40 people who made up the tour group sponsored by the local chapter of the Urban Land Institute.
The building is a giant warehouse, vacant since 1996. We spread out and explored the space, with a tour guide telling stories that echoed and bounced in the wide rooms and tall ceilings. When natural light wasn’t available, group members brought out flashlights. Broken glass and water splashing could be heard under our feet.
What best filled the emptiness of the building were the anecdotes. Snapping pictures of the still standing buffets, the tour guide told us about the Tower’s famous bread pudding. As people crowded into the “Package Assembly” room, where workers received items ordered from the Sears Catalog via a network of gigantic tubes that wound through the Towers’ floors for packaging, you could almost imagine the buzzer that lit up tube lighting and signaled the next round of purchases was coming. Workers packaged so fast, and in such heat, that water coolers included salt tablets to keep them on their feet. To contrast this insider’s view with the public perception of Sears at the time, we were told about the famous return policy, which accepted everything, including a failed pressure cooker with a ham still inside. Staring up a spiral chute that seemed to snake forever, the guide talked about Clyde, who would jump in when packages were stuck and clear the path.
Throughout the tour it was easy to imagine the building talking back to us – the whirl of the conveyor belts that still remain, users circling the giant columns responsible for holding up the floors, customers brushing past the white tiled walls on their way to purchase goods from the health and beauty aids, or drinking coffee in the cafe, employees punching in at the start of their day before popping their salt tablets and wrapping items that dropped from the chutes. Up a couple floors, in a room with wood paneling and more pristine bathrooms, you could hear executives arguing and making evening plans. We trudged up the 14 floors, eager to see the top floors and the Memphis skyline.
Our interests were piqued when we walked circles around a 75,000 gallon red water tower, which had been sand-blasted at some point, creating the sandy beach around it. Whereas the group had split off into smaller pairs and triads on the way up, we were all reunited at the tower, which captured more than a few imaginations. People were scaling the loft, where at least one person climbed through a wasp-infested corridor to see what was beyond. People clustered at the windows, amazed at how much Memphis looked like a forest from this height. Someone mentioned that Memphis had more trees in its city area, per square foot, than any other city in the U.S. Another person pointed out the towers of Rhodes College and a few got together, trying to attach place names to spires that broke the tree-line. Some thought they felt a “ghosty” presence and others quizzed the urban planners in the group about what development plans were in the building’s future.
Beyond this, the most action the building has seen in recent years comes from the peeling paint. It will be interesting to see what will eventually reactivate this space, grabbing our attention and providing us with something grounded in the present, rather than the past.