Sears Crosstown Part 2: We’ve Entered the Building…

It’s the post you’ve eagerly been waiting for where we take you along on one of the last tours of the Sears Crosstown building. If you haven’t been waiting eagerly you probably missed “Sears Crosstown: An Intro to the Tour” by Rebecca.

Crosstown Arts Sears building tour

We’re going to start our blog tour with a little introduction to the sheer size of the Sears building. Built in 1927 along a now abandoned railroad line, the Crosstown building is huge. By huge I mean 1.5 million square feet… or in other words, 27 football fields.

The original building was a mere 700,000 square feet. To make the facility happen, the mayor committed $100,000 for transportation… the largest sum of money ever spent by Memphis up to that time. The money went towards bringing a trolley line out to cross over the railroad tracks. Hey, now you know where the neighborhood’s name of “Crosstown” comes from!

Sears Crosstown water tower

The original building took 185 days to build (two lives were lost during construction). The massive water tower rising up from the center was part of the original building. From it hung the giant Sears sign… accessible via an exterior iron staircase. We’re going to do a “deep dive” into the water tower’s history in a later post, don’t worry. Sears made six additions from 1929 to 1963 (all of them going west, young man).

(Image from The Conveyor)
(Image from The Conveyor)

Here’s a cool fact: At 2,500 people, Sears was big enough to have its own newspaper called “The Conveyer.” Sears’ own Dr. Newton treated people at the facility’s infirmary. There was even an employee cafeteria!

The Conveyor (Christmas issue)
The Conveyor (Christmas issue)
The Conveyor (Sears Crosstown sign)
The Conveyor (Sears Crosstown sign)

All that’s to say, there was a ton to see in our short two hours!

Our tour guide was Lisa M. Hume AKA Photographer Wrangler AKA Grants Writer for Crosstown Development Project. She first led us through cavernous, pitch black rooms with only a white tile floor and our flashlights to keep us on track.

The first area we really explored was, fittingly, the local’s entrance to the department store. On opening day 30,000 people came to Sears.

Sears Crosstown parking lot
So many customers, all the time!

On this day, however, we’re surrounded only by faded wallpaper peeling from the walls. Unlike the grander tower entrance, this area was a bit more basic (hence the wallpaper, I think).

Sears Crosstown public entrance

From here you could go down the escalator or go through the diner into the department store. The retail portion of the company closed in 1983, leaving only the catalog distribution side of things in operation.

Sears Crosstown escalator
Courtesy of Kenneth Burnett

Rounding the corner we came to the control board for the huge marquee sign that graced the top of the Sears building. The controls were a fully mechanical calendar. The sign was lit up three times a day via these controls. When lit the sign could say “SEARS,” OPEN 5:30,” or “OPEN TONITE.”

Marquee Sign Controls

Sears Crosstown historic Sears sign
Courtesy of Judy Knauff

We spent a few minutes in this area. Here’s something random I found:

nightgown and personal

I’ll let you come up with your own story for this one!

Too soon it was time to move on. Watch your step as we make our way to the next destination… stay tuned for the next post!

Sears Crosstown steps

Most of the info I’ve shared here came from Lisa. But there are a few facts I gathered from this excellent blog post by Leadership Memphis.

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By Caitlin L. Horton

Partner-in-crime for entrepreneurs and community builders getting their message out with thoughtful design and marketing.

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