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From the Ruins of a Retail Meltdown, Post-Industrial Playgrounds Emerge

While its shuttered department stores cause headaches around the U.S., Sears’s massive 1920s warehouses represent a triumph of post-industrial urbanism.
Ponce City Market in Atlanta, as seen from the BeltLine.
Ponce City Market in Atlanta, as seen from the BeltLine.Courtesy of Jamestown

The retail apocalypse has left empty shells of department stores scattered across the American landscape. It’s been especially hard for Sears, the once mighty retailer that now appears to be on its deathbed. But while the ghosts of the chain’s big-box stores haunt suburban and exurban strip malls, a few relics of the company’s past are actually thriving for the first time in decades.

In the 1920s, Sears built several “plants” across the country. These were unfathomably large warehouses and distribution centers with ground floor stores, built when Sears was primarily a mail-order company. As urban areas suffered and depopulated in the middle of the 20th century, so did these massive buildings. But today, six of the seven remaining plants have been resurrected in the image of the contemporary city. The first wave of rehabilitations came in the late 1990s, when Boston’s plant was converted to the Landmark shopping center and offices, and Dallas’ plant became loft-style apartments. Seattle’s plant, like an imperial palace retooled for a conquering emperor, became the global headquarters for Starbucks.