Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes to us from friend of the blog, and frequent commentor, billytheskink. While he self describes as a lizard, I find his writing to be vibrant as a Macaw.
As a reader of a blog about historic Houston retail, you no doubt know that Rice University’s planned renovation of the former Midtown Sears at 4201 Main St. into a hub for innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship has been well underway. The centerpiece of what was originally dubbed as the “Midtown Innovation District”, the building is now being referred to as “The Ion” and the surrounding area (including the former Fiesta Mart at 4200 San Jacinto now occupied by Greentown Labs) is now tabbed as “The Ion District”. The Midtown Sears opened in 1939 as the first major retail building located outside of Downtown, a 4 level structure (3 stories and a basement) with a classic Art Deco exterior. The Art Deco exterior was largely covered up by corrugated metal paneling in the 1960s, coinciding with the brutalist architectural trends of the time and with Sears’ own move the to serif-font “box” logo. The first (all-caps) incarnation of the box logo adorned the landmark sign on the roof of the building from the mid-60s until its closing in January 2018, though Sears has changed its logo several times since (abandoning the last version of the box logo in 1984). The store was a time warp to the past in its last few decades of operation, far from a modern retailer in location, layout, décor, and outward appearance. Our friend over at the Louisiana and Texas Retail blog has some wonderful photos of the store during its last years of existence, quite the contrast to what has become of the building.
I had the opportunity to tour the former Sears/The Ion a few weeks ago, as it nears completion and occupation. Seemingly no expense has been spared to convert the building into a modern office structure. Two floors have been added to the top of the building and large sections of the original floorplates were cut out to create an atrium that extends from the open basement up to a skylight in the roof. The basement is largely a common space that can host both large presentations and small collaborative meetings, while the first floor has been reserved for retail (largely chef-focused restaurants, of which a few have agreed to leases already).
Lovely as the renovation of the building is for the modern office user or tech entrepreneur, it is a sad sight for the retail enthusiast. Very little of building is reminiscent of the former department store in any way and there appeared to be nothing at all in or outside of the building that references the 79 years it spent as a Sears. About the only things that do provide any indication of the building’s original life are the location of the stairs leading down to the basement, the original concrete support beams throughout the first 3 floors and basement, and some faint whispers of the old Art Deco exterior (most easily identifiable on its northeast face).
I was able to snap a few photos on my tour. Unfortunately, it is only a few, as my cellphone was running out of storage at the time. I regret not getting a photo from the south corner of the fourth floor, where the view is dominated by the cube sign for the Jack In The Box at 4403 Fannin St. (though who knows for how long, Rice is believed to own that Jack In The Box property through a holding company), my apologies for that.