Eye on “The Ion” an inside look at the former Midtown Sears

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.

One of the few Sears elements left, if barely, is where the escalators (supposedly the first ever in Houston) led down to the basement floor. Rice replaced the escalators with stairs, linked by a seating area for “TED Talks” given from the basement floor.

 

A view of the stairs and seating from the basement level. A member of the group I was touring with actually worked at this Sears and said this area in the basement was the toy department, where she worked. She also met her husband, a fellow Sears employee, while working at this store.

 

A view up from the basement. Rice added two floors to the building and then cut large holes in the Sears floor plates for the skylight light to shine through. This also alleviated the issue of Sears’ large floorplates lacking appeal to modern office leasers. The panels on the railing of each floor were custom-made and designed to reflect light from the skylight down to each floor and the basement.

 

Chevron is one of the particularly notable tenants who have already leased space in The Ion (Microsoft is another). They have a small office under construction with a neat little museum area in its lobby. I rather liked the historical progression of Chevron logos through the years, from Standard Oil all the way to Chevron’s recent “Human Energy” branding. These logos are all cut out of wood.

 

This is the 4th floor, which was Sears’ roof. There are some decent views of Midtown on the north end and the Medical Center to the south. Again, I really should have taken a photo of the view from the south corner, which is dominated by the Jack In The Box cube sign across the street.

 

5 comments

  1. What a waste of money! The interior is nicely updated, but what a waste putting in all those glass panels for views of freeway, and a closed Fiesta. Could kept the old exteior, while saving money AND class!!!!!!!!

  2. Good stuff, billytheskink, I’m glad to see you guest blogging here at HHR!

    This Sears building certainly had a better fate than the old downtown Foley’s/Macy’s. That said, as much of a time warp as the old Sears was and as much hatred as the metal siding covering up the art deco look got, I still liked shopping at the Midtown Sears even if their hours of operation were often quite limited. It was an interesting place to shop and a rare reminder of times past here in Houston. I did purchase a few things from the Midtown Sears in their last few years of operation including a pair of JVC headphones which I still use.

    While the Sears was bound to close here in the 2020s regardless if they were evicted or not, the real shame is that the Midtown Fiesta Mart next door was forced to close. The Fiesta was a bit of a mix of the nicer 1980s suburban Fiestas, like the Astrodome one if you want to call it suburban, and the smaller inner-city Fiestas. I shopped there a few times and I quite liked the 1980s neon decor there. I know there were reports of panhandlers and such in front of the Fiesta and Sears, but I never found that to be a hindrance to shopping. The Fiesta was an important part of the community given the lack of supermarkets in the area. There is the Midtown Randall’s, which is nice, but it’s really on the other side of Midtown and it won’t be easy for Fiesta’s shoppers to get to on foot. While these RIce projects might benefit the area in some ways, it’s certainly coming at a cost to the community in another way.

    Anyway, here is the Google page for that closed Fiesta in case anyone wants to see photos from inside it. It’s certainly worth a look! Link: https://goo.gl/maps/dn88vcoHr7KKt9QT9

    While it’s a shame that the Houston Sears was not preserved, the 1940 Sears in Galveston was preserved by the Galveston Historic Foundation and they renovated the building a few years ago to look like it did as a Sears. Here’s how that turned out:

    1940s Sears: https://s.hdnux.com/photos/53/13/44/11319613/5/1200×0.jpg
    2010s GHF: https://www.galvestonhistory.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/sears.jpg

    I did see that the Galveston Sears building was for sale recently. I don’t know what the story is there. Hopefully whoever buys it will maintain the vintage Sears look.

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