Sears Store Building, Evansville Indiana
The old Sears Store stands as a landmark in American commercial history. Its conversion as the company's first retail outlet in 1925 marked the very hegemony of city life. Admittedly, the transition from a rural to an urban nation was a far larger phenomenon than the establishment of a retail store by a firm theretofore catalogue-only. Yet 1920 was the first Federal census tipping the balance of population to cities, and buying habits clearly underscore that trend.
In addition to commercial importance, however, the old Sears Store building shares in a significant midwestern architectural development. By 1920, when the building was actually erected, several shipping and manufacturing concerns, notably John Deere, had pioneered the construction of reinforced concrete warehouses and salesrooms. Large buildings - vaguely Chicago School in their style - housed farm equipment and hardware in spaces unhindered by complex structural systems and supported by stout concrete floors. Buyers could shop free of pretentious ornament and equipment could be easily moved or rearranged.
Research into the Fourth and Sycamore buildings origin bears out this democratic appeal. Known first as the McCurdy Building, it served as the site of the Hercules Corporation, manufacturers of a gas engine and owned by the building's namesake, Colonel William McCurdy. Until Sears' occupation, McCurdy also rented space to two hardware and automobile accessories companies.
Sears entered the picture through its contract with Hercules. McCurdy produced engines sold under the Sears name. For some reason, however, Sears was dissatisfied with the contract and sent General Robert E. Wood to negotiate its termination. When shown McCurdy's building, Wood was told that if Sears would place a retail store there, then the contract would be cancelled. Wood agreed and sold the inexpensive solution to his fellow executives in Chicago. On October 5, 1925 the building opened as site of the first Sears store to operate as a direct retail business independent of a catalogue department.
The early Sears period was one of growth and marketing experimentation. The Evansville employees were responsible for building the personality of the store and for establishing many policies which eventually became an integral part of the national retail organization. By the mid-1930's the store was cramped for space, and an expansion program was started. However, little had been accomplished before 1937 and the disastrous Ohio River flood put a halt to construction. After the flood, though, work resumed in earnest. A new two-story building was completed on an adjacent parking lot in late 1937, and a two-story annex was erected in 1943 to house farm equipment. Finally, two more floors were added to the 1937 addition. By 1943 the Sears store had grown to three times its original size.
In the early 1950's, with new lines of merchandise, such as televisions, demanding an increasing amount of space, the store again looked to expansion. The warehouse was moved to new and larger quarters, and The Farm Store took over that space. Then it became necessary to move automotive supplies into larger quarters, and a complete new service station was opened in 1955. The old service station site was converted into a parts department, and repair shop.
On Tuesday, October 4th, at 4:00, 1960, a bronze plaque was unveiled by Clarkes F. Kellstrout, Chairman of the Board of Sears, at the building marking Fourth and Sycamore as the site of the first Sears retail store. This bronze plaque was moved to its new home in the Sears Tower in Chicago on January 27, 1976, and was installed in a permanent display build especially for it on the 40th floor of what was then the world's tallest building. The company asked that the plaque be removed to Chicago because it said it believed it deserves a place of honor in the company's history archives. The downtown Evansville Sears store was closed in December, 1976.