Historic Structures

Building Description Sears Department Store Building, Washington DC

The Sears, Roebuck and Company Department Store was built in 1940-41 in the Tenleytown section of northwest Washington, D.C. It is the largest structure in an uptown commercial area which includes churches, schools, and public buildings. It is located at the intersection of Wisconsin Avenue, Albemarle Street, River and Murdock Mill Roads, and an alley. The structure is free-standing and polygonal in shape, following the irregular alignment and sloping contours of the streets. Sears is one story plus a basement and has rooftop parking. It has concrete walls and measures about 25 feet high on average and 385 feet on its longest side, creates to an impressive horizontal profile. The principal elevations have show windows with bronze frames. The features include a large show window which wraps the Albemarle Street and Wisconsin Avenue corner and ramps which rise to the parking deck. The architectural details express modern functionalism, influenced by design motifs from the International Style and Stream line Moderne. The store was designed by Sears' chief architect John Stokes Redden and store designer John Girard Raben, with the assistance of consulting engineer Oliver G. Bowne of Los Angeles. The exterior is largely intact, except for the removal of original slgnage and various alterations to the penthouses, display windows and entrances. It operated until recently as a department store and auto service garage. The building is in good quality and was renovated in the mid 1990s to accommodate a Hechinger's lumber yard.

Bounded by Wisconsin Avenue, Albemarle Street, River and Murdock Mill Roads, and an alley, the Sears Department Store was constructed on an unusual site; in terms of its polygonal shape and its eight foot variation in grade. This created design problems because no two sides of the building would be parallel for symmetrical location of expansion and control joints and it required a variation in floor level. The construction problem was solved by the design of a five-sided building divided into three sections of irregular shape, each independent of the other with expansion joints in a T-plan. The ground level problem was solved by regrading and building the structure into the sloping site with entrances at two levels.

The store's dimensions are approximately 385 feet by 350 feet, by 25 feet high. It originally contained 196,775 square feet of space: 111,525 square feet of gross sales floor area, 41,475 square feet of stock storage, 29,115 square feet for utilities, and 14,660 square feet for an automobile service facility.

The building's siting at a busy traffic intersection without sufficient neighborhood parking space strongly influenced the use of rooftop parking, accessible by ramps on Albemarle Street and Wisconsin Avenue and exit ramps leading to Murdock Mill Road and the alley. The ramps were conspicuously located on each facade to communicate that convenient automobile access and parking was available. Stepped and punctured parapets, streamlined steel railings, and sweeping curbs and bollards articulate the ramps. They were 18 feet wide and had no more than a 10 percent incline. There were 250 parking spaces and two penthouses which incorporated escalators and stairs leading to the retail area below. The penthouse at the Albemarle Street ramp is extant. Rectangular in plan with glass block windows on each side, this entrance has a flat roof and a curved canopy surmounted by the original "ENTRANCE" sign. The stairs have their original terrazzo finish. The Wisconsin Avenue penthouse was removed, although the terrazzo stairs were kept. It was triangular in shape with curved walls. Two types of lights were designed for the roof. Tall standards with multiple lights and reflecting disks were arranged in a circular pattern in the parking aisles; these have been replace with modern street lamps. While lamps with round concrete posts with a metal band which held opaque glass lamps were located at the rounded curbs at the ramps; these are extant, albeit in a deteriorated condition.

The site configuration is reflected in the building's multiple orientation. From the double-height display window at the corner of Albemarle Street and Wisconsin Avenue, entrance facades extend along both Albemarle and Wisconsin, bending around onto River Road where the auto service shop was located. The principal facades were on Wisconsin Avenue, Albemarle Street, and River Road. Together, they incorporated 13 display windows with bronze trim (some sections have been replaced with aluminum or steel) surmounted by continuous curvilinear concrete canopies; these areas are also distinguished by their rose-tinted exposed-aggregate concrete panels. The architectural focal point of the building is a huge display window on the corner of Albemarle Street and Wisconsin Avenue. Originally, six sixteen foot glass panels created a stage-like corner display. The panes have been replaced by windows approximately 12 feet high surmounted by a transom-like row of four square panes. Above the window is a bold curved canopy on which is mounted "SEARS" in neon--a replica of the original. This show window was intended to be a dramatic advertisement attracting the attention of motorists by day or night.

In 1975, the Wisconsin Avenue elevation was altered to accommodate construction for the Tenleytown Metro station escalator entrance; the doors and two of the five display windows were removed. This alteration pushed the ground level portion of the exterior wall back twenty feet. Granite was used to frame the escalator entrance and the original bronze Sears doors were reinstalled and reoriented toward the Metro. However, the distinctive curved canopy which hung over the original entrance remains intact. The original Albemarle Street entrance remains intact, although the doors and hardware have been replaced. The flanking display windows have been infilled. The River Road elevation is largely intact. In addition to the exit ramp, it has a large central garage entrance door for the original automobile service area. To the left of this opening is a pedestrian entrance with its original bronze hardware. The canopy and a small display window which once enhanced the doorway have been removed and the opening has been closed to pedestrians.

The secondary elevations fronting Murdock Mill Road and the alley are intact. Their concrete walls are punctuated by open panels, ribbons of small windows or air vents, and large loading dock entrances.

The building's overall appearance was enhanced by a distinctive rectangular basketweave pattern and surface texture. Large poured-in-place concrete panels separated by V-joints, designed to conceal the expansion and control joints, create a visually interesting wall. The innovative surface texture, made by using circular sawn lumber and alternating the direction of the grain to create the formwork panels required detailed analysis of concrete aggregates and an almost perfect alignment.

At the time of its construction, the interior design of the Sears Department Store was considered radical. It was termed "windowless" because there were no openings into the sales area for daylight or fresh air, central air and heating and lighting were used instead. The interior plan of the store generally was organized into the three sections defined by the T-shaped expansion joints. These construction joints roughly bisect the building where the Wisconsin Avenue and River Road facades join and at the midpoint of the Albemarle Street and Murdock Mill Road facades. In section, the building has two levels for sales, while store and automotive service areas were located in the basement. The office and service areas, located toward the rear of the building, incorporated a mezzanine for a lunchroom, restrooms, customer services, and offices. This area was accessed by the Albemarle Street pedestrian entrance and stair from the penthouse; it was demarcated on the elevation by horizontal bands of tripartite windows.

The main sales floor area had an open plan with long aisles defined by large square piers and was accessed by three pedestrian entrances, one from each of the principal elevations, in addition to the penthouse access.