Sears Spelunk 

Local group tours the 14-story Sears Crosstown building.

If there was this much demand in 1996 to check out Sears Crosstown, it’s hard to imagine the first-floor outlet store closing.

Whenever I told anyone I planned to tour the Sears Crosstown building with the local chapter of the Urban Land Institute (ULI) last week, the response was the same: “I’m jealous. I want to go.”

As large as it looms in Midtown — and it’s the highest building between downtown and Clark Tower in East Memphis — the Sears Crosstown building looms just as large in people’s imaginations. Built in 1927 (additional construction was done in ’45 and ’67) and housing a 72,000-gallon indoor water tank in its tower, the Sears distribution center at this location closed in the early ’90s. The outlet store remained open until 1996, when the entire building was shuttered.

ULI initially planned to take 20 people through the building, but because of the interest, doubled that number and still had to turn people away.

“It’s an important landmark in our city,” said ULI tour organizer Les Binkley. “We felt our members, like many folks in the neighborhood, were curious about the property and would enjoy taking a rare look inside a building we often see from afar but never close up.”

Participants were advised to wear sturdy, waterproof shoes and to bring a flashlight. The tour started on the darkened first floor through what used to be a coffee shop and the sales floor. The walls are covered with ceramic white tiles, and plaster has been ground into the aging carpet. In uncarpeted areas, there is a steady crunch of light bulbs and other debris underfoot.

The paint is peeling off nearly every surface, including the mammoth columns that dominate the warehouse space.

Broken and cracked panes dot the windows, and stuff hangs from hallway ceilings. With their flashlights pointed in front of them, participants joke that the tour should have been closer to Halloween.

In many ways, Sears’ presence lingers. Wooden dollies litter the first floor, while remnants of Sears’ sorting system, including spiral chutes, tubes, and conveyer belts, remain.

The most striking part of the building, however, is the sheer amount of space.

At 14 stories and 1.4 million square feet, the Sears Crosstown building is twice as big as Clark Tower. The property can accommodate parking for 1,500 vehicles.

“It’s a lot different from other buildings this size,” said U of M grad student Ward Kennedy. “Look at its silhouette; it’s just a wall. There’s nothing else this scale nearby.”

After the tour, participants discussed potential uses for the building.

“It could be an asset in its current form, but it’s a challenge,” Kennedy said. “Given Memphis’ real estate market, something remarkable would have to happen.”

Attorney Taylor Gray has some experience redeveloping old buildings.

“I love historic structures, both their intrinsic historical value and also to see their redevelopment potential,” he said. “Obviously, the sort system been modernized since it was first built, but it looked exactly like FedEx’s.”

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