Landmark Sears building to become tech hub

 Sears building (1939, Nimmons, Carr & Wright) /  PH file

Sears building (1939, Nimmons, Carr & Wright) / PH file

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Rice University President David Leebron announced plans April 12 to repurpose the landmark Sears building in Midtown as a hub for tech startups, part of a larger proposal to develop an innovation district along Main Street between downtown and the Texas Medical Center in collaboration with a variety of educational and research institutions and businesses.

Rice owns the land where the 1939 building stands; it bought out the remainder of Sears' 99-year lease when the retailer closed its Midtown store in January.

 Mayor Sylvester Turner announces the proposed Main Street innovation district on April 12 /  photo by David Bush

Mayor Sylvester Turner announces the proposed Main Street innovation district on April 12 / photo by David Bush

The $100 million Sears redevelopment will restore the building's Art Deco features and convert its interior to offices, meeting areas, classrooms and amenities under the direction of Gensler and James Carpenter Design Associates of New York. Hines will be the development partner for new office, residential and retail components that are expected to be built on Rice-owned land nearby.

Member support has allowed Preservation Houston to advocate for the Sears building's preservation for more than a decade. PH's Jim Parsons and David Bush featured the store in their 2008 book Houston Deco and continued calling attention to its hidden Art Deco architecture in the years that followed. When plans were announced last fall for Sears to leave the building, Preservation Houston contacted Rice officials about the benefits of saving and restoring the significant structure.

Chicago architects Nimmons, Carr & Wright designed the Sears building as a prototype for the retail chain's post-Depression suburban flagships. The store included innovations like escalators, air conditioning and coordinated color schemes for each sales department as well as a series of murals by artist Eugene Montgomery, who would go on to paint similar murals in Sears stores across the country.

An early 1960s renovation "modernized" the store by sealing street-level display windows and hiding exterior stucco, glass block and tile behind corrugated metal panels. Inside, many original features were lost and the Montgomery murals either removed or painted over.

Work on the Sears building is expected to be complete by 2020. Preservation Houston will keep its members informed as the project unfolds.