The legacy of a humble inventor who preferred to build the American Dream from behind the scenes.
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Sears, Roebuck & Co. once set the standard for the catalog and retail shopping experience. Now they’re struggling for survival.
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Photo (source): Sears, Roebuck & Co. complex as it appeared in 1906.
Contemporary American consumers can purchase almost anything they need via the internet around the clock. Online retailers like Amazon rely on a readily accessible inventory catalog, honest customer reviews, and shipping distribution hubs to satiate a consumer’s every desire. While the internet component may be exclusive to the modern marketplace, the concept of selling to consumers directly is one that dates all the way back to the late 1800’s. One company in particular cornered the mail-order and retail markets so heavily that it’s catalog became known as the “Consumer’s Bible.” Sears may still be around these days, but if you are a regular American Urbex reader, you can probably guess how it is all going to end.
Richard Warren Sears, 23, worked as a station agent for Minneapolis and St. Louis Railway in North Redwood, Minnesota in 1886. One day a shipment of gold pocket watches from a Chicago wholesaler was refused by businessman Edward Stegerson. With the recent implementation of time zones and ever-expanding reach of railway lines throughout the United States, Sears recognized the growing importance to keep accurate time. Sears contacted the Chicago wholesaler and agreed to purchase the watches for $12 a piece, which he then sold for $14. The enterprising young man had little trouble marketing the gold watches to railway personnel, farmers, and passengers. Within six months Sears garnered $5,000 in profit. Sears then moved his burgeoning start-up to Minneapolis and founded the R.W. Sears Watch Company.
Photo: A desk on the top floor draped in a soiled American flag.
The young entrepreneur had an apparent knack for writing plain-spoken advertising copy and his mail-order watch business bloomed. On March 1, 1887 Sears set up shop on Dearborn Street in Chicago. One month later Sears placed an advertisement for a watchmaker in the Chicago Daily News. Shortly thereafter he received a reply from Alvah Curtis Roebuck, whom he hired to fix returned product. Sears continued to market his jewelry wares directly to customers through nationwide mail-order. After just two years of operation Sears sold the successful business for $72,000 and headed to Iowa.
Merely a week passed before Sears became restless and contacted Roebuck to form the company that eventually bore both their names. The Sears, Roebuck & Co. applied the same down-to-earth marketing tactics they used with jewelry to a wide range of consumer goods. Sears catalogs were designed to supplant rural general stores by including plain-speak descriptions of goods accompanied by pictures with list prices. This disintermediation cut rural general store’s common practice of price gouging out the equation. Mail-order items would be sent directly from Sears to the consumer via the ever-expanding network of national railroads and US Post Office.
Although competitor Montgomery Ward had beaten Sears to the mail-order catalog punch by twenty years, it was Sears that innovated many of the marketing strategies that catapulted his company to the title of “World’s Largest Store.” Catalogs were purposefully printed in smaller forms than magazines, due to the fact that most people stack reading material from largest to smallest. This placed the Sears catalog front and center on most coffee tables in homes. The inclusion of product photos and models, especially young attractive females, further enticed consumers to place orders. As waves of immigrants arrived in America in the early 1900’s the company began including order forms in English, German, and Swedish. Sears catalogs even informed barely literate consumers that no judgement would be made for poor penmanship, grammar, or spelling errors.
Photo: Pneumatic tubes facilitated inter-office communications.
To accomodate the expanding operation the company purchased 41.6 acres of land on Chicago’s west side in 1904. Seven thousand men laid down 23 million bricks and 15 million feet of lumber to complete the multi-building Sears, Roebuck and Co. Complex. One of the most iconic features was the 14-story Sears Merchandise Building Tower, which was attached to now demolished 3.3 million square foot Merchandise Building. Other complex buildings included the Administration Building, Advertising Building, Printing Building, Powerhouse and more structures were added as the years progressed.
The sheer magnitude of the 5 million square foot complex mandated several innovations to keep regular operations running efficiently for the 22,000 employees who worked there in its heyday. The company built its own internal power plant to provide electricity to all complex buildings. An intricate network of pneumatic tubes greatly increased inter-office communications between staff. To insure safety the entire complex was fitted with emergency sprinklers and a volunteer fire department. A male and female segregated cafeteria system kept workers fed throughout the day. Employees could even do their banking with the on-site Sears Bank. The company even provided entertainment for the Chicago area by housing the WLS (“World’s Largest Store”) AM radio station in the Merchandise Tower.
Photo (Nitram242): View of the complex from the elevated parking structure.
Consumers purchasing habits shifted dramatically as the automobile became more accessible to the average person in the 1920’s. Sears’ core mail-order market had previously been the majority of Americans that lived in rural areas, far removed from urban stores. Automobiles enabled rural consumers to drive into cities to inspect goods at retail shops before purchase. Urban consumers by this point had already been accustomed to the convenience of in-store shopping. At the same time rural citizens left farming communities in droves to take up jobs in industrial centers of cities nationwide. Sears eventually acquiesced to opening a retail shop within the Merchandise Building in 1925. Its immediate success spurred Sears to open retail shops nationwide. By the close of the 1920’s the company opened a new store on average every other business day.
Despite occupying the largest business complex in the United States, The World’s Largest Store continued to grow and had thousands of employees scattered throughout the city at various locations. To alleviate this problem the company announced on July 27, 1970 that it would construct a skyscraper 100 feet taller than the World Trade Center. Upon completion the Sears Tower (now known as Willis Tower) became the tallest building in the world and had over 3.8 million square feet of office space. When Sears moved in 1973 to the tower the company expected profits to rise just as high. Stiff competition from Montgomery Ward’s, Wal-Mart, Kmart, and other more nimble retailers undercut Sears’ lofty projected growth. For much of the 1970’s and 80’s the building remained unoccupied by tentants. The original Sears, Roebuck & Co. Complex maintained skeletal operations until April 30, 1987 until it was finally shuttered after 82 years in operation. By 1989 the writing was on the wall as the company continued to flounder and Sears announced that it would move to its current headquarters in nearby Hoffmann Estates. Sears finally vacated the eponymous tower in 1995.
Photo: A Sears branded Silvertone radio collects dirt.
In the internet era the once mighty retailer has lost much of its lustre. The $11 billion acquisition for from one-time competitor K-Mart in 2004 has done little to improve its foothold in the retail market. Cost-cutting measures by the Sears Holding Corporation have prevented reinvestment into retail buildings, and has diminished the overall shopping experience. As of November, 2011 the company has limped along through 19 straight quarterly losses. Despite its weakening position, the company is currently being courted by Indiana, Ohio, New Jersey, and Wisconsin to relocate its headquarters with offers of tax incentives. Some pundits even expect the Sears brand to disappear entirely in 2012.
Up until the 1993 millions of American children thumbed through the Sears Wishbook during the winter holidays. The lists they created were, of course, impractically long for Santa (a.k.a. middle-class parents) to fulfill. The ecstatic kids pictured in the catalog were surrounded by mountains of toys. It painted the illusion that, if you have these things, you will be happy. It was a clever marketing tactic to indoctrinate future consumers to buy Sears product. Richard Sears knew that in the 1880’s and it still worked a century later. His innovation of using plain-spoken language, enticing photography, high-quality guarantees, fast shipping and customer service raised the bar for American retailers.
As with any great business innovation, other companies have adopted Sears’ tactics and further refined them. Today the Wish Book has been replaced by Amazon’s Wish List. Sears catalog was once a guaranteed source for high quality consumer goods at the best price, but the company ceased mail-order operations in 1993. Now Amazon connects consumers with any retailer with the best possible price for everything. The printed catalog was once a competitive advantage, but morphed over time into an inflexible liability as the company headed into the internet era. Unable to adapt to change the World’s Largest Store stagnated and lost their title. In 2011 the Sears brand failed to even rank among the top 100 consumer loyalty leaders. Sustained financial distress and a marked loss of brand prestige means that the corporate future of Sears hangs in the balance.
Video (source): A brief history recap of Sears.
Unlike a majority of buildings that American Urbex explores the former Sears, Roebuck & Co. Complex has a bright future ahead of it. The Foundation for Homan Square is currently renovating The Sears Merchandise Building Tower to become a cultural centerpiece for neighborhood redevelopment. The Holy Family Lutheran School currently occupies the former Administration Building. The Henry Ford Academy has recently converted the powerhouse into a high school and is now open for the 2011-12 school year.
Of the original complex buildings the Catalog Plant remains dormant. Across the street is the original Allstate Insurance building, which also falls under the Sears umbrella of companies. After a long period of environmental exposure, the windows have been freshly boarded and the walkway connecting the Allstate building and Advertising Plant secured. Plans from 2005 to convert the Allstate building into condos have yet to materialize. After more than two decades of vacancy there are few reminders of the once dominant American company that occupied this space.
24/7 Wall St. – List of brands that will disappear in 2012.
ABC News – Has short video of on tower redevelopment.
Ancestry.com – A compiled list of Sears catalogs. Requires registration.
Brand Keys – The top 100 consumer loyalty leaders for 2011.
Chicago Mag – 2005 article on plans to convert the Allstate building into condos.
Chicago Tribune – 1987 article on the official closing of the complex.
Chuckman’s Collection – Postcard of the 1906 plant.
CNBC – Report on Sears declining profitability.
Chicago Tribune – 1993 article on redevelopment at Sears Tower.
Consumer Affairs – Kmart purchases Sears for $11 billion.
Emporis – Sears Merchandise Tower statistics.
Flickr – Doostydusty’s SRC photo set.
Flickr – Nitram242’s Sears Chicago photo set.
Foundation for Homan Square – Currently renovating the tower.
Google Books – 1897 Sears, Roebuck & Co. Catalog.
Google Books – Short biographical entry on Richard Warren Sears.
Google Books – Insights into Sears marketing techniques for farmers and immigrants.
Hammond HS – A brief history of Sears & Roebuck in Hammond, IN.
History.com – History of Richard W. Sears and the company he founded.
History of Corporate – Sears Holding Corporation
Homan Square History – Photos of the original Sears Merchandise Tower.
Lori Liggett – A brief history of Sears, Roebuck & Co.
Los Angeles Times – 1993 article on Sears’ inability to adapt to competition.
NHL – National Historic Landmark entry for the Sears, Roebuck & Co. Complex.
NPR – Sears is considering relocating to another state.
Sears Archive – The official corporate history.
Sears Holdings Corporation – About the company.
SearsTower.org – Selected newspaper articles on the tower’s history.
SFGate – Sears has suffered 19 straight quarterly losses.
Waymarking – Sears, Roebuck & Co. Complex history.
Webwire – The Sears Merchandise Tower celebrates its 100th birthday.
Wikipedia – Entry for Sears, Roebuck & Co.
Wikipedia – Alvah Curtis Roebuck
Wikipedia – Richard Warren Sears
Wikipedia – Sears Wishbook
Wikipedia – WLS AM Radio
Willis Tower – Formerly known as Sears Tower.
YouTube – A brief history of Sears.
Photo (source): Ravenswood Hospital as it appeared in 1945.
The American healthcare system is for profit. American citizens’ health, safety, and well-being are managed by large companies looking to stay in the black. The other democracies and various forms of government in industrialized nations have recognized the danger that this poses to general public. While private medical care still thrives in these countries, there is at least a public healthcare plan to insure that all citizens have a safety net. The United States is the only country where citizens decide between health and crushing debt, even if they have insurance. These medical bills often go unpaid as patients hover around bankruptcy or simply do not have the means to pay them. Despite the inability of patients to pay, healthcare providers are required by federal law to treat patients. To stay financially competitive healthcare providers seek to mitigate their risk and cut costs wherever possible.
For one Chicago youth those risk-averse penny-pinching measures hastened his untimely death.
Photo: The Adler Pavilion portion of Ravenswood Hospital.
While playing basketball on North Wolcott Avenue, Christopher Sercye, age 15, was shot twice in the abdomen by gang members on Saturday May 16, 1998 around 6pm. His panic-stricken friends dragged Christopher about 100 yards to the ramp outside the emergency room of the nearby privately-owned Ravenswood Hospital before collapsing. Some reports say the injured teen was within 30 feet of the door, while others say he was 50 feet. In any case the teen was well within view of hospital staff. The first of five separate phone calls to emergency services came in at 6:15pm.
One friend ran inside the hospital and got two police officers to rush to Christopher’s aid. The officers and witnesses begged hospital staff to assist, but they demurred citing hospital policy that forbid them to exit the building. The officers on scene were also bound by protocol to not move injured people and wait for paramedics. At 6:23pm a request for an ambulance went out over police radio. Ignoring protocol one of the officers finally commandeered a wheelchair and rushed Christopher into the emergency room with a barely detectable pulse.
Photo: EKG readings from a patient file left in the hospital.
An ambulance finally arrived on scene at 6:29pm, but left after seeing Christopher being wheeled into the hospital. Emergency Room staff began administering treatment immediately. Two minutes later Christopher suffered cardiac arrest. Doctors discovered that the bullets punctured Christopher’s aorta, mesenteric vein, and colon. Christopher was pronounced dead at 7:33pm.
Prime suspect Aureliano Fajardo was arrested the next day. Two other accomplices, Salvador Aguilar and Lionel Duran, were also arrested in connection with the murder. Fajardo and Aguilar were kept on $1 million bond, while Duran was kept on $500,000 while charged with first-degree murder.
Two days after the shooting Ravenswood president and CEO John E. Blair rescinded the policy preventing hospital staff from exiting the building. In response to Christopher’s death Blair stated, “Above all, I want to make sure that if a tragedy like this ever occurs again, we have a different result. Media reports of the tragedy of Christopher’s death garnered national outrage. President Clinton threatened to revoke the $59 million annual Medicare funding for the hospital, but was later overruled by the Health Care Financing Administration.
Those who remember 8th grader Christopher Sercye described him as a leader with sense of humor. His family filed a lawsuit against Ravenswood Hospital later that year. In 2003 the courts ruled in favor of the family and awarded them $12.5 million for the wrongful death. That same year the “250 Yard Rule” was amended to the EMTALA law. The rule states that healthcare providers are required to respond to any “presentation” warranting medical assistance within 250 yards of the main hospital campus building.
Photo: A hospital bed takes up a majority of floorspace in this cramped patient room.
Ravenswood Hospital had long been a pillar of the north side Chicago community before being embroiled in controversy. The original hospital was built in 1907, but by the 1990s had expanded to meet community demands. The hospital had just under one thousand beds at its apex. It also included ambulatory care, a psychiatric unit, rehabilitation, oncology, coronary care, trauma ward, nursing school and student residence on site the 7.5 acre site.
The hospital fell on hard times during the 1990’s as HMOs, insurance companies, Medicare and Medicaid began cutting costs wherever they could. Advocate Health Care purchased the flailing hospital in 1998 much to the chagrin of community members and hospital staff. Blair, the hospital president and CEO who had weathered the Christopher Sercye debacle, said “In the weeks to come we hope everyone will agree that this move has great potential for employees and will enhance our ability to serve the community.” Almost immediately Advocate began consolidating medical services with other are hospitals it owned. Despite the drastic cuts the hospital managed to operate at a $35 million loss in 2001 alone. Ravenswood’s closing could not have come at a worse time as a number of historic Chicago area hospitals, such as Edgewater, were closing their doors. When Advocate finally sold the hospital they salted the earth by including a non-compete clause forbidding new owners to operate a medical facilty.
Photo: An X-Ray machine on the top floor scorched by fire.
A majority of the hospital was closed off while other parts were rented to various tenants. Ravenswood may limp along until its ultimate demise, but its death makes way for new life. Private school Lycée Français de Chicago plans on demolishing the entire complex in 2013 to make way for a new building. If the school is able to raise the necessary funds they will occupy their new home by 2015.
There are currently 50 million Americans who do not have health insurance coverage. Even those who are insured risk being dropped by insurance companies should they incur medical bills. As Americans we pay not only a financial cost, but also a social cost (PDF) when profit is placed over health and well-being.
Ain’t No Way To Go – Article on Christopher Sercye’s tragic death.
Answers – Discusses the hospital closure in 2002.
Center Square Journal – Lycee Francais de Chicago will demolish the site in 2013.
Chicago Reader – Controversy over the Ravenswood Hospital closing.
Chicago Reader – Controversy over Advocate Health Care’s takeover of the hospital
Chicago Talks – Financial stress ultimately leads to the hospital closing.
Chicago Tribune – 1998 article on Medicare funding for the hospital.
Chicago Tribune – 1998 report of the crime and subsequent arrests.
Chicago Tribune – 1998 article mentions Christopher Sercye’s funeral.
Chicago Tribune – 2001 article about Fajardo committing murder behind bars.
Curbed Chicago – Architect mockup of what the Lycee Francais de Chicago building would look like.
emtala.org – Explains the EMTALA 250 Yard Rule.
Flickr – Nitram242’s Chicago Hospital Closure set.
Google Books – Jet article states that Christopher Sercye was shot in the heart.
Hospital Data – Statistics for the facility.
New York Times – Mentions Christopher Sercye being dragged “within 30 feet” of the hospital.
Power Rogers & Smith – Lists the 2003 $12.5 million settlement for Christopher Sercye’s wrongful death.
Scribd – Lycee Francais site survey from 2007.
Slate – Opinion piece about the policies that led to Christopher Sercye’s death.
Sun-Sentinel – 1998 article on Christopher Sercye’s death.
USA Today – Settlement announcement for Christopher Sercye’s death.
Wikipedia – Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act
YouTube – Video shot in the hallways.
YouTube – Hospital closing reaction video.
This week the American Urbex Podcast delves into one of the biggest cases of Medicare fraud in US history.
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Edgewater Medical Center article on American Urbex
Edgewater Medical Center on Flickr
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Photo: You can’t miss the regal facade of this building driving on Touhy Avenue.
According to one Chicago area native, the construction crew of the 293 room Lincolnwood Hyatt House were supposed to receive a shipment of blue bricks for the building facade. It isn’t clear if a communication or manufacturing error is to blame for the royal purple hue of the bricks, but Hyatt continued construction in spite of the error. Thus, an eccentric Chicago north-side suburb hotspot was born. Although the lodging operated under the Hyatt, Ramada, and Regency banners throughout the years locals colloquially dubbed it “The Purple Hotel.”
Photo: Law books adorn the shelves of TJ’s restaurant connected to the hotel.
In the early the early years the hotel enjoyed a certain level of grandeur. In the 1960’s and 70’s the hotel was a swinging Chicago hotspot. Famous musicians such as Barry Manilow, Roberta Flack, and Perry Como stayed in the hotel when in the Chicago area. The high times came to a screeching halt in 1983 when Teamster Allen Dorfman was murdered in the parking lot. Dorfman had been convicted of conspiring to bribe a US senator and faced up to 55 years in prison. When walking through the parking lot Dorfman was shot eight times with a .22 calibre pistol. FBI wiretaps revealed that the Chicago Mafia may have been connected to the execution style murder. Officials speculate that Dorfman was killed out of fear that he would divulge information from his 30 years of ties with organized crime figures. To date the case is still unsolved and whomever is responsible is still on the loose. The same year the head of Gerber Plumbing, Oscar Gerber, was also murdered at the hotel. A disturbed employee believed he was going to be fired and took Oscar’s life into his own hands.
In 1984 limousine driver George Koehler was standing at O’Hare airport waiting for his fare. After most of the passengers from the flight filed out of the airport Koehler asked the pilots if anyone remained on the plane. The pilots informed Koehler that one more person remained and would be coming shortly. Once the passenger arrived, Koehler ferried the young basketball player who had never been to Chicago before to the purple Lincolnwood Hyatt House. According to ESPN, Koehler and Michael Jordan remain friends to this day.
Photo: Swim at your own risk.
After more than 40 years in operation the hotel was taken over in late 2004 by Village Resorts, Inc., which officially christened the building with its affectionate “The Purple Hotel” moniker. Under new management the hotel boasted of its modernity.
We feature fully renovated and tastefully furnished guest rooms. To ensure that you are completely comfortable, each guest room is spacious and provides a number of amenities to meet the needs of today’s traveler. All rooms have an oversized work desk, two dual-line telephones with data port and voicemail,and state-of-the-art electronic key security system.
Despite efforts to cater to to a certain business clientele, the hotel was synonymous with sleaze. Police were frequently summoned to the hotel for drug and prostitution related offenses. In the May 7, 2008 edition of the Sun-Times the paper notes that the hotel relied on conventions such as the Midwest Fetish Fair & Marketplace for business. The hotel is split into three separate towers and management knowingly tried to segregate known sex parties from the rest of the hotel guests. One news clipping from as far back as 1989 mentions Opposite Sex, Inc. giving several “Meet, Match, Mate” seminars at the hotel.
Village Resorts President Donald Bae positioned Stefanie Bae as hotel manager. In 2005 Stefanie wrote a ringer review for the hotel on the Yahoo! Travel page.
The Purple Hotel had the most friendliest and helpful staff. The food was amazing….and They have a Sunday Brunch that is to DIE for. The rooms were very clean and cozy, excellent value for your money. It is close to everything and they have a sandvolleyball court!!! They have the best steaks in the world!
Grammar and punctuation errors aside, Stefanie may have had a prophetic moment when using the past tense in claiming the “Purple Hotel had the most friendliest and helpful staff.” Acting on complaints by guests, health officials descended upon the hotel in 2006. The inspection led to the discovery of over thirty violations that included a leaking roof, garbage disposal issues, and a failure to exterminate insects and rodents. Of the 293 total guest rooms at the hotel, inspectors sampled 225 for mold. The results did not bode well for Donald Bae as mold was discovered in 208 of these rooms (92.4% of the sample). In September the same year the village of Lincolnwood sued hotel management for failing to fix the myriad of citations. The judge agreed with the village of Lincolnwood and ordered Bae to fix the problems by December. Unable to cover the cost of renovation Bae opted not to fix the issues and in January 2007 a judge ordered the hotel to close. The “most friendliest and helpful staff” suddenly found themselves unemployed.
Photo: The indoor pool is now filled with furniture, glass shards, and dead plants.
Bae attempted to sell the 8.5 acre property in 2008 for the sum of $27 million, but the deal fell through as the real estate market tanked with the economy. In November, 2009 Bae tapped ForeFront Properties LLC to move the site along with two shuttered adjacent commercial properties for $25.8 million. As the property spent months on the real estate market it deteriorated even further. Rather than wait around for Bae on the busy corner of Touhy and North Lincoln Avenue , village officials again took to the courts. If the building is not brought up to code by August 1, 2011 the village has won the right to demolish the purple blemish on their map. The court ruling in Lincolnwood’s favor sticks Bae with the bill for demolition costs. To make matters worse Midwest Bank filed for foreclosure on the property as a $4.2 million loan taken out by Bae has fallen into default. In any case, it looks as though the days for The Purple Hotel are finally numbered.
Photo: One of the hotel rooms with mold growing behind the wallpaper.
Photo: Welcome letter from hotel manager Stefanie Bae.
Photo: Main and lower level maps.
ABC – 2007 article that mentions the murder of Oscar Gerber at the hotel.
Chicago Real Estate Daily – 2010 article on Lincolnwood filing a lawsuit agains the Purple Hotel owner.
Chicago Real Estate Daily – 2011 article on the $4.2 million lawsuit filed against the Purple Hotel owner.
Chicago Tribune – 1989 “Meet, Match, Mate” seminars at the hotel.
Chicago Tribune – 2007 article on the closing of the Purple Hotel.
CityNoise – A walk around photo gallery of the abandoned hotel.
Global Traveler Blog – Claims the purple bricks were a mistake.
Google News – 1983 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article on the Dorfman killing.
Google News – 1983 Pittsburgh Press article on mob ties to Dorfman killing.
Hotel Planner – Has description of hotel services.
Flickr – Martin Gonzalez’ impressive Purple Hotel set.
Flickr – My photo set of The Purple Hotel.
Skokie Patch – Summarizes history of the hotel and redevelopment efforts.
Sun Times – 2011 article that puts an August 1 demolition date on the hotel unless health code violations are fixed.
Yahoo! Travel – Reviews by guests of the Purple Hotel.
Wikipedia – Lincolnwood entry has a bit of Purple Hotel history.
Wikipedia – Allen Dorfman was killed in the parking lot. The crime remains unsolved.
Photo: Power plant for what was originally the Ingalls-Shepard Forging Co.
In 1910 seasoned manufacturing veterans F.A. Ingalls and Charles C. Shepard partnered to create the Ingalls-Shepard Forging Co. in Harvey, Illinois. Ingalls took up the mantle of President and treasurer, while Shepard acted as Vice President. The company produced a wide range of parts for the burgeoning automobile industry and railroad companies. As the world delved into chaos during the War to End All Wars industrial manufacturers across the United States were pushed to the limits of their operating capacities to great profit. In 1920 the Wyman-Gordon Company out of Worcester, Massachusetts acquired the Ingalls-Shepard Forging Co. and rechristened it as the Ingalls-Shepard Division. The consolidation placed Ingalls as Vice President of Wyman-Gordon, but he would still maintain operational control over the Harvey factory.
Photo (source): Logo from an advertisement for Wyman-Gordon with the Harvey plant on the right.
The Roaring Twenties were a boon for the steel industry. The automobile, which had been a luxury item the previous decade, now entered the American mainstream as mass production made “horseless carriages” accessible to the general public. The automobile may have driven urban development outward, but new architectural technologies drove cities upwards. Skyscrapers demanded strong metal frameworks to withstand environmental punishment. New massive machines such as massive cranes and earth movers were needed to move materials. While skyscrapers penetrated the sky, aeronautic developments of the Great War brought with it the commercialization of airplane travel. Wyman-Gordon produced parts that serviced every one of these industries. At the outset of World War II all large US manufacturers devoted their efforts to defeating the Axis, which Wyman-Gordon used to their industrial advantage. US Army engineers kept on the heels of the front lines to dismantle superior German industrial technology and pass it on to American businesses such as Wyman-Gordon. The Wyman-Gordon company claims to have produced more single parts for the war effort than any of its entirety of its competitors in the industry.
Photo: The equipment is completely rusted over.
Innovation in the aeronautics industry drove Wyman-Gordon business for the next few decades. By the 1960’s the Wyman-Gordon company was recognized as the leading innovator in forging and titanium technologies. The US government contracted with Wyman-Gordon to create parts for the B-52 Stratofortress, the secret SR-71 spy plane, F-14 Tomcat and F-15 Eagle fighter jets. In the civilian market the company produced parts for hundreds of other aircraft. In the 1980’s, however, declining defense expenditures, sagging commercial airline development, and international competition put manufacturers like Wyman-Gordon into commercial distress.
In order to stay operational Wyman-Gordon decided to shutter the Ingalls-Shepard Division in Harvey. The announcement proved devastating as the community had already endured the recent closing of three other major manufacturing employers. The company tried in vain to sell the 780,000 sq. foot facility for over six months, but was unable to find a buyer. The manufacturing of diesel engine crankshafts was moved to the company’s Danville, Illinois plant and special manufacturing to Jackson, Michigan. In 1986 the closing of the Ingalls-Shepard Division took with it 350 jobs from Harvey.
Photo: Massive storage areas several stories tall.
Plans for redevelopment of the 47-acre industrial site revolve around tapping into Harvey’s geographic advantages in transportation. The southern Chicago suburb has three expressways, four national highways, four freight railroads and the Chicago Metra lines running through it. Although a majority of the Ingalls-Shepard Division buildings have been demolished, the Environmental Protection Agency has listed the location as a brownfield in need of cleanup before development can continue. It would seem logical that Wyman-Gordon would be on the hook for cleaning up the site, but that is not the case. With one of the highest unemployment rates in the Chicago area and lowest average household income Harvey cannot afford the up front costs for assessing the property. Compounding an already bad situation is the fact that the total cost of cleanup may exceed the market value of the land once remediated.
All that remains of the Ingalls-Shepard Division is the power plant and a still occupied large building across the street from it. Fences border the entire perimeter of the power plant, but are pried wide open in several areas. The building is about four or fives stories high with an even higher smokestack affixed to the rear. On the inside the factory has been scrapped and everything metal has the patina of decay. The interchangeable fixtures of the heavy machinery are all missing, but the core pieces remain. Coal hoppers, generators, and some dynamos encased in a heavy layer of rust remain. Steel walkways crisscrossing the upper portions are missing large sections and appear quite unsafe for even the most seasoned urban explorer to traverse.
Photo: Some of the steel walkways have large sections missing.
The Ingalls-Shepard Division power plant is a monument to the prosperity once generated in the Harvey. The power plant will most likely loom over the community until the federal government steps in with enough money to remediate the land. In the long run the tax-payers will end up paying for Wyman-Gordon’s mess.
There is still one thing that I have been unable to pin down about this location though. Why was the power plant spared from demolition when the rest of the factory came down? If you have an answer, please leave it in the comments.
ASME (PDF) – Fascinating brochure detailing how US troops captured superior German forging technology during World War II and passed it on to Wyman-Gordon.
Chicago Tribune – 1985 article announcing Wyman-Gordon plans to sell the Ingalls-Shepard Division plant.
Chicago Tribune – 1986 article announcing 350 layoffs from the Wyman-Gordon plant.
Chicago Tribune – 2010 article on the EPA cleanup of the Wyman-Gordon plant.
CNT (PDF) – Document describing a collaborative effort between Harvey and Dixmoor authorities to remediate the site.
EPA – Facility Detail Report by the Environmental Protection Agency.
EPA – 1997 Brownfield Assessment Pilot by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Flickr – My Wyman-Gordon photo set.
Google – Wyman-Gordon company timeline.
Google Books – 1910 Railway Age Gazette article mentions construction of the Ingalls-Shepard Forging Co. building in Harvey, which was acquired in 1919 by Wyman-Gordon.
Google Books – 1917 Electrical Review succinctly explains why electrical furnaces are better than gas fueled ones.
Google Books – 1920 Machinery mention on the merger of Ingalls-Shepard Forging Co. and Wyman-Gordon.
Google Books – 1920 Electrical World mention of an electric heat furnace used at the Ingalls-Shepard Forging Co.
Google Books – 1922 Wyman-Gordon advertisement from the Society of Automotive Engineers that has the Harvey plant pictured.
Flickr – Flickr user reallyboring’s set of the Wyman-Gordon plant.
Funding Universe – Wyman-Gordon company history.
IQMesothelioma – Law firm notice of asbestos and mesothelioma health risks for former workers at the plant.
Photo: One of the entrances to the famous Dixie Square Mall.
After World War II the newly minted American middle class became emboldened by prosperity and moved further away from city centers into suburbs. Larger homes, new automobiles, televisions and all sorts of consumer goods all became part of the conspicuous consumption norm to demonstrate affluence. There is perhaps no greater symbol that expresses American style consumer culture in the suburbs than the shopping mall.
Photo: Main thoroughfare in the Dixie Square Mall.
In 1966 the still under construction Dixie Square Shopping Center in the southern Chicago suburb of Harvey, Illinois opens its doors to those living the American Dream. The $25 million complex opens strong with 50 stores that included Walgreen’s and Jewel. Big name retailers such as JC Penney, Montgomery Ward’s, and Woolworth’s occupy the anchor locations. Dixie Square is quite successful until about 1970 when rapidly changing demographics, a declining tax-revenue base, and plummeting property values in Harvey began put economic pressure on businesses. Throughout the 1970’s the future of Dixie Square is in turmoil despite several renovation attempts to attract new customers. The store population gradually decreases to the point where the big name anchor stores finally move to other locations.
Video: Clip from the making of The Blues Brothers.
The mall closing in November, 1978 proves to be a windfall for producers of “The Blues Brothers.” There is an iconic car chase scene in the film where the main characters played by Jim Belushi and Dan Akroyd attempt to escape the police by driving right through the mall. Once filming wraps up the mall returns to its dormant state.
Frequent break-ins to the shuttered mall lead to vandalism, arson, and theft of anything of value. In 1985 some the structural adornments are removed and expose the interior to the elements. This hastens the spread of water, mold, and structural decay throughout the mall. As the building deteriorates it attracts more criminal gang and drug activity throughout the 1990’s. In 1993 Raymond Eaves lures Denise Shelby into the old JC Penney store before raping and strangling her to death. The courts sentence Eaves to life in prison in October, 1997 for his brutal crimes.
Dixie Square inadvertently attracts a new clientele in the 2000’s when the site is detailed on the internet. Digital cameras make it easier to share photos of the mall on websites dedicated to the exploration of abandoned buildings. Perhaps aided by its movie history the mall became a magnet within urban exploration circles.
Photo: The second floor of JC Penney lies on the first.
The newfound activity may have sparked redevelopment interest in the location, but the faint glimmers of hope are quickly snuffed out. In 2005 the old Montgomery Ward’s building is purchased by American Kitchen Delights. Rather than dispose of the debris properly, the contractors push it out of the building entrances and into the mall. It is then discovered that the debris contained asbestos and all renovation efforts cease. In 2006 the property is sold to developer John Deenen of the Emerald Property Group and security measures are erected. The first buildings to go are the Montgomery Ward’s building and energy facility, but understandably disgruntled United Demolition workers leave the site after not being paid by Deenen. Rather than settle things in the courts Deenen threatens one of the contractors with brass knuckles, a sawed-off shotgun, and pistol. Deenen is quickly arrested for his aggressive confrontation style.
In September, 2010 Illinois Governor Pat Quinn announces that he plans to allocate $4 million dollars in federal funds to the demolition of the Dixie Square Mall. As of April, 2011 there have been no visible signs of demolition other than the unrelenting efforts of time and nature. There is still hope in the Harvey community that something will come of the massive eyesore though. Future plans for the site include… a shopping center.
Photo (ifmuth): The courtyard in front of the JC Penney store.
The urban explorer responsible for writing the Dead Malls article on Dixie Square Mall which became a resource for many urban explorers revisited his thoughts on the subject years later. His observations on the decay of the mall in the broader context of suburb development is stunningly accurate as it is succinct. In a relatively short amount of time suburbs like Harvey spring up around urban centers and have in influx in population growth. The population of a suburb traditionally commutes to work centers located elsewhere. Without a core work center suburbs are generally homogenous and have nothing to distinguish them from the next suburb. As the population grows the suburbs will continue to spring up in other areas. Consumers are typically attracted to new development. In the 1950’s and 60’s Harvey was on the cusp of growth outside of Chicago, but by the 70’s the wave of middle to upper class residents were moving on. Poor urban planning did not give Harvey anything to stand out among the rest of the suburbs and affluent residents had little reason to stay.
Photo: The building seemingly swells to life after a morning shower.
Dixie Square Mall is a fascinating specimen among urbex locations. For over thirty years the building has been exposed to the caustic effects of neglect. In the past decade urban explorers have documented the decline in great detail. Due to the mall’s online presence I had known about Dixie Square Mall for years, but never got around to devoting the time to visit it. This location taught me to capitalize on photographing an urbex location as soon as possible. So much of the flair that I had seen in online galleries is now missing entirely. Despite the advanced decay, I still managed to have a phenomenal exploration. A morning shower seemed to give the massive structure a breath of life. The steel girders moaned with the wind in every store. The broken concrete channelled the water to areas where different types of flora took root. In one area I was startled by two adult Canadian geese and six yellow gosslings.
The vast open retail spaces reminded me of Port Plaza Mall in downtown Green Bay. As a teenager I spent a lot of my youth killing time with friends in the arcade, videogame store, and media stores. Things began to turn in the mid-90’s and the number of stores began to dwindle. What was once a beautiful shopping center began to become an eyesore. Development in the Green Bay suburb of Ashwaubenon exploded and drove business to the expanding Bay Park Square Mall. The Ashwaubenon location of Lambeau Field may have also contributed to Green Bay’s downtown decline as the Packers climbed their way to a Super Bowl victory at the same time. Just like Dixie Square Mall the owners renovated and rebranded Port Plaza Mall to Washington Commons. The effort did not have the intended effect and the mall floundered until closing in 2006.
When I sat down to do this writeup I thought that there would be little for me to say. The Dixie Square Mall has been covered extensively before and I wondered if just posting a few photos and links would be enough to say I checked this one off my list. It is a fine urbex location despite the extensive damage and seemingly void corridors paying homage to the wonders of consumerism.
Atlas Obscura – Short article summarizing the history of the mall.
BookRags – Has a chronological history with dates of significant events at the mall.
Chicago Breaking News – Announcement of demolition from 2010.
Chicago Tribune – 2010 Article where Gov. Quinn announces plan to raze Dixie Square with $4 million of federal funds.
CLUI – Small photo gallery of the mall.
Columbia Chronicle – Article talks about Brett Tracy’s efforts.
Dead Malls – First detailed the mall in 2001.
Facebook – Group for Dixie Square Mall.
Flickr – Mike Brown’s excellent Dixie Square Mall set. Includes great photos from the 1960’s.
Flickr – My own Dixie Square Mall set.
Ghost Mall – Urbex site designed specifically for the Dixie Square Mall. The owner and accomplices “liberated” some of the few remaining store signs.
Labelscar – A followup to the Dead Malls article.
Last Days of Dixie Square – Expired Kickstarter project by Brett Tracy to document the mall.
UER – Entry for Dixie Square Mall.
Wikipedia – Dixie Square Mall