South Florida

Sears stores may be disappearing, but one landmark sticks out in Miami

In this 2001 file photo, the Sears Tower in downtown Miami remains standing as demolition continues, making way for the future performing arts center on Biscayne Boulevard.
In this 2001 file photo, the Sears Tower in downtown Miami remains standing as demolition continues, making way for the future performing arts center on Biscayne Boulevard. Miami Herald File

Sears is in trouble.

What used to be America’s “Everything Store,” is now teetering on the brink of extinction.

The latest: a last-ditch bid to save the company from disappearing.

South Florida still has a handful of Sears locations: Cutler Bay, Coral Way, Fort Lauderdale, Hialeah, Key West. Stores in Plantation and Aventura have closed in recent months.

But there is one vestige of Sears in downtown Miami that has been preserved.

While the store itself was demolished to make way for the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, the 1929 Art Deco tower is the centerpiece of the complex.

Home to several restaurants and bars through the years, it is now is home to the Book & Books store and cafe.

Here is a look back through the Miami Herald archives at Sears in South Florida:

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East entrance of Sears store on Douglas Road and Miracle Mile in Coral Gables on Thursday, June 22, 2017 before store opening. C.M. GUERRERO. cmguerrero@elnuevoherald.com

CHANGE IN AVENTURA

Published November, 2017:

Goodbye, Sears Aventura Mall. Hello, Esplanade Aventura, an open-air shopping village replacing the retail giant.

New York-based Seritage Growth Properties, which owns the vast majority of Sears’ real estate properties, announced plans Friday for the 12.3-acre plot that once housed Sears, Sears Auto Center and parking lots adjacent to Aventura Mall.

The project, first proposed by Sears in 2014, now calls for an open, 215,000-square-foot space encompassing retail, dining and entertainment along a pedestrian boulevard and outdoor plazas. Many of the retailers will be new to South Florida or to the U.S., and most restaurants will be affiliated with well-known chefs, said Benjamin Schall, Seritage’s CEO.

Esplanade Aventura is scheduled to open in late 2019. Under the plan, the current Sears building will be demolished.

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The Cafe at Books & Books, under Chef Allen Susser, hosts a family style meal in the plaza outside the Arsht Center, on Monday February 22, 2016. Patrick Farrell Miami Herald File


BOOKS & BOOKS

Published September 2014:

Theatergoers, office workers and residents of Miami’s Omni area will have a new place to grab a bite — or a book — by the end of the year.

South Florida literary stalwart Books & Books is moving into the historic former Sears Tower on the campus of the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, the two parties told the Miami Herald.

The bookstore’s cafe, with indoor and outdoor seating for about 100, will be open for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. “I think it’s just a win-win for everybody,” said Books & Books owner Mitchell Kaplan, who grew up in Miami not far from the tower. “I’m thrilled.”

He said Arsht Center representatives approached him with the idea and suggested Books & Books could do “something very special” with the tower, considering it has already set up stores and restaurants in historic buildings in Coral Gables and Miami Beach.

“My philosophy is that I just want to be in interesting places,” Kaplan said. “I don’t sort of go actively looking, but if someone comes to me with a really, really interesting proposal or suggests something, we will jump on it. This is one of those. I wasn’t even aware that that was even a possibility, and when I heard that it was, it just fit so easily.”

John Richard, president and CEO of the Arsht Center, said the institution - which positions itself as Miami’s “new town square” - has been searching quietly for the right match to take over the space in the Carnival Tower, as it is now known.

“The idea here is to develop a concept for the Café at Books & Books that would be a destination in and of itself on our campus,” he said. “So the idea of two Miami household name brands teaming up and then bringing new life to the corner of 13th and Biscayne Boulevard, in our view, is the cornerstone of the town square effort of activating the neighborhood.”

Like the Arsht Center itself, the tower is owned by Miami-Dade County and operated by the Performing Arts Center Trust. Books & Books will have a “market-based lease,” Richard said, for a three-year term with the option to renew for another three.

With 2,500 square feet inside and about 6,000 square feet outdoors, the restaurant and shop will have a greater focus on the cafe than other Books & Books locations in Coral Gables, Miami Beach and Bal Harbour.

Chef Allen Susser, who oversees food at the book chain’s other locations, is working on the menu and said it will include a “whole array of snacks, burgers, artisan tartine, paninis and salads, big plates, breakfast.” Parking will be free in the center’s Lot C before 10 a.m. on weekdays, and those coming for lunch or dinner will pay metered parking rates in that lot unless a performance is going on, when the rates increase.

Susser said a coffee bar with some seating will be set up near Biscayne Boulevard and tables will be available on the promenade next to the Ziff Ballet Opera House.

For patrons coming to a show, the restaurant will offer pre-show, fixed price menus and grab-and-go snacks for those in a rush. A full bar will be set up on the tower’s second level.

The Carnival Tower has been empty since the Bombay Sapphire Lounge closed almost two years ago. That venue was open only before and after shows on performance nights.

And the Arsht Center hasn’t had an on-site restaurant since Prelude by Barton G closed in June; a separate agreement is being finalized with a new partner to operate an on-site restaurant and handle catering and concessions.

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In a 1995 file photo, the Sears Tower stands above the vacant store in downtown Miami Jeffery a. Salter Miami Herald File

THE BOMBAY SAPPHIRE

Published August 2010:

The next piece in the revival of Biscayne Boulevard’s Omni area could be Bombay Sapphire.

We’re not talking about ice blue bottles of the super premium gin lining the street, but this week’s soft-opening of a new Bombay Sapphire Lounge at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami.

The goal is that the lounge, located in the historic former Sears Tower, will become a gathering place both for patrons of the Arsht Center and others in the neighborhood seeking a hip place to hang out.

“We are very much about creating a new downtown in our neighborhood,” said M. John Richard, president and chief executive of the Arsht Center. “Bombay will help establish our neighborhood as a destination. It’s the next step.”

The Bombay Sapphire lounge, at the corner of 13th Street and Biscayne Boulevard, is the first stand-alone branded venue for Bacardi U.S.A. in the country.

It’s part of a $300,000 commitment to the Arsht Center, which gives Bombay the rights to the space for the next five years.

The partnership was a good fit for Bombay, the fastest-growing super premium gin on the market, which has always tied its marketing efforts to the art and design community.

Bombay Sapphire was the second-largest selling gin in the United States based on volume in 2009, behind Tanqueray, according to Impact Databank. But the brand still faces challenges to grow its market share in Miami, where vodka and rum get more attention.

“It’s another great opportunity to connect with a Miami audience and do so in a way that’s true to the brand,” said Giles Woodyer, brand managing director for Bombay. “You can build that recognition that Bombay is a leader in the cocktail culture.”

The Arsht Center spent $1.2 million on remodeling the 1929 historical building, which had never been used since the performing arts center’s opening.

It’s now decked out in Bombay’s signature blue tones with seating for about 140 people, inside and on an outdoor patio.

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The 1929 Sears building in downtown Miami in the early years. Miami Herald File

SAVING THE TOWER

Published July, 2001:

The sights and sounds of the past, evident even today through the veil of grime and dust that marks time’s arrow.

It is building as metaphor, this architectural confection that sprawls jauntily on a prominent Miami street corner, a stucco exclamation point plastered onto the city’s skyline. The Sears Tower (DOB: 11/14/29) stands sentinel on Biscayne Boulevard, its cousin, the Freedom Tower, a few blocks downwind.

For decades, they danced with death. The Freedom Tower survived intact.

The Sears Tower survived, too — but with dramatic amputations scheduled.

Four-floor wings will be pounded to dust during the next few weeks. The octagonal citadel lives, set to emerge three years from now as the centerpiece of Miami’s performing arts center.

Cranes twirl and workers swarm, agents of rebirth. It is a consummate Miami story, the quest to be reborn, to hold onto just as much of the past as necessary — organic and original but rarely orthodox. And the salvation of the tower represents a brokering of desires between preservationists who wanted the entire building restored and development forces who wanted to preserve only the tower.

From the start, the architects who designed the building for Sears, Roebuck & Co., pledged no fealty to convention, pronouncing that “no historic style of architecture was followed.”

Still, they made history: The building is the first commercial example of Art Deco architecture in the county, predating the arrival of Deco in Miami Beach. Present, meet past.

“That Sears complex was so key in the early growth of Biscayne Boulevard, and it’s key in the regrowth — that’s a wonderful symbolic statement about the vitality of Miami,” says Becky Roper Matkov, executive director of the Dade Heritage Trust, protector of architecturally significant buildings.

“You can’t kill it. It’s like a phoenix. The Sears Tower is the phoenix of Biscayne Boulevard.”

That the tower should stand as the beacon of the arts center seems only fitting: Just as the two-hall performance complex strives to rival Lincoln Center and Kennedy Center, the Sears building at birth nearly 72 years ago was designed to be the anchor of the “new Fifth Avenue of the South.”

Biscayne and Northeast 13th Street is an intersection that has never lacked for ambition. It was the spring of 1929. Miami’s bust of the mid-’20s had passed, and it was months before the world’s economy would implode.

Sears was evolving into a retailing colossus, with a new store opening every two working days, the biggest ones festooned with signature towers.

The chain at the time had two outlets in Florida, and when ground was broken May 15, 1929, the Biscayne Boulevard store was destined to be the statewide flagship. And it would become the progenitor for a suburban icon later lamented as a scourge of the 20th Century: the strip shopping center.

The Sears Tower and buildings to its north were knit together by a developer, the Biscayne Boulevard Co., with the intention of luring shoppers from the tumult and gridlock of downtown Miami.

An ad from the company trumpeted: “Whether you have shopped along les Grands Boulevards, the Bund, Park Avenue, Chicago’s Boul’ Mich’, or wherever appealing wares have lured your wallet from its inner pocket, you will find merchandise blandishments along Biscayne Boulevard that will still make your heart leap up. Here is a complete, smart shopping center — at the Miami end of each causeway — where parking woes have been solved by free spaces for Boulevard shoppers.”

The store opened nearly six months to the day after the groundbreaking, with 6,000 shoppers descending during the first two hours. They discovered a reinforced concrete building clad in stucco, with filigree aplenty — concrete flora and fauna and bas-relief ziggurats.

“The tower has a significance that’s very unique,” says Aristides Millas, a professor of architecture and history at the University of Miami. “It was a beacon, as was the Freedom Tower. It was lit at one time and served as a great advertising beacon for all of the ships that would come into Miami.”

The beacon dimmed with the passage of time, doomed by the very trend it presaged: Shoppers flocked ever westward, spending their money at suburban malls, rarely venturing to the urban tableau.

By the 1980s, the Biscayne Boulevard Sears sat tired and faded. When the store closed June 11, 1983, the expectation was that the building would be razed, the land sold.

With no takers, the Sears Tower stood forlorn.

“Unfortunately, it had seen better days, like much of Ocean Drive and other historical buildings that had been left to deteriorate — but that is not the fault of the building,” says Herb Sosa, executive director of the Miami Design Preservation League. “If it was maintained, if it was painted, if it was lit up, if it had people inside of it, we would have seen it in a different light.”

The building drifted into rigor mortis until June 1991, when Sears donated it and the surrounding 3.56 acres to the county.

For the company, it meant the end to paying property taxes on a building that was sitting fallow.

For the county, it meant another piece in the campus destined to become a signature performing arts center.

The battle for the building, though, was just being joined. Would it survive in full? Would it survive in part? Would it survive at all?

It is not a building universally beloved, and even its fans concede the Sears building does not stand at the zenith of Deco design.

“It’s not the finest example, certainly not in Miami,” Coral Gables architect Raúl Rodríguez says. “But it’s an important place, a very important place.”

Important because of all it said about architectural style and commercial development in Miami. And important because it provides a concrete link to the past in a city often hellbent on marching forward.

“There are a lot of people who don’t like the Sears Tower, and that’s tough,” says Parker Thomson, chairman of the Performing Arts Center Trust. “It’s a vertical symbol of the history of Miami.”

A compromise was struck: The less embellished wings of the building would be demolished, and the seven-story tower would be restored and integrated into architect Cesar Pelli’s design for the performing arts center. Even today, it is a deal that provokes words raw and harsh.

“To take any building and slice it and dice it is far from an ideal situation,” says preservationist Sosa. “It’s like cutting your arms off — are you the same person? Of course not. It will be nothing more than a token Deco relic as part of another project.”

To UM historian Millas, it represents an appropriate middle ground. “These things happen around the world — saving parts of buildings — so I’m a little lenient on that,” Millas says. “It’s a wonderful metaphor about what Miami is all about — it’s a modern city and it’s a modern building, and now we’ve got another modern building coming in.”

A compromise was struck: In the weeks before demolition began, the guts of the building drooped from ceilings pocked by years of neglect and decrepitude. In one corner, a hint of the building’s past: “PIP S & OBAC,” a collection of weathered letters bellowed, heralding the tobacconist counter.

County architect Richard Coba, the man presiding over the demolition, used to shop here “for shirts and a bunch of stuff. They did a little bit of everything and anything,” Coba says. “There’s a history to this building, which makes it a grander structure.”

It is his job to make sure the derring-do of destruction and preservation successfully co-exist as workers continue dismantling the four-story wings. An elaborate latticework of steel and wooden beams girds the tower, designed to protect it from vibrations as demolition proceeds.

By late summer, only the tower will remain. It will stand watch — over a glorious past, with a parapet turned to the future.

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According to a new Business Insider report, five Florida locations will be shut down. One is in South Florida, the store at Broward Mall in Plantation. Miami Herald file

THROUGH THE YEARS

Born of Miami’s boomtime, lauded as “Miami’s Eiffel Tower,” castigated as “a big, ugly nose on Miami’s face,” the 1929-era Sears Tower has survived decades of neglect and repeated attempts to tear it down. Now dubbed the “Art Deco Tower,” it stands tall as the architectural sentinel of the Miami Performing Arts Center.

Here’s how it got where it is:

1929: Sears, Roebuck & Co. opens its Florida flagship at Biscayne Boulevard and Northeast 13th Street. It’s part of a plan in which the boulevard is to become Miami’s equivalent of Chicago’s Michigan Avenue. Six thousand shoppers attend. Miami Mayor C.H. Reeder declares it “the finest store in the South.” Sears’ Chicago architect, George Nimmons, says he followed no historical style in the 120-foot tower with its concrete flora and fauna and bas-relief ziggurats. Later, architects declare it Art Deco - and one of the first such buildings in South Florida.

1983: With the building decaying and sales slumping in the area, scarred by the riots of 1980 and 1982, Sears closes the store. *

1991: Sears donates its building and 3.56 acres for the proposed Miami Performing Arts Center. Preservationists implore planners to save the old building and incorporate it into the new complex.

1992: Charles Dusseau and two other county commissioners raise MPAC supporters’ ire by proposing to use the Sears building as a homeless shelter. ... The big red neon Sears signs are removed.

1995: Saving the tower becomes controversial. Supporters call it Miami’s Eiffel Tower; critics compare it to “a big ugly nose.” PAC leaders encourage the three architects bidding to incorporate the Sears tower and its four-story wings.

2000: In a compromise, the tower is spared as workers raze the wings. It becomes the Art Deco Tower - part of the MPAC.

2005: Looking back, MPAC architect Cesar Pelli says: “At the beginning, we thought it to be best for the Sears Tower to disappear. But I must say, I have grown to like it, to enjoy the juxtaposition, to have designed around it and have it become an element in the new piazza.”

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