The former Sears building in Boston is a proud reminder of a fading era
By Eileen O’Connor
Back in October, as many were beginning to turn their thoughts to Christmas purchases, Sears Roebuck and Company filed for bankruptcy.
Founded in 1892, the company’s iconic catalog transformed the way Americans shopped for nearly everything – from lawnmowers to toys to kits for assembling their own homes.
Sears also transformed the lives of many employees, offering them a chance to get ahead.
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For many Bostonians, this chance was taken in a beautiful Art Moderne building, a rare example of that architectural style in this city.
From the corner of Brookline Avenue and Park Drive rise eight stories of grey and beige brick and limestone.
A distinctive twelve-story tower, decked with a 75-foot flagpole, sits atop the roof. The building, constructed from 1928-29, was until only recently the tallest point in the Fenway neighborhood skyline. Now known as the Landmark Center, the site is today most frequented for its cinema, sporting goods store and gym. But for over sixty years, it was an unofficial Boston landmark known as the Sears building.
It was the company’s mail order distribution center, and where my grandfather worked from 1954 to 1986.
My grandfather’s immigration papers to the U.S. state his occupation as “laborer.”
He had performed whatever manual labor he could find in his homeland of Ireland and for a time in Birmingham, England before arriving with his wife and three children in Boston.
He had always used the strength of his body and the skill of his hands to earn his wage, and the job he landed at Sears was no different.
The uniqueness of this job was that he would be working for a company that offered benefits, including an onsite health clinic, a profit-sharing plan and a pension fund. This was something the son of a small-farmer with an eighth-grade education could never dream of obtaining in the economically depressed Connemara of the 1950s.
At the back of that beautiful Art Moderne building, my grandfather unloaded mail-order merchandise – first from train cars, and later from 18-wheelers. Inside the warehouse, on the fifth floor, he stacked rows upon rows of boxes.
While housing options had been unstable for my grandparents in Ireland, and upon first arriving in Boston, my grandfather’s job at Sears allowed the family to live more comfortably in apartments on Saint Margaret’s Street and Gallivan Boulevard in Dorchester, and eventually to purchase their own home, in the early 1970s, on Blue Hill Avenue in Milton.
During his 34 years as an employee, Sears helped my grandfather earn his American dream. Yet the job not only provided an income, but also a source of camaraderie akin to the kind he had left behind in the village that was home to his parents, six siblings and scores of cousins and friends.
The Sears building became the site of my grandfather’s new community, a place where he made lifelong friendships. When invited at one point to leave manual labor behind for a managerial role, he let the opportunity pass, preferring to stay with the people he had worked alongside for years.
My grandfather savored the fresh air he got on the loading dock, and the truckers he met and looked forward to seeing the next time they rolled in. He savored the after-work beers with co-workers at bars near Fenway Park, where he would occasionally rub elbows with the likes of Ted Williams.
He savored the drive home on the curvy Jamaica Way and glimpsing people cast their fishing lines into Jamaica Pond. And as he turned south down Blue Hill Avenue, he savored the glimpse of Great Blue Hill in the distance – a view to conjure both comfort and nostalgia in one who grew up in a land dotted by slate-colored mountains – before parking his car in the driveway of the home he owned.
My grandfather retired in 1986, the same year the Fenway mail-order plant closed.
His loyalty to the company was a commonly held value in the Sears building. A report written to designate the site an official Boston landmark in 1989 attests that the average worker remained there for 19 years and felt “very devoted to the company and fellow employees.”
My grandfather was just one of many Bostonians who worked in the Sears building. The news of the bankruptcy of the Sears Roebuck Company gave me pause to think about the role the company played in the lives of many Boston families, as well as in the economic and architectural history of the city at large.
I am grateful that the Sears building is preserved as landmark in the rapidly changing Fenway. That piece of architectural beauty stands as a testament to a harder-earned kind of beauty – to the many American dreams achieved within its walls.
Eileen O’Connor is a writer and translator who teaches writing and Spanish at Harvard University. She is currently revising her first novel, a reimagining of the selkie myth in a coming-of-age story set during the Irish War for Independence. Read more about her work at emoconnor.com or find her on twitter at emoconnor1.