A Neighborhood Stalwart: The Sears Store in Flatbush

Editor’s note: This story is an update of one that ran in 2015. Read the original here.

It’s hard to believe, but this store has been here for over 80 years.

Sears, Roebuck and Company started out in the 1890s as a mail order catalog, selling a huge variety of goods to customers in rural areas who had little or no access to stores and shops. Their first retail store was built in 1925. Based in Chicago, Sears expanded all across the country, and because of Manhattan’s garment center, was a presence in New York City long before their bricks and mortar stores were in place. When they sought to expand their retail presence in the New York City area, Flatbush was seen as an ideal location.

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This was not the first Brooklyn location of a Sears, Roebuck and Co. store. The first one was located near Ebbetts Field, was built in 1930, and was demolished in 1960. That store, which was right near Brooklyn’s Automobile Row, sold mostly automotive parts, tools and hardware. This new and much larger store would be very different, with a larger and more expanded selection of goods, including clothing. The land was purchased, and existing homes and small businesses were demolished.

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The site at 2307 Beverley Road, bordered by Beverley Road and Bedford Avenue, was chosen to appeal to both pedestrian and motor traffic. Flatbush was chosen because it was both urban, with public transportation, and suburban, with surrounding neighborhoods with houses equipped with garages and cars. Studies done at the time showed that department stores appealed to women, but there were more men driving cars. This location would bring in everyone. This store was built with a large parking lot, a marketing strategy that would prove to be very successful.

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The building under construction in September 1932. Image via Brooklyn Daily Eagle

The architects for the new store were a Chicago firm. Nimmons, Carr & Wright had a long affiliation with Sears, and designed many of their stores and warehouses across the country. They also designed a couple of Chicago-area homes for Sears executives. They liked to pair with a local firm, and chose Alton Craft, a New York-based architect, to work with them here.

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This store, like many of their stores, was designed in the Art Deco style, an architectural mode that was especially suited for department store design. Their use of a tall central tower was a trademark of the firm, and although it had the practical purpose of hiding the water tower as well as heating and cooling machinery, it functioned here as the tallest structure in the neighborhood, advertising Sears and Roebuck all across Flatbush.

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An ad for the opening of the store in November 1932. Image via Brookyn Daily Eagle

The store opened November 5, 1932, in the middle of the Great Depression. The guest of honor and keynote speaker was Eleanor Roosevelt. It was her last public appearance before her husband became president. In spite of the economic hard times, this branch of Sears soon became one of the top stores in the chain. They initially had hired around 300 people. Eight years later they built an addition and added more employees. Sears was a retail success.

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The store had a large auditorium called “Sears Hall” on the third floor. It was built to show Sears’ commitment to Brooklyn. It held 650 people, and was available to local Brooklyn groups without charge. Maria Fisher LaGuardia, the mayor’s wife, attended the opening in 1936. Over the years, even as shopping habits and locations changed, this store remained open, and busy.

In 2005, Sears merged with Kmart. Over the last 30 years, many alterations took place on the façade. Prior to 1989, all of the original display windows were filled in, and then painted over. Many of the other windows have been changed, and most have been covered with plastic panels with an Art Deco motif on them. At least some effort was made to keep with the original design. The entrances were also changed, with only a rear parking lot entrance in use now. The original Art Deco entryways on Beverley and Bedford are closed.

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In spite of all of the changes, the Art Deco Sears store remains pretty much intact, and the Art Deco tower still rises over Flatbush. When landmarking was proposed for the store, Sears backed the designation, asking only that the parking lot not be designated. It was not. The building was designated as an individual landmark on May 15, 2012.

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[Photos by Susan De Vries unless otherwise noted]

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