In the 1880s, Richard Sears and Alvah Roebuck began a mail-order business for watches. The mail-order business brought products to people that did not have the financial means or time to travel to urban commercial centers that dominated the retail industry at the time. While selling watches proved decently successful, the entrance of third business partner Julius Rosenwald in 1895 marked the beginning of a new era. Rosenwald, a clothing retailer, expanded the company’s offerings to new heights, spurring their growth across the country. Their entrance into brick and mortar stores swept the nation similarly, with their second location in DC in Tenleytown further amplifying their unique business model.
The Modernist building, completed in 1941, offered innovative and creative solutions to neighborhood concerns about suburban retail development. The store’s off-street parking lot on top of the building cut down on congestion at the ground level; the store’s lack of windows and introduction of central air-conditioning and heat made it technologically advanced compared to other department stores; and its minimal ornamentation and design catered to practical shoppers that had moved to quiet residential neighborhoods like Tenleytown.
Sears, Roebuck, and Company’s mail-order beginnings followed the company throughout its lifetime – continuing to publish a widely-read catalog even as the brand expanded into physical stores. The company originally catered to modest-income shoppers who lived outside the urban centers of America, and intentionally lacked the frills of other large retailers of the day. Even when they built stores, the company often chose land outside of the downtown commercial district to maintain convenience for its suburban and rural customers. Despite their against-the-grain business model, Sears, Roebuck, and Company expanded across the nation.
The Tenleytown location marked yet another evolution in the company’s legacy. After World War II, Sears, Roebuck, and Company shifted its ideal customer base to white-collar, middle-class customers. While it maintained its practical image, the store adapted itself to serve the growing middle-class in their new suburban neighborhoods.
In more recent years, Sears has struggled financially, declaring bankruptcy in 2018 and closing the vast majority of its stores. Today, the building in Tenleytown – which ceased to be a Sears by 2001 – now houses a new national retailer, Target, which joined the complex in 2019 with The Container Store. Before then, the space was a Best Buy, another national retailer.
DC Inventory: May 25, 1995
National Register: February 16, 1996
This site is a stop on the “Finding Style in DC: Navigating DC’s Shopping Scene” tour.