Designers Transform Old Sears Tower, Maintain Its Character

By Madeline Faber

When it opens in January 2017, the Crosstown Concourse building will place users in the medical, educational and arts professions side-by-side in a 1.5-million-square-foot building.

Designers have maintained the original character of Crosstown Concourse so the project receives $36.5 million in historic tax credits.  (Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

The developers’ vision for the project is that through cohabitation, different sectors will inspire collaboration and creativity across seemingly disparate operations. That vision translates into the building’s design, which emphasizes community spaces with tenants sharing entrances and even rented space.

Grinder, Taber & Grinder’s construction work is about 81 percent complete, said Tony Pellicciotti, principal with architecture firm Looney Ricks Kiss. The substantial structural and exterior work is nearly complete, and tenants are beginning their individual build-outs.

On the inside, the building looks like a steel rat maze, with framing awaiting the transformation from tenants like the Church Health Center, Memphis Teacher Residency and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. From the outside, the building doesn’t look all that different from when the Crosstown Concourse team broke ground on the project in February 2015.

That’s intentional. To receive historic tax credits, the building needs to retain its original character from when it functioned as a regional distribution center for Sears, Roebuck & Co. from the 1920s through the 1980s.

While it may look similar from the outside, it is, in essence, a new building except for the shell. More than 400,000 bricks and 3,200 windowpanes have been replaced in the tower.

“100 percent of the building’s infrastructure is redone,” Pellicciotti said. “There is no infrastructure, other than the structure itself, that is being reused.”

Pellicciotti is heading up the building’s conversion from a former logistics hub into a vertical, urban village. In LRK’s design, he tries to leverage the building’s history as a community anchor and economic driver, but the building presents some significant challenges.

The structure is nearly 60 percent glass, and every window had to be replaced with a high-efficiency, high-performance window that will support Crosstown Concourse’s goal of being gold, or potentially platinum LEED-certified.

The original Crosstown building wasn’t completed all at once. Sears expanded it about every 10 years, so there are subtle differences as dominant materials changed through those expansions.

“How do you find a brick that blends in between all of those? The answer is it took us six months of looking at different brick samples,” Pelliciotti said.

The most recent addition, a two-story loading dock, was completed in the 1960s. That addition effectively built over and closed off Claybrook Street. With the building’s incarnation, LRK has designed a cut-a-way that will allow Claybrook to again cross through the Crosstown property.

The road will lead directly to the entrance of the Church Health Center, which will be the anchor tenant in Crosstown Concourse.

“Our patients, if somebody fell off the roof and broke their leg, will be able to be dropped off right here,” said Scott Morris, founder of the Church Health Center. “They will only have to go 15 feet and they will be in our walk-in clinic.”

The Church Health Center’s 150,000-square-foot space will wrap around the west atrium, one of three atria in the building.

Pellicciotti said the design for those atria sprouted from the building’s tree trunk-wide columns that are located 20 feet in every direction across the building’s 10 floors.

“If you notice, they (the atria) are cut just outside of the column line to work with that specific structural system,” Pellicciotti said.

The atria also bring in natural light to any place in the building.

“Generally speaking, one of the more beautiful things about the building, pre-construction, is when you're on an upper floor and you've got natural light from both sides, and you could see all the way through,” he said. “How do you get that same kind of natural light, and carving the atriums is the answer to that.”

The zig-zag of the stairwells in the atria are meant to mimic “hoppers,” the steel machines that chucked packages from one floor to another. The Crosstown Sears operated like an early predecessor of Amazon, with stocking, processing and shipping of products all happening from the same location.

The main stairwell is 20 feet wide and will act as a “theater stair” where daily art performances will take place. Instead of packages, the stairs are a conduit for ideas.

“Your strengths and weaknesses tend to be one and the same,” Pellicciotti said.