Death of another corporate icon

Down south in SoDo stands - for now - Seattle's next candidate for extinction.
Crosscut archive image.

Architectural sketch of the old Sears (now Starbucks) center.

Down south in SoDo stands - for now - Seattle's next candidate for extinction.

Recently, I traveled to Billings, Montana for business. Prominently marking the skyline was a huge stylized “I” —  the exact same sign that had graced buildings in downtown Seattle before First Interstate Bank disappeared years ago.

My first thought was that being in a more remote location (Montana), the branch officers hadn’t yet received the memo telling them to clean out the cash drawer and lock up before heading home for good. (A Montana friend later explained to me that a group of local investors had bought the bank -- lock, stock and logo.) Dead, but not.

We have our own version of a zombie logo: The WaMu Theatre just might be one of the last structures left anywhere to still bear the symbol, long after the ignominious fall of that far reaching and toxic mortgage huffing financial empire. Likely, some of the people walking into the theatre don’t even know what the mash-up of letters refers to.

From my desk, I can look out the window and see a veritable boneyard of failed companies. The elegant stone-faced, big-windowed home of Seattle Trust Bank. Gone and forgotten. The limestone façade of TRA Architects, a firm with an 40-year history in the city. Gone. Rainier Bank, whose short-lived art gallery was decorated with fanciful metal wings before its demise. Gone, with wings still hanging on. Three, count ‘em three, WaMu towers. Emptied out, one by one. The glassy storefront of the former Mahlia’s Restaurant which, during its decade-long existence, displayed a distinctive style and cuisine that was well before its time.

Down in SoDo on First Avenue, we have our next candidate for extinction. There, the big Sears sign looks as if it' being literally shoved off the building by the gigantic logos of Starbucks and Office Max. A recent article in (“For Once Mighty Sears, Picture of Decay”) described how the asset management company which now owns Sears is cherrypicking its few profitable brands to sell off while they still have any value remaining. When the corporate rag-pickers are done, nothing will be left but the detritus of a proud company that onced owned the tallest building in North America.

To prove a point, an executive from the new ownership wandered through a Sears store snapping pics with his phone — a sort of business version of a selfie. He was appalled. Empty shelves. Filthy  floors. A generally unkempt and grubby appearance. Indeed, on one of my few recent trips to Sears on a week night, I was the only customer on an entire floor. I found a forlorn clerk sitting cross-legged behind a counter trying to fix a piece of store equipment himself.

Sears was the Amazon of its day, a giant among American corporations. It was the original “everything store.” Well, not quite. It didn’t stock groceries. And I don’t recall its selling books, but maybe it did and I never noticed. I did notice the popcorn scent which permeated every outlet. The pungent smell always made me think of a sad country fair, not a place where I wanted to spend my money.

While it lasted, the run was a good long one; 120y years is a long time for any business to survive. So perhaps Sears is simply dying a natural death of decay and attrition. At least its not trying to resuscitate itself by carrying kitchen wares by Martha Stewart. J.C. Penny’s learned the folly of that sorry strategy just recently by a court judgment.

The economy is changing, as it always has. More rapidly than in the past. Some businesses lose in the process. Others reinvent themselves. Still others get absorbed into a new stewpot of companies and brands, services and product lines.

Sears used to feel homey and comfortable. Now its just homely and quaint. A relic of the era of party lines, silent movies and “First Class Airmail.” Time to move aside, Sears. There’s a rising sea of e-commerce lapping at your doors.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Mark Hinshaw

Mark Hinshaw

Mark Hinshaw, FAIA, is an architect and urban planner. He was an architecture critic for The Seattle Times and is the author of many articles and books, including Citistate Seattle (1999).