Sears’ decision to set up a new department store in downtown Chicago after a long absence was a point of civic pride. Sears represents Chicago; it is part of the Second City’s proud personality.

After all, the mighty Sears Tower, the country’s tallest building, is pure, unadulterated one-upmanship, a poke at the Big Apple’s famous skyline.

So when the retail giant chose to abandon its flagship State Street store some 20 years ago and head to the suburbs, it was a blow to the city’s ego.

But turnabout is fair play, especially in the ultra-competitive retail environment. Sears’ return to its 1893 birthplace has been called triumphant, but the retailer’s rationale was based on more than just emotion; it made sound business sense. In a press release detailing the official announcement, Mayor Richard M. Daley said the new 250,000-square-foot store would create 360 new jobs, “make the Loop even more exciting and vibrant” and draw shoppers from a downtown neighborhood undergoing a renaissance, an area that is home to many new condominiums and high-rise apartments, as well as a revamped theater and shopping district. In short, a growing, affluent customer base living within walking distance prompted the homecoming.

The city did its best to make it all happen, providing $13.5 million in tax increment financing, with $10.5 million for interior rehabilitation and $1.5 million for exterior repairs. Another $1.5 million went toward public works improvements, including street lighting, landscaping, perimeter sidewalks and others in keeping with the recently updated look of State Street.

The “mystery” building

The new Sears clearly meant much more than the average store and with this much at stake, a construction group was assembled to do the job right. Sears set up a liaison team that ironed out conflicts and differences between the architects, engineers and designers (see Key Suppliers box on page 51) and the general contractor, Chicago’s Pepper Construction, and its subs.

Cristopher Gunter, owner of The Retail Group, the Seattle firm that designed the interior and display lighting, said, “In that particular project, Sears, the very large corporation that it is, has a great many folks on their team who work with the contractors during construction. So, with Sears, our role is to certainly answer questions during construction but we’re less involved because they have their own team of people to help oversee and administer the contract.”

The new Sears took up the bottom five levels of the 17-story Boston Store Building, whose terra cotta and polished gray granite exterior got a makeover, which included lighting, courtesy of Chicago architect Daniel P. Coffey and Associates. The street level had housed a Walgreen’s and other small shops and the space set aside for the “new” interior renovation had been relentlessly renovated during the building’s 98-year history. The building’s insides were “a mystery,” according to Gunter.

“The previous tenant had a number of interior partitions that had walled over odd things—chases, irregular walls, odd columns,” Gunter said. “Columns had been furred out to where you couldn’t tell where the actual structural part of the column was. A lot of the columns had to be broken open to see where the structure actually occurred. So that meant preparing just-adequate ‘as-built’ drawings was tough.”

Anyone working on an old building knows finding existing drawings is a crapshoot. Gunter said cities can now keep better records, especially with digital capacity. However, with a 100-year-old structure, getting accurate drawings is “highly unlikely.” In this case, they were not in the city archives.

“If you just walked the store before it was cleared out, none of us had a real solid understanding where the structural columns were, how high the structural ceiling was,” he said. “Because so much furring had occurred over the years, layer upon layer, that you just don’t know where the actual building is. There’s a lot of peeling back, and as that peeling back was done, some of the designs were changed because we suddenly discovered there was a chase we didn’t know existed or a column might have been off-center, we thought it was two feet over to the west … There was a great deal of discovery.”

Searching for an anchor

Barry Litka, project manager for Continental Electrical Construction Co. (CECCO) had a similar problem. CECCO, also based in Chicago, put in all-new 3,000A service for lighting and general power and 4,000A HVAC service. They also did the floor boxes for displays, cash registers, jewelry counters and other electrical uses.

ECCO was also assigned the task of installing approximately 1,800 fixtures. Litka and his crew, which peaked at 40 members on the year-and-a-half job, had a difficult time with solid ceiling foundations for the lighting. What Litka found was a delicate clay-tile ceiling. The earlier builders had set up supports between columns. In that space, they installed arched plywood, onto which they mortared hollow, 1/2-inch thick clay brick with a 4-inch cell. The ceiling above this ornamental arched ceiling was plaster and lathe.

“It’s a real trick to hang anything into that ceiling, to get a solid anchor,” Litka said. “They build this arch, mortar in the bricks, they drop this plywood arch, and the ceiling kind of hangs there. It’s literally wedged there.”

A drop ceiling was installed for cosmetic purposes and Litka said extensive bracing was required for the cable, conduit and fixtures, which were typical 2-foot-square recessed display lights.

“What made it unique for me was the fact that I’ve got a million fixtures up there in that ceiling and I want to make sure they don’t come down,” Litka said.

But with its wealth of experience, especially in retail projects, CECCO was up to the task. Vice President Steve Witz is fourth-generation in a company of 500 employees.

“We’re the type of contractor that’s always called in on the challenging jobs,” Witz said. “We learn on the fly. Our general foremen have done it before, and we’ve done it with a number of projects outside of retail.”

The Chicago way

The Loop, of course, is one of the busiest spots in Chicago. That makes it one of the busiest downtown areas in the United States and makes any kind of construction a challenge. When Sears decided on the Boston Store Building, it realized there would be a dozen floors of tenants above them who would be affected by the project. As building managers, MB Real Estate had a huge role in coordinating trash removal, noise management, elevator use, deliveries and heating and plumbing use. Also, an alley behind the building had to be repaved, but since cement trucks aren’t allowed on the Loop during the day, that work was done during off hours.

MB Real Estate’s Bob Fry, the assistant general manager of the building during construction, came on board after all the logistics had been worked out. MB has much experience in building management business, and he said coordinating contractor access was fairly straightforward. Fry, new to real estate, property management and construction management, said the task was hardly a baptism of fire, even on a job of this magnitude. He said he had learned a great deal as the job progressed, but conflicts and difficulties were minimal.

“There were plenty of logistics we worked out. Most of the day-to-day was negotiated or navigated with the general contractor,” Fry said. “My comment would be to give credit to the upfront people who worked on the project, and the general contractor, I thought, was extremely proficient. That coordination and cooperation was open all the time.”

On State Street, CECCO had a limited staging area for materials and fixtures, unlike a mall where Litka said “you have oodles of room.” Litka, whose retail-construction history includes several J.C. Penney projects, said they scheduled many deliveries during off hours when trucks could gain access to the site.

“We set up various meetings, various schedules that we set up with large shipments coming in,” Litka said. “We basically reserved time at three o’clock in the morning.

“Parking was not very difficult, just very expensive,” Litka commented.

He noted that it cost $30 a day to park a truck downtown; however, CECCO didn’t keep a truck at the site. Instead, they rented or reserved space at supply houses.

“When a certain amount of equipment came in we could sign it over to the supply house. When they got enough of it we’d get a truck to bring everything down at an off hour,” Litka said.

Lighting up

Gunter’s Retail Group has a longstanding relationship with Sears, having done design work on a number of their stores. He characterized the company’s plan as “pretty straightforward,” with mostly ambient lighting and limited directional lighting at key focal walls. Sears’ tends to minimize adjustable lighting, which can be troublesome later.

“That is problematic because it requires maintenance, not only lamp replacement, but if display or feature areas move, the staff often forgets to adjust the levels,” Gunter said.

Some of feature lighting was more decorative than functional. Gunter said the central core near the escalators got large, circular light wells that provide soft light intended to highlight the building’s architectural history and not detract from the rest of the merchandise. This older building and its architecture, especially the large number of windows, lent itself to some “refreshing” and challenging lighting solutions.

“One of the quickest decisions made from a design standpoint was to block off some of the windows on the lower floors to create show windows and on the upper floors to create colored light areas,” he said. “So from the street the building still has interest. But that allowed us to control interior light and increase the amount of merchandisable wall surface.”

Gunter said it looked as if the old Boston Store were built organically. The columns were dense in some areas, and not in others, and weren’t equally spaced across the floor. Beams were of varying depths, which had an impact on ceiling heights and the ability to run HVAC and electrical. Even the monolithic ceiling was bothersome at times because of the changing ceiling heights.

“It’s kind of an odd, odd building,” said Gunter.

The new Sears opened on May 23, 2001, to a monster shopping day, during which the store pulled in $375,000 and signed up 3,000 new credit applications. But the rush for contractors, Litka said, usually starts two months prior to the opening. There’s a big push to finish the job. The advertising’s already out and the opening date’s been established. The doors must open.

During crunch time, however, there can be difficulties in interpreting and coordinating the vendors’ final needs. Someone might need a case with overhead lights. Someone else needs power for a cash register. This vendor needs a safe; another wants a vault.

“As much as you try to prepare and plan, all of a sudden a vendor comes in with his display and no one thought it needed electrical power and you’re just running like heck to get it all straightened out,” Litka said. “And the store tries to put it into what we call a ‘fixture drawing.’ To put all this information down, so that an engineer could interpret it. Between all these people handling it, the process can be hectic.”

With 43 years in the business—he started out as an electrician, then became an estimator—Litka has learned how to handle problems. He tries to anticipate vendors’ needs regardless of what’s specified on the drawings. The more you get upfront, he said, the better off you are.

“After the contract award, I try to get as many of these disciplines together and go over exactly what I see on the drawing and what’s actually needed and try to help out at that particular point to alleviate the last-minute rush,” Litka said.

It took about a month to fine-tune the job after the opening, which Litka said was a bit longer than normal. Because they decided to include the KB Toy line just before the grand opening, Sears required an additional, major remodeling job. A 2,000-square-foot area was boarded off and work was done with the store open. Then Litka and crew moved on.

“They’re completely satisfied that we’re completely finished,” he said.

FULMER, a Baltimore, Md.-based freelance writer, can be reached at johnsfulmer@netzero.net.