The iconic Old Fourth Ward building has evolved from vital job center to underused tomb and back, but its admirers never wavered.
This story originally appeared in the January/February 2015 issue of Living Intown magazine.
One rainy afternoon in December 1945, Joe Shafer stood in the shadow of the brick behemoth on Ponce de Leon Avenue, looking for work. He was a 17-year-old “country boy” from Lilburn, eager to earn extra cash for Christmas. Everyone knew the imposing structure etched with “Sears, Roebuck & Co.” was an epicenter of opportunity. Shafer was hired for warehouse work at 57 ½ cents an hour and figured he’d be laid off in a few weeks, alongside hundreds of other seasonal workers.
Instead, Shafer’s work ethic paid off — for decades. “I was lucky,” he says. “Management gave me every opportunity, and I moved up the ladder.”
Each day, he made the 18-mile commute, back when Lawrenceville Highway was two lanes and Scott Boulevard through Decatur was gravel. He stayed with Sears for more than 40 years, until that day in 1987 when company officials gathered employees into an auditorium and said the Ponce facilities would shutter. The announcement, for Shafer and hundreds of his colleagues, was like a family album slamming shut.
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It would take nearly 30 years — and a future-focused overhaul of the Ponce building — to open that album again.
At age 86, Shafer is among the oldest retirees to have made a career at the Old Fourth Ward icon that is gradually becoming Ponce City Market — a massive $300 million project that in some ways takes the site full circle. His hearing might be dwindling, and his legions of former coworkers are thinning out, but Shafer speaks vividly about his time at the Ponce “plant,” which once held enormous economic importance for Atlanta, greater Georgia and the entire Southeast.
Now, as millennials rent industrial-chic apartments, high-tech companies claim office space, and celebrated chefs build restaurants, Shafer is delighted at the prospects of the building’s rebirth; because it still feels like part of him, and watching it teeter on the brink of ruin for so long seemed unjust.
“It’s a building that’s gotten an opportunity to live multiple lives,” says Kit Sutherland, president of the Fourth Ward Alliance Neighborhood Association. “It is once again going to be a job center and activity center. … We’re getting back to the 1950s.”
Since 2011, developer Jamestown Properties has been reviving the 2.1 million-square-foot building. They call it “the largest historic restoration project in the country,” with peers that include Jamestown’s Chelsea Market in New York City and the Ferry Building in San Francisco. Once it fully opens in late 2015 or early 2016, expect a mixed-use nexus of commerce — with a vintage amusement park and rooftop miniature golf course — that could function as a neighborhood linchpin and tourist magnet.
Stone Mountain resident Ken Posey joins a group of 300 retirees, called the “Atlanta Sears Family,” who still meet for periodic luncheons. Posey worked as a human resources manager on Ponce in the 1970s, and he still refers to the building with a sense of ownership. “It’s a really positive thing that (developers) didn’t plow it under,” says Posey, 72. “Our retirees are excited about what they’re doing with our building.”
But not all of the Ponce structure’s past is as rosy as the Atlanta Sears Family remembers.
Brick by brick
Long before Sears built on the site, Ponce de Leon Springs flowed in a valley between Piedmont Park and Inman Park. Said to have medicinal value, the natural water source became a favorite recreation area for Atlantans. A trolley line was built to connect Peachtree Street to this “country spa,” and a popular amusement park rose around the springs.
By 1910, the amusement park began to decline. Sears’ vice president, Robert E. Wood, recognized the site’s potential in what was then considered residential suburbia. In these 16 acres on Ponce, Wood saw cheap land on the fringe of a fast-growing city, where a major distribution and retail center could offer ample free parking for the automobiles that represented the wave of the future. “The railroad (now the Beltline) and the trolley line were the deal-makers on the purchase,” says Jerry Hancock, a Sears historian and local history teacher.
Ground broke on the massive facility in January 1926, and construction set a staggering pace. About 30,000 Atlantans flocked to the Sears grand opening on Aug. 2 that year, marveling at the nine-story building’s size and neoclassical central tower. It was the largest brick structure in the Southeast.
Blairsville resident Parker Johnson’s father was hired to work the warehouse floor two years later. Johnson recalls coming to work with his dad, peering out the seventh-floor windows and watching the Atlanta Crackers play baseball across the street at Ponce de Leon Ballpark, where the Midtown Place Shopping Center now stands. “That was quite a treat, to go up in the building, see the old magnolia tree in the outfield,” says Johnson, 66, a Sears retiree himself.
In 1930, the Sears Farmers Market opened in a modest new building that fronted North Avenue (the current home of Dancing Goats Coffee Bar), providing the company a direct connection to its most loyal customer base. Boys sold poultry and eggs while farmers unloaded produce from the backs of trucks, in the same way Ponce City Market’s Central Food Hall will provide fresh options for shoppers who prefer to cook dinner from scratch.
After World War II, with the U.S. economy surging, Sears completed the second of three major expansions to the building, which would eventually bring it to more than 2 million square feet — nearly enough to fit Lenox Square and Phipps Plaza inside.
The plant’s regional draw, and Atlanta’s car culture, necessitated building a 1,300-space parking garage (among the first things Jamestown tore down). “We had people coming from Cumming, Cedartown, out towards Hiram — coming from everywhere,” Johnson says. “They’d carpool 50 or 60 miles to come to work.”
Employees recall a positive buzz permeating the building in these boom times; from the security guards in the parking garage to the executives in their dining room, most everyone seemed upbeat, their careers seemingly ironclad. Managers often played softball after work, coworkers watched each other’s children, and workplace traditions were born. “One of the things employees used to do,” Posey says, “was go down to the surplus store attached to the retail store on their lunch breaks and get really good buys on anything from jeans to pocket knifes and rifles.”
Johnson’s kids ribbed him that all their childhood gifts came from the “broken room.”
During the holidays, Shafer — after he’d climbed the ladder from cashier to warehouse manager —Shafer helped hire 200 extra workers, mostly seasonal farm boys, to handle a torrent of catalog orders. “We had 12 people, six per side, sorting 98,000 packages of merchandise per day,” he says.
The Ponce facility’s zenith came in the 1970s. “It was the heyday, we were the number one retailer in the world, [with] an absolute a sense of pride,” Johnson says. “We looked at Walmart as being the upstart. They were the young kid on the block.”
From boom to bust
In 1960, the Old Fourth Ward was home to 21,000 people, according to Sutherland. But following freeway construction, demographic shifts and the clearing of impoverished areas, the population had whittled to just 7,000 by 1980. The Ponce facility was increasingly becoming an island among vacant lots, boarded-up houses and rampant crime. Internally, another shift was afoot.
By the late 1970s, customers were gravitating to Sears’ suburban stores for shopping, and the company shifted its focus from blue-collar necessities to more high-end wares like jewelry. Sears downsized retail operations on Ponce until deciding in 1987 to shutter the entire facility within two years.
Trudie Wade, a secretary in the communications department, recalls being in the auditorium for the shutdown announcement. For a moment, there was silence — then tears.
At its peak, the building had employed well over 1,000 people, many of them for decades, and Sears was the only life they had known. Shuttering the plant seemed as unthinkable as the post office closing. “We all had to find employment,” says Wade, who lives in Conyers. “It was difficult for all of us.”
It was a particularly trying time for Wade, who was tasked with preparing the severance packages for longtime friends. Aside from company lawyers and other scattered personnel, she was among the last active employees in the vast, emptying building.
In 1990, the City of Atlanta purchased the deteriorating complex — for just $12 million — for use as an annex outside of downtown called City Hall East. Then-Mayor Maynard Jackson famously called the acquisition “the deal of the century.” Police and fire department headquarters occupied space, as did the city’s 911 call center. But those uses only consumed about 10 percent of the building, and the city balked at a full renovation.
“The improvements they made were to come in and install drop ceilings, acoustical tiles, windowless offices, cheap [paneling] and wall-to-wall carpeting,” Sutherland says. “They just made kind of a mess of it.”
Sutherland recalls touring the building and finding vast storage areas of forgotten objects: thousands of pieces of obsolete computer equipment, leftover pushcarts and banners from the Olympics, outdated office furniture and other detritus. The base level of the parking garage was crowded with exotic vehicles seized by police in drug investigations. “There was like a $150,000 red Mercedes just sitting there for years, collecting dust,” she says. Homeless people had taken up residence beneath one section, leaving an odor Sutherland describes as “gothic.”
In 2005, nearing the height of the housing bubble, the city rezoned the property to allow for residential uses in hopes of offloading it to developers. The Great Recession killed those ambitions before the sale was finalized.
The building’s nadir may have come in the summer of 2010, when a graffitist slipped past security, climbed atop the central tower and left his tag in large letters alongside the neoclassical ornamentation from 1926. For the building’s admirers and Sears alumni, the stunt was a slap in the face. “The building was viewed as trash,” Sutherland says, “something that can be vandalized.”
As Atlanta emerged from recessionary doldrums in 2010, the city announced it was tweaking its zoning conditions at the Ponce building and allowing, for instance, large retailers of up to 150,000 square feet. The efforts were meant to close a deal with Jamestown, a company gaining local clout for its Westside Provisions District.
Jamestown wasn’t the only developer interested in the Ponce property for its proximity to the Beltline and vintage architectural details, such as original oak flooring and steel-sash windows. The company succeeded in purchasing the building for $27 million and embarked on a $300 million overhaul — the largest adaptive reuse project the city has ever seen. The revival officially began in October 2011, as heavy equipment rolled in and initial demolition started.
In August of 2014, Jamestown announced that Ponce City Market was officially open for occupancy, though only a few tenants — Binders, General Assembly, the Suzuki School and Dancing Goats — were in business, with the rest gradually moving in through spring of 2015. In October, the first residents began moving into the 259 apartments, and leasing continues.
Hancock applauds what he’s seen of the redevelopment thus far. “Personally, I think Jamestown has done an incredible job,” the historian says. “They genuinely care about its history, and I think it shows.”
In fact, a less-celebrated feature of Ponce City Market will strive to preserve the stories of people like Shafer, as well as the site’s heritage going back to the late 1800s. In the next few months, Jamestown plans to open a public history exhibit in a passageway connecting to the Atlanta Beltline. Shafer and several of his Sears brethren have been interviewed to lend that history a voice.
Reflecting on the Ponce warehouse and the “tremendous” project that marks the next stage in its evolution, Shafer expressed gratitude for the comfortable life that followed his arrival at work that day in 1945. When he dies, the octogenarian happily notes, he’ll be able to bequeath several million dollars to charity, thanks to his “unreal retirement” package and a few wise real estate investments.
“I can’t say enough for the privilege that I had,” Shafer says. “It was just a great time. It was just a great place. It was a great life.”
Ponce City Market’s roof will offer a nostalgic, carnival-like experience inspired by boardwalks and amusement parks of the early 20th century. Visitors will travel to “The Roof” in an open cab via the building’s original freight elevator.
The property is 2.1 million square feet, but only about half is being restored as Ponce City Market. The additional square footage will serve as space for parking, circulation and other uses.