FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — With much fanfare amid throngs of excited spectators, Sears Roebuck and Co. cut the ribbon on its new 60,000-square-foot Fort Lauderdale store and auto shop on a hot August day in 1955.
Searstown, the first of its kind in the South, introduced a cutting-edge concept to Fort Lauderdale: the strip mall.
The open-air plaza at 901 N. Federal Highway offered one-stop shopping, with a new Piggly Wiggly supermarket, the Chat-and-Nibble Sandwich Shop, Pribbles Jewelry, Monty’s 5 and 10 and Broward Drug and Surgical Supply. It had a beauty salon, a barber shop, a card shop, bakery, optometrist and a gift shop, with a huge 600-space parking lot. What more could you need?
Situated where Sunrise Boulevard meets Federal Highway, Searstown quickly became a landmark amid an exciting development boom that would rapidly change the sleepy bedroom community.
Now, nearly 65 years later, Searstown may be on the brink of demolition as the once mighty department store chain is struggling to survive on a retail respirator. On Tuesday (Jan. 14), a developer unveiled plans to replace Searstown with 30-story towers, shops and restaurants, further frustrating a community already grappling with a decaying sewer system and gridlock traffic.
The development plan can’t come as a surprise.
Sears was a ghost town on Tuesday, the parking lot was nearly empty and the doors stood wide open as two customers browsed. The air conditioner was broken, explained a lone salesman over a whir of fans circulating the hot air. “It is what it is.”
The new Searstown opening was previewed in a splashy story on the front page of the Fort Lauderdale News.
“Mayor Porter G. Reynolds will scissor the ribbon at opening ceremonies” at 9:30 a.m. on Aug. 17, 1955. A photo showed store manager Fred L. Mathers, a popular man about town, pointing out Searstown’s many features to visiting company brass. “A Dream Come True,” stated the caption. A celebration dinner was held for employees and city officials at the Bahia Mar Yachting Center.
The new store, with triple the floor space of the old store, would employ 475 people, most of them Fort Lauderdale residents.
“The Searstown shopping center was a one-stop shopping area,” says Fort Lauderdale historian Jane Feehan. The long-time Fort Lauderdale resident writes about Florida’s colorful past on her blog “Jane’s History Nook” at Janeshistorynook.blogspot.com. “It’s an iconic store in a prominent location in a prime spot. It was a landmark to give directions by before we had GPS.”
Bernie McCormick also remembers how Sears was woven into the fabric of the community.
“We always got our Kenmore appliances at Searstown,” recalls McCormick, former publisher of “Gold Coast Magazine” and other Gulfstream Media Group publications. “Sears always sold very quality stuff. They had a big, big tool department and the auto shop."
As it did with most Americans, Sears loomed large in McCormick’s life in those days. His parents met at Sears, where they both worked in Philadelphia in the 1920s. “My dad worked for them for 21 years, selling prefab housing. Those are now very famous," says McCormick, who moved to Fort Lauderdale in 1970.
"The real irony is that Sears pioneered the mail order catalog business, the modern version of which is putting retailers out of business today.”
Then, Sears was crowded with ladies in sleeveless dresses. It ran full-page newspaper ads touting low prices and high-quality merchandise, noting that the new store was “cool and delightfully air conditioned.”
Sears was a bold innovator, introducing the Sears Revolving Charge credit card to Fort Lauderdale customers.
Mr. Mathers, the manager, explained to the Fort Lauderdale News it was designed for budgeting purchases of day-to-day needs -- spreading payments over time. “The convenience of saying ‘Charge it’ will be a welcome boon to our friends in this area," according to the News.
Sales specials in advertisements included flat wall paint for $4.39 a gallon and German tools for 77 cents to $3.44. A mattress set was $28.88, a 21-inch Silvertone TV was $133 and a Kenmore Automatic Washer was $179, or just $5 down on the revolving charge.
This was many sales after Robert Warren Sears founded a watch company and catalog business in 1886, building it into a household name “as American as soda pop, baseball or hot dogs,” said a historical piece published in the News on Searstown’s opening day. “Satisfaction or your money back,” was the chain’s motto, and it built a retail empire on that promise.
Sears would eventually expand to anchor nearly every mall in America. Today only stores in Fort Lauderdale and Coral Springs remain in Broward County, along with a couple in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.
Will this iconic store in Fort Lauderdale be the last to close in South Florida? Sears did not respond to a request about the store’s fate.
COMING FULL CIRCLE
If the city approves developer RK Centers’ plans — including nearly 1,000 residential units and a 240-room hotel — the Searstown site may become an echo of the past.
The Green Star Trailer Park that Searstown partially displaced in 1954 was a resort mecca for snowbirds escaping the frigid cold and young families just starting out.
“We moved from New Jersey in 1949 and lived in the Green Star Trailer Park just east of the railroad tracks on Sunrise Boulevard,” remembers Linda Shugrue Oliver, 78, of Gallipolis, Ohio. “I was then an 8-year-old third grader at St. Anthony’s Catholic School."
Oliver’s most vivid memory was of the Green Star Restaurant and Bar just across the street from her home. “I could always hear ‘Goodnight, Irene’ playing. It put me to sleep every night, while all the drunk guys were singing along with the jukebox.”
Ah, Fort Liquordale.
She also remembers there were plenty of kids to play with. “You could play outdoors and there were so many mango trees to climb. It was a different town then. But when snowbirds came back, there were plenty of traffic jams, parking problems.”
Oliver also recalls plumbing problems.
“We didn’t have bathrooms in the trailers,” says Oliver. “We all used the (park’s) public restroom with showers. There was no septic system.”
OLD IS NEW
Today, Fort Lauderdale residents are in an uproar over the city’s decaying sewer system amid unprecedented development — nearly 22,000 hotel and residential units have been added downtown since 2012, according to an October update from the city’s Urban Design and Planning Division.
Heavy traffic at the triangle intersection at Searstown comes to a maddening standstill when the nearby railroad crossing gates on Sunrise close for Brightline and Florida East Coast Railway trains.
Not that different from so long ago.
A few months after the 1955 Searstown opening, Fort Lauderdale News columnist Douglas McQuarrie carped that “bottlenecks at Sears Town create a rat-race of confusion.”
The more things change, it seems, the more they stay the same.