Business

The End of Sears and Younkers in Cedar Rapids

This was the south entrance to Sears at Lindale Mall in July 1983, shortly after Lindale Plaza was enclosed and became a mall. (Gazette archives)
This was the south entrance to Sears at Lindale Mall in July 1983, shortly after Lindale Plaza was enclosed and became a mall. (Gazette archives)
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The end of an era is taking place this summer at Lindale Mall in Cedar Rapids. Both the Younkers and Sears department stores, anchors for Lindale since it opened in 1960, are closing.

Just like the old retail department stores of downtown Cedar Rapids from the past, these Lindale landmarks will be missed. The story of how these retail giants evolved in Cedar Rapids is a fascinating one, with the Sears story the older of the two.

Sears, Roebuck and Company first opened a department store in downtown Cedar Rapids in 1929. By the late 1920s, downtown Cedar Rapids had established itself as the major shopping destination for Eastern Iowa. At the time, the center of the city boasted more than 180 retail shops, 18 hotels and 10 movie theaters. The anchors for all this activity were the retail department stores.

Before the 1920s, Cedar Rapids had several established, local department stores such as Armstrong’s, Craemer’s, Martin’s and Denecke’s (known as Newman’s starting in 1927). Another store, Killian’s, opened downtown in 1911 after operating in Wahoo, Neb. These stores were very successful and attracted the interest of national department stores. Companies such as Sears, J.C. Penney and Montgomery Ward established downtown locations before 1935 to be a part of the dynamic retail scene.

SEARS BUILDING

Sears was able to locate in a two-story building at 313-315-317 Third Ave. SE, right across the street from the large World Theatre movie house, later known as the State Theatre. The location also was adjacent to the Union Depot passenger train station by Greene Square.

The Sears building had been built in 1893 and 1905 for the Searles and Baxter monument company and featured multiple types of stones on its second-story facade. The building would later house a May’s Drug and then the Foreman & Clark men’s clothing store. The building still stands and is known today as the Heritage Building.

Sears was very successful at its downtown location and by the mid-1940s opened a separate Sears Farm store at 402 Second Ave. SE. By the mid-1950s, Sears was eager to expand its stores and had run out of available space in the downtown. At this time, too, Younkers, a legendary Des Moines-based retail operation, was looking to expand into the Cedar Rapids market for the first time.

SHOCKING ANNOUNCEMENT

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On Feb. 15, 1956, a shocking announcement was made. Younker Brothers and Sears, Roebuck and Company announced plans to establish a 72-acre, 50-store suburban “shopping center” on a site that was partially cornfield and timberland east of the Cedar Memorial Cemetery.

Younkers and Sears were to be two of the center’s three anchor stores. Opposition to the plan was tremendous from the long-established downtown Cedar Rapids department stores.

Robert Armstrong of Armstrong’s was most vocal in his opposition at City Planning Commission meetings in 1956.

Armstrong saw the proposed “Sears-Younkers Shopping Center” as a threat to the “economic health of the downtown area.” He pleaded with the Planning Commission to reject the rezoning of farmland and woodlands to commercial-retail.

An “outside shopping center,” he argued, “would be an inconvenience for shoppers. They would have to travel 4 1/2 miles from one retail center to another to compare values.”

Despite the enormous objections from downtown retailers, though, the rezoning proceeded, and construction of the shopping center began in September 1959.

Interestingly, and NOT coincidentally, September 1959 was the same month Armstrong’s opened a new department store in downtown Cedar Rapids at the corner of Third Avenue and Third Street SE.

LINDALE OPENS

The new shopping center was named Lindale Plaza, and the first 11 stores opened Sept. 1, 1960. The new Sears and Younkers stores opened shortly after that.

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Until the early 1980s, Lindale Plaza was an open-air shopping center. After a roof was built over the connecting common areas, Lindale Plaza became Lindale Mall.

In late 1979, Younkers opened a second Cedar Rapids department store at the new Westdale Mall on the other side of the city. It initially featured the Peacock Room restaurant on the second floor. The Westdale Younkers store closed earlier this year.

Just weeks ago, it was announced both the Younkers and Sears stores at Lindale Mall would close by the end of 2018, likely before the end of summer.

The two department stores are the last of Lindale’s original 1960 occupants. Younkers endured in Cedar Rapids for almost 60 years, and Sears was a fixture for nearly 90 years.

Both opened together at the same time at Lindale Plaza. It almost seems appropriate they should close at Lindale Mall at the same time, as another chapter in Cedar Rapids retail history comes to an end.

Mark Stoffer Hunter is a research historian for The History Center in Cedar Rapids.

l Comments: mark@historycenter.org

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