What was South Side on Lamar before becoming lofts and businesses? Curious Texas investigates

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Kristi Keith has a personal history with the South Side on Lamar complex in Dallas’ Cedars neighborhood. Before the historic red-and-white brick buildings became apartments, businesses and a haven for artists, the campus served as a Sears distribution center and department store.

She said her grandfather worked there in the 1960s selling mattresses. That’s why Keith asked Curious Texas: What’s the story behind the old Sears, Roebuck, & Co. building that is now South Side on Lamar with its posh amenities?

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We weren’t able to connect with Keith after she asked her question, but we were able to find lots of information about the building’s history.

In 1906, Chicago-based Sears, Roebuck & Co. opened a small office in Dallas to expand into the Southwest market. Sears became so successful that four years later it built a three-story building on Lamar Street for its first mail-order plant. The warehouse was conveniently located near downtown and the rail line.

A 1920s photo of Sears’ Lamar Street warehouse shows the railroad tunnel through the building that would be converted into a retail arcade.

Sears continued to see success and expanded the warehouse. In 1913, the company spent $625,000 to add a nine-story facility to the Dallas operation, according to The News’ archives.

That same year, the company announced it would build a three-story clubhouse for its employees. Elmer L. Scott, vice president of Sears, Roebuck and Co. of Texas at the time, said the clubhouse would have an ample cafeteria, a dining room and a lunch room that could accommodate up to 600 employees at once.

The club’s main cafeteria had a stage at one end so it could be used as an assembly room for the employees’ social, musical and athletic activities, according to The News’ archives.

“While no figures are at hand at this moment, it is believed that very few buildings for mercantile purposes in the United States exceed the size of this structure,” Scott told The News.

The Sears complex on Lamar Street with more than 3 million square feet was for sale in 1994.

Before the expansion, Scott said, the company employed 1,000 workers at the Cedars location. He expected to double the number of workers once construction was complete in late 1913.

The nine-story building from the 1913 expansion is one of the oldest portions of the South Side on Lamar property, according to The News’ archives.

The original warehouse went through many renovations over the years. Additions were made to the building in 1915 and 1916 that turned the warehouse into a 1.5 million-square-foot facility on 18 acres.

In 1925, a two-story Sears retail store was added to the property. Wings were added to the building in 1929 and 1966.

Sears, Roebuck and Co. announced plans to restructure in 1980, which included renaming the business the Sears Merchandise Group, according to Sears’ website.

Sears announced in 1992 that it would again restructure the company, which resulted in the closure of a Sears retail store on Ross Avenue, a Garland location and its sprawling Lamar complex.

The Lamar complex, which covered more than six blocks, was put up for sale after it closed April 20, 1993.

It remained on the market until 1997 when the Matthews Southwest company purchased the old Sears warehouse. The building was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1999.

The South side on Lamar complex near downtown Dallas on May 1, 2010.

Jack Matthews, the president of Matthews Southwest, said four employees from the Sears warehouse ended up working for South Side on Lamar after the purchase. One continues to work there.

Matthews said the four employees taught him some hidden Sears history.

The warehouse had vacuum tubes for sending instructions and memos. The Sears workers designed the facility to help them be as productive as possible, he said.

Designer Don Beck helped steady part of the neon sign that would read South Side on Lamar in 2000.

“They had little scooters,” Matthews said. “A lot of people also wore roller blades, depending on what you were doing.”

The Sears employees told Matthews about the building’s sub-basement and tunnels that led to the surrounding Sears buildings. He hopes to have some of these tunnels available to the public one day.

The view of the South Side on Lamar building from the bar and pool area at the Nylo Hotel on South Lamar Street in Dallas in 2012.

“At one point we will have them open,” he said. “But I just don’t know right now.”

The South Side on Lamar building reopened in 2000. The remodeled facility has 457 loft-style apartments, two fitness centers, a conference center, a library, a vintage theater, a billiard room, an art gallery and several retail shops.

Matthews said the feedback he’s received about the neighborhood’s development has mostly been positive.

Fashion retail spaces at South Side On Lamar photographed on May 27, 2010.

“There might be a tiny bit of negative feedback, and that may be because it’s a bit noisy and finding parking is harder than before,” he said. “But overall, there has been a strong sort of happiness with how the area is maturing.”

Other parts of Dallas’ old industrial district have also been revitalized. Empty factories and shop buildings have been converted into the Nylo hotel, The Beat condo tower and Gilley’s South Side Ballroom. The neighborhood has also added an Alamo Drafthouse cinema, more apartments and retail locations in the past few years.

Construction work continues at a rapid pace in the Cedars area south of downtown .

These new development allows anyone, including Keith, to go back to Dallas’ past while partaking in modern activities.

The South Side building has also become an artists’ center, Matthews said.

“The last time we did a count on our residents was about three years ago, and around 50 people made their living being artists,” he said. “Artists bring back life to things, and that was what the whole area was missing.

“It’s not missing that anymore.”

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