Changes are coming to the Sears store in downtown Oakland.According to recent news reports,an investment team headed by local developer Alan Dones is in negotiations to purchase the Sears building at 1955 Broadway and the adjacent city-owned parking lot at the corner of Telegraph Avenue and Thomas L. Berkley Way.
If things go according to plan, under the new ownership, the Sears store could remain as an anchor tenant and other floors of the 84-year-old building which are unused, would be remodeled for new office and retail space.
There is an interesting history associated with both Sears and the H.C. Capwells Store, which longtime Oaklanders may remember was for many decades the original occupant of the landmark building.
Both companies were started by Midwesterners in the late 19th century at a time when general retail department stores were first evolving.
Harris Cebert Capwell, born in Grand Lodge, Mich., in 1858, attended college to become a pharmacist. He came to California at the age of 20 and worked in a Sacramento drugstore, before switching to become a traveling salesman for a dry goods emporium.
Richard Warren Sears was born five years later in 1863; his place of birth was Stewartville, Minn., and his initial occupation was station agent for a railroad company. Sears got into the mail order business by selling surplus watches to other agents. He partnered with Alvah Curtis Roebuck and formed Sears & Roebuck in 1893. The company's headquarters was Chicago.
Catering to largely rural farm customers throughout the Midwest, Sears & Roebuck grew rapidly.
Meanwhile, in 1889 Capwell opened "The Lace House," a small retail establishment at 10th and Washington streets in downtown Oakland. In 1912, while a new Oakland City Hall was being built, Capwell opened a much bigger store behind City Hall at 14th and Clay streets (where the Clay Street Garage is today). An important civic leader of that era, he was recognized as the founder of the local Chamber of Commerce, served on various bank boards, and was a member of several fraternal orders.
In 1925, the Sears Company began opening "brick and mortar" stores throughout the country in addition to continuing its mail order catalog business. The company's founder Richard Sears had died in 1914. On March 30, 1929, the 350th (and largest) retail store in the chain opened on Telegraph Avenue and 27th Street. An Art Deco style tower feature beckoned car-owning residents of the East Bay to come shop (a multilevel automobile garage was conveniently located next door).
H.C. Capwell was in the process of making his own statement on the Oakland business front. Capwell purchased a vacant lot -- covered in berry bushes -- on Broadway and hired a prominent New York City-based architecture firm to design a new department store; the grand opening was held on Aug. 5, 1929. Unfortunately, Capwell did not live to see his magnificent new store open; he died of a heart attack on July 9, one month before the opening. He was 71.
How did Sears come to occupy Capwells?
In 1993, the Sears store on Telegraph closed. In 1995, Capwells (by then part of the Northern California Emporium Department Store Chain) also closed when the Emporium went out of business. A short time later Sears reopened in the old Capwell space. Sears' former Telegraph location was transformed into loft style condominiums and was home for a time to former Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown.
It will be interesting to see what happens next to Sears/Capwells building on Broadway.