Then and Now: A historic walk through Ponce City Market

By BRITTANY MAHER, MORGANA KENNEDY, and JAMES WHITE

ATLANTA – As the largest standing brick structure in the Southeast, the building now known as Ponce City Market has been an urban staple for nearly a century.

But before it was a bustling, modern hub for Atlanta locals to peruse a variety of boutiques, specialty shops, offices, restaurants and retail stores, from 1926 to 1987 the 2.1 million-square-foot building stood amid the city as Sears, Roebuck & Co.

Sears, Roebuck & Co.

At the company’s height, Sears, Roebuck & Co. employed over 1,000 employees in retail and warehouse work in Atlanta daily. During the holiday season, around 500 additional seasonal employees were hired to ensure catalog orders were in for Christmas. Former employees recount the floors in the building being so vast that many of the workers fulfilling catalog orders would roller skate throughout the 45 acres of floor space.

Bob Strickland, president emeritus of the Sears Retiree Club, takes pride in the time he spent as an employee of the former Ponce De Leon location. Strickland even recalls visiting the massive building as a little boy when his mother would receive the Sears catalog in the mail.

“I got there in 1969 and worked there until 1974 until I was transferred to another store,” Strickland said. “I always enjoyed working at that location. Everybody back then knew Sears, Roebuck & Co., the reputation was always known as a friendly store.”

The location became a vision of opportunity for those who landed jobs there, and Strickland himself worked with Sears for nearly 40 years. As Atlanta eventually transformed around the historic property, the building itself has remained a loyal landmark.

”It’s a good location right in the heart of downtown Atlanta, it used to be far out but it’s almost like the city grew out to it,” Strickland said.

City Hall East

After Sears discontinued its operation in 1986, the city of Atlanta purchased the building in 1991 under then-Mayor Maynard Jackson for $12 million. Jackson called it “the deal of the century,” according to Creative Loafing. The City of Atlanta opened an assortment of government offices and the building became known as City Hall East.

City Hall East housed a number of facilities including the Atlanta police department, parks and recreation, fire headquarters, motor transport, central records and a few art galleries.

Even under ownership of the city, less than a third of the building was ever in use. And although partially occupied by businesses, the majority of the building still held remnants of its past. The remnants included decades’ worth of dusty, decrepit furniture, ancient piles of paperwork, obsolete equipment, antiqued hardware and assortment of dated debris.

Parts of the building resembled an abandoned factory. Even old punch clocks of former Sears employees were left unscathed in certain areas of the complex.

The building was eventually used as a staging area during 1996 summer Olympics. By 2010, however, City Hall East sat vacant – costing tax payers an estimated $600,000 a year for the empty building.

Ponce City Market

In the summer of 2011, Jamestown Properties made a $27 million purchase to convert the building to residential, office and retail space. Now more community focused, the redevelopment of Ponce City Market aims to bring the prominent structure back to life.

poncedeleon

The old-style brick walls of Ponce City Market show historic remnants of the building’s former lives amongst a plethora of modern retailers. (Photo by Brittany Maher)

“The redevelopment focuses on preserving the building’s historic character, environmental sustainability and its connection with the community,” said Kelley McLaughlin, senior public relations manager for The Reynolds Group. “Ponce City Market reflects the authenticity of the historic structure and the surrounding neighborhoods, returning the building to its prominence as a thriving landmark in the Southeast.”

While embarking to restore the building, however, developers stumbled upon surprising discoveries again left behind from the building’s former life.

Buried under five layers of carpet, builders excavated unspoiled maple floors. They also discovered the original hand-carved stone signage from the building’s first entryway.

As the building becomes more of a frequent go-to spot for modern city-goers, developers from Jamestown Properties hope to preserve as much of the building’s history as possible.

The restoration of the 1920s era space is expected to be both economically and environmentally inclusive. Today, Ponce City Market now brings modern use to historic elements – like recycling thousands of tons of reusable materials and utilizing fully restored, original steel-frame windows to decrease the complex’s heating and cooling costs.

Even the site’s natural spring supplies water to the building. (Perhaps acting as the building’s own “Fountain of Youth.”) Rainwater runoff and recaptured water are also being utilized for irrigation purposes, reducing site water use by 50 percent.

According to the Ponce City Market website, Jamestown is focusing on sustainability at the Ponce City Market. The development company has over 10 years of experience building green projects.

“I love how the building has transformed,” said Atlanta resident and Ponce City Market regular Christopher James. “It’s got this chic, modern feel to it but you can still feel the history of the building at the same time.”

From rollerblading Sears employees frantically filling orders, to innovative infrastructures, the space at 675 Ponce De Leon Ave NE has seen its wave of changes. But one thing is certain: the building’s charming urban allure remains the same.

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