Quick Roundup 351

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Escape from Edouard Update

The tropical storm I was following -- starting the Sunday evening before an early Tuesday flight -- never intensified.

But its wind field grew Monday evening, and I had some concern that winds at the airport would keep me grounded after all. Luckily for me, the thing hooked to the right before making landfall, and I was able to leave.

But preparations ate up a lot more of my time than I expected, hence this morning's short post. Blame lack of sleep yesterday and Too Much Stuff Left to Do this morning.

Summer 2008 TOS

If I weren't so busy lately, I'd have read this issue of The Objective Standard in the same way that Gideon Reich, who reviewed it, did. But I was, and since I knew I'd be flying to Boston soon, I allowed myself to read the book reviews, which I really enjoyed, and then set the rest of it aside until yesterday's flight.

My capsule review: Damned good from beginning to end! I particularly recommend "Property Rights and the Crisis of the Electric Grid" by Raymond C. Niles, which I'd been looking forward to for some time. That article is available online, so if you don't subscribe, read it there and remember that you could get three articles of the same quality each quarter for the price of less than two movie tickets per issue.

Even if Hollywood could still reliably produce great movies, that would be a bargain!

Update: Burgess Laughlin has a very interesting post about Mr. Niles's work to persuade leaders in the utility industry and others of the case for better government protection of individual rights.

Etiquette is contextual.

If ethics is practical, absolute, and contextual -- and I agree with Ayn Rand that it is -- then so is its application to daily social interactions, etiquette, as Andrew Dalton indicates after encountering some individuals who expect there to be no criticism of Alexander Solzhenitsyn upon his death.

Now, as a guide to etiquette, in a properly delimited context, such an injunction ["Do not speak ill of the dead."] has some merit. Such a context would be when speaking in the presence of family and friends of the deceased, or when his faults were confined to his private life. In that case, trumpeting the dead person's moral shortcomings would be an act of spite with little or no rational purpose.

However, Solzhenitsyn was a public figure, and his often-criticized religious and nationalist views were part of his publicly expressed philosophy. It is dogmatic and insane to insist that these views should not be criticized on a political/legal blog simply because Solzhenitsyn recently died.
And it is worse than merely rude to allow such to go unchallenged, given the greater context of the real-world consequences collectivism visits upon its victims, be they adherents of collectivism themselves or their victims.

Based on My Last Visit, I Think Not

A few stops down the tram line from where I work is a Sears location I would use to buy Lands End shirts from time to time after the catalog retailer was acquired by the venerable department store chain.

Hoping to replace a couple of shirts before leaving town Tuesday, I went down there, only to find that there was nothing in the racks from Lands End, and that everything else they had was a far cry from the business casual level I was shooting for. I left empty-handed.

The store, pictured at right in its former glory, is now an eyesore, and looks increasingly out of place in the neighborhood which is regentrifying around it -- and would send shoppers there if they'd only offer better merchandise.

So it was with jaw dropping just before my flight that I saw a teaser on the front page of the Houston Chronicle to the effect that behind its present rusting, corrugated facade hides an art deco delight! Unfortunately, I lost that section of the paper at some point during my rush to make the flight, so I'm linking to the story now. (And, on the paper's past advice, reproducing lots of the story since it likes yanking days-old content from the web.)
Sears' tan metal siding, blotched with graffiti cover-up, gives the building's upper floors the beaten-down air of an aging ministorage unit. But even that beats the urban battle fortifications at ground level.

Someone, it appears, worked hard to make the department store defensible, able to repel invading hordes of shoppers intoxicated by Vanessa Hudgens' back-to-school ads. At the Wheeler side of the building, two sets of glass double doors, blacked out and locked during business hours, present an ominous face to the street. Opaque gray film makes the official entrance's glass doors, facing Main, only a little less scary. Bricks fill almost all the former display windows; burglar bars and more of that gray film cover the plate glass that survived. Only the most intrepid seekers of Kenmore appliances would dare breach such a bulwark.


The strange thing? Sears' unsightly fortifications hide a gorgeous Art Deco building, a store that, in its day, marked the height of luxury.

In 1939, when the Main Street Sears opened, Main at Wheeler seemed a world away from downtown, where all of Houston's other major department stores clustered. To lure shoppers away from their accustomed haunts, the chain created a store that the Houston Chronicle called "one of the finest in the South or Southwest."

Sears ponied up what was serious money during the Great Depression: $330,000 for a block and a half of property, as well as a cool $1 million to build the store itself. To design the store, the chain hired Nimmons, Carr & Wright, a Chicago firm, as well as A.C. Finn, a Houston architect known for his commercial buildings.

They designed the building around three features now so commonplace that it's hard to imagine a time when they seemed notable. First was the idea that outside of downtown, shoppers would arrive in cars, and that those cars must be accommodated. Next to the store, Sears operated its own gas station. And even more notably, the store provided an enormous parking lot. Across Main Street from the store, it could hold 600 cars, a number then considered enormous. Lighting that parking lot at night counted as a separate novelty.


So what on earth happened to that poor building?

It's hard to say what, exactly, the store's general manager was thinking in 1962, when he proudly announced a "modernization." The building's interior and exterior, he told the Chronicle proudly, "are to be completely and radically changed." [minor edits]
I have been told before that during that period, this kind of ugliness was strongly associated with modernization. The idea that progress in aesthetics is the same thing as a utilitarian stripping-away of all decoration and ornament -- specifically that reason is incompatible with a pleasant aesthetic -- is both a manifestation of the mind-body dichotomy and a bastard offspring of the aesthetics of modern philosophy and the admiration of technology peculiar to America. The latter is made possible by the massive philosophical confusion rampant in our modern culture.

Reporter Lisa Gray goes on to note that many art deco features of the building remain, both behind the "space age" (spaced age?) shell and within the interior.
[G]iven the store's location, and the relative ease of restoring it, you hope the chain realizes what it's got. You'd like to think that the old Art Deco Sears hidden underneath that beige metal could return.

And not just return. Arrive. [bold added]
Based on the direction that their clothing inventory has taken, I think that the answer to the question of whether they know what they've got is, "No."

Maybe they'll sell to someone who does.

-- CAV


: Added link to post on "in-line activism".


SN said...

Sears is operating many (some say most) of its stores in "run off" mode rather than "going concern" mode.

Essentially, top management knows it can improve sales at such stores if it invests in a spruce-up of the stores and their assortments. However, management also thinks the improved sales will not pay back the renewed investment in the right time-frame.

However, with many of these stores, they think they will not get a good enough price (today) if they sell the store real-estate to someone who can get good ROI from the property. So, they're sitting on the stores, and running them in a way that generates a positive cash-flow even as it runs itself down further.

Time will tell if they ought to have invested in the brand, of if the liquidation strategy is the smart one.

Gus Van Horn said...

Well! THAT explains my general impression of the place!

It seemed to have ... shrunk ... in a general sense. Among other things, it had closed the entrance I normally used and had a more limited inventory. I thought the location was preparing to close, and yet the Chronicle reports on the chain's commitment to keeping the location open.

Sad, from the perspective of what this chain once was, and disappointing from my perspectives as a customer and as a proud citizen (of a few more weeks or months, anyway) of Houston.

Anonymous said...

Management of such chains will stress their "commitment" to specific locations right up to the very hour that they announce their closure. If they did otherwise, they wouldn't be able to retain employees and customers for as long as they need them. So I would put two cents into what they SAY and go more with what you actually OBSERVE.

It was very common in the 1950s - 1970s for older, often breathtakingly beautiful buildings to be covered up with UGLY metal, porcelain and concrete panels. This was the case with both one and two story retail structures all the way up to skyscrapers. For example, very first skyscraper in Dallas was covered up back in the 1960s with an ugly checkerboard of yellow and white plastic bulging panels. Happily, there has been a trend in recent years of reversing the vandalism done to such buildings by their very owners and uncovering and reconstructing the long obscured/destroyed details.

Sadly, I have my doubts that such will be the case with that Sears store. I think softwarenerd is correct about management's plans for the brand. In recent years, Sears Holding has actually made most of its money by operating as a hedge fund, not by any profits from its Sears/Kmart stores.

I am not sure what could even be done to fix Sears - they are sort of an anachronism in today's market. They are part general merchandiser, part department store. But for general merchandise, you can get much more for your money at Walmart or Target or big box stores such Lowes, etc. As for the department store aspect, you can get much better quality for the same money or often less at JC Penny. Kind of sad because Sears was once a very proud and grand company. In their day, they revolutionized retailing by making it possible via mail order for people in isolated rural areas to enjoy the same low prices and selection enjoyed by people in big cities. Sears was as hated by small town merchants as Walmart is today - and for the very same reasons.

My guess is the best hope for the building is what you suggest: for someone else to restore it for another use. But I suspect the odds for that happening are rather slim. Old department store buildings tend to be rather difficult to reuse for other purposes.

As for business casual clothes at a good price, I recommend JC Penny. Last two times I was in there they had some incredible sales going on - I was actually able to pick up a couple of shirts for as low as $6 each. I am not sure if those sales were one time events or if they conduct them regularly. But, outside of the sales, they have their own in-house clothing brands which they sell at very reasonable prices. You can possibly do better if you go to outlet malls and such. But if you are pressed for time and need to get something quickly, they have stores everywhere and decent prices. You will certainly find them to be better than Sears in both selection and value.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks for the tip regarding JC Penny.

I disagree that the Sears location would be hard to re-use. Midtown is coming back very nicely and I could easily see the building being put to good use as a grocery or even a huge bookstore, or even being subdivided and repurposed.

Houston's lack of zoning makes such a scenario far more doable than in most other cities.

Burgess Laughlin said...

Re: "Summer 2008 TOS"

Your recommendation of Raymond Niles's article is apt. It is very well written and edited. Mr. Niles's article, however, is only part of an exciting story of intellectual activism. Mr. Niles not only is writing to improve the world in the field he knows best, power generation and transmission, but he is also taking direct action in personally presenting his ideas for reform to leaders in his field.

I call both efforts "in-line activism" because he is an intellectual activist in an area of expertise arising from his already-held central purpose in life. I discuss his in-line activism in the August 1, 2008 post of the Making Progress weblog:


Anonymous said...

I hope you are right about the prospects for the building. Restored to its original condition it would certainly attract more attention and be much more "cool" than some bland modern econo-box.

As for art deco - here is an excerpt from a 1934 British movie that someone posted to YouTube that just oozes with art deco. The set designs are a fun little visual reminder of a time when the word "modern" had positive aesthetic connotations of excitement, elegance, grandeur and glamor. Outside the realm of technological advances, the term "modern" in the context of today's culture has become a dreaded and almost dirty word for rational people with standards and good taste. It is a term that has increasingly become synonymous with the worst sort of nihilism - which, of course, is completely incompatible with and looks down on excitement, elegance, grandeur and glamor. See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d2kgKi7buKg

The original 1939 version of that Sears store verses the vandalism done to it in the 1960s are good examples of what to be "modern" once was and what it became. When it was built, the term "art deco" was not in use - it was simply called "modern." The term "modern" is one of many things that our culture has to reclaim.

Gus Van Horn said...


Thanks for reminding me of your post. I'd seen it through either my feed reader or a recent roundup and liked it, but didn't remember it this morning.


I look forward to the video once I wind down from the job fair I attended today.

I found myself having to rewrite the "modern" part of my post today due to the ambiguous meaning of the term. At the time, I was thinking that we need to finish making it into a derogatory term, but I think that you're right. We need to snatch it back from the vandals.


Galileo Blogs said...

Gus, I am glad you liked my article in TOS.

Gus Van Horn said...

And I am even more glad you wrote it! Thanks!

Matt said...

Oh man, I live just down the street from that building and I had no idea there was a bunch of art deco coolness underneath that atrocity. It's a bit depressing now.

Gus Van Horn said...

Yep. You'd never guess! They've buried that sucker very effectively.