Rise, Fall and Rebirth: The Mission to Save Atlanta's Largest Building

Ponce City Market opened in 2014 after several years of extensive renovation. (Photo: Blake Burton)

There are few companies that symbolize early 1900s Americana quite like Sears, Roebuck & Co.

Founded in 1887, the company was arguably the largest retail and mail-order business in the United States during that time. As the company grew, it opened regional headquarters and warehouses around the nation to meet demand. It quickly become known as the "World’s Largest Store."

The iconic Ponce City Market sign was originally the Sears sign. Jamestown restored many historical features of the building to maintain the original architectural style. (Photo: Tracy O'Neal Photographic Collection, 1923-1975, Photographic Collection. Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library.)
Sears operated a retail store and mail-order business from the Atlanta headquarters until 1979. (Photo: Lane Brothers Commercial Photographers Photographic Collection, 1920-1976. Photographic Collection, Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library.)

As the decades passed and with the advent of online shopping, Sears has fallen in stature. However, several of the company's massive complexes are still standing across the U.S., one of them in Atlanta, Georgia.

Sears opened its Atlanta location in 1926, welcoming 30,000 visitors on opening day. Over the next several decades, the company added more stories to its central building, constructed a nine-story annex and additional smaller buildings to meet growing demand and expanding its empire. Ultimately, in the 1960s, it became a 2-million-square-foot complex that housed the Southeastern regional headquarters, warehouse distribution center, retail store, farmers market and even a radio station.

Ponce City Market was originally the home of Sears, Roebuck & Co's southeastern headquarters until 1989. (Photo: Lane Brothers Commercial Photographers Photographic Collection, 1920-1976. Photographic Collection, Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library.)

As Sears’ profits began to tumble, one-by-one the massive buildings closed around the nation. The Atlanta location closed in 1989. The site was purchased by the city of Atlanta in 1991, with Mayor Maynard Jackson calling it "the deal of the century." However, the building had fallen into disrepair, and the city lacked funding to restore the entire complex. The city only used 10 percent of the building for its City Hall East location and other purposes. As the building continued to deteriorate, it cast a shadow over Atlanta — a dilapidated, looming presence that seemed destined for the wrecking ball.

The Sears, Roebuck & Co. building in Atlanta housed the company's southeastern headquarters along with a warehouse and retail store. (Photo: Tracy O'Neal Photographic Collection, 1923-1975, Photographic Collection. Special Collections and Archives, Georgia)

In 2009, a city employee (and budding architect and photographer) took special notice of the building. Blake Burton lived across the street from the former Sears building and was drawn to its massive bulk and architectural stylings. Knowing that the building was in disrepair and was up for sale by the city, he feared the building would be demolished. Through his job, he gained essentially unlimited access to the building and spent the next year photographing as much of the building as he could.

Burton captured images of the former Sears building before Jamestown began massive renovations. (Photo: Blake Burton)

Burton captured thousands of images, wondering when the building would be demolished to make way for a new, modern monstrosity. The building was a photographer's dream, as if stuck in time. He discovered abandoned office equipment, cabinets still holding the building’s blueprints and plenty of mid-century furniture.

Burton discovered abandoned computers and other office equipment after Atlanta City Hall vacated the building. (Photo: Blake Burton)

Luckily the next year, a developer submitted a bid to buy the building with a vision to restore the building to its former glory. Burton might have stopped there, his wish for the building to be saved granted. But he didn’t. Burton continued to photograph the extensive remodel, creating a photographic timeline of rubble and dust to restored fixtures and gleaming new floors.

Jamestown bought the property for $27 million and spent nearly $300 million on renovations in what was Atlanta’s largest adaptive reuse project in history. By the end of the project in 2015, Sears, Roebuck, & Co was reborn as Ponce City Market.

Jamestown maintained the history and integrity of the building by keeping many features like these columns. (Photo: Blake Burton)

Burton spent six years photographing the renovation — not just because he was fascinated by its history but also to teach others the value of preserving a landmark.

"Ponce City Market is an excellent case study for how we can re-purpose our historic structures. We may think at first glance that a building is beyond saving, and that’s exactly what I thought the first time I went inside Ponce City Market. Like anything, it takes commitment and hard work to achieve a certain vision."

The budget for the renovation was around $300 million. (Photo: Blake Burton)
Jamestown painstakingly removed each individual window pane, stripped the lead and cleaned them before placing them back to maintain the original look. (Photo: Blake Burton)
A popular new attraction is the rooftop amusement park that features vintage-themed games and miniature golf. (Photo: Blake Burton)

The market is now arguably one of the most popular destinations in Atlanta and home to dozens of merchants, restaurants, apartments and even a retro-designed amusement park on the roof. Most residents only know this building as Ponce City Market or remember it as City Hall East in the '90s, unaware of the building’s nearly 100-year history.

Burton decided to share his work so others could know the history and appreciate the efforts that went into saving such a structure from demolition. His passion project morphed into his first book, "Ponce City Market: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of Atlanta’s Largest Building." Through the images and information, you can imagine what life was like in Atlanta in the 1900s.

Through Burton’s photos, you get a sense of his passion for architecture and his pride in the city he now calls home. Ponce City Market isn't just as a massive mixed-use space; it's a true architectural beauty that didn't die a wrecking ball death. His book chronicles that success — which matters even more in a city that hasn't always protected its heritage.

The building was in such disrepair that it had to be stripped down to its bones. (Photo: Blake Burton)

His images of perfectly symmetrical columns, piles of discarded office equipment and a working construction would usually come across as mundane, but Burton displays a talent for taking images of ordinary building features and making them look extraordinary through his use of lighting and composition.

Ponce City Market has a food hall, retail businesses, corporate offices and apartments. (Photo: Blake Burton)

Burton credits the developer for not just renovating the Sears building but preserving its character as well. "They have also really embraced the character of the building, and have not tried to hide it or modify it. That’s what makes Ponce City Market so appealing. Everywhere you look, you see authentic."

Ponce City Market is now on the National Register of Historic Places. The project to salvage the building has won several awards, including the 2016 Global Award for Excellence from Urban Land Institute and LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental) Gold Certification.