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THE ELECTRIFYING ION A first look at Rice University's transformation of a Deco gem, the landmark Sears building on Main Street, into a new entrepreneurship accelerator that also packs a foodie punch. By Rainey Knudson. Photography by Geoffrey Lyon. F or many longtime H o u s t o n i a n s , o u r a f f e c t i o n f o r o u r unlikely sleeper city is tempered with unease that our overreliance on a single industry could ultimately doom our city to a Rust Belt fate. Such a destiny was ominously implied, at least for some, when Houston lost out on Amazon's search for a second headquarters in 2018. (It didn't even make the top 20.) It was then that Rice University launched an ambitious plan to transform 12 charmless city blocks in Midtown into a massive live/work community. Titled the Innovation District, the area opens its first building, The Ion, with five days of programming capped off by a block party on Friday, October 1(check website for schedule updates). A dramatic renovation of the old Sears building at Main Street and Wheeler Avenue, The Ion will be the centerpiece of an area that de-prioritizes automobile traffic and emphasizes the ground plane, indoor and outdoor, as a place for people to come together and share ideas. The original 1939 Sears building was "a bombshell," as architect Barry Moore wrote in a 2006 article in Cite Magazine — a groundbreaking template for what would become big- box suburban stores, forever changing the way people shop. That legacy of trailblazing, as well as the personal connection many Houstonians feel with the old Sears store, is preserved in its new incarnation. The Ion's cutting-edge design is by SHoP Architects, the firm behind the recent renovation of SITE Santa Fe and the new Uber headquarters; James Carpenter Design Associates, a firm specializing in natural light; and Gensler, the interior architecture firm. Together, these firms solved the biggest challenge in the Sears building: the absence of natural light in the interior. A spectacular new light well, clad in angular metal, Sears building, 1939, reborn as The Ion, 2021 118

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