Victor Gruen and the Birth of the Shopping Mall

It shouldn’t be any surprise that we idolize Victor Gruen at Labelscar. It’s not just because, 60 years ago, he invented the form of shopping center that is the primary focus of this blog (though that’s a big part of it) but also for a few more reasons. One is that he had the same appreciation for the form of the mall that we do, and that he similarly didn’t see them just as places of commerce. Somewhat surprisingly, both of Labelscar’s co-authors are a) men and b) not big shoppers, overall. We don’t write about malls because we’re obsessed with fashion and consumerism, so much as that we write about them because of fond memories of their function as exciting community meeting places when we were younger, growing up in fairly dull suburbia. Gruen’s creations were some of the only places in our world that brought together the masses, creating a blur of 1980s stone-washed denim jeans, gurgling penny fountains, Reebok Pumps, NKOTB cassingles, and women wearing sequin-studded dresses and sporting heavily-teased up-dos (replace with your own cultural reference points if you’re older or younger; you’ll undoubtedly have equally-vivid memories). In other words, the random mass of humanity, all partaking of junky consumer culture, yes, but it was still a place that young, old, rich, poor, all races, etc., all sort of collided into one place. Victor Gruen created the mall a few decades earlier specifically for people like us: he was an Austrian Jew who moved to the US during World War II and felt that the strip-based style of development at the time was lacking in community and soul. Malls were his way of creating hubs to serve as gathering spaces that would feel like European town centers, complete with civic amenities, artwork, fountains, and more.

Unfortunately, malls were also supposed to serve as hubs for transit and mixed-uses with residential, office, healthcare, and other services all available in one pedestrian-friendly place. Sadly for Gruen, much of his original vision was sacrificed by developers in favor of the profitable all-retail-surrounded-by-parking formula, and Gruen died a somewhat bitter man who was ashamed at how his creation was so misunderstood. He came to be seen as the anti-Jane Jacobs (she who is the mother of new urbanism) but both had the same belief in the value and power of cities, they just both had dramatically different opinions about how to get there. Jacobs believed in walkability and the organic growth of neighborhoods via smaller lot sizes–an opinion I agree with, as do many–whereas Gruen felt that large-scale redevelopment could modernize cities and stop the flow of the middle class to the suburbs with a higher standard of living or simply provide a sense of place to new areas that lacked any history. Although Gruen’s urban redevelopment projects, such as the West End in Boston, saw very mixed success and even destroyed the kinds of places Jacobs sought to defend, they also served their purpose for a time. (Yours truly even lives in a 1970s-planned neighborhood within the city of San Francisco that was plotted out based on a very Gruen-esque ideology, and although it’s a very nice place to live it is lacking in the kind of character most people associate with my city).

Ultimately, the fact that Gruen had so many of the right ideas–and that they were so much more well-intentioned than anyone familiar with a “mall” would assume–is part of what makes him such a fascinating character. This documentary goes into some of the history of the man’s life and creations, and although it’s long (about an hour!) it’s worth a viewing for anyone who is interested in the history of malls and the man who invented them.

(Thanks for the heads-up, Eric)

Watch Full Screen

It’s Mall Week at The AV Club

In real life, the Lone Pine Mall from Back to the Future is the Puente Hills Mall in City of Industry, California

Do you read the Onion’s AV Club? If you don’t, you might not be aware that it’s “Mall Week” over there, with a slew of posts all about malls and pop culture. Today, they had a post that very well could’ve appeared here at Labelscar on the beautiful artificiality of American malls:

Yet what appeals most to me about the design and execution of malls is that there remain kinks that can never be wholly smoothed out—especially once the facilities start to age. The plastic plants gather dust. The public’s interest in dipped candles and video arcades wanes. Retail spaces open up, and are often re-filled with much less care than in the original plan. My fondest memories of the malls of my youth are the stores that seemed out of place: the weird little collectibles outlets or quasi head shops that worked their way into the mall community and then hung in.

Go check it out, and then read the rest of the Mall Week articles, including a run-down of pivotal movie scenes happening in malls or an analysis of how malls in movies double as time machines.

Moorestown Mall; Moorestown, New Jersey

The nation is littered with places where two malls sprung up right next to each other — the post that sat at the top of the Labelscar homepage for *cough* uhh *cough* four months, the one right in front of this one, is an example — and in only rare case are both dominant. In general, one is the good one, and the other is the also-ran, making occasional strides towards being a legitimate peer by snagging a hot new anchor or having a more up-to-date renovation. The Moorestown Mall, which lives in the shadow of the amazing Cherry Hill Mall in New Jersey, is one of these also-ran malls.

Moorestown Mall was opened in 1963 by PREIT, just 3 miles east of the Cherry Hill Mall on state route 38 in the New Jersey suburbs of Philadelphia. A large, sprawling one-level enclosed center, the original anchor stores in the Moorestown Mall were Wanamaker’s, Gimbel’s, Woolworths, and Sears. For obvious reasons, only Sears remains today, and the mall has had somewhat of a revolving door of anchors throughout the years:

  • Gimbels became Stern’s in 1986, after owner Brown & Williamson sold off the chain. Stern’s remained at the mall for a short four years before leaving. The store was converted to “Ports of the World,” a new concept by Boscov’s ownership to covertly enter the Philadelphia market without anybody noticing (for some reason?). This silly experiment lasted very little time, and the store was converted to Boscov’s not long later.
  • Woolworth lasted in the mall in their junior-anchor space until their demise; the space later became a Vans Skate Park (one of the many attempts to draw more crowds to the mall with a destinational retailer) before failing and being turned into a Foot Locker and ultimately a Black Diamond Mountain Sports.
  • Wanamaker’s was absorbed into the Hecht’s nameplate in 1995, and the Hecht’s was ultimately converted to a Strawbridge’s (since this is the Philadelphia region, after all, so Hecht’s was somewhat of an anomaly here). This store was later torn down to make room for a new Strawbridge’s store and was converted to Macy’s in 2006.
The Moorestown Mall was partially renovated in 1986 but then suffered a devastating fire in the early 90s, that nearly killed it entirely. A Patch columnist recounts what it was like at the time:
I am sorry to say that the Moorestown Mall has always been the ugly stepsister in our family of local malls. Built in 1963 and only a few short miles from the Cherry Hill Mall, our mall has always suffered in comparison. When we moved to town in the early ’90s, the mall was a post-fire ghost town. There were rainy, wintry days when the “wooden playground” was not an option. I figured out pretty quickly that the mall was a great place to let the boys run. There was so little foot traffic that I could just let them rip and watch them as they ran towards Macy’s.
The mall received a new renovation in 1993/1994 that refreshed the look of the center significantly, adding atrium entrances and arched ceilings. This renovation was suspiciously similar to the renovation of Rhode Island’s Warwick Mall just a year or so earlier. Only a few years later, in 1997, the Rouse Companies purchased the mall and attempted a major upscaling and repositioning of the center, demolishing the existing Strawbridge’s store in favor of a new one in 1999 and adding Lord & Taylor as a new anchor in 2000, with their only location in South Jersey. Nordstrom was almost added as part of this expansion, but they ultimately opted to not expand to the area at the time.
The 2000s continued to be rough for the Moorestown Mall. The Cherry Hill Mall underwent a dramatic renovation and expansion, and a major outdoor big box/lifestyle center opened just a few miles to the east. The mall was again floundering and needed to be refreshed. A small renovation to add more pad restaurants and refresh the street-facing side of the mall began in 2008, and in 2011 the town of Moorestown voted to allow alcohol sales at the previously dry mall, allowing sit-down chain restaurants to open in the area. In addition, on December 22, 2011, Regal Cinemas announced that they planned to replace the existing 7-screen United Artists Theatre with a large, state-of-the-art facility RealD 3D, surround sound, and stadium seating. The new theatre will reuse much of the space formerly occupied by the Vans skate park and Woolworth.
The photos here were all taken in fall of 2006, so they’re six years old now. The mall today looks quite a bit different. Have you been recently? What has changed?
More links:

Serramonte Center Mall; Daly City, California

We’ve covered hundreds of malls on this site, but only a few dozen of them have much of a personal connection. The Serramonte Center Mall in Daly City is one of those, since I currently live only about 4 miles away in San Francisco. I’ve learned a lot about the Bay Area in my 4 years living in the area, and this old gem of a mall (and the area its located in) both have an interesting back story.

Daly City, California, is a dense older suburb located immediately south of San Francisco proper at the extreme northern end of San Mateo County. Incorporated in 1911 and named for local rancher/land owner John Daly, Daly City was primarily a small farming and ranching community with a town center located along El Camino Real — the main old highway running north-south in California — until the late 1940s. That was when developer Henry Doelger, who had recently developed several large suburban-style housing tracts in the adjacent southwestern portions of San Francisco proper, built the Westlake subdivision just south of the city line, in Daly City. Westlake was one of the first large suburban-style planned communities in the US, built out with vaguely atomic-age monostylistic architecture, a charm that it has retained to this day. Westlake was also criticized–then and now–for its architectural blandness and boxy homes, and was the subject of Malvina Reynolds’ folk hit “Little Boxes,” a popular anti-conformity song in the 1960s and later the theme to Showtime’s TV series, “Weeds.”

Westlake itself was centered along John Daly Boulevard, and was a true “planned” community with a ring of single family homes, a cluster of multifamily apartment complexes, and a large retail mall at the center named Westlake Shopping Center (originally Westlake Town & Country Center). Opened in 1948, the open air mall was one of the oldest in the United States, and unlike many of the other malls around the Bay Area has never been enclosed. It’s still operating today, but as a more community-oriented, big box-anchored center.

The Serramonte Center Mall came later, and a few miles south. As the Bay Area continued to grow in the post-war era, development continued to sprawl southward from Westlake and a new set of developers, Fred and Carl Gellert, set to develop the Colma Hills and Serramonte Ridge area with a new set of homes in the early 1960s. Much like Westlake to the north, this development was set to be anchored by a large new suburban-style retail mall, but unlike Westlake the new mall would be fully enclosed. The center’s original anchor stores were Montgomery Ward, Macy’s, and Long’s Drugs and the mall was organized roughly in a “T” shape and located in the crux between two freeways: CA highway 1 (the famous Pacific Coast Highway, which had recently been re-routed and expanded to a controlled access freeway in this area) and interstate 280. The mall also saw a small expansion not long after opening, with a slightly expanded eastern wing and a new Mervyn’s California store as the final mall anchor.

Daly City has remained a largely midrange suburb in the decades since, with some significant and interesting demographic shifts coming along the years. Daly City is one of only a handful of US cities that is majority-Asian, and 33% of the city’s residents are Filipino, the highest percentage in the United States. Daly City proper has just over 100,000 people, and is the single largest city in San Mateo County, which occupies most of the peninsula south of San Francisco itself.

The mall remains successful as a middle-tier, 865,000, one-level center today. Montgomery Ward departed the center upon their bankruptcy in 2001, and were promptly replaced by Target, despite that Target already had another location across the street in neighboring Colma. Both Target stores continue to operate almost within sight of one another today. The mall began a renovation in 2007, which saw a modernization of the structure inside and out, replacing much of the interior with Asian-inspired rock, plant, and water features, including bamboo plantings and a koi pond. The mall’s Long’s store departed at a similar time, and the space remained vacant until 2011 when it was filled with a Crunch Fitness. Mervyn’s California departed when the chain closed in 2009; after sitting vacant for two years it was replaced with a small but modern JCPenney store which always featured the short-lived “red square” logo design. The original Macy’s store, still in operation today, retained its vintage signage until 2011 when it was sadly replaced with the modern Macy’s red star signage. Overall, the place is nearly always busy due to the midrange tenants like Target and H&M, and the surrounding sea of big box centers are extraordinarily successful due to the proximity to San Francisco, where land is too scarce and expensive (and political opposition to this type of development is too great) for many of these chains to operate.

I like the design of the Serramonte Center Mall a lot. The size and design reminds me a lot of the malls of my youth, with the high center court/significant water feature as a dominant focal point. The “Zen” renovations of 2007 and 2008 did nothing to ruin the mall, if anything this is one of the more faithful re-dos of a mall this type that I’ve seen. Serramonte also has a significant number of food options, ranging from a sizable food court to an outdoor promenade with fast casual options such as Andersen’s Bakery and Rubio’s and in-line traditional fast food restaurants like Burger King, McDonalds, and Taco Bell. There’s also legitimately decent pho–a rarity in a mall!–at the Pho Garden next to the food court.

The photos here were largely taken in spring of 2008, not long after I moved to the Bay Area, and as such you’ll notice a few things that have already changed. The Target Greatland signage is gone, and the Mervyn’s California is also (obviously) gone, plus I managed to get shots of the Macy’s before they removed the old signage. I did also go back and snap a few quick shots of the new JCPenney, just so you all could see the new lowercase “red square” logo that is unlikely to ever make it onto many of their stores.

Sorry for the Disappearing Act

Longtime readers may have noticed that the site recently had a major technical issue, where all comments on all stories–a huge share of our overall content and part of the reason people come here to begin with–had disappeared completely. They were never deleted, but there was a serious issue with the database where comments weren’t being called to display, and we had to have someone help us repair it. An unfortunate reality is that maintaining this site sometimes means we need skills that we don’t possess ourselves, so we had to find some outside help. The past couple years have been much worse in this regard, with some significant spam attacks.

Everything should now be functioning as normal, and we’re sorry it took so long to repair. We have a new post or two coming for you this week as thanks for being so patient!

JCPenney Re-brands… Again

Only a year after modifying their Massimo Vignelli-designed logo–in use since 1971–JCPenney are scrapping their old logo altogether for a brand new look. It looks a little like a patriotic lego set to me, though I have to say that it looks cute on the bags and on the storefront. This is, no doubt, part of JCPenney’s major turnaround strategy which is going to feature innovative new pricing and a reduced emphasis on sales and promotions to distance themselves from rival Kohl’s.

What do you think? Does it look cheap or is it an effective re-brand?

UPDATE: I need to do this story proper justice. There are very big changes afoot at JCPenney. Their current CEO came from Apple and was responsible for much of Apple’s current wildly successful retail strategy. They plan on redesigning and renovating all of their stores with a “Main Street” concept with many smaller stores-within-a-store, and standardizing pricing at full dollar amounts and eliminating most sales and promotions. Instead, there’ll be an everyday-low-price model (slashing prices on most goods around 40%) with items becoming marked down as they age. Forbes has gone out on a limb in calling JCPenney the “most exciting retailer of 2012.” Compared to the slow, laggard Sears refreshes under Eddie Lampert, it is true that this dramatic change will at least be an interesting one to watch. It remains to be seen whether it works or not.

Schuylkill Mall; Frackville, Pennsylvania

The Schuylkill Mall opened in 1980, developed by Crown American properties, with Kmart, Hess, Sears, and Pomeroy’s as anchor stores. With around 800,000 square feet spread across a “T” shaped pattern, the mall was extremely large, especially given its rural trade area, and initially opened with a bevy of mid-range national tenants

I grew up watching ’80s teen movies and sitcoms–things like Fast Times at Ridgmont High or Saved By The Bell–and they all created the impression that California was this sunny mecca of palm-tree filled mall atriums and penny fountains, that the west coast was where the mall truly came from, the rest of the country was just trying to horn in on their sun-spackled glory. Almost four years ago, I moved to California. I then realized that we not only have fewer malls than most other developed parts of the country, but that (with the notable exception of the immediate Los Angeles area) they’re a lot more secondary to American life than they are in most other places.

Weirdly, the place that got far more of these concrete palaces is the less-glamorous rust belt.Pennsylvania, in particular, has a mall, or two, or three, in nearly every community of significant size. This mall, the Schuylkill Mall in Frackville, is one of three enclosed malls along a rural stretch of PA route 61 in east-central Pennsylvania.

The Schuylkill Mall opened in 1980, developed by Crown American properties, with Kmart, Hess, Sears, and Pomeroy’s as anchor stores. With around 800,000 square feet spread across a “T” shaped pattern, the mall was extremely large, especially given its rural trade area, and initially opened with a bevy of mid-range national tenants including Gap, Deb Shops, Spencer Gifts, Record Town, Jeans West, Foxmoor, Fashion Bug, B.Moss, Waldenbooks, Claire’s Boutique, Afterthoughts, Listening Booth, Slack Shack, KB Toys, and Footlocker. In 1987, a fifth anchor–Phar-Mor–opened on the mall’s north side to complete the roster, and that same year Pomeroy’s was sold off to The Bon-Ton, and the store changed nameplates to what it is today. For much of the 1980s and 1990s, this fairly dark and brown center was the dominant retail draw in the region, far dwarfing the two smaller malls south of it along route 61.

The Schuylkill Mall was never a fancy place. This part of Pennsylvania is rustic and blue collar, known for coal mining and industry. In fact, this area’s biggest claim to fame is nearby Centralia, a ghost town sitting atop an underground coal mine fire that has been burning since 1962. Despite this, the mall has always been at least somewhat successful and never exactly dead throughout its existence, serving as a mid-range catch-all for people living miles in every direction.

Hess’ closed their store at some point–possibly 1994 when the entire chain went belly-up–and their store was replaced by the Black Diamond Antique Mall, which occupies the space until today. Much of the wing leading to it has died out, and what few stores exist are somewhat temporary/lower tier operations (including a model railroad club!) In 2003, Crown American merged with PREIT, who is the current owner and operator of the mall. I visited the Schuylkill Mall twice, in 2004 and 2007, and took this set of photos on the latter date. Although the mall’s condition was around the same during those two visits three years apart–i.e., not great, but still with a fair amount of activity and national tenants–several accounts have noted that the mall’s fortunes have declined precipitously in the last several years, with many national tenants such as Kay Jewelers, Claire’s, Chik-Fil-A and Waldenbooks (duh) closing their stores in the mall.

What’s perhaps most interesting about this odd, beat up mall is its condition. It appears like it has gotten little love or attention since its 1980 opening, with its dated, primary-color logo and triangular planters hanging on like a hawk’s talons to a rat. Or something. Do you know what’s going on with this mildewy palace on the hill?

New Harbour Mall; Fall River, Massachusetts

The New Harbour Mall is a 350,000 square foot dumbell style mall in the old industrial city of Fall River, in southeastern Massachusetts. Fall River has a population of approximately 92,000 people and is located about 15 miles east of Providence, Rhode Island, or 10 miles west of New Bedford. Technically part of the Providence metropolitan area, Fall River and its twin New Bedford are aging mill cities who saw their greatest successes during the industrial revolution in the 1800s and early 1990s, when hundreds of thousands of immigrants flooded the textile mills looking for work. For many decades now, however, Fall River has been something of an economic backwater, struggling with a lack of industry and a high unemployment rate. The city continues to welcome immigrants, however, and today has one of the largest percentages of Portuguese residents in the United States, giving it something of a unique character.

Originally named simply the “Harbour Mall,” the center opened on the south side of Fall River, just feet from the Rhode Island state line, in 1970. Bradlees and Grant City where the mall’s two original anchor stores, staring at each other from opposite ends of a small corridor housing around 30 smaller shops. Originally, the mall was fairly dark and moody, characterized by its external wood-shingle look and ’70s mod logo (which featured a captain’s wheel and the “Harbour Mall” name in a Helvetica-style font). In 1976, Grant City went out of business and was replaced by Kmart, and in 1984 a movie theatre was added to the center.

When it opened, the Harbour Mall was kind of the only game in town, but this didn’t last for long. The larger North Dartmouth Mall (now just “Dartmouth Mall”) was simultaneously under construction ten miles east, closer to Fall River’s twin New Bedford. That mall opened in 1971 but didn’t impact business all that much. The bigger blow came in 1975 when the even larger Swansea Mall opened just a few miles to the west of Fall River, strategically placed to serve both Fall River and the eastern suburbs of Providence. Although the opening of the Swansea Mall didn’t kill the Harbour Mall, it did solidify its place as the lesser “dirt” mall serving the area, an image it was never able to shake (locals call it “Harbour Hall,” even today). As the years went by, the entire commercial strip along Canning Blvd. in Fall River would become increasingly secondary in comparison to the strips surrounding the other two malls, reinforcing that this area was the least desirable of the major shopping districts around.

In 1993, perhaps recognizing the obsolescence of the mall that connected two still-popular anchors, then-owner Yale Realty Services decided to spruce up the Harbour Mall. Skylights were added to the interior and the moody hallways were redone in a queasy blend of mint and pink. Lastly, the exterior shingles were removed and replaced with green siding, and the main entrance facing route 24 was given a much grander facade to be visible to freeway traffic. Topping off this rather silly renovation was than even-sillier renaming of the mall to the “New Harbour Mall.” Because it was the NEW Harbour Mall. There is no such thing as a “new harbour.”

Nonetheless, it seemed to work alright for awhile. Business picked up a little bit and the mall continued to house a standard blend of the types of stores that frequented smaller discount-oriented malls at the time, such as Radio Shack, Fashion Bug, Rainbow, and Record Town. There was also an arcade, a McDonalds Express, and some other merchants. Unfortunately, in 2000, Bradlees announced that they were going out of business and closing all stores, including this one. That initially seemed like a bad omen for this mall–especially since Bradlees was its most popular tenant–but within a year, Wal-Mart announced their intention to fill the space. This gave the New Harbour Mall the distinction of being the first and thusfar only shopping center in the United States anchored by both Wal-Mart and Kmart, giving each other a death stare down this minty pink mall corridor. Over the years, the mall’s somewhat ill-considered renovation began to age very badly, and today there are many signs of neglect. On one 2006 visit from both members of the Labelscar crew, we found that the restrooms were bizarrely labeled “boys” and “girls,” and that they had just put bars of soap on top of the sink for anyone to use. Communal bars of soap. In a mall. Yuck.

In 2007, the movie theatres finally closed. Four years later, in 2011, Walmart announced that they would be closing their store at the New Harbour Mall to open a brand new supercenter an exit north along route 24, at Bryant Avenue. That store will replace–somewhat ironically–what used to be one of the city’s many old factories that had been converted into an enclosed outlet mall in the 1980s and 1990s. With the departure of Walmart and the somewhat unlikely nature of finding a tenant to replace them, management of the New Harbour Mall have hinted that the building may be big boxed, removing the center’s declining interior corridor for good. I hold out some hope that Kohls or Target (neither of whom have stores in the area, or to serve the Newport County RI area to the south) will take the space and the mall itself will be renovated and saved, but I’m doubtful.

This dopey little mall actually has some close ties to the Labelscar crew. I grew up about 15 miles to the south, in Newport, Rhode Island, and other than the long-since-departed Newport Mall, this was physically the closest enclosed mall to my hometown. We didn’t go here all that often because of its size, but I do have quite a few childhood memories of shopping at Bradlees for backpacks, sweaters, and Escape Club cassette tapes. Also, I wrote the entry about this mall back in 2001, and it was one of the very first pieces of content that the crew over there posted from a contributor. (Admittedly, what I wrote was not my finest hour, but this whole write-about-malls thing was pretty new at the time).

The photos here were all taken on December 26, 2000, making them amongst the oldest original photos featured anywhere on the site. They’re the same set that I sent to Deadmalls, and were taken with a relatively low-res (but then seemingly pretty cool) digital camera that died within the first day I was using it. December 26 was also the exact day that Bradlees announced they were going out of business, and I was unaware of the announcement until I visited the store at the New Harbour Mall and saw all of the ominous yellow signs announcing that they weren’t accepting returns or taking checks. I was in the middle of a weird populist phase where as a broke college student I un-self-consciously did a lot of shopping at stores like Bradlees, Caldor, and Ann & Hope (the Targets of their day), who would all go out of business soon after. Pretty sad.

Metrocenter Mall; Phoenix, Arizona

Phoenix was one of the largest cities in the country that I hadn’t personally visited until a few months ago (others on the list include Miami and Atlanta), and I really had no knowledge of its development patterns or neighborhoods. Just looking at a map and guessing which malls might be in a safe place to compete, I’d guessed that Metrocenter was probably one of the staid and sturdy old behemoths of Phoenix retailing, due to its central location right along a major freeway and its large size. This is one of those cases where I was extremely surprised: Metrocenter Mall is one of the largest malls in all of Arizona, and it was once the dominant mall in all of Phoenix, but now it is slowly and visibly dying, due to its age, demographic changes, and outmoded design.

Metrocenter Mall is one of the most centrally-located malls in Phoenix, with frontage right along the busy I-17 corridor. Metrocenter opened in 1973, a joint venture between Phoenix-based Westcor and Homart, the real estate division of Sears Roebuck and Company. When the mall opened in 1973, it was the first two-level, five-anchor mall in the United States, and was not only the largest in Arizona (at 1,400,000 square feet) but one of the largest in the country. Designed as a massive showplace, the mall even had the fuselage of a 747 airliner within the center to house a bar!

Metrocenter Mall’s original anchors were Sears, Rhodes Brothers, Goldwater’s, Diamond’s, and The Broadway, and a large ice skating rink in the food court area acted as an entertainment anchor as well.

At the time, the mall was situated at the far northern extreme of Phoenix, sitting outside of the city limits in unincorporated Maricopa County. Developers believed that development was going to sprawl northward in Phoenix, and that there’d be significant growth to support the center in the future–an assumption that proved correct long-term. Metrocenter immediately swiped a significant chunk of the trade area from the more centrally-located and older Chris-Town and Park Central malls just a few miles south; it was part of a trend that would ultimately also spell doom for Metrocenter decades later.

For a time, the gargantuan center was a major draw for shoppers from all over Arizona, and people traveled hundreds of miles to shop. Metrocenter had a fairly long period of dominance, lasting through the 1980s. By the time the 1990s rolled around, however, things began to change. Phoenix was experienced explosive growth, and development had sprawled well past the once far-flung Metrocenter and newer malls (in particular, Arrowhead Towne Center, opened in 1993 several miles to the northwest in a newer section of Glendale) opened further from the city’s core had stolen much of its thunder. On top of that, the neighborhoods were beginning to look worn and tired, and crime in the vicinity of the center had increased considerably. Many of the neighborhoods west of I-17 were significantly more working class than areas north or east of Metrocenter, and the mall is one of the closest large retail centers to some of the city’s tougher neighborhoods a few miles to the south. Although the movie “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” was filmed in the mall in the late 1980s, it was the beginning of a turning point: the iconic ice rink closed at the beginning of the following decade. Here’s a video of the mall from 1990:

Throughout its life, the mall saw the standard comings and goings of anchor tenants. Rhodes Brothers was converted to a branch of Hawaii-based Liberty House, then to Joske’s. Joske’s was acquired by Dillard’s and the location became a second Dillard’s for a time before converting to a JCPenney. The Broadway was acquired by Federated department stores in 1997, and converted to a Macy’s. Goldwater’s was converted to J.W. Robinson’s, which became Robinsons-May in 1993. After May department stores were acquired by Macy’s in 2006, Macy’s moved from the former Broadway to the Robinsons-May building, leaving the former Broadway vacant.

The ailing mall was sold in 2004 to Macerich and AEW Capital Management, who brought back original owner Westcor to attempt to reposition to the center. They planned an extensive repositioning, including an external renovation (2005) and later an internal remodel (2007) meant to modernize and brighten up the center and its surrounding grounds. However, it hasn’t helped the center much; despite the hulking size and relatively good condition of the property, there is a significant number of vacancies scattered throughout the property, and the poor old place can’t help but feel like a slowly dying beast. JCPenney left the mall in 2007, ironically to return to Chris-Town (where they’d shut several years earlier), leaving a huge gap, and Dillard’s shut one level of their store to downgrade to a clearance outlet in 2009. As a result, 2.5 of the mall’s 5 elephantine anchors are currently dark. The current anchors at Metrocenter are Macy’s, Sears, Dillard’s Clearance Center, Sports Chalet, and Harkin’s Theatres. As of 2010, Westcor decided to abandon the dying mall, letting Jones Lang LaSalle take over management.

These photos were all taken in May 2011:

Retail Relic: Ann & Hope Department Stores

Ann & Hope, Warwick, Rhode Island

We haven’t done one of these in a very, very long time. I recently stumbled upon a cache of old photos that I took in the summer of 2006–in the nascent days of this blog–on a trip back to my home state of Rhode Island to capture some of the retail oddities of my home region. Ann & Hope was one of the most storied retailers in New England during their reign from the 50s until 2001, and is most famously known as the pioneer of discount department store retail. Legend has it that Sam Walton modeled Walmart after their concept.

Ann & Hope was founded by Martin Chase, a Ukrainian immigrant who moved to Providence, Rhode Island when he was six years old. He spent much of his young adulthood working at various clothing retailers, before starting his own store, Chase Clothes, in the 1930s. Chase minimized overhead by using inexpensive store fixtures and not offering frills such as alterations. In the mid-1940s, as the clothing market was depressed due to World War II, Chase began to look at new business ventures to expand into, and he purchased the sprawling Ann & Hope mill complex, named for a ship lost at sea off the coast of Rhode Island in 1806. The mills were located in Cumberland, Rhode Island, just north of Providence. The Ann & Hope complex was made up of large, somewhat disused factory buildings, and Chase split the spaces up and rented them out piecemeal to subtenants and retailers.

In 1953, one of the tenants moved out of the complex and left a large amount of ribbon behind in the mill, and Chase opened the space to the other tenants in the center to purchase the remnants. Inspired by his success, Chase decided to reopen his own retail venture in the space, and gradually expanded his retail operation within the complex. By the end of the 1960s, Ann & Hope had grown to a $40 million-a-year general merchandise business, and Walton’s famed visit occurred in 1961.

Ann & Hope pioneered the discount department store concept, with centralized checkouts, large amounts of merchandise that customers could peruse without sales personnel, and shopping carts. The original Ann & Hope mill location, which was located in oddly-sized rooms on different levels in an old industrial building, also featured shopping cart escalators and a large parking lot, both innovations at the time. Ann & Hope stores also featured a full-service cafeteria and generally had several small sub-tenant spaces such as a flower shop or garden center in the front of the store. Ann & Hope stores typically sold a wide variety of merchandise, including a large grocery section, a wide range of apparel and home goods, as well as electronics, appliances, general merchandise, and more. They carried much of what you would get at a modern Sears or Best Buy, along with many of the softer goods you’d find at Target, all under one very massive roof.

In addition to the original Cumberland location–which bore little physical resemblance to the modern big box store, the chain opened large (often over 200,000 square-foot) suburban-style stores throughout New England. The other locations were in Warwick, Rhode Island; Seekonk, North Dartmouth, Randolph, Danvers, Watertown, and Methuen, Massachusetts. The Watertown and Danvers stores even anchored large regional malls, whereas the other locations were standalone. From the 60s to the 90s, Ann & Hope was a dominant retail force in New England, and many of their stores acted as regional draws much in the same way as malls did, anchoring their respective retail districts and attracting a flurry of commercial development–development that, in many cases, would ultimately spell their demise.

Ann & Hope, Warwick, Rhode Island

In the spring of 2001, when the economy was weak but was especially struggling in New England, many regional discount chains such as Bradlees, Apex, and Ann & Hope finally found they were unable to compete with larger competitors. Many of these chains, such as Target and Walmart, were able to use the leverage of operating many locations in less-expensive regions of the country to offset the high-cost stores in New England, whereas smaller chains like Ann & Hope simply didn’t have the leverage or buying power to stay on board. All of the store locations, save for the Warwick and Cumberland stores, were closed outright. The remaining two stores were converted to “Curtain and Bath Outlets,” focusing on a few key areas of Ann & Hope’s offering (along with lawn and garden), and a dramatically shrunken footprint. Much of the remainder of the Warwick store even served temporary as the headquarters for Brooks Pharmacy, while their own offices were under construction a few miles away in East Greenwich. The Curtain and Bath Outlet seems strange–and the appeal seems to be primarily to older women–but has proven so successful that the still-surviving chain has opened a total of 11 stores under this new format.

These photos were taken in summer 2006, approximately five years after the closure of this location as a full-service Ann & Hope store. The exterior of the building is largely unchanged from pre-2001, except for the addition of the ugly “OUTLET STORES” sign below the main A&H signage. The Curtain and Bath concept was operating, however, hence why I was able to get inside and snap a few quick pictures, but it’s important to note that this bears very little resemblance to the original Ann & Hope, which was significantly more comparable to a higher-end Walmart Supercenter or the hypermarket chains like Meijer, Fred Meyer, or Bigg’s.