Niles, Illinois is an inner-ring suburb of Chicago located about 15 miles from the Loop. With nearly 30,000 residents, Niles is a typical inner-ring suburb with a large post-war housing stock and lots of mid-mod artifacts as well as the rather kitschy replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, built in 1934.
The main commercial street in Niles is Milwaukee Avenue, (IL Route 21) which slices through middle of the village from northwest to southeast. The anchor of this commercial strip is the 1 million square-foot Golf Mill Shopping Center, located at the north edge of the village at the intersection of Milwaukee Avenue and Golf Road.
The story of Golf Mill Center goes all the way back to the 1950s. In 1959, Milwaukee-Golf Development began construction on a project to bring a large-scale shopping center to 88 acres of farmland at the corner of Milwaukee Avenue and Golf Road. The center opened in 1960, and was named, rather appropriately, after the intersection on which it sits. A two-level, 213,000 square-foot Sears anchored the open-air shopping center with 400,000 square feet of retail space on both the north and south sides. According to Mall Hall of Fame, some early stores included Hillman’s, Lytton’s, Walgreen Drug, Lamm Shoes, Richman Brothers, Lerner Shops, a Woolworth 5 and 10 and National supermarket. There was also a single-screen movie theatre and a Sears Auto Center.
In 1966, JCPenney tacked on a two-level, 190,000 square-foot store at the south end of Golf Mill Shopping Center. More interestingly, at the north end of the mall a live theatre venue called the Mill Run Playhouse and Millionaire’s Lounge opened in 1965. The Millionaire’s Lounge became a notorious gangster hangout throughout the 1960s and 1970s. If only those walls could talk!
The open-air Golf Mill Center enjoyed success during the 1970s and into the 1980s, even as larger enclosed malls such as Woodfield and Randhurst operated nearby; meanwhile, the much larger nearby outdoor venue Old Orchard Center solidified a grasp on tenanting upscale and exclusive retailers for itself, attracting shoppers from across the region. In order to differentiate itself from Old Orchard, and compete with the others, the owners of Golf Mill Center decided to fully enclose the mall in 1985. During this renovation, the Mill Run Playhouse was demolished after closing in 1983, and an 11-stall food court opened near the front center of the mall along Milwaukee Avenue. In addition, Chicago-based Mainstreet Stores was added as a third anchor to the north end of the mall where Mill Run Playhouse was; however, in 1989 this location was re-branded as Kohls because Kohls acquired Mainstreet in order to enter the Chicago market.
Once the enclosed mall was built, the mall became a rather unique design anomaly – not just in the Chicago area, either, as Golf Mill is one of only a handful of malls we can think of where the in-line space is “bisected” by a large anchor – Sears. In addition, the cylindrical Golf Mill office tower – designed to look like the surface of a giant golf ball – hinges on the mall in an interesting and unique fashion. The elevators to access the office tower come out right into the mall, on a short side wing leading from the main mall to an entrance near the south end and JCPenney. There are also some neat skylights where one can peer up at the office tower looming above from within the mall. We can think of at least a few malls with attached office towers and bisecting anchors, but rarely are they together and as interesting as this mall.
Throughout the past decade, numerous changes have taken place at Golf Mill Center in order to continue viability for the aging mall. In 1998, a 100,000 square-foot one level Target store was added to the north end of Golf Mill Center, joining Kohls at that end and becoming a popular boon to the mall. Then, in 2004, Rouse Company, the Maryland based owner of the mall, was acquired by Chicago-based General Growth Properties, who continue to own and manage the mall as of 2008.
In 2006, General Growth decided to embark upon an expansion and renovation of the 20 year old enclosed mall structure. The first addition was a 40,000 square-foot Value City Furniture mini-anchor, which opened in the north half of the mall in early 2005. Prior to the Value City opening, most of the north half of the mall was cleared of stores in order to prepare the space. In addition, a Kerasotes 12 theatre multiplex at the back of the mall opened in November 2006, and throughout 2006 and 2007 the exterior and interior of Golf Mill Center received numerous upgrades. Curiously, though, most of these $8 million upgrades have taken place in only half the mall, between Sears and JCPenney, where a brighter floor was installed and the older light posts were removed. The north half of the mall, between Sears and Kohls/Target, wasn’t renovated at all and is currently completely dead aside from the anchors. Also, a popular California-based sit-down chain restaurant Elephant Bar opened in the food court, and the childrens’ play area near JCPenney was removed and relocated to the theatre wing.
For now, Golf Mill Shopping Center is a viable mall and despite competition and upgrades, it continues to serve a very important niche in the middle class near-north and near-northwest suburbs of Chicago. Now that Randhurst has closed for redevelopment, the nearest malls providing competition are Old Orchard and Northbrook, which are upscale, and Woodfield, which is a considerable distance and serves a different niche altogether. So, even if some rather harsh Yelpers disagree, Golf Mill will soldier on.
We visited Golf Mill Shopping Center over the years and took the pictures featured here. The first set, from October 2001, features a randomly stumbled upon concert by pop-wonder Brooke Allison. So, enjoy that, and as usual, feel free to leave your own comments and experiences with the mall.