Joliet, Illinois is a booming sprawlburg located about 40 miles southwest of downtown Chicago with a current estimated population of nearly 150,000 residents. In its long history, Joliet has worn a lot of hats, from industrial-era superpower to beleagured rust-belt city and back to a different kind of economic success supporting the great machine of Chicagoland. In fact, Joliet has doubled in population since 1990 and is considered the fastest growing city over 100,000 in the midwest. Whereas just a few decades ago Joliet was considered distinctly separate from Chicago, today the suburban areas between the cities are completely filled in and Joliet functions as a bedroom community for the suburban mass-at-large, as well as behaving as an anchor city containing many support activities and jobs for a metropolitan area of almost ten million people.
In the 1960s and 1970s, however, Joliet’s plight was a bit different, as it was then considered both farther and further from Chicago, physically as well as ideologically. Also, the rust-belt problems which ensued across the entire midwest and northeast hit Joliet pretty hard, as many of the city’s enormous factories closed or scaled back operations dramatically as the nation moved from a manufacturing to service economy. Even so, developers recognized the city’s need for adequate shopping, being a rather large distance from other large shopping malls in Chicagoland.
As such, the first retail mall constructed in Joliet (actually neighboring Crest Hill) was Hillcrest Shopping Center along the Larkin Street (Route 7) retail corridor. Opened in 1959, this outdoor mall was anchored by Chicago-based Goldblatt’s and Joliet-based Boston Store (no affiliation with the current Boston Store chain owned by Bon-Ton). This popular outdoor center soldiered on until 1975 when a larger, more modern enclosed mall opened along West Jefferson (Route 52) just west of Larkin: Jefferson Square Mall.
Anchored by Wieboldt’s and Montgomery Ward with both Woolworth’s and Walgreens as junior anchors, Jefferson Square quickly gained popularity as Hillcrest faded. The Boston Store, which was going broke citing competition from all the larger regional retailers and discount boxes which were emerging, closed its downtown branch in 1972 and the Hillcrest Location by 1977. Goldblatt’s, a Chicago institution and the other anchor at Hillcrest, was the next to go following an unsuccessful round of competition with other Chicago-area stores, and closed in 1982.
Meanwhile, an even larger and even more modern behemoth, Louis Joliet Mall, opened on what was then the edge of Joliet and almost to Plainfield at the intersection of Route 30 and I-55 in 1978, expanding through 1979. In all ways, Louis Joliet Mall was the category killer of its time. Not only did it have interstate access, it was more easily accessible from the fast-growing communities of Romeoville, Plainfield and Bolingbrook to the north, as well as from all points along I-55 southward and I-80 westward. Also, Louis Joliet had a more impressive roster of stores, with Bergner’s, Sears, JCPenney, and Marshall Fields, and was more in line with a demographic recipe for continued success.
Unfortunately, just as things were looking up for both Jefferson Square and Louis Joliet Malls, they were taking a turn for the worse at Hillcrest. In the mid-1970s, a Service Merchandise replaced the old Boston Store location, and in 1984, Venture came to rescue the space vacated by Goldblatt’s. In 1986, Service Merchandise closed and briefly became a Highland electronics store and a Discovery Zone; today the site has been subdivided into smaller stores. Venture lasted until 1998 when it became Ames for less than a year from 2000 to 2001, and ironically briefly turned back into Goldblatt’s before closing again to be subdivided into smaller stores including a Food4Less grocery store. It seems Hillcrest, despite its ups and downs, has withstood the test of time by constantly reinventing its purpose, from super-regional draw in 1959 to the everyday melange of stores which makes up a traditional suburban strip mall.
A few miles away at Jefferson Square, the mall soldiered on successful a bit longer; however, Louis Joliet’s dominance in location and stores continued to slowly eat away at Jefferson Square’s base. Jefferson Square was only convenient to central Joliet, whereas Louis Joliet became closer to the expanding communities of Romeoville and Plainfield, and also the booming part of Joliet. A large retail strip developed around Louis Joliet, whereas the established retail strip around Jefferson Square was not as complete with category killers and modern big box giants.
The first major blow to Jefferson Square was the closure of Wieboldts in 1987. Up until this point, Jefferson Square had many of the in-line stores Louis Joliet had, and effectively served the population of central Joliet better in this fashion. However, once Wieboldt’s closed, Jefferson Square quickly began a downward spiral from which it could never emerge, despite several life-saving attempts. In 1991, Menards, a midwest-based home improvement warehouse store, was brought in to replace the Wieboldt’s location. Instead of revitalizing the core of the mall, Menards decided to close their mall entrance within a couple years, effectively rescinding any promise to revitalize the decaying interior of the mall. Way to go, Menards.
In 1996, the mall’s 60-plus stores had been pared down to only about two dozen, and management decided to unload the mall on a new owner, who embarked on radical new renovation plans. The mall was given a woodland decor, and renamed Wilderness Mall. With the renovation came several indoor changes, includng a ridiculously large fake tree placed in center court – a tree so large you could walk through it. See the pictures for a better explanation of this. Sadly, the bandshell and kiosk area which formerly occupied center court were replaced by this ‘tree’ and other faux-woodland things, like fake branches and fake pine trees. I’m not ever sure how ‘up north’ corresponded to Joliet, but here it was, for better or worse.
Unfortunately, the ‘worse’ began to be what materialized following the woodsy renovation. Only the Secretary of State (Read: DMV) decided to relocate into the cavernous dead mall, and things just got worse and worse. The cinema began to run discount movies, and when Woolworths closed in 1997 the entire east wing was sealed off – for good. Then, when Montgomery Ward closed in 2001, the mall began life support as only a few services and the Off-Track Betting parlor were located inside. For some reason, one of the last “real” tenants of the mall was a Foot Locker near center court. I remember a visit there in 2001 or 2002, and the Foot Locker was the lone tenant at center court. The employees were nearly asleep sitting on the bench waiting for customers, and it seemed like the store was all but forgotten. Other favorite stores included a western wear store and a store called “Scrunchie Heaven” – imagine what they could have sold! There was also a travel agent, and most of the stores were located either around the north (main) entrance where the OTB was, or the south entrance where the cinema and Secretary of State was.
Once Wards closed, the mall was actually sold to Menard Properties, and only a few more years passed before Menards unveiled plans to raze the mall, build a Menards Supercenter, and lease the other half of the site to Wal Mart so they could build their own Supercenter. And so it was done. What was left inside the mall (The OTB and the Secretary of State) were moved to outlots, and construction began on razing the mall in 2004. Today, both Wal-Mart Supercenter and Menards Superstore sit side-by-side on the site formerly occupied by the mall. Hooray?
I wonder what became of the ‘tree’ and the rest of the ridiculous wilderness-themed tomfoolery? Did it just go in the trash heap, or was it somehow recycled for more people to enjoy?
The pictures featured here were mostly taken in 2002, with the razing pictures taking place in 2004. Enjoy them and leave your comments as usual.
And, before I forget, here are some neat pics during demolition taken by my friend Kurt in 2004: