After a long hiatus spending a good chunk of this Summer in Europe, I’ve returned with a treat. The mall featured here has long been one of my personal favorites, so please enjoy.
My very first visit to Fort Wayne, Indiana yielded this mall in June 2001. Gas was just north of a dollar a gallon, and I was a teen with few cares in the world other than driving around and exploring new areas. I had never been to Fort Wayne despite the unlikely kinship that existed between the city and my hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin. Located about five hours apart, both cities were General Motors factory towns, and growing up I remember many families who set off to Fort Wayne in search of better jobs when the plant opened there in the late 1980s. In the end, the ties between the two cities dissolved, as General Motors ceased production in my hometown, abandoning it, though the more modern Fort Wayne facility continues to operate.
Named for Revolutionary War general “Mad” Anthony Wayne, Fort Wayne was established as a frontier trading post for European settlers. The village was platted in 1823, and grew tremendously following the completion of the Wabash and Erie Canal in 1843, which provided a vital shipping passage between the Great Lakes and Ohio River valley, then leading into the Gulf of Mexico.
Today, Fort Wayne is the second largest city in Indiana after Indianapolis. With a population of over 250,000, Fort Wayne is located in the northeast part of the state, near the borders of Ohio and Michigan, and about 2 hours north of Indianapolis.
Fort Wayne’s first mall, Glenbrook Square, opened in 1966 on the north side of town. Three years later, Indianapolis-based Simon decided that Fort Wayne’s recent and projected growth indicated it could support a second enclosed regional mall. Located on the south side of town, Southtown Mall opened in July 1969.
Southtown’s single-level complex debuted with a 100,000 square-foot Montgomery Ward and a 114,000 square-foot Fort Wayne-based Wolf and Dessauer department store, which was acquired that same year by Indianapolis-based L.S. Ayres. When Southtown opened, it had 567,000 square feet of retail space, including the anchors. In addition, G.C. Murphy operated a 60,000 square-foot junior anchor store, and there was a single-screen cinema, which was twinned in 1972 and expanded to a triplex in 1982.
How about a high school art mural from 1995:
Hopefully the Wayne High School Advanced Art Class of 1995 finds this page and is amused to find their mural may have been destroyed, but is saved in perpetuity on the internet. I would be. But maybe you’re just in the mood for a case full of plastic oranges at this defunct Orange Julius:
Also in 1982, Simon embarked on a major expansion of Southtown, adding a new southwest wing through recently vacated G.C. Murphy, leading to a new 90,000 square-foot Sears store. Added in addition was a food court called The Patio, and a Service Merchandise. After the expansion was complete, Southtown had 858,000 square-feet of total retail space, giving it the designation of Fort Wayne’s second super-regional mall after Glenbrook Square.
Unfortunately and ironically, the completion of the addition was the beginning of the end for Southtown. The same year the expansion debuted, 1982, was the same year International Harvester dealt a whopping blow to Fort Wayne, eliminating over 10,000 jobs. Most of these jobs were on the south side of the city, in Southtown’s immediate trade area.
In addition, Glenbrook Square expanded in 1976 and 1981. Adding to its retail dominance in Fort Wayne, it became the hub of a massive conglomeration of retail strip on the north side of town, which it still is today. In contrast, the retail offerings to complement Southtown were slim by comparison.
The fallout of Harvester’s Fort Wayne exodus was evident in the departure of Montgomery Ward in 1983. Fortunately, though, Wisconsin-based Kohl’s stepped in to fill most of the vacant store, with apparel chain Spiece taking the remaining balance.
Southtown continued to soldier on with a full set of anchors, a designation it would keep until the 1990s; however, the newer southwest wing to Sears was never fully leased, and the mall was always thought of as a lower-level ancillary to Glenbrook Square.
In 1992, Southtown lost junior anchors Spiece, Richman Brothers, and Old Mill Pottery. L.S. Ayres also announced plans to shut their store that year, but were convinced to ride out their lease, which didn’t expire until 1997. Kohl’s opened a short-lived outlet venture in the shuttered Spiece space, attached to its regular store, but his proved to be a failed venture, closing after only a few years. I’m not sure Kohl’s has ever attempted this anywhere else since.
Then, in 1997, two major anchors departed, doling Southtown two death blows. Keeping their promise to stay out their lease, L.S. Ayres departed in July 1997, along with JCPenney a month earlier in June. Service Merchandise and MCL Cafeteria also closed around that same time, and the mall began bleeding stores faster than it had prior to these major departures.
In 1998, Simon had enough and unloaded Southtown to infamous mall slumlord Heywood Whichard of North Carolina, whose modus operandi is to buy moribund malls and run them into the ground, forcing taxpayers to foot the bill for the redevelopment. And he did just that – within two years he was already over $200,000 behind on taxes.
By 1999, things were looking grim at Southtown, and Kohl’s finally departed in March for a brand new store at Apple Glen Crossing, a new outdoor power center on the west side of Fort Wayne. That same year, Southtown was put on the auction block, but no one offered to make a bid, and the whole process soon became confounded by the discovery of asbestos in the structure as well as underground storage tanks that didn’t meet modern regulation standards.
In 2000, some local developers attempted to buy the mall for redevelopment, and even offered to pay the delinquent taxes, but by then the process was tied up in litigation between the mall’s owner and the city of Fort Wayne. Eventually they lost interest, and it became clear there was no future for redevelopment until the city forced condemnation.
All this time, the mall emptied, and by 2001 only a handful of stores were open, many of them mom-and-pop locals. I remember an article I found online not long after I visited the mall in 2001, which profiled a retailer in the mall. Her name was Su Won, and she operated a beauty supply store in the mall. One of the photos with the article featured Su Won herself, sitting on a bench outside her store in the completely empty mall, staring wistfully into her store. The photo was priceless, and I wish I could find it again.
In January 2002, Sears finally pulled out of the mall, leaving it with zero anchors and few in-line stores. The mall limped along for another year like that, finally shuttering completely in February 2003. The city of Fort Wayne condemned the property that year, so redevelopment could finally move forward on the eyesore behemoth. Unfortunately, this meant that in August 2004 the whole thing would be torn down.
In 2006, the redevelopment debuted and the new Shoppes at Southtown opened, anchored by a 225,000 square foot Menards, and a 217,000 square-foot Wal-Mart SuperCenter. In addition, a small strip center opened as well, featuring T-Mobile, Great Clips for Hair, and Star Financial Bank.
I visited Southtown in the Summer of 2001, and was shocked at the condition and size of the mall. Only a handful of outlets and Sears were open for business, and few people were walking around inside the dated monster mall. Aside from the Sears wing, where a few stores operated, the rest of the mall was completely devoid of activity. Take a look at the pictures I took that day, and leave your own reactions and anecdotes as well. Also, what ever happened to Su Won?
Elsewhere on the web:
- Other photos of Southtown from Flickr, including an old ad
- Deadmalls feature on Southtown, to which I contributed way back when
- YouTube walk-through of Southtown from 1992. Did I mention I love YouTube?
Pictures from June 2001: