The largest city in the state of Iowa, Des Moines is a growing metropolitan area of over 500,000 residents and a glowing example of midwestern urbanity. Historically, its even keel and middle-American value have been an overall attractive package for developers. It is for this reason that Chicago retail magnates Joseph Abbell and Bernard Greenbaum chose the city to develop an early prototype of a shopping center which would become far more successful than they had ever imagined.
Originally the site of a Passionist Monastery from the 1920s through the 1950s, Abbell and Greenbaum worked with Younkers, a Des Moines-based department store chain still in business today, to develop what was initially called Northland Shopping Center. A strip mall in its early design stages, developers quickly realized the potential of the site and revamped plans to include two large department stores and four buildings around a commons area. Not only this, they changed the name to Merle Hay Plaza, named after the road the Plaza is on but also after the first Iowan killed in World War I. Construction on the Plaza was complete in 1959, with 31 stores including Younkers and a bowling alley which is still in operation on the site today. Later that same year, Sears opened, and other early tenants included Kresge’s, Bishop’s Buffet, and Walgreens. In 1965, a movie theatre and office tower were also added to the complex, making it one of the largest mixed-use facilities in the country at the time.
In 1972, as part of a nationwide trend, Merle Hay Plaza was enclosed, becoming Merle Hay Mall. The climate controlled, indoor environment allowed shoppers respite from the harsh, midwestern winters and also from rain and heat in summer. Then, in 1974, the mall doubled in size with a two-level western addition, adding anchor stores Montgomery Ward and a Younkers home store. This expansion was mainly a response to two other regional enclosed centers being built in the market, Southridge Mall and Valley West Mall, both of which still exist today.
Despite the mall’s enormous success at the time, tragedy struck Merle Hay Mall in November 1978 when a fire broke out in the Younkers store, killing 10 of the store’s 25 employees. To date, it is the most devastating fire in Des Moines’ history, and destroyed the original Younkers at the mall. The fire was caused by faulty wiring.
A new Younkers opened to replace the destroyed one within a year, and it was the only anchor change at the mall until 1991 when Younkers home store closed as Younkers exited the furniture and appliances market to focus on their fashion-oriented department stores which still exist today. That store was replaced by Kohls in 1993; then, in 1998, a controversy which eventually led to the closure of the Wards store ensued. It was deemed that Wards was operating a “discount store” instead of the “first class, full line department store” their lease required. So as a response, Wards just took off, leading to St. Louis (May Company) based Famous-Barr to fill the space in 2000. Also that year, the entire mall underwent a $20-million renovation.
In 2004, a major retail shakup occurred in the Des Moines market as a brand new retail destination opened in West Des Moines. Jordan Creek Town Center instantly became the category killer mall in all respects, consisting of an enclosed mall and two separate lifestyle center-style districts comprising not only retail but recreation, hotels, entertainment, and destination dining. The insanely popular Jordan Creek has consistently sucked shoppers in central Iowa away from the three other regional malls; however, due to extensive renovations and repositioning; the other malls seem to be holding their own. At Merle Hay Mall, Famous-Barr closed in 2004 and due to anchor shuffling Target was able to build a new store in the old Younkers space, as Younkers relocated to Famous-Barr’s old location.
Today, Merle Hay Mall is not only still the state’s largest enclosed regional center, but also the oldest in all of Iowa. According to ICSC, Jordan Creek Town Center has more retail space but the enclosed portion is smaller. Interestingly, while most of the mall is located in the city of Des Moines, the tail end of the western expansion has yielded a food court which is actually located in the city of Urbandale.
Possibly the most interesting aspect of Merle Hay are its design features. After the 1974 expansion, Merle Hay was left with two main wings. The older (1972) wing, which connected Sears and Younkers (now Target), has very high ceilings with large windows near the top and a wide corridor. In addition, this corridor was home to two separate “basement courts” – one which housed a bowling alley, and another which housed a restaurant and other entertainment options. Both of these basement courts were extremely open, but only the bowling alley one is currently open. Management appears to have shuttered the other basement court, as evidenced by the conspicuous placement of a large planter blocking the staircase leading to it from the main corridor.
The newer (western) wing, built in 1974, is absolutely amazing. It connects the main corridor, at center court, to Kohls, Younkers, and the food court at the west side of the mall. The best part, however, is the middle of this western wing where it randomly splits into two levels. To get from the one-level to the two-level part requires going up or down a half level, respectively. Also, the decor in this area is dated, and the ceiling becomes this massive archway which extends across this wide area. It’s really kind of unexpected, and at the end it goes back to one level again to continue to the anchors and a short side hallway veers right to the food court where the mall finally ends.
Most recently, Merle Hay Mall has been in the news for being a ‘struggling’ mall – which I couldn’t disagree more with; however, the mall has lost $13 million in value since 2005 and is probably in need of some renovation to continue its overall viability into the future. The city of Des Moines has also become antsy as the erosion of its tax base is terrible for them, so in response they have enabled a TIF district in the area surrounding the mall. Monies from the city will help the mall and its neighbors update their facades and renovate existing locations to keep shoppers happy and in the end hopefully to get some people to ease off the gas pedal in the direction of Jordan Creek. However, on the flip side, more than a few residents are miffed that the city is giving this area TIF financing when there are several other sections of the city that are much worse off. Either way, I hope it helps, Merle Hay’s a cool place and we want to see it around for a long time.
The pictures featured here were taken in March 2008, when the mall seemed busy enough to me. I think if you want to see a struggling mall, you should take a look at a few others on this site… Feel free to add your own experiences or post something interesting you know about the mall.