Merle Hay Mall; Des Moines, Iowa

Merle Hay Mall west addition in Des Moines, IA

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.

Merle Hay Mall main entrance in Des Moines, IAOriginally 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.

Merle Hay Mall pylon in Des Moines, IAIn 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. 

Merle Hay Mall Younkers in Des Moines, IA Merle Hay Mall Sears in Des Moines, IA

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.   

Merle Hay Mall directory in Des Moines, IAToday, 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.     

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60 thoughts on “Merle Hay Mall; Des Moines, Iowa”

  1. I’ve been at Merle Hay once back in Sept 2000 after a trip to Adventureland, an amusement park in the northeast of town. The mall was quite busy with very few empty spots. It was going through a remodel at the time so some parts of the mall were inaccessable. Famous-Barr was the only one to open in Iowa. Too bad Merle Hay has fallen on hard times, it was a very nice mall. I tought that Southridge would have failed first since it is on the east side of Des Moines.

  2. The split wing with the ramp…that’s amazing! All those stupid New Jersey malls (Monmouth Mall, Cherry Hill Mall) have boring stub escalators, but this is pretty unique.

  3. Wow what a architetually strange mall. Especially the wing ramps. I don’t see how this mall is in danger, sure there are some empty spots but most malls are dealing with that anyway.

  4. The thing to remember is the percentage of empty stores vs the total number of stores. In other words keep vacancy rates as low as possible, generally under 10%.

  5. That title image is all about what we love about old malls and how they clash with today’s look: large random brick walls, tunnelesque dark areas, and of course off-kilter architectural moves. That Sears made me “whoa” out loud with the huge glass-encased stairway right in front of the store!

    Imagine how much of a gravy-draped steak this mall must’ve resembled in its day! Even with all the modern, bland white paint of the mall, it’s still lost in pockets of darkness and vacancy.

  6. Sorry to double post, but I also wanted to note that Northridge Mall in Wisconsin opened in 1972 by the architecturally iconic mall tycoons at Taubman. I think it’s sadly been demolished as of today, but I find it interesting the same year this mall enclosed is the same year Taubman’s Northridge debuted a little ways north.

  7. According to another blog, that Sears swallowed a Safeway at some point. That sure looks like the vestiges of Safeway arching in the one pic.

  8. Most of Northridge is still there as far as I know. One media source erroneously reported the whole thing as having been torn down several years ago, but they really just demolished a couple of the anchors and that’s all. The main mall structure remains standing and blighted, unless they deconstructed it very recently.  This article is correct:  Someday it’ll probably show up on here…(Read: When I find the pictures I took before it closed)

  9. northridge is still standing only sears was torn down thay build a menards on that spot its wall touches the mall building dont know why thay did this but thay did also value city furuniture opened in the old boston store thay also built a pic n save in the parking lot

  10. This is the mall I grew up going to quite a bit. I currently live in Des Moines and while it was a stronger mall back when I was a kid, it’s still a fairly busy mall. The Sears wing is somewhat empty and there are other pockets of emptiness. Merle Hay’s management is pretty good at saving the day. Right now I’ve heard they’re planning on doing some shuffling and have several new stores waiting in the wings. For example, 5-10 years ago when Old Navy opened, it was a huge boost for the mall. Now Old Navy is going to be moved to a slightly less prominent spot in the mall and I believe an Ulta is going in its spot.

    A little more insight.. The area demographics are pretty good for the mall. It’s easily the most accessable for Urbandale, Johnston and Ankeny, which are both growing really really quickly and Johnston is one of the wealthier suburbs. But something else is that it’s pretty accessable to inner city areas and it seems like there’s been more gang activity there in recent years.

    All in all though, Des Moines malls have held up pretty well against the Jordan Creek monster. Southridge was hurting before Jordan Creek came in and while it’s still hurting, they seem to be bouncing back. Steve and Barry’s just opened there a few months ago and mall traffic has jumped. Jordan Creek prompted Valley West to renovate and they’ve been able to retain a lot of national stores as well as attracting new ones (Des Moines’ first Chipotle!!).

  11. westfield fox hills in culver city, ca has those half-level ramps too. they split the second floor into two halves. there are also escalators that go either between the first floor and first half of the second floor, first half of the second floor and second half of the second floor, or first floor and second half of the second floor. westfield is currently re-doing the entire mall, but hopefully the ramps will stay. part of “superbad” was filmed there.

  12. I never saw a mall with a split level design like that before, sounds pritty neat.

    Although the Fashon Show in Las Vegas has something of a split level design as well. The “Grand Hall” is a half story higher than the section nearest “the Strip”, requiring the use of escalators or an elevator. It would have been better from a design standpoint to install ramps like Merle Hay Mall.

    Too bad that other malls didn’t embrace that kind of design element, it’s just a very cool use of space that could have gone to waist.

  13. Was any part of the original burnt Younkers building used for the present-day Kohl’s? I noticed two different types of brick on the exterior that seemed to match the burned pattern of the store on that link in the pdf. That is one cool mall with one creepy note in its history. I hope it survives, though: an underground bowling alley in a modern mall is a really rare novelty!

  14. jt the kohls is in a old younkers store fore home but the store that had the fire was the department store it sat ware the target is now . target is the third building in that spot there was the original younkers the second younkers (after the fire) and now target younkers is now in the old famouis barr store witch was wards when built,

  15. I noticed a few things in this article that are not true that need to be clarified. First Merle hay mall is no longer the largest mall in Iowa, Jordan Creek is the largest followed by Coral Ridge in Coralville then Merle Hay. Anyone from Iowa could have told you this. Merle Hays size is considerably small then both of these centers. Merle Hays management is the reason to blame for the malls downfall. I use to work in the mall and management just does not care about the mall or any of the tenants within the mall. The only reason they want to remodel is to increase the value of the mall so they can sell it. Abbell Credit has been trying to sell their piece of garbage mall for some time and now they figure the only way they can do it is to remodel a portion of it.

  16. I’m seeing this all over the place lately.

    I guess it’s the new wave of managers fresh out of management school. They just don’t take pride in their work anymore, nor understand the responsibilities in handling a large multi-tenant business.

    Yeah, remodel the mall, thus increasing the rent, thus forcing more long-term tenants out and making it hard for new ones to enter the market.

  17. If that be the case, what is the purpus of having a mall in the first place?

    I would love an answer to that question.

  18. Where’s the picture of the Younkers after the fire but before it was demo’d for Target?

  19. The basement, at one time, featured a full McDonald’s if I recall correctly. There was another at an inline space at Valley West, but has since moved to the food court.

  20. You need to update your information according to the ICSC the GLA (gross leasable area) of the Jordan Creek Town Center is 2,000,000 square feet (in the enclosed shopping center), Coral Ridge has 979,415. Merle (lame) Hay has 960,000. These numbers are all GLA (gross leasable area). Also since Merle Hay has clsoed off most of the basement the numbers for Merle Hay are over inflated. So get over it, Merle hay sucks and is smaller then 2 other ‘real’ shopping centers in the state.

  21. My father worked on that job (with Greenbaum) in 1958. He took me to see the monastery (and said that it was significantly more difficult to raze than they initially thought). But , they did it and did a remarkable job of completing the shopping center. He went on to build others in Cedar Rapids, Toledo, etc, however, I always felt that Des Moines was one of my most memorable cities that I have lived in.

  22. it’s good to know you got a pic of the Wilson’s Leather before it shut its doors…and the mall really isn’t that bad…but they BADLY need to repaint and replace their logo on the main entrance…it looks ghetto. The Target is a very nice store and so is the Younkers and Kohl’s inside and out, but they also BADLY need to remodel the outside of the Sears (the inside is okay). Also, to improve the value of the mall, they could repave the parking lot (you won’t believe how much parking this mall has) and get like Cinemark or AMC to buy that old abandoned movie (formerly called “Silver Screens”) theatre that’s next to Felix & Oscar’s/Hobby Lobby! Sorry I like to nitpick. And yes the center wing court is interesting. I honestly don’t think this mall is in danger considering they have a VERY nice Target, Hot Topic (one of the two malls in DSM that has one…the other goes to of course Jordan Creek), a just-remodeled “The Limited”, a just opened last year Old Chicago, an Old Navy (which boosted traffic in the mall when it opened), and of course, my favorite, the AT&T store! Also I just wanted to confirm that there WAS a McDonald’s in the basement (and there WAS an escalator I remember it as a kid). Just some trivia…did you know the McDonald’s that is located not even a block south of the mall was the very first McDonald’s in Des Moines? My final note, if they should close a mall in this town…let it be Southridge…it’s in the G=H=E=T=T=O! It’s not terrible looking but their parking lot is more of a pothole lot and the mall’s value would VASTLY improve if Target (the other mall in DSM with a Target Anchor) would remodel their store….AND get an additional anchor to replace Montgomery Wards…which has been sitting there empty since when the chain went bankrupt (I remember buying my Pokemon Pikachu there lol…Nintendo’s version of the Tamogatchi.)

  23. does anybody have old pictures of the sculpture that used to be in the center of the 2-level area? that thing used to give me the CREEPS when i was little. really scary sculpture of some winged demon-looking guy riding a tricycle.

    merle hay mall is doing ok, but it’s definitely seen better days. at my last visit, about a week ago, i was blown away by how dead the mall really is, even worse than i remember. the anchors are all alive, but more than half the mall was completely empty. the Gap closed it’s doors and now old navy is temporarily located where the Gap was, while they move into where The Limited used to be, which is actually (as far as my eyes can tell) a smaller location than where they were.

    i’d love to see some old shots of the downstairs before it was closed. to anybody not familiar with the malls history, there were escalators leading to the downstairs (now where the kid’s play area is..they totally flattened it out and built over it), and there was a Disk Jockey, McDonalds, army recruiting center, a chinese restaraunt, a store full of candy machines, a DV8 (local chain?) and some other, i think, community-based meeting centers or something. the mcdonalds was complete with life-size mcdonaldland characters on the wall. i dont remember exactly when that section of the downstairs shut its doors permanently, but it must have been some time in the early 2000s.

    we actually got the furniture in my parents living room at the younkers home store during their going-out-of-business sale!

    long, even into the Famous-Barr days, there was a lazer tag place called Lazer X (another chain maybe?) that was near the exit west of the food court. it was fairly popular.

    i posted a comment in an earlier article where i mentioned that Merle Hay was a dying mall. while it is doing better than half the malls posted on this blog, it’s still definitely going downhill. i cant really tell how much longer its gonna survive, but i really think Target was a big help to the mall.

  24. Does anybody have any pictures of the mall (circa 1960)? Anything in the 1960’s would be great. as this mall has significance (first mall in Iowa), and not to mention family significance. Please post or let me know, as I would be grateful to purchase.

  25. It’s weird and interesting how some portions of this mall feel very bright, and other parts give you the impression of a dark mall. Of course, maybe for all I know, the mall owners may turn some mall lights off, or the pics of this mall give a false impression of the owners doing this(though to me, seems like the former instead of the latter).

    And for a former May Co. store(Famous-Barr) built with that prototype design in the late 90s/early 2000s, Younkers sure as heck kept this look all but completely intact! Also hope like others here, that someone will upload pics of what the pre-fire Younkers(and/or the original Younkers incarnation from the ’70s) in this mall looked like.

  26. I couldda swore I posted an update but here I go again…

    The Merle Hay Mall is going through it’s renovation, including a much needed redesign of their main entrance…respectively. The temporary mall entrance is veered to the left, entering where the former Old Navy was (Old Navy is now open in it’s new spot (finally!!) next to “The Children’s Place”. There are lots of temp guide signs (which I have pictures of…but I need an Email address to send these to so they can appear on this site!….help me out everyone!)

    Staples, thank god, is saving the day by opening where the old Sam Goody and an adjacent space…and Ulta, an upper class cosmetics store (like this mall needs yet ANOTHER beauty store lol), is opening up it’s second location in the former Old Navy within the next year. Now hopefully some of the plans for renovating this mall include the outside of the Sears building (the inside looks pretty good if you ask me…just the outside looks a little dated….say 1970s?) Anyways, again would the owner of this site (I am for SURE I have gotten in contact with you…I still need to give you my Westgate Mall in Carroll, Iowa pictures lol), please Email me at so I can give you additional MHM pics! Thanks!

  27. Hey all again!

    I bear pictures of the continuous remodel…but I am too lazy to Email them lol.

    Here are some updates:

    Ulta and Staples are building their storefronts as we speak.

    I found out Waldenbooks closed completely back in late September (which was really a shame because now there isn’t a bookstore except for Target…the temporary Day By Day Calendar Co…which is owned and operated by Borders, in the lower bridge court next to Aeropastle has hired a few of their former employees from the Waldenbooks and they were pissed about their store closing. The nearest bookstore is in fact either Barnes and Noble on University Ave., Borders on University Ave., or Waldenbooks at Valley West Mall….and with Traffic and no direct main roads (Merle Hay Rd turns into residental for the last mile and a half before ending on University Ave.) It’s not a BIG inconvenience to drive to those stores, but being in a busy part of Des Moines, who would want to?

    In MY opinion, I think Borders should open in the former GAP location next to Target…it would be just the right size…who knows why Waldenbooks closed when Gamestop next door moved over by Foot Locker in the center court. Waldenbooks closed because of the Staples (that’s also the reason why GameStop moved…). Sorry for ranting lol…now back to the updates….

    RadioShack will be moving after the holidays from the upper bridge court to the former Suncoast (Movies, CDs, Games….owned by FYE but pulled Suncoast out of Iowa completely) in the Sears wing.

    The Limited is still in it’s “temporary” as they say, location in the former Buckle spot. They’ve been there since Old Navy kicked them out to create their corner store in which by the way looks great.

    Jay’s CD and Hobby opened up in between PacSun and The Limited (Buckle). Jay’s CD and Hobby is a Hobby Shop (OBVIOUSLY!) on SE 14th Street on the south side of Des Moines. They usually have a great selection of video games, DVDs, CDs, and an ungodly amount of WOW (World of Warcraft) items ugh….but it is a “hobby” store….anyways I went in there and they didn’t have video games…and the two employees working didn’t seem to give a crap about customer service since they were SOOOOOOOOO engulfed in their WOW game (PUH-LEASE!)…and as I mentioned before I was at Day-By-Day Calendar Co. and the employee was saying there were no CDs there! And I didn’t really think of it at the time but there were no CDs there. Gee…make it Jay’s World of Warcraft & Hobby…*shudder*.

    Finally, Auntie Anne’s pretzels (Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm!) updated their storefront logo.

    Sorry for the life story lol…if you want to chat just email me at!




  29. I stumbled onto this site and was surprised at how much interest there is in MHM. I’m 48 years old and i still remember my mother dragging me through the mall when it was still open to the elements. She used to shop at a woman’s clothing store called Feldman’s. Anyway, i’ve been around that mall all my life and still am in and out of it monthly. I also worked in it both on a full-time level and part-time and the one thing i’ve noticed about it is how it’s gone way downhill. In many ways. Not so much in the physical structure of the place, but more due to the clientele. The place is GHETTO. My friends joke that you’d better be packing heat just to go to the mall. That the place has been overrun by the ‘gangsta’ culture. I tend to agree. SouthRidge Mall on the city’s South East side isn’t much better in that respect.

    I think it was pretty evident that when Gap split the mall that the clientele had changed considerably. What i miss the most about the old mall is Bishops Cafeteria. There will NEVER be another Bishops. It was great. So, if you go to Merle Hay Mall, be careful, keep your eyes open and wathch out for the Ghetto, because they’re right behind you looking to take your wallet or break into your car.

  30. Well….I wouldn’t go to the degree where MHM is the place for ghetto shoppers per se…it has gone downhill a little bit let me say. The plazas surrounding MHM (the IHOP with the ghetto signage outside…that interesting looking closed run down Metro Buffet….the Merle Hay Market with Hobby Lobby, Burlington Coat Factory (the only one in DSM), and Felix & Oscars….that pretty much deserted decent looking Cinema to the north of the mall) are bringing the mall’s value down as we speak. MHM is trying very hard to keep shoppers around. With the redone Old Navy, with the Ulta, with the (personally I can’t wait for it) Staples all coming in, and with RadioShack’s move to an almost dead wing of the mall (Think the Sears Wing inside Crossroads Mall in Fort Dodge *shudder*…but not quite), the mall will obtain more clientelle, therefore bringing more businesses to the mall. I personally still like my idea of the mall directors letting Borders open in the old GAP, considering they kicked out their Waldenbooks. My question is, if Best Buy were still around MHM, would this mall be bigger than Valley West?

    Of course MHM beats Southridge Mall hands down (mostly cuz the southside sucks!). But that doesn’t void Southridge Mall completely. Unfortunately, the one store that was supposed to HELP OUT the mall has reached its demise (Steve & Barry’s)…but that wasn’t the mall’s or the residents of the area’s fault. S&B was a great addition (ironically it was supposed to grab other store’s attention and bring possible new stores to the mall…but failed to….)

    But my point is, once they get the new businesses going in MHM, it will redeem itself once again! I personally think they should renovate the food court next….it seems so……….plain…..IMHO Southridge Mall’s food court looks a lot better….I’m not saying food-wise (as MHM has Arby’s, Villa Pizza, Taco John’s, Maid Rite, some chinese fast food joint and Ocean Beach Fries…leaving one spot vacant.), but looks wise….sorry for ranting lmao!

  31. The Famous Barr/Younkers store looks just like the old Robinsons-May/Macy’s on the Temecula Promenade! Only Rob-May has a rounded mural instead of a square mural but otherwise it’s the carbon copy, to bad the original Younkers burnt down and killed 10, I work at a department store (Macy’s) and i never had to fear any of those things but by the way things are going now i fear shootings, fires, earthquakes, etc. I mean, isnt there a safe place left!

  32. Will there be a 50 year celebration for Merle Hay Mall this summer???

  33. Yes there will be a 50 year celebration sometime this year.

    As for Waldenbooks, they are owned by Borders and are in very deep financial trouble, they are closing stores across the country, i seriously doubt that the mall “kicked them out”

    Everyone also needs to realize that the entire complex where Hobby Lobby is located is not owned by Merle Hay Mall, it is owned by a company in New York and niether is the former movie theatre, it is owned by a resident of Urbandale who is a home builder and it is rumored to be in foreclosure right now.

    People need to get over their stereotypes and see that this mall is safe and not “ghetto”

  34. Hey all…

    Sorry I haven’t responded to any of the Emails that you’ve sent me…I just haven’t had the time to respond to them…

    But I got some pictures on my Flickr photostream (including the newly built Staples and other mall storefronts)…the main mall entrance is near completion.


    Storefronts have completed construction mostly.
    Arby’s and Ocean Beach Fries have left the food court, leaving only a newly remodeled Villa Pizza, Taco John’s, Chinese Gourmet, and Maid Rite.
    Jay’s CD and Hobby closed, no surprise there…
    A sports outerwear store is opening in the former GAP (No Borders Books *tear*)
    Staples is almost open…apply if you’re in the area!
    The Charm Connection in the Kohl’s wing next to U.S. Cellular is closing.
    Wilson’s Leather still sits empty with the sign still up (after a year of closing).

    Also, the sign that is at Douglas Ave. and Merle Hay Rd. has updated…Ulta (which isn’t signed on the mall yet) has been added as well as Staples.

    here is the link:

    Leave comments, please! Thanks!

    PS…I also got a tour of the South Park Mall in Spencer, Iowa on there…check it out (it’s in one of my photo sets) if you’re interested. Thank you!

  35. BTW….Merle Hay Mall is NOT ghetto in my opinion, but in a decent spot for Des Moines shoppers. I think the mall will look great once they get done with construction :-).

  36. When is the date fior the 50th Anniversary of Merle Hay Mall, as I am coming in from out of town…..

  37. We endured 15 years living in DesMoines, 11 of those living on Urbandale/Windsor Heights border about 2 miles from MHM. We were members of an organization that held weekly meetings in the community room which has glass walls and doors facing the parking lot and parking ramp. Without fail, every week, we were treated to full view of a constant flow of handcuffed persons escorted to paddy wagons. Ghetto fringe, you betcha, east of Westover and north of Hickman..

    My first memories of MHM were visiting as a child in 1960 when it was open air and the glass stairs by Sears were there as well as a little train with rubber wheels for kiddie rides around the mall. For several years 1989-1992, my husband’s office was in the tower which was so poorly constructed (or ill-maintained) that snow blew in between the walls and window frames.

    I remember the Younkers fire, had shopped there in town on business a week or 2 before it happened, always felt trapped by their meandering snake paths around circular clothing racks designed to keep customers in the store longer.

    All the strip malls, some rather extensive, near MHM have had tough times the last ten years as the DsM economy has deteriorated. MHM’s Kohls is like a cheap junk shop, and the MHM Target (relocated from flood-prone Targhetto east of MLK Blvd.) is the dumpiest Target I’ve ever been in anywhere, certainly not their corporate image.

    Felix & Oscars local Pizza/pasta north of MHM is the gem of the neighborhood & opened a restaurant between Valley West and Jordan Creek Town Center. Hobby Lobby does brisk trade, but locally owned craft, embroidery, & scrapbook shoppes nearby struggled then closed over the last 10 years.

    Before moving back to civilization in our native bi-state Quad Cities, we lived near Valley West but chose Jordan Creek or Ankeny (the latter quite a drive) for our shopping. MHM deteriorated rapidly when they removed their lighted marquee with crawls of community info & mall events.

    I question the “largest mall” stats. Northpark in Davenport was at one time the largest in Iowa and had the largest lighted marquee (still operating and visible for a mile) in North America.

  38. @Linda, you had me until the “moving back to civilization… Quad Cities” part. Best wishes, with Northpark’s still-lighted marquee you should be happy there.

  39. I do remember the lower-level of Merle Hay Mall.

    Yes, MarkO, it was a full-fledged McDonalds and I have *many* pleasant memories of going there for cheeseburgers & coffee on Saturday afternoons in the late 80’s and early 90’s.

    Nash, there was definitely an escalator! And at the bottom, one of those cinnamon roll stores (Cinnabon?)… and a CD place, which encouraged me to finally buy a CD player in about 1987.

    That lower-level must have been developed in the mid-80’s: I have even earlier memories of going to Kresge’s Merle Hay store, which was then two levels and quite large — I wonder if Kresge’s lower-level was eventually turned into the area we all remember.

    Many thanks for these Merle Hay memories!

  40. I lived in the area of Beaverdale back in the 80’s and would frequent the mall. There are several former tennants that should be mentioned. S. S. Kresge Company had a store with a basement section next to the malls main entrance. After the store closed the mall opened up the space including the basement for more store space. They added a McDonalds and a TJ Cinnamons with other stores in the former basement. The new store space also connected the bowilng alley in the adjacent basement. Walgreens was also there right next to the former S. S. Kresge Company. And a Wag’s (walgreens) resturant was located where the Payless Shoes store is on this pages picture. A Bishops Cafeteria was located where the former Younkers store mall entrance is. Also a video game arcade was in the basement level next to where the current Younkers is located by the mall entrance food court. The sears stairwell in the picture on this page was covered up by wall in the 1980’s and now has been uncovered again. The sears store had a second level until they remodled in the 80’s now it is unaccesable. The mall also had several impressive fountains, but during the 1980 all but one were removed.

  41. @Mark O,

    Do you remember what was there before McDonalds in the basement court? S. S. Kresge Company was there and after it closed the mall opened up the basement for the other stores and connected to the bowling alley.

  42. @Linda,

    I think you are a little high strung and have a white flight problem, just look at the simple things in life and stop driving your gas guzzling suv.

  43. well putting many photos is a very good thing. and i see that you have put 36 big sized photos about the place.

    “The pictures featured here were taken in March 2008”

    if you can replace pictures with pictures which are taken at summer it might be better

  44. Thanks for the memories. I moved to West Des Moines as a kid from a small town in Massachusetts, and had never seen a shopping mall before Merle Hay and Valley West. Both of these malls featured some odd architecture, fountains, half levels with specialty/novelty stores, brick and all the things we love about old malls. My dad was working for Ardan at the time, so we often went to Merle Hay to check out the store near that plaza. I remember getting lost in the Younkers home store, and also developed a fear of escalators in that store.

  45. I use to work in that Army Recruiting station, wow the just thinking about my first day walking into the Mall (Nov 2, 1992) and it had people all over it. I went to the Mc Donalds that was downstairs with us for dinner and called home on a pay phone that was down there to tell the wife that I had made it. I had so much fun there, in the halls always looking for people that wanted to join the Army. Meet some good friends there also. I will look to see if I have a picture of the mall and post it. Merle Hay Mall,

  46. @Nash,

    Sorry for the late reply, I just found this site this week.

    Also this week, I found the web site of the artist who made that sculpture, which was apparently titles “UpDown”. You can find pictures at

  47. @Chip,

    Actually, in a sense, Southridge did fail first.

    Merle Hay is in even worse shape in 2012 than it was at the writing of this article in 2008, but it is still holding on. It even has a new main front fascia on the east side including a huge entryway, and four or five open face (access from street) stores, all but one of which are occupied). There is also an Old Chicago restaurant on that front face that I do not believe was there in 2008.

    All in all, the East wing of the mall is doing pretty well. It’s the west wing, and the split-level center area that are struggling. Yet they are anything but abandoned, and as long as the structure stands, then there’s hope…especially if reports of the beginnings of an economic turn around are true.

    So, what was it I was saying about Southridge failing first? This: In late 2011, plans were made to make sweeping changes to Southridge. They were going to put in a training facility for the Iowa Barnstormers (local AFL team) presumably where Montgommery Wards used to be. Some, if not all of the old JC Penny location is going to be a new DMACC (Des Moines Area Community College), and they were going to redo the front fascia to allow for more open front stores.

    Well, when I heard this, I was excited, because I envisioned a revision similar to what happened at Merle Hay. This seemed like a way to breathe new life into a dying mall.

    Instead, this is their idea of breathing life into the mall….

    This link takes you to a page that has a ton of pictures. Most have nothing to do with Southridge, but the ones that do say it all. The west wing, over by the former JC Penny, Canton, Steve and Barry’s, etc (a cross-shaped section of hallway with the round stage in the center) plus Sears, Younkers, Target, and the Former JC Pennys are all that remain of the old mall. The mall itself, as we knew and loved it….is gone.

    The pictures you’ll see on that website of the concept art of the new mall look pretty, until you realize that 99% of that parking space is the old mall. If you take note of the locations of the Sears, Younkers, and Target in the drawing, it’ll give you the proper bearings to see where the rest of the mall used to be…..parking lot. Some of the old super structure of the stores that once made up the southern side of the eastmost east/west hallway (think Radio-shack, and B.Dalton, etc) near sears will be retained and used as superstructure for the row of open-faced stores in the concept that span the space between Younkers and Sears.

    Southridge, as a legal entity, lives on, and hopefully, will thrive in its new form. But legal entities mean little to those of us who grew up spending tons of time there. From our perspective, legal entities mean nothing, and a name is just a name. The mall we loved is gone, dead, and carried away in dump trucks, leaving a hideous, gaping hole on the scene, and in some measure, a hideous, gaping hole in our hearts.

    Southridge is dead. Whatever rises in its place, though it may be called Southridge, and though I’d rather it succeed than fail, will not be the same entity other than legality and name. And I for one am embittered because, while something drastic needed to be done, nothing -this- drastic…I’d rather have the old Southridge back.

    Now, at last, back to Merle Hay: As important as Southridge was to me, as much time as I’ve spent there, Merle Hay is even more important, as I’ve spent even more time there. In the back of my mind, I’ve always realized that someday, the place would have to come down. In fact, the one and only thing that the builders ensured, when they laid the first bricks and steel bars is that it would someday come down in a heap.

    But that was abstract, distant future. Barring an act of God, as long as Southridge stood, Merle Hay would stand. Southridge would come down first. Well, for all accounts and purposes, Southridge has come down. And what’s going to take it’s place is probably only going to be fiscally stronger. So Merle Hay’s safety net is gone.

    I now no longer think of Merle Hay’s demise and demolition in terms of distant abstraction, but as a real and tangible danger. I walk its halls, touring, as it were, a place I’ve seen millions of times, wondering, very sadly, how many more times I’ll be able to tour it before they bar it, and I’ve forever lost yet another childhood/adolescent/young adult haunt, and when the big ball swings, there will be, like Southridge, yet one more way in which I’ll never be able to “go home.”

    Losing Southridge was very painful (I nearly cried when I saw it…nearly), and I’ve hardly been able to stop thinking about it. The dull ache in my heart is similar to the dull ache of having had a friend die. If a similar fate befell Merle Hay, I think I -would- cry, freely and openly, and I think the lingering ache would be that much greater.

    But as I had said earlier, as long as the mall stands, there’s hope, and unlike Southridge, at least it still stands. It’s not quite dead yet.

    I did not want what happened to Southridge to happen. If I had my way, it wouldn’t have happened. But it has happened, and there’s nothing that can be done about it now. With that in mind, I can only think forward, and thinking forward, here’s my “make the best of the situation” thoughts: Since the radical majority of the new Southridge will not be enclosed mall, hopefully the stores that did not move to the legacy west wing will move to Merle Hay, fill in some of the empty spaces, and bring a shot of vitality to it.

    In the meanwhile, in my amateur opinion, even if Merle Hay, in its current form, is not to survive in the long run, it seems like it will at least have a few more decent years left, and I plan, unlike Southridge, to not take that time for granted. I plan to be there often, buying stuff when I can, and when I can’t, being a tourist of a place I’ve seen a million times, having a mournful concern for the future, and a longing for the glorious past, yet, underneath that, a delight for just the shape, look, feel, and smell of the place, while it’s there to be seen, touched, and smelled, grateful for whatever time I have left with her.

    And should that day come when they announce the mall’s closure, and the final day of its being open for business is revealed, then Lord willing, I will be there, taking full advantage of my final opportunity to tour the place that I love, and putting my last coins into the coffers of the businesses that kept it alive for me until that day.

    R.I.P. Southridge….but long live Merle Hay!

  48. @Nash,

    Yeah, I miss that statue too. My wife and I referred to it as “the Nude Biker”….it’s fitting! 🙂

    You know, I think of that lower level often. I too wish it was still accessible. I was at Merle Hay the other day, just sight seeing, in light of the essential demolition of Southridge, and I stopped over by where Lazer X used to be (I used to spend a ton of time at Lazer X….do you remember your first encounter with the alien thing that popped up at you in that concave window?)

    The door was painted black, but there were some scratches in the paint where you could see in, and the sun was a few hours from setting, so it was in just the right place to shine in and let me see some of what was in there. Though everything was covered in dust and cobwebs, and things were just thrown around in there, the walls still had the old “mock-machine-texture” on them, and it got me thinking, though well out of use, and certainly out of repair, I’ll bet the old Lazer tag maze is still down there.

    What I wouldn’t give to be able to get down there and walk the maze one more time. What I wouldn’t give to be able to get down to the old lower level under the play place one more time. I wish they would give tours. Better yet, I wish they would just open the darned things back up!

    But, at least for the time being, the mall proper is still standing, and in light of Southridge, that’s enough to make me grateful, even if “the Nude Biker”, Lazer X, DV8, the McDonalds, and that iffy Chinese restaurant are long gone. At least we still have the bowling alley!

  49. @Nick, I should check in here more often than once every two years! Thanks for the confirmation about TJ Cinnamons, and the reminder about the video arcade in the basement… even prior to the video arcade, there was a “Command Performance” barber shop and other stores in that basement space. It was all glassed-in, as I recall. I talked to a security guy at MHM last year and that’s all storage space now.

  50. Cushman & Wakefield Arranges $48 Million Of Financing For Merle Hay Mall, A Regionoal Mall And Office Complex In Des Moines, Iowa

    Jul. 30, 2013 Nick Derasmo

    Des Moines, Iowa — Cushman & Wakefield served as the financial advisor to an affiliate of Abbell Associates in arranging a $48 million senior loan for Merle Hay Mall. Merle Hay Mall is a regional mall and office complex located in Des Moines, Iowa. The floating rate financing was provided by Associated Bank, Bankers Trust, BankIowa and Two Rivers Bank & Trust.

    The loan is comprised of $33 million in refinance proceeds and a $15 million “good news” facility, which will be used to provide additional capital to complete a remerchandising of the mall that includes the conversion of split level retail space to an eight screen Theater, adding an additional outparcel, and relocating and re-tenanting certain stores.

    Merle Hay Mall is a 1.1 million square foot, enclosed regional mall and office complex. Principal anchors are Target, Kohl’s, Younkers, and Sears. Generating over $150 million a year in sales, Merle Hay Mall is a household name and has been serving Iowans for more than fifty years.

    Steve Kohn, Dave Karson, Chris Moyer and John Spreitzer of Cushman & Wakefield’s Equity, Debt & Structured Finance group served as financial advisor to an affiliate of Abbell Associates, which developed the property in 1959 and has owned it since.

  51. I know this article is years old, but the place just had an excellent renovation and a Flix Brewhouse theater opened up there. That ramp/stair thing is still there as well. Thanks for the nostalgia trip!

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