A couple weeks back, we were featured in an article in the Weekly Dig. The reporter who wrote the story was big on getting me “in my element,” so to speak, and really wanted to take a field trip to a dead mall. Problem is, the Boston area doesn’t really have any dead malls anymore. Instead I chose one that I think is really interesting from a design perspective, and is a good example of the kind of mid-range mall that’s struggling nowadays. They also took some pictures. The Arsenal Mall is that mall.
The Arsenal Mall opened in 1983 along the banks of the Charles River about five miles west of Boston as the “Arsenal Marketplace.” It occupies two buildings that were part of the Watertown Arsenal, a massive Civil War-era arsenal complex that operated from the early 1800s until 1965. The mall was built by skywalking two long buildings together, and creating a roadway passage underneath the skywalk that allowed cars to drive from the front parking lot to the rear lot. Because of the building’s heritage, it has many historic architectural details (lots of brick, etc.) and because it involves an older, retrofitted building, it has a truly unusual layout. In addition, the mall was constructed directly across the street from the smaller and slightly older Watertown Mall. Shockingly, both malls still operate today.
With about 600,000 square feet and approximately 45 stores, the Arsenal Mall is far from huge. It does fill a void as a convenient, mid-market alternative in the dense inner western suburbs, however: the closest major malls are the Natick Mall (now “Natick Collection”) and Burlington Mall, both 15 miles away, and the Cambridgeside Galleria, which despite being only one town over is kind of a hike and lacks free parking. In addition, there is the Mall at Chestnut Hill and the Atrium Mall in Newton, which borders Watertown to the south, but both malls skew upscale and are somewhat small.
When originally constructed, the Arsenal Mall’s main anchor tenant was one of the few outlets of Rhode Island-based Ann & Hope Department Stores, a chain that practically invented the supercenter discount store (which none other than Sam Walton himself would copy for Wal-Mart). The Ann & Hope store occupied about 80% of one of the mall’s two buildings, with a small “T” shaped court in front. From there, the skywalk carried patrons to the main building, where the concourse turned again before entering a large, airy center court, complete with any original brick details. At that point, the mall split into two levels–the second floor houses a small food court and ultimately ends at a Filene’s Basement anchor, and the first level contains many clothing stores before ending near the mall’s main entrance and a Marshall’s, located underneath the Filene’s Basement.
The mall’s second-level food court was renovated in the mid-late 1990s after the closure of the Boston Garden. The mall incorporated the Garden’s original scoreboard as well as some of its flooring into the food court, and Foot Locker extensively beefed up their facade to match, creating a sports-themed food court that also contains a bit of Boston history, which is pretty neat.
In 2001, Ann & Hope closed all of their stores, including this one, although the chain still exists in a more limited capacity as a low-cost outlet for curtains, bath, and garden supplies. As a result, mall owner Simon decided to carve most of the awkwardly-shaped Ann & Hope store into a Home Depot, leaving a smaller parcel facing the mall. This space would be occupied by Linens N Things. Today, the mall has five anchors: Linens N Things, Old Navy, Marshalls, Filene’s Basement, and Home Depot (which lacks mall access).
The Arsenal Mall’s unusual design and location within a historic structure means it’s an unlikely candidate for big boxing, even if it doesn’t do as well as it once did. For a mall of its size, it has quite a bit of personality and even seems to be getting a few new mid-market tenants (The Gap Outlet and Olympia Sports recently opened, and Samsonite and Stride Rite are coming soon) to replace some of the dollar stores that have recently occupied the center’s mid section. And while it’s far from a dominant mall, it has managed to hang on to a variety of standard mall fare, such as Express, B. Dalton, Victoria’s Secret, Aeropostale, and Bath and Body Works. A lot of clueless Yelp!ers hate it, but what else is new?
Luckily, we have two sets of photos of the Arsenal Mall. The first set was taken in 2001 by Prangeway, and still shows the signage for the recently-shut Ann & Hope store. The second set was taken in May of 2007.