One of the common–and unsurprising–themes that I’ve observed in my travels to visit shopping malls throughout the country is that the most successful malls are often the ones that have had recent renovations, while the older ones are the ones that are flagging. If anything, this is the main reason why “dead malls” are somewhat more interesting than successful malls; they still maintain more of their history and mid-century architectural detail.
The Mall at Chestnut Hill in Newton, Massachusetts, is a huge exception to that rule. Unfortunately, it seems the renovation is finally coming after many years.
Despite the mall’s brutalist 1970s architecture and prodigious use of browns and oranges, this upscale mall has long served a higher-end wedge of Boston’s inner southwestern suburbs. Located at the junction of route 9 and the Hammond Pond Parkway on the Newton/Brookline city line, the mall serves as the centerpiece of the “Chestnut Hill” area, a vaguely defined inner ring suburb that encompases parts of Newton, Brookline, and even possibly a small piece of the city of Boston itself in the West Roxbury neighborhood. In addition to the Mall at Chestnut Hill, there is also another enclosed shopping mall, the Atrium Mall, located across the street.
The Mall at Chestnut Hill is a two-level dumbell-style mall that is relatively small for its design, with about half a million square feet of floor space. It has had a relatively stable roster of high-end tenants over the years. The mall has long been anchored by Filene’s and a Bloomingdale’s Mens and Home store. Surprisingly, the Bloomingdale’s store itself is not large enough to house all of the necessary departments, so the entire women’s department has always been exiled to a separate store located in an adjacent strip mall. The Chestnut Hill Mall Bloomingdale’s store is the only one in all of New England. Most of the rest of the tenants–Banana Republic, Crate & Barrel, etc.–are what you’d expect to find in a mall of this type. I used to define this mall as being “like a regular mall, except with FAO Schwarz and HMV instead of KB Toys and FYE.” Despite that both of those stores long ago vacated the mall, the comparison still holds up.
Unfortunately, it seems that the mall’s status as a 1970s holdout may be coming to an end. When I visited yesterday, parts of the mall (especially the center court and old penny fountain) were under construction, and it seems that the entire mall is getting a long overdue (but extremely disappointing) overhaul. Simon, the mall’s owner, has put together a PDF detailing some of the changes to take place, and it includes many “before” photos as well as an aerial shot of the mall. As a result of the Federated/May merger, the Filene’s store is being converted to Bloomingdale’s, and I’m not sure if this means that the off-mall women’s store is moving into the mall, or if Bloomingdale’s is vacating their current store and moving operations into the new store. It’s somewhat surprising that Federated didn’t open a Macy’s in the space, since no other Macy’s store exists nearby.
Despite the dated decor, The Mall at Chestnut Hill has always seemed quietly elegant, and it’s decor seemed more reminiscent of old PBS television shows than of anything truly derelict. It was a mixture of quaint and adventurous, but never dowdy. Let’s hope it stays that way, at least in part.
Thankfully, there are more pictures than just my own floating around on the web. Because this mall hosts an Apple Store, it means it’s also been the focus of the fervent Apple cult, a member of which took this set of photos when the store held its grand opening. This aerial photo also gives a sense of how close the mall is to the center of Boston.
Prangeway: I visited this mall with Caldor on August 24, 2001 and snapped the photos below. Note the feathered, brimmed hat character in a couple of the pictures. She became a running gag for us when describing the type of person who shops at this elite, upscale genre of retail center. Enjoy her and the mall from 5 years ago.