This might be the most important one we’ve featured here. Southdale is the mall that started it all, from the man who started it all – Victor Gruen. Sure, there were shopping centers and arcades, bazaars and this and that all over the world predating Southdale, which opened in 1956, but Southdale was the model for everything that came after. Southdale transformed shopping in America, shifting it away from downtowns and into the suburbs. Furthermore, it was built by an eccentric, energetic visionary, Victor Gruen, whose socialist ideals for retail development were infiltrated, bastardized (Gruen’s word!) and changed by American capitalism, giving us the frenetic retail landscape we know today. He had some major help from U.S. Congress, though, who in 1954 passed a bill to stimulate manufacturing in America; instead, it unwittingly created the retail building boom and hastened a cultural change in the built environment as we know it.
Before 1956, there were certainly shopping centers, plazas, and arcades dating back to the dawn of humans. There were even similarly “modern” enclosed shopping malls predating Southdale, like the Westminster Arcade in Providence, Rhode Island, which opened in 1828, and even the modern Valley Fair Mall, which opened in Appleton, Wisconsin in 1954. And there were others yet, to be certain, such as the Northgate Mall in Seattle, which is said to be the first shopping center to coin the term mall, and opened in 1950.
The idea of grouping like businesses in a marketplace dates as far back as history itself, and we’re not arguing that Southdale started this at all. Southdale did, however, pioneer the grouping of like businesses with the idea of providing a controlled, sustained, uniquely socialized community under one roof. Anybody can throw up a mall, sign some leases, and be on their way, but Gruen gave malls meaning; he’s largely the reason we have any collective attachment to memories of malls at all, and also the reason this website exists. Every mall in America and the world has followed his model, working to improve it along the way, and his original ideas have even given rise to the modern ‘mixed-use’ development popular in today’s new urbanism.
Southdale’s creator was mall mastermind Victor Gruen, an Austrian Jew who fled to the United States in 1938 during the Holocaust. Gruen grew up in a privileged class of artists, and before the war he attended the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts for architecture and performed in cabaret theatre in Vienna’s vervey night club scene. When he arrived in New York, with “an architect’s degree, eight dollars, and no English” – his own words – and immediately formed a cabaret troupe. Then, one day Gruen ran into one of his old friends from Vienna in midtown Manhattan, and the old friend hired him to design his new Fifth Avenue leather goods boutique.
When designing the boutique, Gruen trademarked his famous Gruen transfer, innovating the way stores were designed and the way people shopped. Instead of the traditional shop layout with entire store space flush to the street, Gruen created nuggets of interest in the entryway in the form of mini-arcade. The nuggets were a scripted disorientation, drawing the shopper in. The Gruen transfer refers to the moment when a consumer enters a shopping environment, and, surrounded by an intentionally confusing layout combined with music and an elaborate decor, loses track of their original intentions. The effects of the transfer include a slower shopper pace, glazed eyes and, of course, spending more money.
The design was an instant hit, driving sales through the roof at the boutique, and Gruen spent the 1940s designing more stores around New York in the same manner, perfecting his Gruen transfer at this smaller scale. Then, in the early 1950s, Gruen turned his sights to the American suburbs and designed his first large-scale suburban-style shopping center near Detroit for J.L. Hudson department store, Northland Center.
Hailing from Austria, Gruen was a socialist, and viewed the suburban built environment of post-war 1950s America as ugly, brutalist, and lacking in spaces where people could congregate and linger. All the retail strips that popped up weren’t pedestrian friendly and didn’t encouage people to stay at all; instead, people drove their cars up and down the street to patronize individual businesses, using the ample seas of parking in and around every building, all the while not interacting with each other as they ran in and out, to and from their cars. Gruen bemoaned this, and wished he could create a prototype community where he still had the control of building a suburban shopping mall but also with a real sense of community infused.
Gruen saw pieces of his Vienna in American downtowns, which had the critical mass necessary for his model but were beginning to die and lose out to suburban developments, so he knew he had to act fast. Also, Gruen felt he could improve on downtowns by building his own in the suburbs, and perfecting the mistakes that were made. The way Gruen saw it, downtowns were organic developments, and, over time, they developed mistakes that could not be easily controlled by a planner – the extant built environment built its own pattern, and you couldn’t just put a large parking structure wherever you wanted, or place like businesses in adjacency like you could in an environment you built yourself.
So, Gruen embarked on a grand experiment in retail with Southdale Center, which broke ground in Edina, Minnesota - a southwest suburb of Minneapolis – in 1954. Southdale was, in Gruen’s view, not an alternative to downtown Minneapolis, but what downtown Minneapolis could be if you ironed out all the mistakes and could build it all over again from the beginning. The Southdale development was not supposed to be only a retail development either, but a mixed-use development as well, one of the first of its kind, combining all of the ingredients of a model city – retail, residence, offices, medical facilities, recreation, schools and more.
Gruen, like many other retail developers, also took advantage of a tax loophole in a recently enacted federal law. In 1954, Congress passed a bill accelerating the tax depreciation process for new construction. They did this to stimulate the manufacturing industry, which had slowed a bit since World War II, in order to construct new factories with new technology. This law applied to all new construction, though, not just factories, and commercial real estate investors used it to make fat profits from new retail construction. Before this law was enacted, it took an investor a long time to reap profits from new construction, but after the law assed, he or she could set aside a signifcant amount of the profits of the business tax-free. This is the basic way it worked: it was assumed by the government that buildings would last approximately 40 years, so an investor could take off 1/40th the value of the building each year tax-free. This rewarded investors for building new malls, because the depreciation of the building’s value in the first few years was enormous, and they could reap a likewise enormous tax savings. Some developers even routinely operated at a tax loss this way, even though they were making tons of profit. This law was a major catalyst for the glot of retail and suburban new construction which has taken place ever since, changing the retail built evironment exponentially instead of gradually.
Southdale opened to impressive fanfare on October 8, 1956, to 40,000 visitors as well as national press that included a story in Life Magazine. The centerpiece of the Southdale development was a two-story, 800,000 square-foot enclosed mall, anchored by two Minneapolis-based department stores – Dayton’s, who financed and developed the mall, and Donaldson’s – along with space for 72 in-line stores, including majors Woolworths, Walgreens, and a Red Owl grocery store. At the time, an enclosed mall was a dramatic departure from the outdoor malls popping up all over the country, but Gruen reasoned that an enclosed mall would be beneficial to this development, and his means, for several reasons.
First, an enclosed mall would suit Gruen’s means of providing a built environment encouraging the social, community-inspired culture he wanted to import from Vienna. It would provide a gathering place for not only the residents of Edina, but for the greater Twin Cities as a whole, and as such also invented the super-regional mall.
Gruen also wanted Southdale to be an entire community, too, so he placed much more than retail in this initial development. Many useful services as well as recreational leisure-time activities were combined with retail under one roof, giving Minnesota residents not only respite from their long, cold winters, but also no reason to go elsewhere. These services included a large restaurant in the middle of the mall, a post office, ample tropical foliage, a petting zoo, statues, fountains, stages for community events, pageants, trade shows, and even a game show hosted by none other than Bob Barker. All of these accoutrements were in Southdale’s wide, enclosed Garden Court, which ran the main length of the two-story mall on the first level, connecting Dayton’s to Donaldson’s. Gruen also exiled cars from this enclosed development because he felt they were noisy and rude, which was a strong stance in post-war suburban America where cars were king, but Gruen felt they did not help his communal vision.
To effectively house this enclosed community-of-tomorrow, Gruen designed Southdale with a more socialist lilt than modern-day malls. The main mallway, Garden Court, is impressively wide, which became Gruen’s trademark style when designing malls. This design allowed for the functional space necessary for all the non-retail activity taking place at the mall. It also gave a more human, communal element to the mall – listening to the sound of people laughing and enjoying each other in the middle of the mall while eating at the restaurant in their shirt sleeves in January imprinted warm, fuzzy feelings upon the shoppers’ subconscious. To this end, Gruen also installed public art in the mall, as well as two large bird cages which lasted until the 1990s. Some of the original art, including a two-story metal sculpture which hung in center court, is still there today.
Southdale, featured in Life Magazine in 1956, from kottke.org:
Southdale all decked out for the holidays. If you look on the left, you can see the prominent bird cage:
Southdale’s Garden Court in 1963, from lileks.com:
As time progressed, Southdale was copied both locally in the Twin Cities – by Brookdale (1962), Rosedale (1969), and Ridgedale (1974) – as well as nationwide. In response to this competition, Southdale embarked on an expansion that added a three-level addition northeast of the original mall. The centerpiece of this addition was a brand-new 247,902 square foot JCPenney. The new addition was connected to the original mall via two disparate hallways on different levels, one on the first level and one on the second, both of which led to the JCPenney court. Also, a basement court was built in front of JCPenney with more retail space connecting to the Garden Court through the basement. This space would eventually become a 44,000 square-foot Marshalls, which had entrances leading out toward the basement court in front of JCPenney as well as escalators leading directly up to the original mall’s Garden Court. This addition was complete in 1972 and gave the mall a totally unique, yet architecturally incoherent layout. We think it’s amazing, though.
Gruen’s original vision for Southdale as being much more than an enclosed mall was unfortunately never truly realized – the area around the mall did develop a hospital, residences, and recreation, but it wasn’t as organized as Gruen would have liked, and it wasn’t self contained. Also, France Avenue south of the mall became the nightmarish car-oriented antisocial strip Gruen abhored, and strips like it popped up around nearly every other mall that copied Southdale in the years and decades to follow. In fact, in the early 1980s, a 417,000 square foot mall, anchored by a Gabbert’s furniture store, popped up just a few hundred feet of Southdale. Galleria Edina was never a major competitor to Southdale, though, as it houses mostly upscale boutique stores in a mix of half local to half national.
Gruen also eventually grew to loathe malls themselves. Near the end of his life, in the late 1970s, Gruen remarked at what a travesty modern retail was, and how much it had diverged from his ideal vision, perfected in theory. Gone were the wide berths of central space in enclosed malls – they were too expensive to construct. Gone too were the public artwork, zoos, supermarkets, restaurants, and other public spaces in American enclosed malls, and gone before they were ever constructed were the full realizations of the mixed-use projects intended to go with these malls. Even though new malls were being constructed at a breakneck pace, the corridors got narrower and the warm, fuzzy accoutrements began to disappear. The typical kiosk-laden mall of today, with a minimalist design and the removal of most extraneous decor for maximized profit, would certainly send shivers down Gruen’s spine.
Disillusioned and disgusted, Gruen left America and returned to Austria a broken man in 1978, torn up by the soul-less, antisocial, monoliths of dispassionate retail development surrounded by seas of parking lots malls had become. At the very end of his life, a mall even opened in the suburbs of Vienna, and he called it “a gigantic shopping machine” with none of the community-inspiring amenities he imparted in his designs. Ironically, the mall began to kill the downtown Vienna culture he wanted to share with the world. Instead of bringing a little Viennese socialism and culture to America, Gruen unwittingly brought American capitalism to the world.
Even before Gruen’s death in 1980, Southdale lost much of its originality and charm, becoming lost in the sea of shopping options in the Twin Cities – a testament of Southdale’s influence. By 1980 there were 8 super-regional shopping malls in the Twin Cities, and in 1992 the biggest mall in the country opened just four miles away – the Mall of America. In yet another tale of Mall David and Mall Goliath, where one can expect predictable outcomes, Mall Goliath usually wins and Mall David usually dies, either slowly or catastrophically. David is sometimes redeveloped, and occasionally saved due to proactive management and an oddly quirky set of locals who might even prefer it. Thankfully, this was one of those cases.
In 1991, a full year before Mall of America debuted, Southdale’s owner saw Goliath appearing on the horizon and decided on an expansion and renovation. Dayton’s, the northwest anchor and original mall developer, moved to a mammoth 359,000 square-foot four level store adjacent to its original store, and the old store was gutted and turned into three levels of mall space in a new wing extending southwest of the original Garden Court. This addition also included a large food court at the end of the new southwest wing, on the third level, and an expansion of the Garden Court. A new parking deck was also added. This expansion and repositioning allowed Southdale to compete against the Mall of America, and as it turns out shoppers were much more fickle about dealing with the mammoth mega mall four miles to the east, and preferred shopping at a more convenient mall close to home. To Southdale’s delight, it held its own against the Mall of America, and being located in one of the nicer, monied areas of the Twin Cities certainly didn’t hurt.
Some notable anchor changes have also taken place at Southdale. Fairly early on, the Red Owl supermarket was kicked out, and in 1987 the Donaldson’s chain went out of business – most became Chicago-based Carson Pirie Scott. However, Carson’s was unable to make their Minnesota stores profitable, so they sold them to then-Minneapolis-based Mervyn’s, a discounter that was originally from California but was purchased by Minneapolis-based Dayton-Hudson in 1978. Meanwhile, Dayton’s was converted to Marshall Field’s in 2001 when Dayton-Hudson (now renamed Target Corporation, after their most profitable venture) wanted to combine all their upscale department stores under one banner, and decided the Chicago-based Marshall Field’s name carried the most clout. Then, in 2004, Target wanted to get out of the upscale department store business and focus on Target, so they sold Marshall Field’s to May Company and Mervyn’s to a capital management group. May then sold Marshall Field’s to Federated in 2005, who converted all of the Marshall Field’s to Macy’s stores in 2006, and the new owner of Mervyn’s decided to exit the Minnesota market completely in 2004. Today, Southdale is anchored by Macy’s, Marshall’s, JCPenney, and dead.
The next expansion and repositioning at Southdale took place in 2001-2002, coinciding with the dramatic renovation of Eden Prairie Center, a super-regional mall located just 6 miles southeast of Southdale. Eden Prairie Center, which was featured in the movie Mallrats, had fallen on hard times during the 1990s. However, developers realized the area around Eden Prairie Center, one of the wealthiest areas in the Twin Cities, could support a redeveloped mall, and they tore most of the mall down – sans anchors – and rebuilt the entire thing. They added mid-level as well as upscale stores, including the upscale Iowa-based Von Maur department store. All of this was bad news for Southdale, sandwiched in between Eden Prairie Center, the Mall of America, and successful Ridgedale Center, so another expansion and repositioning was in order.
Southdale’s owners constructed a multi-million dollar lifestyle addition onto the mall’s south end in 2002, but instead of mainline retail they added mostly destination restaurants and entertainment options instead. They were keenly aware that bringing more than retail to the mall would be a boon for its future success, so they brought in a 16-screen AMC Theater, California Pizza Kitchen, Maggiano’s Little Italy, PF Chang’s, Cheesecake Factory, and Ruby Tuesday. It was given the name The District on France.
At the same time, they focused an area of Southdale’s third level, between the Garden Court and the food court, on teen-oriented fashions such as Pac Sun, The Buckle, and Zumiez. Called Trendz on Top (I know, kind of dorky, right?), the newly focused area not only made use of an area of the mall which might have become neglected, but gave teens a specific reason to go there, dragging their parents through the rest of the mall. Trendz on Top premiered about the same time as The District on France, between 2001-2002.
Since the most recent addition, Southdale has struggled a little due to the economy and competition, and its vacancy rate has ticked upward. In 2004, Southdale received a major blow as the southern anchor Mervyn’s closed when that retailer pulled out of Minnesota. As of April 2010, it is still vacant; however, in 2006 the Mills Corporation, who owned the mall at the time, proposed another renovation and expansion at Southdale that would have brought a Nordstrom to the space, as well as a ‘lifestyle center’ addition to the mall and possibly even Neiman Marcus. Unfortunately, though, Mills went broke and was acquired by Simon. Simon is better poised to manage the mall, and also talked of renovation as recently as 2008, but the economy has ultimately shelved these plans for now.
Southdale is still a viable, popular mall, but ever since the economy tanked the vacancy rate at Southdale has ticked up, and as of January 2010 was 22 percent. This is not an alarming figure, considering the economy, and Southdale still has many destinational and upscale stores, including an Apple Store, H&M, Coach, J Crew, Banana Republic, all of the restaurants, and the 16-screen AMC.
However, despite these popular destinations, parts of Southdale are extremely troubled. The three-level JCPenney court is pocked with vacancy, a dollar store, some services, and an ancient Arby’s, and across the mall the gigantic food court only has two remaining stalls open. In addition, in 2008 Crate and Barrel jumped ship and moved a few hundred feet away to a two-level location at the Edina Galleria mall, and in early 2009 Maggiano’s and B. Dalton closed. Most of the central Garden Court as well as the three level wing in front of Macy’s is well-tenanted, though.
Caldor and I visited Southdale on one of our first-ever mall trips in 1998, and I’ve been back many times since. Gruen might not be proud of what his vision ultimately created, but even he couldn’t deny that his influence did at least some good. I mean, we created this site, and we all appreciate and have fond, warm memories of the malls of our youth. The photos below were taken in April 2010. I encourage you to leave your own comments about Southdale, Twin Cities retail, or Victor Gruen; we appreciate them.