I grew up watching ’80s teen movies and sitcoms–things like Fast Times at Ridgmont High or Saved By The Bell–and they all created the impression that California was this sunny mecca of palm-tree filled mall atriums and penny fountains, that the west coast was where the mall truly came from, the rest of the country was just trying to horn in on their sun-spackled glory. Almost four years ago, I moved to California. I then realized that we not only have fewer malls than most other developed parts of the country, but that (with the notable exception of the immediate Los Angeles area) they’re a lot more secondary to American life than they are in most other places.
Weirdly, the place that got far more of these concrete palaces is the less-glamorous rust belt.Pennsylvania, in particular, has a mall, or two, or three, in nearly every community of significant size. This mall, the Schuylkill Mall in Frackville, is one of three enclosed malls along a rural stretch of PA route 61 in east-central Pennsylvania.
The Schuylkill Mall opened in 1980, developed by Crown American properties, with Kmart, Hess, Sears, and Pomeroy’s as anchor stores. With around 800,000 square feet spread across a “T” shaped pattern, the mall was extremely large, especially given its rural trade area, and initially opened with a bevy of mid-range national tenants including Gap, Deb Shops, Spencer Gifts, Record Town, Jeans West, Foxmoor, Fashion Bug, B.Moss, Waldenbooks, Claire’s Boutique, Afterthoughts, Listening Booth, Slack Shack, KB Toys, and Footlocker. In 1987, a fifth anchor–Phar-Mor–opened on the mall’s north side to complete the roster, and that same year Pomeroy’s was sold off to The Bon-Ton, and the store changed nameplates to what it is today. For much of the 1980s and 1990s, this fairly dark and brown center was the dominant retail draw in the region, far dwarfing the two smaller malls south of it along route 61.
The Schuylkill Mall was never a fancy place. This part of Pennsylvania is rustic and blue collar, known for coal mining and industry. In fact, this area’s biggest claim to fame is nearby Centralia, a ghost town sitting atop an underground coal mine fire that has been burning since 1962. Despite this, the mall has always been at least somewhat successful and never exactly dead throughout its existence, serving as a mid-range catch-all for people living miles in every direction.
Hess’ closed their store at some point–possibly 1994 when the entire chain went belly-up–and their store was replaced by the Black Diamond Antique Mall, which occupies the space until today. Much of the wing leading to it has died out, and what few stores exist are somewhat temporary/lower tier operations (including a model railroad club!) In 2003, Crown American merged with PREIT, who is the current owner and operator of the mall. I visited the Schuylkill Mall twice, in 2004 and 2007, and took this set of photos on the latter date. Although the mall’s condition was around the same during those two visits three years apart–i.e., not great, but still with a fair amount of activity and national tenants–several accounts have noted that the mall’s fortunes have declined precipitously in the last several years, with many national tenants such as Kay Jewelers, Claire’s, Chik-Fil-A and Waldenbooks (duh) closing their stores in the mall.
What’s perhaps most interesting about this odd, beat up mall is its condition. It appears like it has gotten little love or attention since its 1980 opening, with its dated, primary-color logo and triangular planters hanging on like a hawk’s talons to a rat. Or something. Do you know what’s going on with this mildewy palace on the hill?