Baytown, Texas is a large working-class suburb of about 70,000 people about 20 miles east of Houston. Baytown’s location on Galveston Bay has positioned it for industrial growth throughout the last few decades, mostly in oil and steel. Baytown is home to one 1.2 million square foot mall located at I-10 and Garth Road.
Opened in 1981, San Jacinto Mall is one of two major malls for the area east of Houston, the other being Pasadena Town Square in Pasadena. Both malls have recently fallen victim to the problems ranging from outdated to competition from other Houston-area malls. As a result, vacancy rate at San Jacinto Mall has skyrocketed and, despite several plans for renovation, the mall looks today largely as it did when it opened in 1981.
When it opened, San Jacinto Mall was a modern showplace containing 175 stores and an impressively themed two-level food court and entertainment area in the middle of the mall. The design of San Jacinto Mall is much like two overlapping “L”, with a square in the middle bounded by some of the anchors and the food court. In the 1980s, anchor stores included Service Merchandise, Mervyn’s, JCPenney, Sears, Beall’s, Palais Royal, Foley’s, and Montgomery Ward. Critics balked at such a large center, arguing that Baytown was not large enough to support such a development. And in the end they were right, but more on that in a bit.
The decor is what makes San Jacinto Mall an incredible relic. In today’s modern retailing world, shiny marble-like tiles, whitewashed walls, and frequent kiosks complement bright lights, soft edges and pewter fixtures, while sections of comfy chairs and area rugs are surrounded by unassuming planters. This is a stark contrast to mall decor of the 1970s and early 1980s, where earthen tones, woods, dark tiles, fountains and trees helped to create an artificial ‘inside’ world to woo shoppers away from the actual outside world of the downtowns the malls helped replace. In creating the inside mall space to mirror nature and the outside world, developers sought to give shoppers a similar, yet fake, environment for their escapist activities. They don’t do this today, giving shoppers a pristine environment to escape into the hedonistic world of shopping, actually favoring a balance toward capitalism instead of aesthetics in giving up the fountains and trees to provide kiosks in order to maximize profit.
I view this shift as mostly negative. Early mall developers such as Victor Gruen sought to provide awe-inspiring enclosed environments for the activity of shopping, giving rise to amazingly complex worlds complete with spectacular fountains, conversation pits, sculpture gardens, center stages, and even bird cages. These older centers provided more than a vapid utility, they were community-building places, significant in their own rite as more than just places to go and spend a buck. Sure, that was the reason you were there, but they felt less soulless. San Jacinto Mall has received little more than a few coats of paint during the past quarter century, and the decor is like stepping into a time machine back to this era. The wooden facades of the former Service Merchandise and former Walgreens complement the dark floors and instead of a few small ceramic planters, there are entire garden areas, some with full-sized trees. The high ceilings have a row of giant windows on one side, allowing a constant flow of natural light into the enclosed space, while the other side is curiously flanked with a continuous, arched mural of the daytime sky. Along the sky mural are humorous curiosities painted in, such as puffy clouds, jets with long contrails and even a roving gang of UFO ships, Space Invaders style. Mirrors and fountains are also not in short supply here.
Speaking of Atari, the food court and entertainment area near the middle of the mall is also worth noting. Between the first and second levels here, the ceiling has an early-80s latticework design made with slender metal beams, and the food court’s sign looks like it belongs on the cover for an early 80s video game. This area is the only two-level area of the mall outside the anchor stores, and the entertainment area on top features a full-sized carousel, playground and a few benches but oddly little else occupies the second level.
Today, San Jacinto Mall is like several malls in the Houston area with an abundance of stores near the central pivot points of the mall and a contrast of abandonment on the far wings. Anchor woes came in 2001 as Montgomery Ward and Service Merchandise closed amid the shutting of those chains; Bealls also closed the same year. In 2006, Mervyns departed the mall as they left the Houston area entirely. So, as you can see, the loss of anchors is mostly not the mall’s fault, but the loss of indoor stores is. Baytown is not large enough to support this development, and articles we’ve found suggest Baytowners (Baytownies? Whatever.) shop at the more successful Houston-area malls like the Houston Galleria and even clear across the metro area 50 miles away at Katy Mills. The mall today houses about 60 stores, and a popular cinema. At only one-third capacity, many of these stores are near the middle of the mall, and several wings are almost completely dead. Most notably, the Mervyn’s/Service Merchandise corridor and the Macy’s/Palais Royal corridor are faltering.
As a result of these problems, you can bet changes are in the works for San Jacinto Mall. The former Montgomery Ward wing, which was possibly the worst-off for the longest time, has now been closed and will soon be demolished. In its place, a “lifestyle” wing will be built, with little details released yet. If it doesn’t pump some vigor back into the mall, you can surely bet that large portions if not entire mall will be abandoned in few more years.
Our exclusive pictures of San Jacinto Mall were taken in April 2007. Add some of your own stories or comments about this truly interesting relic.
Food court area:
More indoor shots: