Attention, dead mall fans: this one’s for you. The following gem of a mall is almost completely dead, totally unrenovated and as dated as they come. It’s just as interesting as other deadmall icons like Southwyck, Machesney Park, Summit Place, Rolling Acres, Randall Park, or any of those, but hasn’t received nearly as much fan press. And, as of July 2010 it is still open for regular business with no imminent plans for closure.
In fact, this is one of the last ones left of its kind. Most dead malls, like all the aforementioned, got gobbled up by the redevelopment machine, or at the very least closed their doors permanently and sit waiting for the wrecking ball, so getting inside for a tour isn’t within reach. Nope, friends, this one is open for business, 10-9 weekdays and Saturdays, and Sundays noon to 5. Not only this, it’s only a few hours from the Mid-Atlantic states and a day’s drive from nearly anywhere east of the Mississippi.
I’m talking about Mountaineer Mall. Located in Morgantown, West Virginia, Mountaineer Mall is the kind of mall dead mall fans dream about, with all sorts of retail antiquities and dated accoutrements. We’re talking about wooden railings with tarnished, aging brass fixtures, brick facades, tile- and wood panel-laden planter fixtures, intact dead store facades from 20+ years ago, and more.
Mountaineer Mall was once the dominant – and only – mall in the Morgantown region. Located 70 miles south of Pittsburgh, Morgantown is home to West Virginia University and has the healthiest economy in the state. It has a population of around 30,000 residents, which nearly doubles when the University is in session, and a metropolitan area of 115,000 to boot. Morgantown has a quirky, progressive college town feel, and with its low unemployment and unique culture feels mightily juxtaposed to the rest of the state, or anywhere for that matter. One example of this is the fact that the small city has its own rail-based mass transit, a people mover called the Morgantown Personal Rapid Transit system, which connects downtown Morgantown to the WVU satellite campus located a few miles away.
Mountaineer Mall originally opened in 1975 on a bluff, high above the Monongahela River, on the south side of Morgantown. It had a goal of capturing local shoppers who were forced to drive either to Pittsburgh, where the closest major malls, South Hills Village and Century III Mall, were 60 miles away, or down to Fairmont, where the tiny Middletown Mall sat. Anchored by JCPenney, Montgomery Ward, and Murphy’s Mart, Mountaineer Mall had a simple dumbbell shape when it opened. Murphy’s Mart was the western anchor closest to the river, JCPenney sat adjacent to center court, and Montgomery Ward flanked the eastern end of the mall; an enclosed corridor with stores on both sides connected all three anchors.
Even though Mountaineer Mall was small, it became immensely popular and gained a loyal following in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Too soon, though, Mountaineer Mall’s owners realized the mall was too small to serve the area, and embarked on an expansion in 1987, adding a fourth anchor, Stone and Thomas, and an additional hallway connecting it to the mall. This gave the mall a T-shape once the renovation was complete. Meanwhile, an anchor change took place around 1985, when Murphy’s Mart became Ames.
The new addition, with its late-80s appearance, featured smart looking brass fixtures, fake skylights, and a brighter look than the rest of the 8-year-old mall. In addition, due to the natural topography of the site, the developer chose to build the addition on a slight incline, giving the mall corridor a handicapped-accessible carpeted ramp down the middle and stairs flanking either side. This is definitely, by the way, an amazingly unique design feature, which seemingly gives the mall not only an extra dimension of space but also a disjointed, frankenmall-like weird quality. The new addition also brought stores with only exterior entrances on one side, which ironically house most of the stores still in operation today.
Unfortunately, Mountaineer Mall’s time in the sun was short-lived. Three years after the addition, in September of 1990, Mountaineer Mall’s luck ran out when competition came calling from the brand-new, $70-million Morgantown Mall, which opened across the river, just two miles as the crow flies from Mountaineer Mall, but farther via roads. The new 557,954 square-foot mall was anchored by Sears, JCPenney, Elder-Beerman, and K-mart. JCPenney chose to immediately bolt to the new mall when it opened in 1990, but Elder Beerman kept a location at both malls until 1998. Not only was Morgantown Mall larger and newer than Mountaineer Mall, it was better located along Interstate 79 to serve customers from outside the area, such as Washington County, Pennsylvania.
After the loss of JCPenney, Mountaineer Mall soldiered on, eventually replacing the former JCPenney space with U.S. Factory Outlets in 1993; however, anchor changes occurred until the end of the 1990s. In January 1994, Ames, who had another location in Morgantown, was replaced with a 126,000 square-foot Wal-Mart, the first in the area. The popularity of Wal-Mart routinely filled the parking lot to capacity, and the mall soldiered on against its newer cousin across the river. U.S. Factory Outlets eventually closed and was replaced by Gabriel Brothers, a regional off-price chain based in Morgantown. Then, in 1998, Stone and Thomas went broke and was forced to sell out to Elder Beerman. Somewhat surprisingly, Elder Beerman chose to continue operating in Mountaineer Mall after the acquisition, despite already having a duplicate store two miles away at Morgantown Mall.
The first decade of the new millenium was extremely unkind to Mountaineer Mall, as the mall lost all four of its anchors, three of them in short spacing. In 2000, Montgomery Ward announced it was going out of business nationwide and closed the last remaining original anchor at Mountaineer Mall. The next anchor to depart was Wal-Mart, which abandoned the mall due to a non-compete agreement with grocery store Giant Eagle that barred it from opening a Supercenter with grocery on the site; it closed in October 2006, the same day two new Supercenters opened elsewhere in Morgantown.
About the same time Wal-Mart jumped ship, anchor Gabriel Brothers, which is headquartered in Morgantown, opened a brand new store across town, and began to offer fewer items at their Mountaineer Mall location. After over a year of progressively emptier shelves, it became apparent that Gabriel Brothers was slowly abandoning the Mountaineer Mall store, and it finally closed in 2008.
Elder Beerman, which surprisingly stayed at the mall for ten years despite having a redundant store in Morgantown Mall across the river, also closed in 2008. In a span of less than two years, Morgantown Mall went from having three anchors to having zero anchors. At the same time, many in-line stores cleared out as well. A listing of stores from 2001 can be found here via the wayback machine – sadly, many of these are now gone.
As of 2010, the only stores remaining in the mall are listed here. Of these, many are either in outlots, like Giant Eagle, Georgia Carpet Outlet and Dunham’s Sports, or have exterior entrances, like CATO and Goodwill. A hair salon, Subway, nail salon, and some non-profit service organizations operate within the mall, as well as a pizza parlor and Chinese buffet. A local country and craft store, The Barn Yard, also operates in the mall, but unfortunately is closing tomorrow (7/21/10); however, they are relocating and will reopen in August. Mountaineer Mall’s website also indicates a transition from retail to office space, which began a decade ago with the retenanting of Montgomery Ward with a TeleTech call center and a building supply outlet.
We visited Mountaineer Mall in July 2009 and took the pictures featured here.