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
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?
Neatly perched atop a giant slag pile nine miles southeast of downtown Pittsburgh, Century III Mall has an interesting name and an even more interesting history. Opened in 1979, Century III Mall was the result of a mutually beneficial partnership between regional real estate magnate Edward DeBartolo of Youngstown, Ohio, who wanted to build a giant mall, and the U.S. Steel Corporation, who had a giant mountain of slag marring the landscape south of Pittsburgh that needed a better use. For those who don’t know, slag is a by-product of steel production, and for many decades the slag from Pittsburgh’s steel mills was transported to this site until it became an otherworldly artificial mountain taller than anyone could have imagined, disaffectionally known as Brown’s Dump.
Neatly perched atop a giant slag pile nine miles southeast of downtown Pittsburgh, Century III Mall has an interesting name and an even more interesting history.
Opened in 1979, Century III Mall was the result of a mutually beneficial partnership between regional real estate magnate Edward DeBartolo of Youngstown, Ohio, who wanted to build a giant mall, and the U.S. Steel Corporation, who had a giant mountain of slag marring the landscape south of Pittsburgh that needed a better use. For those who don’t know, slag is a by-product of steel production, and for many decades the slag from Pittsburgh’s steel mills was transported to this site until it became an otherworldly artificial mountain taller than anyone could have imagined, disaffectionally known as Brown’s Dump.
Before Brown’s Dump could be successfully turned into the retail strip consisting of box stores, restaurants, and the Century III Mall that exist there today, the site needed to be carefully remediated. This involved sealing and filling the mines with concrete and the cleaning and leveling of surfaces. One source reported that more concrete was used to seal and fill the mines than was used in the entire mall and all of its adjacent retail structures combined. There are still surviving ladle cars near the mall, remnants of its former land use.
When Century III opened in 1979, it was apparently one of the largest enclosed malls in the world; and, despite its location, squirreled away in the southeast suburbs of Pittsburgh, it immediately became a super-regional draw. Century III’s unique name comes from being completed slightly after America’s 1976 Bicentennial, so it was aptly named for the dawn of America’s third century.
Century III opened in two phases. According to commenter Eric S., Phase I opened in October 1979, with two two-level anchors: Kaufmann’s and JCPenney. The second phase opened in March, 1980, and added a two-level Montgomery Ward. Several months later, in Fall 1980, Sears and Gimbels opened, which were also two level anchors. After the mall was complete, it had 5 two-level anchors and an awesome floorplan. The mall is two levels throughout, with a three-level labyrinth of confusing platforms, connections, wall-sized mirrors and walkways at the Sears end. Architecturally, this end of the mall and the aforementioned features are what makes this mall amazing and unique.
Anchor changes at Century III began in 1986, with the closure of Montgomery Ward. It was replaced right away by Pittsburgh-based Horne’s, and later became Columbus-based Lazarus in 1994. Lazarus pulled out after four short years in 1998, and the anchor became a Kaufmann’s Furniture Gallery, which then became Macy’s Furniture Gallery in 2006 until that closed in January 2009. As of 2010, it’s still sitting vacant.
The second anchor to switch hands was Gimbels, which closed in January 1988 following the folding of the chain. It sat vacant until 1993, when Marshalls took the upper level, and TJ Maxx took the lower level. This must have been an interesting pairing, because Marshalls and TJ Maxx are both similarly-themed nameplates owned by the same company, TJX. I’ve never seen TJ Maxx and Marshalls so closely co-located, let alone one on top of the other. As explained in the comments, the two stores were owned by different parent companies, so they were indeed different, competing ventures. Still weird, though, like having Linens ‘n Things and Bed Bath and Beyond stacked on top of each other. The pairing didn’t last long, though, because the upper level Marshalls closed in 1996 after Marshalls was sold to TJX. TJ Maxx remained on the lower level until 2003, converting to a TJ Maxx ‘n More in 1998. The upper level, vacated by Marshalls in 1996, eventually became a Wickes Furniture in 1997, which lasted until 2004 when it closed and reopened as Dick’s Sporting Goods. The former TJ Maxx on the lower level became Steve and Barrys in 2003, until Steve and Barry’s went broke in 2009. As of 2010, the lower level anchor remains vacant.
The third anchor change at Century III took place in 2006, with the rebranding of Kaufmann’s to Macy’s. According to mall-hall-of-fame, this anchor was also the only one that was physically expanded, adding 17,000 square feet of retail space in the 1980s.
More recently, however, Century III entered a slow and steady period of decline, which steepened precipitously following competition from new, nearby developments, even despite a cosmetic renovation of the entire mall in 1996. The Waterfront, an outdoor mall with over 1 million square feet of retail space, including Macy’s and many mid-market mall stores like Abercrombie and Fitch, opened in 1999, and SouthSide Works, an outdoor retail and entertainment district, opened between 2002-2004. Both of these new outdoor developments opened along the south banks of the Monongahela River, just a few miles north of Century III Mall.
Although The Waterfront and SouthSide Works hampered Century III the most among its competition, other regional competitors also came a-callin’ to decimate Century III’s customer base even further. Two brand-new enclosed malls opened in the Pittsburgh area in the 2000s: The Mall at Robinson in Pittsburgh’s western suburbs, in 2001, and Pittsburgh Mills in the northeast suburbs, in 2005. These two malls continue to have a super-regional draw.
In addition to new malls, the extant malls in the region beefed up their offerings during the same period. North-suburban Ross Park Mall (a fine name for a mall, if I do say so myself) renovated and solidified its hold on that side of the city, eventually wooing Nordstrom. Monroeville Mall did the same for the east side and affluent suburbs like Penn Hills, home of presidential candidate Rick Santorum, and South Hills Village clinched a hold on the US 19 retail corridor south of the city. There’s no shortage of retail east or south of Century III either, as there are malls in both Westmoreland and Washington Counties.
All of these other retail centers are also better positioned to serve Pittsburghers, located either on main highways or near affluent population centers, or both. Anyone who lives or is familiar with the transportation network in the Pittsburgh area knows how difficult getting around the region is, due to intense topography and three large rivers. There are no linear, flat highways anywhere in Pittsburgh, and getting around without a GPS or a sturdy map is a chore.
Successful retail centers in Pittsburgh have either easy access to freeways, like Mall at Robinson, Pittsburgh Mills, and Monroeville Mall, or placement in a dense population area, like The Waterfront and SouthSide Works. Ross Park Mall and South Hills Village aren’t on freeways, but are the centers of relatively affluent population areas, and anchors to massive retail strips along US 19 north and south of downtown. The area around Century III, while on a somewhat major thoroughfare heading southeast from Pittsburgh, is predominantly connected to a region that has seen better days. The Mon River Valley has been on a downward trajectory for almost the entire time the mall has been around, losing both population and jobs due to the exit of the steel industry, and has struggled to stay afloat economically, despite the nascent recovery in other parts of Pittsburgh.
Considering the mall’s most recent troubles, is its name an ominous harbinger of what’s to come for our nation during its third century? Perhaps it is a telling warning against the consumptive over-building of our landscape, and also the state of consumerism in general that Century III, like so many other regional malls, has become a deteriorating pock-mark of failure on the landscape in the third century of America. Or is it, instead, a carefully crafted example of capitalism reflected in the built environment? The site was, after all, recycled from a previous and not-so-nice use, and it had a good run. Maybe it’s time for a different use – but what?
Nobody seems to really know what to do with the site. Furthermore, while on a downward spiral, the mall’s not quite dead enough to seriously begin drafting plans for redevelopment. I imagine, though, that in a few years the breaking point will emerge and Century III will totally fail, unless proactive intervention helps to bolster the mall. I fully expect the former, though, and would be very surprised (yet hopeful) for the latter.
On a more personal note, I love Pittsburgh and feel that it’s one of the most underrated cities in the country. The world class museums, architecture, fine arts, and educational offerings there are on par with many other cities of less ill repute. There’s a heck of a lot to do in Pittsburgh – more than you can wrap your gum bands around. Pittsburgh’s real gems, though, are its neighborhoods. Separated by a rather intense topography, Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods are not only unique and well-defined, but intensely provincial – and people care about them. I love that Pittsburgh is so rooted in place that even the collapse of the entire steel industry didn’t turn it into a Detroit, or even a Cleveland. Sorry, Cleveland, at least you’re not Detroit. Pittsburghers even have their own regional accent and lexicon, independent from everywhere else. Sure, there are parts of the city, and the region, that are no doubt worse for wear, but the city still has so many cultural gems and so many neighborhoods that have walkable districts, unique shops and active street life.
They also have Century III Mall, which is an amazing gem as well if you can appreciate such things as shopping malls, and if you’re reading this blog you probably know what I’m talking about. We visited Century III Mall in March 2004, and again in Summer 2010. Feel free to leave your own anecdotes and reactions on the comments page.
Steamtown Mall opened in 1993 as a keystone of Scranton’s downtown revitalization. Featuring nearly 100 stores and 564,000 square feet of retail space spread across two levels, the mall was wedged in the center of Scranton’s downtown area and was meant to bring shoppers and activity back to the region’s core city from suburban malls and shopping centers.
A couple weeks ago, I was going to post the Roosevelt Field Mall on Long Island–the biggest mall in the metropolitan NYC area, and an IM Pei-designed landmark–because it had a brief run in the news after a bunch of teenage girls waiting to see teen pop sensation Justin Bieber caused a riot. Pretty crazy stuff for someone no one had ever really even heard of, but nothing new I guess.
This reminded me, though, of another time I got caught in the middle of something similar, back in the summer of 2007. And I never posted THAT event, and I was there! So here we go.
On one of my (many) trips to go out and collect photos and do research for Labelscar, my sidekick and I wound up on a Friday night in Scranton, Pennsylvania, a faded old mill town in the northeastern part of the state that nowadays is mostly known as the setting for “The Office.” Normally one of the benefits of taking vacations in places like Scranton is that absolutely no one else is interested in doing the same thing, so hotel rooms can be had cheaply and with little notice. Not so this time: I used four or five online aggregators, tried going direct to hotel sites, and nothing–EVERYTHING was upwards of $100. Eventually, after an hour or so of digging, I managed to find a lone Days Inn that let me stay for a mere $88. And believe me, I’ve stayed in some terrible Days Inns, but this one might’ve been the worst.
The next morning, sidekick and I headed out to start our trek, and our second stop was The Mall at Steamtown, which is right in the center of downtown Scranton. Despite that we arrived before the place opened, it was weirdly, bizarrely packed. The parking garage was nearly full, there were people everywhere… I couldn’t make sense of it. We went in and it became immediately apparent.
Hannah Montana is here.
This of course explained not only the crowds but also the hotel pricing–because families were descending on Scranton from all over Appalachia for a peak at Ms. Montana. In retrospect it’s already a bit funny to talk about the Miley Cyrus (aka Ms. Montana) frenzy in the present tense–not because she’s DONE, or anything, but just because this Bieber dude and those celibate werewolves in that Twilight movie seem to have stolen her thunder. But anyway, the place was packed to the gills with dedicated and screamy teen girls who just needed to see their idol. And of course, there was me, a then-27 year old walking around with a camera surreptitiously taking pictures of the “architecture.” I did not look creepy. Not at all.
OK, here’s where we get a bit more serious: Scranton, Pennsylvania is an old industrial city of 76,000 located in the Lackawanna River Valley portion of Northeastern Pennsylvania, and is the lynchpin city of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre metropolitan region, which has around 560,000 people in total. Scranton was an industrial town that came of age in the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century as a coal, iron, and steel town, and via the prosperity of these commodities grew to a population of 143,000 by the 1930s. Like many other industrial cities of this era, however, Scranton’s prosperity ended with World War 2, and went into steep decline for a long period through the 80s, when the region began to stabilize. Population losses have since slowed, although the region has struggled to replace the industries that were once its driving force.
The Mall at Steamtown opened in 1993 as a keystone of Scranton’s downtown revitalization. Featuring nearly 100 stores and 564,000 square feet of retail space spread across two levels, the mall was wedged in the center of Scranton’s downtown area and was meant to bring shoppers and activity back to the region’s core city from suburban malls and shopping centers. The mall was built with two original anchors–Montgomery Ward and Boscov’s–but it also contained a skywalk portion to connect to the historic downtown location of The Globe, a homegrown Scranton retailer, making for a third. This also made the mall’s total square footage a bit larger than what was really contained within the “mall” itself–closer to 700,000 square feet. The Steamtown Mall also featured one very unique feature–a pedestrian bridge from the mall’s food court that connected to the Steamtown National Historic Site, which contains exhibits honoring Scranton’s past as a railroad town.
Unfortunately, The Globe would last less than a year after the mall opened before shuttering. The space later became a Steve & Barry’s location, but since Steve & Barry’s went out of business the section of the mall has closed completely to the public. In addition, Montgomery Ward obviously shut their store at the mall at some point in the 1990s, and the space was quickly filled by The Bon-Ton.
By and large, the Mall at Steamtown does fairly well today as one of the main mid-tier malls in the region, even if there hasn’t been a dramatic impact on the surrounding downtown business district. In recent years, it (like Scranton in general) has been thrown back into the spotlight due to “The Office,” which takes great care to incorporate local landmarks as much as possible and has repeatedly referenced the center by name. There is at least one episode of the show that was set and at least partially filmed at the Steamtown Mall and in the mall’s parking garage, and the center has been referenced on the show many times (such as the site of the coffeehouse “Jitters”). As of summer 2007, when these photos were taken, there was also at least one vacant storefront that was dedicated to Office schwag as a nod to show.
The placement of enclosed shopping centers in urban cores and downtowns in America has always been a bit curious and fascinating to us. Perhaps it’s because their designs must be creative in order to weave the structure into the existing built environment. Or maybe it’s because they challenge the very notion of the traditional downtown, which struggled with its identity after the automobile age brought clusters of stores into the suburbs and away from downtowns, outmoding them from the 1950s to the present day.
At any rate, most medium- to large-sized American cities have, or at one time had, some semblance of a mall downtown. Most of these malls were built as urban renewal projects starting in the 1970s as a response to the explosion of suburban malls, in order to compete with the suburbs and keep people and businesses from fleeing downtown areas. Some of them were built a bit later in successful downtown districts like Indianapolis (Circle Center, 1995) and Chicago (North Bridge, 2000). Many of these hatve also failed, succumbing to the conveniences suburban malls offer shoppers, such as free parking, less traffic, and convenience to home. Many downtown malls have also failed even after protracted periods of success, like the downtown malls in Salt Lake City, Columbus, Milwaukee, Rochester, Hartford, and many more. But why is this? In most large American cities, people still congregate downtown for work if not for play, and increasingly people are choosing to live closer to urban centers because of gas prices, culture, and other economic issues, not to mention commuting is a pain.
Center City Philadelphia is full of shopping destinations, most of which center around Market Street, the major east-west thoroughfare through downtown. Along Market Street are several small atriums and enclosed shopping facilities, but only a few of them really function as malls per se, and The Gallery at Market East is by far the largest of them at 1.1 million square feet. It opened in 1977 (with a major expansion in 1984), and is currently anchored by Burlington Coat Factory and K-Mart, with Modell’s, Old Navy, and Pay/Half taking junior anchor space. I probably needn’t say more after that, except that the Gallery only holds a modicum of success today when compared to still-successful downtown malls in other cities like Chicago. But why?
The Gallery’s layout and design are the most interesting features of the center overall, combined with the mall’s facade and how it interacts with the street. The main entrance of The Gallery along Market Street provides a portal of access not unlike entering a large fortress. Because the ground level of The Gallery is subterranean, a wide staircase leads down from the street to sets of doors, which are flanked along a tall wall of glass. Although this entrance looks impressive from the inside of the mall, the outside of this facade is in a rather small space and easily glanced over. In addition, the rest of the street facade is also unremarkable, outdated, and awkward. Gallery East also does a poor job with continuity, and breaks the space in between Independence Hall, downtown, and Chinatown abruptly rather than connecting these areas of the city with a pedestrian-friendly theme.
The layout of the mall itself consists of four main levels in two “Gallery” developments, Gallery I and Gallery II, which opened in 1977 and 1984, respectively. Gallery I was the first development and consisted of the block between 10th street and the former Strawbridges. Gallery II was a westward extension of Gallery I ending at the former JCPenney (now Burlington Coat Factory); today, the I and II distinctions are mostly gone and the mall is simply known collectively as The Gallery At Market East. The first mall level is subterranean and goes throughout the length of the entire mall, from the former Strawbridge’s anchor in the east to Pay/Half on the west end, spanning nearly two blocks and going underneath K-Mart. The next level of the mall is at street level, and spans from the former Strawbridges in the east directly through K-Mart in the middle, where it is discontiguous at 10th street and shoppers must go outside and cross the street (or go up or down a level) to come back in again to continue across to Burlington Coat Factory. The third and fourth levels go from the vacant Strawbridges directly through middle anchor K-Mart and comes out on the other side, ending at Burlington Coat Factory, except the third and fourth levels converge to go through K-Mart.
Throughout The Gallery’s history turmoil has taken its toll right from the beginning. As soon as the project was announced, city leaders and developers were criticized for the city’s infusing money into the project at the expense of Philadelphia’s beleagured neighborhoods away from downtown. Obviously the irony that the city ponied up money to compete with the suburbs at their own game while other parts of the city suffered, also because of suburbs, wasn’t lost. In addition, during its early periods of success Gallery I was the site of numerous protests due to the fact that no black entrepreneurs owned any of the businesses there despite the fact that a great percentage of Philadelphia is black. Oops.
Nonetheless, The Gallery at Market East enjoyed decent period of success, through the 1980s and into the 1990s. By that time, even though the center was integrated into SEPTA’s system with three stations, it was still obvious that the mall itself just didn’t ‘feel’ integrated into downtown and the surrounding areas. Because the area to the east is a heavily trafficked tourist area, The Gallery should present a welcoming facade to them with high street visibility on the Market Street facade, drawing them into the mall, and vice versa from the City Hall side, where locals use the mall’s entrances for a bite to eat at the food court, shopping, or to enter SEPTA. In addition, the indoor corridors of the mall’s four-level structure could also be updated with warmer fixtures and lighting.
Anchor and tenancy issues haven’t helped The Gallery’s plight either. The original anchor and stalwart for all of downtown Philadelphia shopping was the flagship for Strawbridge and Clothier, which became the east end of the mall in 1977. Macy’s, who ended up purchasing the Strawbridge chain, decided to close this location in 2006; it’s still vacant as of August 2008. The original west anchor was Gimbel’s, which later became the center’s middle anchor after Gallery II opened in 1984. After Gimbel’s closed in 1986, this anchor became Stern’s and Clover before K-Mart in 1999. The west anchor, JCPenney, opened with Gallery II in 1984 and closed, later becoming Burlington Coat Factory which it is today. The in-line roster of stores has also degraded somewhat after having a more upscale set of stores some 15-plus years ago; today, many of the stores selling apparel are urban wear, discounters, or shoe stores. The food court has, however, remained viable due to the amount of foot traffic from people accessing the train and tourists in the area.
In short, The Gallery At Market East could be a wonderful centerpiece for downtown Philadelphia, connecting a multiplicity of neighborhoods and peoples with a far more upscale line-up of stores and services than it has today. With its accessibility and location, it has the potential to be both visually and economically stimulating to the city of Philadelphia, and in a city living in the shadows of the east coast this is probably not a bad idea. Instead, The Gallery is slowly withering and even dying, earning a sour reputation among Philadelphians. Normally I would suggest milking a mall’s decline for all its worth, but not here. Normally I would advocate the placement of Burlington Coat Factory, Pay/Half, and K-Mart, because these viable stores are better than nothing. But not here. This area can do far better. That is, if it gets in gear and makes some renovations and changes to not only bring the mall into this century, but to bring different parts of Philadelphia together. It could really be nothing short of amazing.
The pictures featured here were taken by me in July 2008. Feel free to add your own stories, information, comments, or reactions in the comments section.
I know that I’m really keeping these posts coming fast and furious lately, but after I threw up my tome on the Fairgrounds Square Mall outside of Reading, Pennsylvania, I decided to follow it up with the other, better mall serving the Reading area: the Berkshire Mall in Wyomissing.
While the Berkshire Mall is in some ways very typical of a mid-sized mall serving a mid-sized city, it’s stuck in something of a time warp. The decor inside isn’t the most exciting, but it is certainly interesting (and kind of shabby) just by virtue of the way it hasn’t received much attention. In the comment strand to Fairgrounds Square, one of our commenters (Bruce) noted that “It amazes me how bad Berkshire Mall looks, especially given its prime location in upscale Wyomissing. The exterior alone looks like a dead mall and its large sign out front is the worst of 70s ugliness. The owners really need to spruce up this property.”
’70s ugliness? You be the judge:
I might have to agree.
Like with Fairgrounds Square, I wasn’t able to find much online about the Berkshire Mall. I do know that the Boscov’s seen in these shots is actually quite new. It replaced a Strawbridge’s that closed in 2003 or 2004, and was reportedly the worst-performing Strawbridge’s in the entire chain. The space was a Strawbridge’s for a relatively brief period of time; the store was built as a Wanamaker’s. The Sears, as far as I know, has always been here, and I think the same is true of The Bon-Ton, who is based in nearby York. Beyond that, these pictures mostly speak for themselves: the mall’s a pretty basic straight shot, with a small second level at the center court. But some of the various accoutrements sprinkled throughout are in poor shape; between the dried-up, swimming-pool-blue fountains and the bizarre quasi-industrial benches, this place clearly needs some good ol’ lipstick and rouge.
The Berkshire Mall was also the site of a controversy (or, if we want to be more colorful, hullabaloo) in February 2007 when a 29-year old nursing mother was asked to stop feeding her infant or to cover up. It became a bit of a cause célèbre amongst the, er, breastfeeding community, and they staged a “nurse-in” on February 24, 2007 in response. So far as I can tell, the result was… a whole lot of breastfeeding (there’s video at that link, but it’s not creepy).
Which reminds me! You should all ask Prangeway sometime about the time he was thrown out of a mall for (accidentally) taking pictures of a breastfeeding mother. That’s quite a story.
The Fairgrounds Square Mall is one of two major malls serving the Reading, Pennsylvania area. Fairgrounds Square is located on the northern edge of the city between the Allentown Pike and the Pottsville Pike, and at 718,000 square feet, is only slightly smaller than the more successful Berkshire Mall in Wyomissing, but I’m of the mind that it’s a bit cooler!
Reading is roughly an hour northwest of Philadelphia, and at about 81,000 residents is the fifth largest city in Pennsylvania. Reading is typical of many aging industrial centers throughout the Northeast United States, and compared to the many other old industrial cities that dot the landscape in eastern Pennsylvania, Reading’s malaise seems, at least anecdotally, somewhat more acute than most. Despite this, Berks County has actually registered a population increase since 2000, largely due to transplants from the Philadelphia area seeking a lower cost of living. Reading is also notable for being the home of Boscov’s, one of the last true remaining regional, family-owned full-line department store chains.
Those transplants are not enough to keep Fairgrounds Square thriving, however. Although Fairgrounds Square was reasonably well-leased and sported a decent amount of foot traffic on both of our visits (in October 2004 and August 2007), the center seems a bit forlorn, complete with second tier stores. This is too bad, since Fairgrounds Square’s distinctly 80s tinker-toy architecture and interesting stair-stepping design are actually pretty cool.
I wasn’t able to find much about Fairgrounds Square on the web, which isn’t that surprising since malls like these tend to get no love. The southernmost anchor is a large Boscov’s store–and its likely good ol’ Boscov’s is a hold out because they call Reading home (we love Boscov’s for this very reason). There’s a large anchor at the mall’s center court–today, this is a Burlington Coat Factory, but upon our visit in 2004 it was a National Wholesale Liquidators, and before that it housed Jason’s Discount Furniture (who were also in the mall–in a different space–in 2004, as shown in the photos). This large store was originally a Montgomery Ward. At the north end of the mall, there’s a large JCPenney Outlet and another, smaller, more mysterious anchor; this is the space occupied by Jason’s in 2004, and now occupied by a shoe store. There is also a Cinema Center in the mall.
According to this presentation, The mall is apparently in the midst of adding a food court to the area closest to the cinema, but otherwise it doesn’t appear much is going on. Since I’ve come up short on information–which is pretty pathetic given this is the first you’ve heard of me in two weeks–feel free to fill in. What do you know about Fairgrounds Square? What used to occupy the Super Shoes space? Was there ever a time that this mall was more dominant than Berkshire Mall in Wyomissing?
Want a treat? Of course you do! Everybody loves treats! Some longtime readers of Labelscar may remember the crappy old VGA camera phone, my 2004 Motorola that was my first camera phone, and which I used liberally for some time to take really piss-awful pictures of malls. I actually have some of those classic, poster print-friendly shots of this place, from before two of the anchors swapped (note the National Wholesale Liquidators, along with my own namesake discount furniture store!). These were all taken October 2004:
Hey kids–I’ve been really busy lately (in fact, it seems we both have), hence the dearth of new posts. But it’s not that I haven’t updated anything–in fact, we made some edits to a post from nearly a year back the other day thanks to some new vintage photos of the Leh’s Department store in Whitehall, Pennsylvania (outside of Allentown) at the Whitehall Mall. Since it’s unlikely any of you would’ve coincidentally stumbled across it (and it was posted before many people really even read Labelscar…) I figured I’d put it back out front, for all to see. And thanks again to Michael Lisicky for the great additions!
Original post as of June, 2006: Nowadays, whenever we go to look at a group of new malls, it seems that at least one or two in each metropolitan area is already gone or has been changed substantially. On a trip down to the Lehigh Valley area of Pennsylvania in November of 2005, I found one of these weird FrankenMalls: Whitehall Mall in Whitehall.
Located just north of the large and successful Lehigh Valley Mall, which is the main mall serving the greater Allentown and Bethlehem area, the Whitehall Mall is located in a high traffic location. That’s probably why its owners felt it should be big boxed (PDF) (and from my research, its redevelopment was done quite awhile ago: 1998, to be exact), though this is one of the more bizarre big box efforts that I’ve seen at a mall. A large section of the Whitehall Mall’s interior has been preserved and was not renovated, and the part that was turned outward doesn’t include many large box stores.
Currently, the Whitehall Mall houses a Sears (which stands in its original location, but no longer has mall access), Weis, Bed Bath and Beyond (both in the strip center portion of the mall) and Kohl’s (which resides at the end of one long interior corridor. Confused? Don’t feel bad; I would be too. Here’s a current mall directory to clue you in:
Strangely, it appears to me that the original Sears entrance would’ve been the one that currently faces towards the plaza, but I did find an abandoned exit from inside the Sears that I assumed went towards the mall. I’m not sure which is true, though it could be either or both depending on the center’s old configuration. The most notable find here was obviously the old enclosed portion, which does not appear to have been renovated since the 1960s or early 1970s. There was a large atrium near the entrance and former “Plaza” movie theatres, adjacent to an anchor that is currently mostly occupied by a Weis Markets but which was originally a Leh’s Department store (and a Zollinger Department store before that). There’s also an area about halfway up the hallway where there was a set of stairs leading up to the mall offices. They were set in front of a very groovy and retro stone wall.
In all, this is hardly an inventive (or particularly successful commercially, it seemed) way to hack up an old enclosed mall, but it did leave a few cool vestiges for us vintage mall fans.
UPDATE 5/2/2007 11:52 PM: Michael Lisicky, a constant source of excellent vintage photos for Labelscar, sent over some shots of the former Leh’s anchor at Whitehall, as well as an advertisement/logo for Zollinger dating to the early 1970s. The Leh’s shots all date to May 1994.
Vintage Zollinger-Harned Logo, from the early 1970s:
Michael Lisicky’s 1994 photos of Whitehall Mall:
More Leh’s, photos. From left to right, they are Quakertown, 1994, and Downtown Allentown, 1991:
It was the fall of 2004, and I was finishing up my first day of what was then the longest trip that I’d taken alone. After a long day spent trawling across the northeast, I found myself standing in the lobby of a Red Roof Inn in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, entirely by myself in a city that I knew nothing about beyond that it was a) the capital city of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and b) home of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant.
I knew full well that I’d spend the entire evening doing what I’d done all day–exploring the city and visiting malls–but something was strangely freeing about arriving in this strange city without a plan. My first stop was the Harrisburg Mall, just about a mile from my hotel.
At the time, I was going to seek out a place named the Harrisburg EAST Mall, but apparently the mall was in the middle of a major rebranding and renovation, and I stumbled into the center of it. Apparently the Harrisburg Mall (no “East” anymore), which is the largest enclosed shopping mall in metropolitan Harrisburg, hit some rocky times in the early ’00s. Anchored by Hecht’s, JCPenney, and Lord & Taylor until 2003 or so (though I think the Lord & Taylor may have once been a Hess’s), L&T pulled out of the mall as part of a larger round of closings. JCPenney and Hecht’s both announced their intention to leave soon after. The mall was sold, and management had to do something quickly to turn around the fortunes of the rapidly-emptying mall. Despite that the Harrisburg East Mall had been the area’s dominant mall quite recently, it seemed headed for a fast crash.
Thankfully, Lubert-Adler and Feldman Equities took a proactive approach to protecting the mall, which they detail in this case study. They renovated the two-level, 840,000 square-foot, 90-store center inside and out, introducing a rather Pottery Barn-esque design scheme, and convinced Hecht’s to stay on the property. The JCPenney space was quickly filled with a Boscov’s store, and the former Lord & Taylor was dramatically reworked to become a Bass Pro Shops, which today drives a large amount of traffic to the mall. In addition, a final phase of the mall’s renovation calls for the construction of a lifestyle-center-style streetscape to be built onto the front of the structure, creating space for additional outdoor retail. A movie theatre is also scheduled to be added to the rear of the mall, between Hecht’s and Boscov’s and presumably off of the food court wing.
When I visited in 2004, the mall had a surprising number of vacancies and Bass Pro Shops had not yet opened for business. As of a month ago, when I swung by again, the mall had rebounded dramatically and now boasts an 80% occupancy rate and seems to have reclaimed its role as the dominant mall for the Harrisburg area.
As you see from these pictures, Harrisburg Mall isn’t terribly exciting, bar its tall pylon or unrenovated basement court (the final picture). But it is an example of a mall that was quickly and strategically pulled out of an undeserved rapid nosedive and has been brought back to profitability. I wish all mall management companies were this stealthy.
One of the more prominent retail sites vacated due to the Federated/May merger has been snatched up by PREIT (The Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust). According to GlobeSt.com, the developer has signed a purchase agreement for floors one through six of the former Strawbridge’s anchor store at Eighth and Market Streets in center city Philadelphia.
The historic Strawbridge’s store, which opened in 1931, is attached to the aging, 1,100,000 square foot Gallery at Market East shopping mall. The center–which, somewhat surprisingly, I haven’t been able to visit due to some bouts of bad luck–has reportedly under-performed for some time and failed to serve as the center of the city’s downtown retail district, which is what it was designed to be. In addition to the departed Strawbridge’s, JCPenney and Gimbel’s long ago vacated and now the mall counts Kmart, Pay/Half, and Burlington Coat Factory amongst it’s relatively indistinguished roster of tenants. The top floor of the four-level mall is mostly vacant.
One design feature that stands out about the Gallery at Market East is that much of the mall is sliced in half by the Kmart store, so on certain levels it’s necessary to walk through the Kmart itself to proceed straight through the length of the mall. The mall also has one level below street level, continuing the full length of the mall, while the third level of the mall also continues straight through the mall, leaving the street level sandwiched inbetween. The street level is severed at each cross street, so to access its stores its necessary to come from above or below. Essentially, depending on the floor of the mall, the structure flies over, tunnels under, or dead-ends completely at the crossing blocks. If I’ve confused you, check out PREIT’s detailed leasing plan (which is a PDF). I haven’t seen the Gallery, but am dying to.
Hopefully I’ll make it down in time to see the Gallery, because it seems that PREIT’s motivation for buying the Strawbridge’s store is to prepare for a much needed reset at the entire Gallery at Market East Shopping Mall. Joseph Coradino, president of PREIT Services, tells GlobeSt.com that the Gallery at Market East is “Defensive. It defends itself by turning its back on the street. We want to open it to the street, with cafes and retail that will capture the customers in that area.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to become outdoor (the multi-level nature of the mall probably means that wouldn’t make much sense at all) but it does seem to indicate a drastic and overdue repositioning of the mall is in place. If done correctly, it could give Philadelphia the kind of downtown retail destination that helped kick start urban revitalization efforts in Boston or Providence. Work is expected to begin in either 2007 or 2008.
Not every mall can be exciting, and truth be told, the Capital City Mall in Camp Hill, a suburb just southwest of Harrisburg, isn’t terribly remarkable. It’s a fairly standard mid-sized one-level mall with 576,000 square feet and three anchor stores organized roughly in the classic dumbell fashion. Its greatest drama seems to be that it was partially responsible for killing off another similarly-sized mall–the Camp Hill Mall–just to its north. But even that was due more to Camp Hill’s loss of Montgomery Ward than anything Capital City had a direct hand in. That said, I wanted to throw this one up because I have some (well, okay, one) picture from before the mall’s recent renovation and also a set taken a few weeks ago, after said renovation.
The Capital City Mall is shaped like a “T,” with Sears at the western end, Hecht’s (soon to be Macy’s) near the center court, and JCPenney at the eastern end. There’s a long side corridor extending outward from Hecht’s towards the south, and when I first visited in fall of 2004 this corridor was the home of the mall’s food court. Aerial photos show this area of the mall as having a notably different roof, so it was, unsurprisingly, almost certainly added later. As you can see from the photo below, it was looking a bit rough at the time:
Fast forward to today, and this corridor has been walled-up and turned into a fairly straightforward side hallway with stores along the edges, including a shiny new Hollister. That means that much of the original “open” area of the former food court is now occupied by store slots and there’s very little evidence that the food court was ever there. The food court itself moved towards the western end of the mall, not far from Sears, and occupies a space formerly taken by a movie theatre and several smaller stores along the side of the mall. Beyond some minor cosmetic upgrades, the renovation didn’t do much else (and as you may notice, the floors haven’t been redone at all). Until 2004, all of the Harrisburg area malls were pretty dated. This renovation was almost certainly necessary for PREIT to keep this mall in line with the much more comprehensive renovation completed in 2004 of the larger Harrisburg Mall, which is located only a few miles down the highway.
Look for Harrisburg’s other shopping malls: Harrisburg Mall (formerly Harrisburg East Mall), Colonial Park Mall, and (hopefully) Camp Hill Mall soon. I may need the help of some good Labelscar readers at filling in the blanks on Camp Hill, since it was disenclosed before I ever visited and I don’t have any good pictures to share. If you have something you’d like to contribute, please let me know!
Check out the comprehensive PREIT leasing page on the Capital City Mall (which has a site plan and aerial photos and other neat stuff, as well as the official site.