XVI: Urban and Suburban Life

Shopping Malls

            In the second half of the twentieth century, the shopping mall replaced Main Street as the central business district in communities all over the United States. The development of malls began in the Midwest and the region has continued as a retail pioneer. Malls flourished because the popularity of the automobile, and the growth of the highway system made it possible for Americans to travel with ease. As people moved into the suburbs that developed along the outskirts of cities, malls sprang up to serve the needs of these same people who preferred to shop where they lived. The visual appeal and comfortable environment of malls contributed to a steady deterioration of the customer base of downtown shopping districts and helped destroy the viability of downtowns.

            Shopping malls are generally defined as a group of buildings, developed and managed as a unit, with a street designated for use by pedestrians only and a special parking area. The first malls were unplanned developments that sprouted alongside Sears or Montgomery Ward outlets in the new suburbs of the early twentieth century. Market Square, built in 1916 in the Chicago suburb of Lake Forest, is considered to be first planned development shopping mall in the nation. Like subsequent malls, Market Square drew shoppers with various entertainments and required its tenants to pay both rent and a percentage of sales to management as well as a fee for mall maintenance and marketing. The most famous of these early malls, Country Club Plaza, was completed in 1923 on the then-outskirts of Kansas City, Missouri. Created by J.C. Nichols, this Spanish-themed mall on 55 acreshad streets filled with antique sculptures, columns, tile-lace murals, wrought iron, and fountains as well as eight filling stations to serve its many visitors. 

            During the Great Depression and World War II, the poor retail environment effectively halted mall development but the great suburban surge of the postwar era led to renewed interest. The postwar malls were regional shopping centers with one or more large department branch stores dominating, or “anchoring,” the surrounding small specialty shops. The first regional mall, the Town and Country Shopping Center, opened in 1949 in Columbus, Ohio on a tract of 45.7 acres. Besides containing the first suburban branches of department stores J.C. Penney and Kresge, it also became the first shopping mall to keep its stores open at night. The sharp extremes of midwestern weather led to the first enclosed mall, the two-level Southdale, in Edina, Minnesota in 1956. By 1962, the open mall had become obsolete throughout the nation. The new enclosed style would dominate mall construction for the rest of the century.

             The perceived safety of malls appealed to customers who continued to flee a downtown that was increasingly viewed as populated by dangerous elements. This increased demand for malls led to larger buildings. Super regional malls began to appear in the 1960s. With three or more department stores as anchors on more than 50 acres of land, these malls provided both visual spectacle and shopping. Woodfield Mall, just outside Chicago in Schaumburg, Illinois, is the top tourist destination in the state and one of the highest-volume shopping centers in the world with more than 50,000 visitors daily. Randall Park in Cleveland had more stores—250—than any other mall until the massive Mall of America opened in the 1970s. Attracting tens of millions of visitors annually from around the world, the 4.2 million square foot Mall of America is one of the nation’s largest tourist attractions with over 500 stores, 83 restaurants, 14 movie theaters, 8 nightclubs, an indoor amusement park and an aquatic park. The designation of tallest mall goes to Chicago’s Water Tower Place, which opened in 1975, as a 74-story mixed-use complex.
            The 1980s saw a movement away from suburban malls. Cities attempted to revitalize downtowns by building suburban-style malls, but these efforts had mixed success. Outlet malls, sprawling outdoor complexes selling discounted goods, did well until the end of the century when they began to shut down in numbers. 
            At the start of the twenty-first century, mall development has returned to its beginnings. Open-air malls that mimic old-fashioned downtowns have come into vogue. Easton Town Center, opened in stages beginning in 1999, is a Columbus, Ohio entertainment and shopping complex that has served as model for similar developments around the country. Reflecting the qualities that made malls popular, it offers visual spectacle, convenient parking and a safe environment. 
Caryn E. Neumann
The Ohio State University
Richard V. Francaviglia, Main Street Revisited (1996); Robert Hendrickson, The Grand Emporiums (1979); William Severini Kowinski, The Malling of America (1985); Eric Nelson, The Mall of America (1997).