24 May 2013

Extant Assets - The Florida Mall, Orlando, FL

The Florida Mall was one of those places that instantaneously imprinted itself into my psyche. The expansive single level monolith was located in an unincorporated area south of Orlando. A few relatives whom we were visiting and I had made the rather lengthy drive from Winter Park, a quaint and established northeastern suburb, to the crowded environment of Orange Blossom Trail. It was exceptionally cold and wet during those few remaining shopping days immediately preceding the Christmas of 1989, but the best gift I got during this particular trip was a mallmanac, a memento of one of the most awe inspiring shopping malls that I had seen in my short 14 years of existence.

 
The Florida Mall Mallmanac, ca. 1989. View the full PDF version here.

We luckily found a space in close proximity to the Belk-Lindsay anchor and as we approached their entrance and the sprawling facility, I noticed that looming over the man-made horizon was the rather vibrantly painted Sheraton Plaza Hotel. The profile of the mall was quite elongated though anything but flat. The roofline crested and dipped in various places, with an especially high canopy over the mall's mid-section. I could see an ample amount of glass skylights from my outdoor vantage point, seeing that they appeared at regular intervals, providing more variation to the structure's skyline. I couldn't wait to see what surprises were waiting to be discovered internally, but unfortunately, I would have to wait patiently for my grandmother to finish browsing every single rack of clothing while hearing her complain that she couldn't find anything decent that didn't include shoulderpads.


Shots of the original themed interior of The Florida Mall from the above mallmanac.

After waiting for what seemed like forever, my grandmother, at that point a few hundred dollars less rich, guided us to the common area through the Belk-Lindsay access point. Instantly, I was transported to the South Beach area in Miami as the storefronts all around us were designed with a retail version of Art Deco elements. This was a mall with a theme, and I was soaking it all in. I basked in the neon colors, the bold palette and the faux ornamentation making for a one-of-a-kind Camelot Music experience.

Further down the main concourse closer to center court, there was an abrupt change in theme. It was as if we had all just stepped off of the TARDIS and were all of a sudden standing in late nineteenth century Victorian London, had there been a ye olde Bennetton shoppe there at the turn of the century. The ceiling rose higher above us and was dominated by several hundred square feet of glass, allowing us to get a clear view of the overcast skies just outside, another factor contributing to the British realness. At center court, several of the small shops had their own upper levels, their facades boasting individual rooftops, spires and balconies. I could not get enough.

 
The Florida Mall Mallmanac, ca. 2004. View the full PDF version here.

Further down the mallway, we entered the realm of the last of the three architectural themes- this one being Mediterranean. I could almost feel and smell the sea breeze blowing over me, and looking into the Hickory Farms was analogous to standing on a narrow cobblestone street outside of a hillside villa overlooking the warm waters of the Riviera. Just with several varieties of cheese spread and tasty jams.

Thinking back on those three themed areas of the original Florida Mall, they all seem kind of hokey and, to an extent, campy now. They were about as genuine as the Main Street one would find in any number of American theme parks. But the whole concept really works in place like Orlando, an area chock full of faux experiences around every corner. And to witness this badly designed facsimile, we didn't have to pay fifty bucks a person and be accosted by freakishly tall anthropomorphic ducks with no pants.


The sprawling layout of The Florida Mall from above. (Source)

The Florida Mall opened in 1986 further from the local population center of the metropolis than any of the extant facilities, but much closer to the tourist traffic than any of the others. It opened with only four anchors, the requisite Sears and JCPenney were joined by regional names Robinsons and the above mentioned Belk-Lindsay. The Belk-Lindsay was later succeeded by Saks Fifth Avenue while the space originally housing Robinsons went through more than a few tenants. Maison Blanche followed the original anchor, was replaced by Gayfer's which later was turned into a Parisian. When the Parisian closed, Lord & Taylor leased the pad. When Lord & Taylor shrunk their national footprint in 2006, the revolving door of an anchor was demolished and replaced with an exterior promenade of junior sized stores including H&M and XXI Forever.

The southeastern fringe of the mall also exploded with growth. In 2000, a long wing with twin corridors was attached to the original structure and was capped with a Florida-based Burdine's department store, which later evolved into a Burdine's-Macy's before settling on its present label of just plain Macy's. In 2002, a stub wing was added to a point on this newer wing close to where the twin corridors intersected in order to accommodate a new Nordstrom. The Florida Mall retains this footprint today, and at over 1.8 million square feet, is one of the largest single level retail facilities in the nation.

 
L- The Florida Mall during the early 2000s. R- The Florida Mall as of this writing.

After that 1989 visit, I didn't return to The Florida Mall until the spring of 2004. The interior of the expansion seemed haphazardly slapped together in both its layout and design. Before I entered the original portion of the mall, I held on to the desperate hope that those contrived eighties themed areas hadn't been updated into oblivion. But, alas, they had been destroyed. There was no longer any indication that anything even Art Deco, Victorian or Mediterranean adjacent ever existed on those storefronts. The once unique interior walls of The Florida Mall had become indistinguishable from any other retail facility. I could have been in Des Moines or Decatur. Anywhere but South Beach, London or the Riviera.

The Florida Mall's official website

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