21 May 2013

No Supply, No Demand - Heart of Huntsville Mall, Huntsville, AL

Huntsville is quite the unique place. The population has grown from around 15,000 just after World War II to almost 200,000 today, it's economy is based on aerospace and high technology, and the city has seen seven different shopping malls built within its borders, six enclosed and one open-air. Five of these malls were built on the main north-south thoroughfare, Memorial Parkway. In the late seventies, four of those facilities coexisted as healthy competitors. But today, The Mall has been converted to a power center called The Fountain, Parkway City Mall has been completely demolished and replaced with the upscale Parkway Place and Dunnavant's Mall has been repositioned as the Huntsville Hospital Medical Mall. But right next to Dunnavant's was where the city's first mall, Heart of Huntsville, was built. And it outlasted all but its neighbor before meeting its timely end in 2007.

 
 
TL- The empty main corridor shows its age. TR- One of the disused entranceways. BL- One of the Memorial Parkway facing entrances. BR- A doorway and sconce leading to a long closed and forgotten restaurant.

The Heart of Huntsville Mall was built just to the west of downtown Huntsville on the Parkway, which, at that time, existed as a bypass of the small city. As far as I can surmise, from advertisements appearing in the Huntsville Times dated around its opening, the complex was comprised of four separate buildings with an M&J Supermarket as the northern anchor, Sears, Roebuck and Company on the south end, a building with only small shops on the east, and more small shops in addition to Woolworth on the west. The main corridor ran roughly north to south. From those same adverts, renderings show that the mall may have opened as an open-air facility, though I have never seen any information confirming this.

 
 
TL- The Heart of Huntsville Mall lineup at its opening. TR- The secondary layout of the mall after two of the original anchors had departed. BL- The floorplan of neighboring Dunnavant's Mall, which now houses medical offices. BR- A satellite image of the facility's location relative to downtown Huntsville.

Woolworth had been a fixture in the densely developed commercial district of downtown for decades and its leaving for the mall on the outskirts of town marked a milestone in Huntsville's burgeoning suburbanization. If the place ever were open air, I would guess that sometime in the seventies or eighties was it was enclosed. But this and other improvements would not save it from the 1984 opening of CBL's behemoth, Madison Square Mall, so large and powerful that it was locally dubbed the Supermall. Heart of Huntsville went into an almost immediate decline, not unlike its neighbor The Mall just a few miles to the north.

 
 
TL- One of the mall's rear entrances. TR- Please lease me. Anyone? Anyone... BL- Clean, well lit and empty. BR- One of the numerous empty storefronts.

When I moved to Huntsville in 1990, the Heart of Huntsville Mall was still doing well enough. Much better, in fact, than The Mall. Its owners had recently changed the renovated facility's name to The Marketsquare at Heart of Huntsville in an attempt to rebrand it as a discount oriented center. Woolworth was still in operation while Burlington Coat Factory occupied Sears' old 43,000 square foot space following the latter's departure for Madison Square. A Gold's Gym was doing rather brisk business in the north anchor position. After M&J's exit, Huntsville would not see another full size supermarket in its central business district until 2013.

 
 
TL- The exterior of the Gold's Gym, originally an M&J Supermarket. TR- The name of whatever store used to be located here is gone, but the rest of the sign remains. Abandoned. BL- Banners like this used to hang all over the mall, attempting to lend the interior a bright, colorful and spring-like feel. Today, this marker hangs all alone. BR- Behind these windows and white-washed walls used to be the Woolworth, the Heart of Huntsville Mall's longest continuously operating original anchor.

I used to shop at the old Woolworth although my mother never did as they had no fabric section. The entire staff was friendly, helpful and probably eligible for social security. I recall never seeing anything on the shelves that had any national name brand attachment or recognition. The interior wasn't very large, but areas devoid of merchandise made the place seem a bit larger than it actually was. There was a somewhat pleasant coffee shop and diner on the north side of the store toward the mall entrance that absolutely reeked of stale brew and scalding lard. I don't think I ever had the pleasure of tasting their cuisine, however. The vintage five and dime wasn't there for very long after my initial visit and closed well before the rest of the venerable chain folded.

  
L- EXIT. M- The mall's exterior walkway and individual entrances. R- Comfortable, ergonomic seating was available throughout the concourse.

I also made quite a few excursions to the Burlington Coat Factory during the nineties. The only location of the discount clothier in the metropolitan area, its aisles were cramped and the racks overstocked, making it impossible to keep orderly. But the deals were always good; in fact I bought one of my first suits there. They had an entrance to the mall's concourse, but had sealed it off by the late nineties. Perhaps inevitably, sometime around 2000, they shut their doors and moved on to greener pastures within a vacated Home Depot right next to Madison Square.

 
 
TL- All but one of the globe lights in this stretch were still illuminated. TR- The small trim windows let in a limited amount of natural light. BL- Zig-zagging corridors leading to the exit. BR- A man-hole in a mall floor. How avant-garde.

All the way through to the mall's ultimate date with the wrecking ball, Gold's Gym perpetually attracted a steady stream of patrons with their central and easily accessible location. But the rest of the mall was dead. Dead, dead, dead. In those final years, a nightclub called 721 occupied the old Woolworth while Parnell's Furniture had made itself the final occupant of the southern anchor after Sears and Burlington. There was some local restaurant and pub with only exterior entrances on the flanking east side of the facility, but there was nearly nothing on the inside. Much of the space was leased by a local Internet Service Provider, Hi-Waay, but they provided little foot traffic to the enclosure, leaving the Heart of Huntsville Mall dark, empty and abandoned.

 
 
TL- Parnell's label where an old-timey Sears nameplate once hung. TR- Where the southern anchor abuts the enclosed portion. BL- The mall entrance of Sears first, then Burlington, and finally Parnell's. When this photo was taken, it hadn't been open for years. BR- When Parnell's moved in, they didn't even bother taking the Burlington label off of the doors.

Heart of Huntsville Mall opened on 1 November 1961 with a ribbon cutting by United States senator John Sparkman. The 195,000 square foot complex had space for 25 tenants while Sears, Woolworth and M&J Supermarket served as anchors. The past of the mall included civil rights sit-ins at Woolworth's lunch counter. But the future of the mall was always in what lies below- the land. It is one of the largest contiguous pieces of property in the central business district. Everyone was well aware that the future of the property did not lie strictly in retail, but in mixed-use as downtown's patronage became more diverse.

 
L- The Heart of Huntsville Mall had to have had the shiniest sidewalks ever. R- Huntsville's a high-tech city, but I don't think anyone has mastered a practical way to hover yet.

Numerous proposals, from the rational to the ridiculous, had been made for the property. It sits adjacent to an Embassy Suites Hotel and the city's growing and expanding serpentine riverwalk. In years past, there had been discussions about building a new arena on the site or an expansion for the the Von Braun Center, the city's neighboring convention complex. Even the Backstreet Boys saw an opportunity and seriously discussed a proposal involving the construction of a Peabody Hotel on the property. Thank goodness the idea never progressed past the planning stages; they wanted an attached entertainment complex to be called (gulp) Backstreet. But nothing more than propositions were ever made, even though everyone knew that the mall's days were numbered. And, as new construction enveloped the obsolete retail facility, the blighted and crumbling old mall would have to go.

 
 
TL- I reckon the fenced off area was for mall events that haven't taken place in years. TR- The ceiling here shows evidence of the mall's deteriorating condition. BL- The Heart of Huntsville Mall's northeastern entrance facing downtown. Though basic, the entranceways were always large, airy and fairly inviting. BR- Underneath the eve covering one of the exterior walkways. Though in need of a new coat of paint and maybe some rust protection, this feature, as well as the rest of the mall, was still in fair structural condition.

Enter Huntsville Developer Scott McClain. He proposed a mixed use facility called Constellation (right) with two hotels, shops, office "towers" (each only around five stories, which, for Huntsville, I guess, can be considered towers,) condominiums, parks and promenades. The mall was hastily and unceremoniously leveled starting with several outlot buildings. As of this writing, nearly six years later, Constellation consists of one hotel surrounded by a moat of dusty red clay. The Great Recession came along and slowed the development significantly, though larger projects like Twickenham Square, also in downtown, and Redstone Gateway continue unabated. I have to say, however, that even though the mall was no architectural gem, it did represent the design standards and elements of its time quite well. And even though in its final years it was left to wither away, it was still better than the undeveloped red mess in the shadow of Huntsville's growing central business district. Something is more often than not better than nothing.

Constellation's official blog
Heart of Huntsville Mall at Mall Hall of Fame
Heart of Huntsville Mall at Wikipedia

10 comments:

  1. Thank you! I've been looking for information on these malls as they were part of my childhood. Keep up the good work!

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    1. Thanks a bunch for the comment. I always figured that doing something like this would be a good way to memorialize these figures from our childhoods. It's a labor of love, but a labor nonetheless.

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  2. The Crossroads occupied a space on the east side of the mall until they were forced to move around 2006. I believe Big Ed's Pizzeria was on the west side and moved around the same time.

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  3. I thank you also. The mall was never as spiffy as "The Mall", since that mall had the fountain, and the very cool "London Transit" with very inventive designer denims. It rivaled "Parkway City Mall"; which had the extensive Andan's Newsland, and the huge Murfrees department store, with an often excellent selection of toys, it seemed to me. I remember the photo hut. I remember Rock concerts that occurred there; with radio DJ's. I remember the Woolworth's especially. I had eaten there, but it was mostly a burgers and shakes/bacon and eggs type of operation. That closed down well before the rest of it. I always enjoyed the toys section as a kid; but a lot of them were pretty cheaply made. We banked at the "People's National Bank," which was fated to change names (owners?) numerous times. I remember the T. Shepherd's guitars for a brief time, with its ever cantankerous owner; and many of the other later stores. While the malls these days are bigger, with few exceptions they no longer cater to economy-minded customers. In addition to Andan's, there was another huge book and magazine store there at one time in Parkway City Mall. It became an indoor mall after the tornado hit it in 1973. It was still good after that; but the malls today seem to be only for the well-to-do, or those who revel in really bad nutrition. With bookstores being relegated to Barnes & Nobles and Books A Millions, most malls have none, and those left in malls are pretty small and/or poorly stocked. The restaurants serve GMO foods only. Video arcades are not as much to hang around. Even the clothes are made with toxic GMO cotton. Malls today bear only a superficial resemblance to the real thing.

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  4. I also remember an uber-kewl store selling waterbeds called "The Bed, Inc." It also sold paraphernalia, among its other ultra-modernistic furniture. I was too young to know what it was at the time; but I still thought it was really cool. I am not sure whether it was in the Dunnavant's Mall or the Heart of Huntsville Mall for sure; although I think it was the latter.

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  5. I lived in Huntsville from 1967 til 1974. During those years, the grocery store at Heart of Huntsville Mall was Bruno's. I never remember an M&J being in any mall. I worked in the M&J on the corner of Andrew Jackson Way, and Oakwood Ave.

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    1. Thanks for posting! I got that supermarket information from an article in the Huntsville Times that was published just before the mall's demolition. It mainly focused on the history that took place at the Woolworth lunch counter, but they did mention that the north anchor was an M&J. Of course, newspapers have been known to be incorrect.

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  6. It as open air in the early to mid sixties. It had evergreen trees planted in the center and I remember seeing snow on them. There war a barber shop next to M&J's where my Dad and my brothers had our hair cut for years, Sears was clearly the draw. Woolworth's had balloons on the wall where kids could throw darts and try to win an ice cream sunday. Fun days!

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  7. The Constellation project was recently started back up again, so we'll see what happens now...

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  8. Great article, brought back a lot of precious memories, having grown up there. Since then, I've retired from the army and am living near Richmond, VA now. I recall these memories as if they were a few years ago.

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