25 May 2013

Old School Shops - Northgate Mall, Seattle, WA

In the year 2000 when I first visited Seattle, Northgate Mall was simply the second of four enclosed retail facilities located just off of the Interstate 5 corridor that I noticed during the long drive from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to Everett. It was an overall exciting day for me, full of unique sights and novel experiences, so the appearance of the north Seattle complex really didn't make that much of a first impression on me. The place didn't make an impact until much later, as I had no initial idea of the significance of that aged, low profiled structure just outside of my the window.

Pictures of Northgate taken in 2004, while still retaining quite a bit of its old school charm.

The single level facility sat on a piece of real estate that was slightly elevated above the surrounding landscape, lending it a prominent profile for all passers by. Placed in a pronounced position on the north end of the extensive car park was a standard fixture of many first generation malls, the on-site professional building. By the new millennium, these mainly existed solely as obsolete remnants from the days when malls were considered more than just places to buy stuff, but also as community centers. The mid-century, multi-level block was demolished in the early 2000s to make way for more commercial space, making Northgate for the first time in its history a single use destination. It was ironic how this happened just as mixed-use was becoming an overused buzz phrase in the industry.

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

I would love to have seen the original hue that the bricks displayed when they were first handsomely stacked one on top of the other by a skilled 1940s mason, but they had long ago been cloaked in an unbecoming shade of light moss. Where the outer shell hadn't been painted, the original edifice had been shrouded under a mask of contemporary stonework. One old school element, perhaps the most significant marker of its era, still remained. Small concrete creations of a simple yet ornamental design, adorned the facade at regular intervals just above the roofline. Through their crafted vents, one could see either Seattle's summer sky or winter clouds. I'm fairly pleased that despite the many renovations and redecorations that the venerable classic has survived, these durable trademarks of the Northgate of old have remained, hopefully never to be replaced with cheap plaster moulding that would do nothing but stain and deteriorate after a single Puget Sound wet season.

TL- Northgate's main entrance in 2013. TR- JCPenney sports another one of their trademark, concrete, Bucharest in the seventies exteriors. BL- The harsh lines of Nordstrom's brutalist facade contrast with the softer edges of the new outdoor shops. BR- The mall entrance located on the mall's north end.

Northgate Mall, and the concept of the modern, post World War II suburban shopping center, was introduced to the world in 1950. Originally a strip center carrying the title Northgate Center, it initially housed eighteen stores during that first year of operation. In 1952, following an expansion that involved the construction of the forward facing office plaza, the retail destination became home to over seventy different shops and restaurants as well as a fairly grandiose theater. According to Wikipedia, this was the first facility of its kind in the country to be described as a mall, due to its cutting egde design of the stores' facing one another across a landscaped, pedestrian based common area.

Different views of Allied Department Stores' first flagship structure, formerly operated under their Bon Marché division.

This common corridor became known as The Miracle Mall and provided access to all of the fledgling center's smaller shops and original major stores including The Bon Marché, a JJ Newberry five and dime, an outlet of Butler Brothers and an A&P Supermarket. As it grew in popularity, it also became home to what has become an icon for Northgate, the 1952 designed and produced totem pole by noted artist Dudley C. Carter. The nearly sixty foot tall cedar shaft that once greeted patrons at the "Grand Entrance" now proudly stands just outside of the complex's north entryway.

Nordstrom, in its previous renditions, was also an early tenant of the Northgate Center. The retailer was one of the first to commit to joining the one of a kind complex as Nordstrom Shoes. In 1965, the family owned business was expanded into a full line clothing store called Best Apparel. In 1967, the two divisions were merged into one and given the label Nordstrom Best. Later, in the early seventies, the Best was dropped as Nordstrom continued to evolve into the world renowned luxury retailer they are today.

Northgate Mall Mallmanac, ca. 2013. View the full PDF version here.

Six years after another groundbreaking facility, the Southdale Center in Edina, Minnesota opened its doors, the Northgate Center took another significant step forward in their history. In 1962, The Miracle Mall was covered by a "SkyShield" type structure, partially protecting the common area and its occupants from Seattle's less than desirable elements. Though not completely sealed from the outdoors, this addition made it possible for the residents of the Pacific Northwest to shop in relative comfort even during those times of year devoid of weather that can be described as ideal.

Along with this major change came the addition of a new-look JCPenney to the the Northgate Center's southwestern fringe in the middle of the sixties. Soon after, more than a decade following the original installation of the partial enclosure, the entire Miracle Mall, conforming to a nationwide trend, was fully and completely covered and sealed under the canopy that exists to this day. At around the time that Northgate had fully evolved into the modern definition of a shopping mall, Seattle based Lamont's added an outlet to the north end. It was around then that the word Center, used in their moniker from their humble beginnings, was exchanged for the designator Mall.

TL- JCPenney abuts the food court at Northgate's southern end. TR- I really like the mall's modern wood trimmed vaulted ceilings. At least they add some character. BL- Macy's wide opening serves as the central focal point of the facility. BR- Nordstrom's brutalist brick laden design continues even inside Northgate's walls.

Since Northgate Mall's full conversion into an enclosed shopping destination, the center's original footprint, minus the dismantling of the office building, has not seen many significant alterations. In the mid 2000s, however, a full cache of upscale shops and dining establishments was added to the front of the mall. As the storefronts are all forward facing toward the car park with no significant common area spanning the entire length, the structure, as it did originally, once again has the appearance of a strip mall. Albeit a very nice strip mall, but a strip mall nonetheless.

Most of the institution's more noticeable changes have involved the anchors and their shuffling. The Lamont's chain was taken over by California-based Gottschalks, but that space was eventually vacated after the latter's 2009 liquidation. Their double tiered pad was soon split between two big box operations. DSW Shoes moved into the lower half of the building while Bed, Bath and Beyond took occupancy of the upper half. And the structure originally created to house a flagship Bon Marché still sports its signature Allied concrete columns and reddish edifice even though the operator, now a Macy's, has changed. Finally, a further major player, Barnes and Noble, was erected in the spot where the old office building once stood.

L- Northgate Mall as of the early 2000s. R- Northgate Mall as of this writing.

The simple mall with a complex history seems to have a bright future as it still draws in the crowds as the only major and viable traditional enclosed retail facility within the city limits of Seattle. On any day, the well-known destination is filled with leisurely shoppers looking for a deal, nearby office professionals getting a quick bite to eat for lunch, delayed commuters waiting on their next connection to arrive at the bustling Northgate Transit Center, or students from nearby colleges just hanging out with friends. Unlike it's modern day, monochromatic interior, the place stands as a melting pot of citizens representing different incomes, races and lifestyles. It serves as somewhat of a microcosm of the Emerald City itself.

Northgate Mall's official website

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