3 February 2015

No Supply, No Demand - The Mall, Huntsville, AL

The Mall was a classic.

But first of all, let's get the most obvious inquiry out of the way that most people not from The Rocket City have... Yes, the official name of this early shopping center was indeed "The Mall." I loved it. Its developers felt that there was no need for a play on any words; neither did it warrant any gratuitously posh descriptive elements. Most thankfully, there was an absence of the use of pretentious spellings like Centre or Pointe. All it needed was a capitalized definite article, followed by the rest. Boom. It was short and to the point. No worries that the Parkway Center (later Parkway City Mall,) Dunnavant's Mall and Heart of Huntsville Mall were already in the mix. This place trumped them all. This was THE Mall. 'Nuff said. It seemed a tradition for Huntsvillians to shorten and simplify the names of our major landmarks (i.e. Memorial Parkway became just "The Parkway" while Redstone Arsenal was always referred to as just "The Arsenal"), its moniker fit right in.

 
 
TL- The Mall as I first saw it. TR- The front side of the JCPenney building after an exterior repaint. Note the banner advertising the availability of the site. BL- The backside of The Mall. At the far end is the old Loveman's building with its distinctive aquamarine exterior. BR- The main entrance to The Mall with its four balls. All photos courtesy of Evans Criswell.

I first serendipitously came by The Mall in 1990 just after having moved from Virginia Beach to Huntsville. We were heading back toward the city on University Drive just after having spent some money at Madison Square. As we approached that thoroughfare's major intersection with Memorial Parkway, I observed an expansive, empty and hulking structure laying sleepily to my left. Closest to me was a quite pronounced and much alive Toys R Us abutting a Books-a-Million. As we turned north onto The Parkway and cleared the overpass which was blocking my view, I could then clearly see the entire facility in all of its glory. It was a single level, elongated and flat stretch of nameless storefronts, much like any other tired, mid-century strip mall. However, a great many of the doorways were darkened. I looked a bit more closely and realized that, almost lost in the subdued facade of the center, there were three large glass entrances with tall, slightly bent, thin columns topped by globe lamps.

This was an indoor shopping mall.

 
L- The Mall's original layout. R- The Mall's main tenants during its decline.

The Mall opened in 1966 as one of Huntsville's first major, automobile centered shopping malls. It was, perhaps most notably, the first to be fully enclosed from its opening day. At around 500,000 square feet with sixty inline shops, the ultra-modern mall of the future was a major commercial juggernaut in the booming town, out sizing Memorial Parkway peers Heart of Huntsville Mall, Dunnavant's Mall and Parkway Center by a wide margin. Its footprint displayed the basic template of the first generation shopping mall with its dual anchors represented by JCPenney and Birmingham based Loveman's at opposite ends of a straight concourse. From above, it was just another run-of-the mill barbell. But its design elements, however, a little bit mid-century modern with a tough of googie architecture, was anything but.

 
 
TL- Just inside the northeast entrance of The Mall. Here you can see some of the original polished concrete floor before it was overlaid with tile. TR- A narrow corridor. BL- Looking north toward center court. Just behind the wall to the left was Calhoun Community College's "Mallege." BR- Beautiful center court with its unique fountain. All photos courtesy of Evans Criswell.

Man, I would have loved to have seen The Mall in its heyday. It survived as a viable retail entity for nearly twenty years, anchoring the ever expanding city's retail core. But the increasing population that had been the reason for its success would soon be the impetus for its downfall. By the time the eighties had come around, Huntsville was one of the state's major cities and needed a much newer and all-encompassing retail complex as a reflection of this new status. The city received this when CBL Properties opened Madison Square Mall just a few miles to the west on the city's fringes. The exurban folks then had a world class, 1 million square foot place of their own, and no longer had a reason to venture further into the city.

In the early 1980s, Loveman's had closed and the building was never occupied again by a full-line department store. The large JCPenney anchoring the northern spot of The Mall closed a few years after Madison Square had opened, joining the lineup as the easternmost anchor of the newer and shinier development. Numerous peripheral properties relocated to more relevant areas or simply closed up shop completely. The site, at the edge of one of Huntsville's busiest intersection, was dying.

 
 
TL- Ahh, the red barn of the old Hickory Farms. TR- Wood and dark stone at this store's entrance. One of my favorites. BL- The original mall entrance to Loveman's, then occupied by Toys R Us and Books-A-Million. The latter's entrance was open until a renovation following a fire. BR- Very inaccessible and creepy stairs leading up to what had to be some of the rapiest bathrooms ever. All photos courtesy of Evans Criswell.

By time that the nineties rolled around, the mall was languishing with an increasing amount of vacancies. Toys R Us and Books-a-Million shared the former Loveman's space which continued to sport its original exterior with walls of groovy aquamarine brick in a rectangular block pattern. Its northern companion JCPenney, showing its never replaced seventies Penny's logo label scar, sat empty and neglected. Just behind the anchor on a rear outlot was the home of the spectacular Alabama Theater. The Huntsville branch of Calhoun Community College, dubbed the Mallege, occupied a large part of the leasable area just beyond Toys R Us's and Book-a-Million's interior doors, which were still open to the interior concourse. These major lease holders were joined by a scattered selection of local and not very well known B-level establishments. I remember that in the mid-nineties a 50% Off Store, where they enticed the gullible by doubling the price of their stock before slashing that price off by half on the tags. Their presence was indeed temporary, and their rather large footprint was again on the market. But no one ever came. Few ever did as the millennium came to a close.

I remember that the empty square footage of the old Penny's was offered for hire as a venue for trade show and event rentals. In fact, the annual Moonshot charity event was considering leasing the space for their first event. Every May brought the Spring Fling fair to the mall's northern empty patch of crumbling asphalt. As a kid, it seemed that rides of questionable safety being operated by seedy looking individuals was the perfect way to ring in the summer. But one of the more unorthodox uses of the malls deserted grounds was one of the more unique.

Huntsville, being one of the smaller cities where I had lived, didn't have a whole lot to offer us young 'uns to do on the weekends outside of cow tipping and doing donuts in the trailer park. Soon after I started my sophomore year, however, I was invited to participate in some late night activity called cruising at The Mall. I thought, perhaps, that even though the wide corridors of the shopping center were empty during the daylight hours, maybe it was actually a cool place to gather on Saturday nights, with its absence of responsible adults and all of their rules. But, when we left rather late at night (just after 9:00 at night when most places were already closed) we approached our darkened host. When I looked close enough, I noticed that in the roadways encircling the facade, a line of vehicles traversed these pathways in opposing directions. I witnessed girls in the back of pick-up trucks shaking their booties to the latest Vanilla Ice or Bobby Brown hit being blasted from a low-rider's speakers. I was bewildered at this pointless activity, and utterly bored. Man, I missed all of the cool stuff we could do on a weekend in Virginia Beach after witnessing this local pinnacle of excitement.

 
L- The lay of the land when The Mall still existed. R- The site as of this writing. (Source)

I remember a few years later that The Mall's owners put the kibosh on that weekend tradition, saying that the kids were responsible for scaring shoppers away... That was a laugh. Whether the children of Madison County made their weekend pilgrimage or not, the mall was deader than dead.

But, why do I insist that The Mall was a classic? Well, from the oversized sign on Memorial Parkway with its own set of four balls suggesting that one "Meet your friends at our beautiful fountain," to the car park's veritably distinct lighting lamps, to those entranceways straight out of the Jetson's, the place was a living time capsule of the dawn of the shopping mall as we know it today. The focal point of the layout, the fountain itself, with its strange amorphous shape and oxidized metal, provided one hell of a statement for itself. Unfortunately, few could hear it. The walls lining the concourse were exceptionally preserved, as if all of the tenants had rushed to evacuate after some kind of apocalyptic occurrence. I loved those old storefronts (the Hickory Farms red barn was a favorite) that had been in place since the mall had opened and would never be supplanted. So despite the mothball-ish, old person smell wafting through the air due to the occasional mall walker, the center was in relatively great shape. Its floors were covered in marbled, dark brick colored tiles, standard for its generation. They were one of the few "updates" performed during The Mall's lifetime. In places, one could still see the original polished concrete floor. They lay underneath a canopy of horizontally hanging copper slats giving the ceilings their unique texture. It was a feast for the eyes.

The mall contained another design element with which I was unfamiliar at the time. All of the businesses facing the Memorial Parkway side on the east had entrances abutting the inside corridor in addition to the car park facing exterior promenade. I always wondered why this type of design was not emulated more often; it seems that a lot of the reasoning for the contemporary increase in construction of "lifestyle centers" is based on timed starved people's desire for the convenience of driving right up to their needed destination, purchasing only what they came for then departing. Of course, this really neglects the inclinations of those like myself who find that it's certainly not a catastrophe to have to walk more than ten feet to an establishment and who just want to browse without worrying about the elements. The Mall's 1960s blueprint very sufficiently caters to both types of patron.

Soon enough, in the waning years of the nineties, the inevitable happened. The mall's final days were upon us when it was announced that it was going to be replaced by an exciting (!!) new outdoor facility more in tune with the market. Conceptualizations showed a vibrant and colorful set of pedestrian friendly buildings, very thin shoppers and some sort of lit tower thingy hovering over it all. The name would be The Fountain, as the centerpiece of the old place would be retained for display somewhere at the new plaza. The rest of the old classic, sans the original Loveman's building which was still home to Books-A Million and Toys R Us, was to be demolished. Before I could make time for one last visit to memorialize The Mall on film (which I was thankfully able to do before Heart of Huntsville's demise) it was but a pile of rubble. In its place, the glorious new replacement shopopolis took shape. In a roundabout in the parking lot's center the old fountain was settled, inaccessible and in a sea of asphalt. In every direction was built none of the vibrance or flash shown in the drawings. Just a disconnected power center. Everything else, all of the mall's history and personality, are dead.

 
 
TL- The whitewashed walls of the old Loveman's/Toys R Us. TR- The canopy over the entrance to Books-A-Million, one of the few remnants of the original center. BL- The backside of the Loveman's. There used to be a mall here... BR- On the southeast corner of the lot still stood this old auto center. Was it ever a part of Loveman's?

Man, it was tough to see this one go. It was so much more difficult than watching the slow death of its neighboring establishments located down the Memorial Parkway corridor. The Mall was a living, breathing museum of mid-century commercial architecture, and it was no more; unceremoniously replaced by a scattered concoction of big boxes. Since leaving Huntsville, I know that Toys R Us has vacated their space and it seems a revolving door of restaurants occupies what was originally Bennigan's. But it still seems to be doing okay, even as Madison Square, the old blonde just up the street from it, faces its own grim future.

Find some of the above photos and even more at Sky City's post on The Mall, courtesy of Evans Criswell. Thanks for taking these irreplaceable pictures!

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