Sunday, August 12, 2018

North Grand Mall, Ames

     Ames, Iowa is a thriving college town about 30 miles north of Des Moines, the capital and largest city in the state. Not only does the city house the Iowa State University, the area's largest employer and source of over half the city's population, Ames is the largest town between Des Moines and Minneapolis. It's also a successful one at that, posting a 2.1% unemployment rate and stellar growth rates as of late. It's mall, the North Grand Mall, could be said the same. It's a mall that's been doing as well as its location, with little vacancies and sustained success.

We start our walk in the JCPenney wing. The Penney's entrance is nothing unfamiliar to the other entrances the company built throughout the 70's. The same can be said of the exterior. The extra space in the signage area was likely due to the fact that the "New Look" logo took up more room on the entrances.

View down the JCP wing into center court. There's barely any breakup in the single corridor, as even anchor Younkers doesn't get even a short wing. Homes are located right next to the mall on the western side, limiting such a wing or really any expansion.

Looking back at a farther distance to JCPenney. This section is probably the weakest in the mall, but it's not really struggling.
      The mall has been remarkably unchanged since its opening in 1971. The opening anchors were Sears, JCPenney, and Des Moines-based Younkers. Only Sears has changed since then, being divided into a Kohl's, TJMaxx, and Gap Outlet in 2008. Even the interior of the mall itself has only received one renovation as far as I can tell. This renovation came in 2006, and there are still plenty of vintage elements that fell through the cracks. The biggest news coming to this mall in a decade was announced earlier this year. Younkers' owners, Bon-Ton Stores entered Chapter 7 bankruptcy in February, spelling the end of the historic department store, and later on, conglomerate. Younkers is a part of this conglomerate, meaning that the North Grand store will be closing in August 2018. Will the store be replaced with the same success as the former Sears? Only time will tell.

Looking downward from JCP and towards center court.
It's hard to get a simpler design that what NGM has to offer. The only thing to note would be that Younkers has no real wing, but as I said, there's no room to do so.
     While North Grand looked great on the day I visited (and it's overall doing well), with constant crowds and only two vacancies, the mall seems to be weakly fitted for the future. Not only is an anchor closing, but there was really no major draw that I could sense in the area. While the stores themselves would help bring in the masses from the smaller towns around Ames such as Boone and Nevada, there's not much of a draw for Ames or Des Moines residents. The only entertainment comes in the form of a small theatre that has been operating on and off through the years. A thirty-minute drive on I-35 brings you to more diverse shopping and entertainment in the capital, and numerous other draws. While a major university nearby gives the added benefit of thousands of students to draw off of, a bored college student may choose to rather spend a day in Des Moines instead of at the mall in Ames. In this case, perhaps North Grand is simply too small.

The main entrance is architecturally unremarkable from the rest of the mall. While some malls without food courts turn their main entrance into a de facto food hall, only a bakery exists in the entrance here.

Younkers entrance, closing signs included. The gray tint on this photo comes from the sun pouring in through the skylight on the court's roof.

Looking down to TJMaxx. Were there once more foliage and fountains pre-2006? For a mall that still retains some older aesthetic, the hallways (and especially center court) are very bare.
     While expansions can be dangerous, risky, expensive, life-saving, and all in between, it almost seems like the only way to go is up. And by that, I mean that we need a second floor. This floor would consist of a proper food court, a proper theater, more entertainment, and of course more stores. Of course, this expansion wouldn't have to stretch the whole mall. It may only go from TJMaxx to center court. But the point is, this mall will struggle if it doesn't adjust to today's standards. Oh yeah, and find a replacement for Younkers. Easy stuff, right? I've had many retail hot takes, and this could be my hottest yet, but something has got to be done. Might as well do it while the mall is alive and thriving.

Looking back to center court and Younkers. Sure it's outdated, but the tile works pretty well the whole feel of the mall.

Heading down to TJMaxx. This corridor feels a lot darker than the JCPenney wing. It also holds many of the more popular chains offered at the mall.

The TJMaxx entrance is nothing to write home about. On the topic of entrances, the Sears that once stood here had a relic of one until shortly before its demise.

Here's the aforementioned Sears. Note the beautiful interior and the entrances. How much I would have done to see this store. I'm not sure if there are any other remaining Sears that look like this.
     North Grand is currently a healthy mall, but where does the future lead? This mall will be an interesting one to watch over the next decade. Does it improve, stay the same, or hit tough times? The mall seemed middling to me on my trip, but does that affect the future? How will anchor changes affect the mall? This is a mall of many questions, and the future will tell how these questions will be answered.

Squeezed into the side of the mall is this tiny cinema. What occupied this space previous to it being a cinema?

JCPenney and Younkers both are as plain as you can get on the outside.

Not a great photo of Younkers, but the architects definitely slacked on this store.

Classic 70's Penney's on the front.

Wide view stretching the front of the mall.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Merle Hay Mall, Des Moines

     Situated in one of the most plain and mild parts of the world, is the Merle Hay Mall, one of the most distinct and wild malls around. Merle Hay is not only one of the most architecturally interesting malls, but it is also one of the oldest malls in the United States. But as this mall will show you, history and good looks don't make a successful mall. Instead, it is the ability to adapt and a little bit of luck that bring a mall success.

The location of the main entrance makes it hard to get a good shot, so this is the best I could get. The entrance looks out of place compared to the rest of the mall.

Right through the entrance is a corridor that I assume was once used as sort of a food hall. While food courts didn't really become popular until the 80's, there was usually a section of the mall with a few eateries. There is an actual food court in Merle Hay, between Younkers and Kohl's.

Here's an awkward angle down the Sears corridor. If one thing really pops out at me, it's that the corridors are extremely wide. You could fit a large road in here.

The Target hallway is also full of goodies that we will see soon. Target's location used to house Younkers.

Looking back at the entrance wing. On the right is an Auntie Anne's, with a play area in front. Farther down is a Panda Express. On another note, where is the seating for these restaurants? It's not near Panda Express for sure, as there is a large pillar/room down there. 
     While the mall itself has a deep history, the location itself has an even deeper history. The site was home to the St. Gabriel's Monastery from 1921 to 1958. The lot was purchased by a pair of prolific Chicago retail developers in 1956 for the construction of the Northland Shopping Center, the city's first major shopping mall. The mall would open in mid-1959 as what was essentially a strip mall, anchored by Sears, a Kresge five-and-dime, and Younkers, a hometown department store that still remains but for not much longer as it is owned by Bon-Ton. Younkers was located where Target currently is. This layout would remain undisturbed for about a decade.

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Here's the original mallway at Northland. Sears is in the back with Kresge's in the middle. Malls of America.
In terms of layout, this is a pretty simple mall. The Sears to Target section is original to opening.

The most distinct wind runs from the main entrance area to the Younkers and Kohl's. Though it may not look like it, there's seemingly a whole new mall back there. 

A view of center court with my back to Old Navy. I really do like the skylights, even though they make the mall look like a bunker in a way. 

While there are many things I can say I like about this mall, the hallways feel like they are missing something. A large planter, possibly a fountain, some dedicated seating section...I just feel like there's no depth to break things up.

The bowling lanes are nearly original, only being 6 years younger than the mall it's in. This area was once a fallout shelter many decades ago. 
     Shortly after completion, the mall's name was changed from Northland Shopping Center into the Merle Hay Mall. Merle Hay was the first Iowan and one of the first Americans to die in World War I. The road the mall is located on was also named after the fallen soldier. The early 70's though, would bring Merle Hay to pretty much where it is now. In 1972, the mall was enclosed, bringing shelter and AC to those escaping the Midwest's volatile climate. This would quickly be forgotten however, as the year of 1974 brought a major expansion to a previously small mall. The mall doubled in size with an addition that brought Montgomery Ward and a Younkers Store for Homes to Merle Hay. This came just in time, as two major competitors entered the fold in Des Moines, with the Valley West Mall and the Southridge Mall being completed. With these changes came a time of stability for the mall, as Merle Hay emerged as the largest and most successful mall in the Iowa prairie. 

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When the new expansion was revealed, it looked nothing short of 70's. Unfortunately, that fountain doesn't remain today. Photo from "jtaylor822", r/desmoines, Reddit
Take photos of old Claire's logos while you can, given their bankruptcy. Oddly enough, there are plenty of old logos across Iowa. I've never noticed this with any other state. This Claire's is located in the Sears wing. 

Ross Dress for Less occupies a former Staples and DEB.

Here's quite the treat: an original Sears entrance like no other. The original Younkers at Merle Hay used to look like this previous to the fire. 

To the left of Sears is this display commemorating the mall's namesake, Merle Hay. 

Looking back at the Sears wing with my back to Sears. There must be something you can do to break up such wide hallways.
     Tragedy would strike the mall in 1978. A fire broke out in the original Younkers store, caused by an electrical malfunction and resulting in one of the worst fires in the state's history. Ten employees were killed. The blaze nearly destroyed the entire store, and it was shuttered for a year for repairs. Sadly, this wouldn't be the company's last run-in with a major fire. In 2014, the former flagship store in Downtown Des Moines was decimated in a fire that resulted in over $50 million in damages. The lot the store was at remains vacant.

Aftermath of the deadly Younkers fire in 1978 at Merle
The aftermath of the Younkers fire. Photo from the Des Moines Register.
Now we enter the coolest part of the mall, the Bridge Court. This area is the only two-level section of the mall, apart from the anchors. The second floor previously housed inline tenants (as we saw in the earlier photo), but it is today a Flix Brewhouse. I would have killed to see this section before Flix opened. Judging from Labelscar photos, it looked pretty great.

A dramatic view up to Flix. You know what I said about the lack of depth? This just floats my boat.

These are some awfully long entrance wings. The carpet gets bland rather quickly.

A feature many malls lack today are ramps and large stairways. Here's a ramp up to the original section of the mall.

Another very long entrance across from the last one. Were there once stores built into these entrances? If not, that's a pretty severe waste of space. 

     The Nineties would bring a littany of anchor changes to the mall. In 1991, the Younkers Home Store was shuttered as the chain left the furniture and appliances market. Wisconsin-based Kohl's entered the vacant space two years later. Montgomery Ward left the mall in 1998 following reports that the store was more of a discount store instead of the traditional Wards. The store was expanded and renovated with the announcement that St. Louis-based Famous-Barr would open their first Iowa store at the mall. Famous-Barr would open in 2000, but would only stick around until 2004, when the store closed. Younkers quickly jumped at the opportunity to move, and did so, leaving their original spot. This vacancy didn't last long however, with discount supercenter Target moving into the old Younkers. Unfortunately, the Mall at Jordan Creek opened up a year before. Jordan Creek was the largest and most upscale mall in Iowa, leading to tough competition among the retail scene in Des Moines. Not only did every mall in the area suffer from down sales the year after its opening, the Southridge Mall on the southern side of town pretty much died because of it. Prior to Jordan Creek's opening, Merle Hay was the leading mall in the area. Not only did it lose this position, the effects of Jordan Creek's opening on Merle Hay are easily visible today.

Stores line the bottom floor of the Bridge Court. This section is by far the plainest and darkest part of the mall, and looks more like an office building, if anything.

The low-lying ceilings and unimpressive storefronts give off strong Hull Storey Gibson vibes. And if you're new here, that's not a compliment (see : Sumter Mall).

The Younkers' jet black entrance isn't original from Ward's. Instead, Ward's rocked a plain beige look that didn't look like much of anything.

To the left of Younkers is a simple entrance wing. I'm not terribly fond for the obtrusive pillars. 

The Younkers/Kohl's area is pretty barren. Sure, it was a Wednesday evening about 30 minutes before closing, but that won't matter much later on when Younkers leaves. 
     Today, Merle Hay Mall is stuck at a crossroads. While the mall isn't totally lacking, there are some key cogs missing that could determine whether this mall makes it in the long run. While having a full anchor set is nice for a mall in its position, it's not 2007 anymore. A weakened Younkers store is leaving soon, along with the rest of Bon-Ton. Probably not far behind is Sears, which even though it will be the only Sears in a 120-mile radius in only a few weeks, Sears has truly fallen off in the past decade. Kohl's has been under the weather as of late as well, and large closings lists could be coming down the road. This leaves Target, stuck in a small and aging store in an aging mall. While I don't see the company failing in at least the next 20 years, its easily possible the store moves to greener pastures in the area. Besides, there's a Target three-and-a-half miles away in Urbandale, and another one three-and-a-half miles away in Clive. A move has a better-than-preferred chance of happening. As much as I want this mall to survive and be rebuilt into its former self, the damage may have already been done. If it's gone in a few years, while it won't be a shining moment for the city of Des Moines, perhaps we can view it as bittersweet. A mall's closure is always a sad moment for those who spent their childhood and most memorable times inside of it, but maybe it was just time for the place to go. It served its purpose and served it well, and 60 years as a shopping center is nonetheless impressive. Barring miracles, it's unlikely we will see Merle Hay in the same way as generations past. But maybe that's not a bad thing.

The proper food court, or the "Local Eats Food Hall" isn't anything special for the most part. But I will say that the palm trees and overall 90's aesthetic were nice.

A side view of the food court, with the Younkers second entrance in the center. 

Looking back to the Younkers area.

     Why do I love this mall despite having no real personal connection to it? The answer lies in the confines of the mall itself. How a mall looks can do a number in the malls I like and those I don't. And in this field, Merle Hay is really the category killer of the bunch. Even though many renovations have come through the years, many aspects of the current mall still give way to original parts. Wide hallways show homage to the formerly-outdoors mall. The wide Bridge Court still remains albeit altered from the 70's expansion. Even more, the 50's Sears entrance is hard to hate and easy to love with the hangar curve and off-kilter entrance. Besides architecture, Merle Hay is coming up on its 60th birthday, a feat that is extremely impressive in such a volatile industry. Not only this, the mall is been in the hands of the original family all this time. While I think large retail corporations (Simon or GGP) are indifferent to the success of a mall, that is still nonetheless interesting. 

Kohl's from the outside is pretty run-of-the-mill.

Sears from afar. You can never go wrong with a Sears exterior. Every one is different.

Sears entrance facing Merle Hay Road. I do love the brick given how little you see it in a mall. 

Exterior of the "Going Out of Business" store. Oh wait, that says Younkers. I will say these signs are very attention-grabbing.

Store sign facing Douglas Avenue, as the sun sets on another casualty of the downfall of brick-and-mortar retail. Oddly symbolic.

64th Street Younkers parking lot looking out towards Douglas Av.
Exterior section from Younkers to Target.
     The next few years will be very telling for Merle Hay Mall. The biggest stone in its path would have to be the anchors, with all but one on rocky ground. If ownership can overcome this, I'd like to believe that Merle Hay can continue to survive. But if they can't, the sad end of a historic mall is likely coming. As much as I want this place to live, it's gonna be tough to survive. Sadly, today it seems as if the mall has been replaced and forgotten. All I can do is hope for the best for the storied center.

Close-up of the Douglas Avenue entrance to the first floor furniture department.

I took a few various photos of the inside of the Younkers. Here's a display celebrating the state of Iowa.

Younkers salon.

Furniture department filled with liquidation signs.

There are probably some better career paths you could go down instead of closing out a department store.