|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.|
|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.
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.
|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.
|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.
|The aftermath of the Younkers fire. Photo from the Des Moines Register.|
|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.|
|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.|
|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.|
|Furniture department filled with liquidation signs.|
|There are probably some better career paths you could go down instead of closing out a department store.|