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.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Lost in Time :: Galleria Specialty Mall, Smyrna

     If you bring up all the Atlanta area malls, one is likely to go unnoticed. One you probably did count was Smyrna's Cumberland Mall, but that's not what we are here for. What we are here for is a hidden gem of retailing. And this is a truly "hidden" gem. Nestled between a parking deck, a hotel, and under a convention center is a forgotten mall in the least likely of places. However, not only is this mall hidden, it's really a gem in an era where nearly every mall has either been demolished or been renovated a million times. Not only has the Galleria never been renovated, everything pretty much remains from the mall's opening date. It's all many of us have ever wanted in a mall, and then some. I hope you enjoy this absolute treat of a shopping center. What isn't to be enjoyed?

While the outside of the mall is pretty low-key and gives no clue to what's inside, the long-dead remaining Jocks and Jills to the left isn't giving off modern vides.

Detail of the old restaurant. Sorry for the finger in the bottom right corner.



     Information isn't easy to find on this mall, and that's not a good sign of the state of the mall. In fact, the mall seems to be missing a full history, which likely came from the fact that the mall floundered for a long time with little success. What is known is that the mall opened in 1983, a year after the connected Waverly Hotel opened next door. This seems believable enough given that the architecture looks the 80's part and has evidently and truthfully never been renovated. The mall opened up with a whopping zero anchors, but this somehow translated into success, albeit small (it was the 80's, so pretty much any mall was guaranteed to live for some time, no matter how bad they were). Unfortunately, this success was short-lived. All hope was lost when the Gwinnett Place duplicate Town Center at Cobb opened in 1986. The Galleria still is open and you can enter without fear of a trespassing charge. Let that sink in. The Galleria has been effectively dead for over three decades and still exists.

The inside of Jocks and Jills remains dirty with a TV still inside.

Looking back to the entrance from the inside of the mall.

A view from the second floor into the center court. You weren't expecting this, weren't you?


     With little care from locals or business owners, the Galleria went on a slow death from 1986. If a tree falls in a forest with no one around it to hear it, did it make a sound? That rang true with this mall, and owners basically threw in the towel in 1993, with the second floor being converted into a convention center. That convention center is still successful, and on the day of my visit there was a jewelry show on display for those in the industry. The owners must have thought this revitalization would bring some added SHINE, but the Galleria never became a DIAMOND in the rough and becoming the crown JEWEL of retail is hardly a dream at this point. I'll leave now like the stores that once lived in this vintage GEM. 

This mall may be small, but it does fit a lot in with this oddly-shaped layout. 

The odd shine from the wide skylights give so many 80's vibes in this photo and the mall as well that are so hard to explain. This would be from the lower level of center court with the food court to my left and the Jocks and Jills corridor to my southeastern angle.

This entrance wing once housed the previously mentioned Jocks and Jills as well as a Peter Glenn ski shop which would have been on the right. Say what you want about a ski shop in Atlanta but I shouldn't have to give clues on why that business failed.

The de-facto food court remains scenic despite all of the eateries that LEAFed it. 
     This all takes us to today, where a decaying corpse of a mall lies in a rather successful corridor of Cobb County. Unlike many other malls on this blog, I cannot create a plan to get this mall out of the dumps or keep it successful. The likely outcome here is that sometime in the next 5 years we will see what has been coming for a long. I'd imagine that the convention center is likely to expand into the mall, though even this idea hasn't been activated yet. It's been over three decades of hot debate, and nothing has been done so far. Is there any reason to believe change is in the air?

Developers definitely didn't hold off on the use of brick here. It creates a sort of "Main Street" feel to the storefronts, which is something that I like, no matter how old. Modern malls lack the character that places like these captured.

The occasional storefront still remains in the mall.

Decorative ivy adorns an otherwise plain balcony for the convention center. 


     While it's obvious that the Galleria at this point is pretty much obsolete and done for, there is still one thing that is nice about this mall. The architecture is one of a kind today, with the mall never being renovated as the others from its time were. Every other currently-existing Atlanta mall has been renovated, aside from the Galleria. This gives the dead mall an interesting niche, but one that is hardly sustainable. The everyday shopper wants clothes at the mall and not aging brick corridors. This mall has been brick corridors for too long to become relevant again. But if you did have a reason to head here, I will say that the design elements are worth a visit.



Walking through the food court leads you to a smaller court with a corridor to the Waverly Hotel and a corridor past the old theatre. While the central court was bright and open, this court is an exact opposite.

With a mall as unsuccessful and original as this one, it's highly likely that most or all of the storefronts are original. This green and yellow one is as interesting as it is old.

The theatre mallway may be empty but it's sure cool. The theatres occupied the large storefront to the right.
     While it may be grim, the Galleria was almost doomed to die from the start. Name any element of a successful mall, and the Galleria doesn't have it. Anchors? Unless you want to call a mid-sized movie theatre an anchor, there is nothing anchor-like at the mall. A hotel isn't an anchor as normal shoppers have no draw to go there and guests aren't going to enter the mall if nothing is there. A mall without anchors is like a ship without anchors; things may go well at first but you have no chance if you reach rough waters. But perhaps you will still shop here if its got a nice location, right? It took me at least ten minutes to get from the Cumberland food court to the parking deck, and that's before parking and entering the joint. Why should I go through the entire ordeal of getting here when there's a better mall across the street? And even if I'm coming from home, I still have to deal with exiting I-285 which can be problematic at any time of the day. This was exacerbated even further when SunTrust Park was built, destroying any decent part of getting here. I haven't even gotten to how much competition this mall has had to deal with, though that's partially just being unlucky. The part that isn't so lucky is how little ready the mall was for this. You can't stop other mall developers but you can renovate or expand. The developers didn't do anything, so it's hardly a surprise the mall is dead.

Even though its a fairly nice hotel, the hallway to it isn't so nice.

Quite possibly the coolest part of the mall is the long-closed AMC 8 Theatre. The theatre moved to a larger plex on Akers Mill and Cumberland Roads over a decade ago. There is still a faint labelscar on the entrance.

Oddly enough, the lights were on in the old theatre. Most fixtures still remain, which was a wonder to see. I can only imagine how the rest of the cinema looks, which wouldn't be too bad, based on what we see here.
     What is a "galleria" isn't showing much more than empty hopes and dreams down dank hallways. What the mall hasn't disappointed is the second part of its name. The mall is a specialty, though perhaps not in the way the original owners envisioned. Too bad filling a niche in retail doesn't equate to sustained success. If that was the opposite, this mall would be booming. But all that's booming today is only neon dreams and the malls that today reign supreme.