Stores Make the Mall


Richard Longstreth


special edition, Book Excerpt, Shopping Malls
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The following is an excerpt from The American Department Store Transformed, 1920-1960 by Richard Longstreth, published by Yale University Press in 2010. 

The rise of the regional shopping mall was heralded as a phenomenon of unusual importance well before such complexes became the dominant mode of large-scale retail development. To participants and observers alike, the creation of these enormous complexes, occupying sixty acres or more, with buildings that encompassed from 700,000 to over 1,000,000 square feet, encircled by parking lots capable of holding 3000 to nearly 8000 cars at one time – more cars than could be parked in the downtowns of many modest-sized cities – seemed a remarkable occurrence. Their immense size was matched by their unorthodox configurations, with stores opening inward to tranquil, landscaped pedestrianways. In character as well as scale, they seemed antithetical to the piecemeal complexion of most outlying shopping districts, and their customer-friendly inner sanctums offered a sharp contrast to the sidewalks along streets and parking lots and to the visual cacophony of signs and other accouterments of retail centers generally. The regional mall seemed the ultimate rational response, not just for new outlying areas, but for retail development as a whole. “No construction is more dynamic,” cooed the editors of the Department Store Economist in 1954, “or as likely to influence a reform of the usual urban and suburban hodgepodge of big and little buildings, vacant lots, dumps and slums.” Welton Becket, who became one of the nation’s leading architects of regional malls expressed a view held by many of those involved when he claimed its inevitability. Writing to chain store executives in 1951, when only a single such complex had been completed, he declared: “The regional shopping center became a foregone conclusion when the automobile became a reality.”

What Becket and other champions of the regional mall framed as a direct, logical step in retail development hardly looked that way a few years earlier. After much experimentation in layout during the immediate postwar period, orienting the shopping center to face a large front parking lot became the preferred arrangement for most projects, irrespective of size by 1950. Placing stores along an inner, pedestrian space, on the other hand, was so marginal an idea among retail and real estate interests that it was scarcely recognized, let alone considered as an option. Initially, the mall was championed by architects and planners who called for basic reforms in community design and believed that a pedestrian orientation would foster human interaction and a sense of community focus to new residential areas, qualities they maintained that contemporary, automobile-driven development sorely lacked. But very few such projects had been built and those that had were created under federal auspices, mostly due to the exigencies of World War II. Many designers embraced the concept, but real estate and retail interests remained oblivious. [Kenneth] Welch was the catalyst in altering that perspective.

The great respect he commanded from department store and other retail executives made his proposals for Rawls the subject of serious interest that probably no other architect could have elicited in the 1940s. Welch transformed a concept generated by social concerns into one driven by retail needs; he also substantially increased the scale and the scope of goods and services purveyed so that his complexes would serve as “complete” center, ostensibly equivalent in its business functions to the core of a large town or small city. This latter concept was new. J. C. Nichols and other developers of large-scale shopping centers before the war envisioned them as complementary to downtown; they assumed that their generally well-heeled clientele would always rely on the urban core for certain shopping needs. Welch, on the other hand, suggested that his regional malls were a new kind of downtown, surrogates for city centers that had reached capacity.

An equally new idea was that the department store branch was the key component to achieving equivalency. Theretofore shopping centers and department store branches had developed independently of one another, Strawbridge & Clothier’s first branch introduced to Suburban Square at an early stage being the primary exception.

Having advised Strawbridge’s on this project, Welch took the lesson to heart as a foundation stone in his conceptualization of the regional mall. But Welch’s own record may not have been enough to propel his concept into the heart of the retail field since his was then focusing on the mostly stillborn projects of Rawls.

The key factor in propelling Welch’s ideas into the forefront of retail development was that they were adopted and refined under the auspices of department store executives themselves. The underlying reason these chieftains undertook projects of such enormous cost – many complexes ran between $10,000,000 and $30,000,000 – that necessitated years of planning and construction and that were laden with innumerable unforeseen difficulties was that they came to believe the regional mall would be the most effective way to ensure dominance in the fast-evolving, highly competitive, decentralized market. In contrast to conditions with freestanding branches and branches added to existing shopping centers, department store companies could exercise nearly complete control over the retail and the physical environment. The great size of these complexes not only ensured hegemony in customer draw, it ostensibly discouraged competitors from locating nearby, as the May Company had done on Crenshaw Boulevard and Hecht’s and Kann’s were doing in Arlington, Virginia. Instead, the competition would be internalized, between the department store and the smaller establishments in the complex, so that customers could indulge in comparison shopping as they did downtown without leaving the premises. At the same time, department store executives could choose that competition since their company was either functioning as the developer or working in close alliance with one. The fears industry leaders had harbored for some three decades over chain store encroachment were at least mitigated by this unprecedented controlling relationship.

The physical configuration of the regional mall also possessed advantages from a merchandising perspective. Having so large a complex was proving unwieldy when arranged along the conventional linear and L-shaped plans that were common to neighborhood and community shopping centers. Placing stores along a pedestrianway cut the walking distance from end to end by at least half and psychologically made the complex seem more compact and easily navigable. This condensed format also facilitated making the department store the major focus of the ensemble. At the same time, divorcing customers from their cars fostered perambulation throughout the premises and induced them to spend longer periods of time there. Encircling the buildings with a parking lot rather than confining that space to one or two sides minimized the walking distance from automobile to store. The mall configuration was more expensive to construct and maintain, but once its strengths became clear they were difficult to ignore. Few businesses could command the funds needed to construct a regional mall. The financial strength of major emporia and, especially, of those that were part of corporations were central to the mall’s realization. In this realm of development, the department store was in a league of its own.


The pivotal work in demonstrating the efficacy of the regional mall concept was Northgate Shopping City in Seattle (1948-50).


Conceived by Rex Allison, president of the Bon Marche department store, working closely with architect John Graham, the complex was designed with merchandising the foremost concern. Allison took pains to ensure a “complete” shopping environment, with other stores selling every kind of product offered by his establishment and also encompassing a greater price range of goods. In its size and location, the Bon Marche dominated the ensemble, yet the retail dynamics were intentionally on a highly competitive scale.

To facilitate comparison shopping, Allison broke another convention of shopping center planning. Normally, stores with the most customer draw were placed throughout the complex to foster circulation. At Northgate, stores selling related merchandise were grouped together to shorten walking distances. To maximize locations throughout, key functions were situated at each end of the linear spine that traversed the complex as well as in the center. Welch’s work was never acknowledged as a source of inspiration in contemporary accounts. Allison and Graham later implied that they arrived at their plan independently; both the approaches to tenant mix and mall configuration, they later recalled, were inspired by Seattle’s main shopping corridor. Not long after the opening, Graham described the scheme as a “merchandising city without the usual inequities of downtown retailing;” that is, without the great disparities in the merits of location in the shopping district. Northgate’s plan was intended to manifest to a degree seldom achieved the parity of all locations that Nichols had espoused since the 1920s. Both the nature of the merchandising plan and using it as the basis for layout were new. At the same time, it is difficult to believe that either man could have been unaware of Welch’s revolutionary conception given the coverage it received in business and design journals alike.

B. Earl Puckett, chairman of Allied Stores, of which the Bon Marche was an affiliate, was also a likely agent of transfer. He was intimately familiar with Welch’s and Rawls’s plans for the North Shore Center at an early stage. An account prepared several years later stated that around 1947, Puckett and his associates embraced the objective of “recentralization” and decided that the regional shopping center was the most effective means of achieving that objective. Allison’s preliminary planning of Northgate that year may have convinced Puckett to approve his scheme and have Jordan Marsh commit to Rawls’ projects early the year following. Or perhaps it was the years of experience Welch brought to bear on the subject that was a deciding factor as much as the plans advanced by Allison, who was only in his mid thirties. Indeed, the confluence of the two initiatives could have fostered a major change in policy. Whatever the circumstances, Puckett became an outspoken proponent of the regional mall. Opening in April 1950, Northgate was hailed as a resounding success in the ensuing months and became the industry’s model. Had the complex not been realized, it is debatable whether the regional mall would have had much of a future given the stigma attached to Rawls’s work. Instead, Allied was heralded as the pioneer in the development of regional malls. “For dominance in the suburban market,” Puckett declared in his typically brusque manner, “build a center to end all centers in the region.” Merchandising needs, he maintained, must shape the scheme in all its aspects. “Shopping centers must be planned and executed by retailers, not real estate prospectors thinking in terms of leases.” Between 1952 and 1955, he unveiled a massive expansion program that, in addition to the recast North Shore Center, included Bergen Mall in Paramus, New Jersey (1952–57), Gulfgate Shopping City in Houston (1954-56); Mid-Island Shopping Plaza in Hicksville, Long Island (1955-56); and Swifton Center in Cincinnati (1953-56).

While Allied was the acknowledged industry leader in spurring the development of regional malls, it was soon joined by competitors. Among the corporations, only the May Company approached the same scale of development before the mid 1950s, with its immense Lakewood Center is Los Angeles County (1950-52), the much smaller O’Neil-Shieffield Shopping Center near Lorain, Ohio (1952-54). Independently owned stores undertook some of the most ambitious projects during the same period. Three months before Northgate’s opening, the San Francisco-based Emporium announced plans for a larger store in a 1,000,000-square-foot regional mall called Stonestown. By mid fall, Marshall Field had done likewise with a complex later named Old Orchard. John Wanamaker executives were exploring plans for what became the immense Cross County Center in Yonkers.  The most daring initiative, however, was taken by the J. L. Hudson Company in Detroit, which unveiled long-range plans to build four regional malls ringing the city, the first two of which, Eastland and Northland, would be considerably larger than any others realized over the next decade. 

Even though the regional mall still had no clear track record, some of the foremost department store companies in the nation were willing to take the substantial risk and translate the concept into bricks and mortar.


A look at the Cross County Shopping Center in Yonkers, New York, past and present. With new photos by Michael Gross and IMNick, and old photos from the Herald Statesman newspaper, the Library of Congress (Gottscho-Schleisner collection), and the USGS.

For the first time since the great emporia had reigned unchecked downtown did the problems that arose in the 1920s – expansion, customer access, parking, and chain competition – seem to be headed toward conclusive resolution.  The analogy between what the department stores had once achieved in the urban core and what they were now starting to do on the periphery was not lost on those involved. In an immodest reflection, the Department Store Economist’s editors triumphed: “A new generation of department store men and women are reaching out to create new centers today. These descendants are showing the same high responsibility to their communities that their grandfathers showed when they helped create the great down towns which we know today in hundreds of cities.” The department store was both the defining element of and the driving force behind the regional mall.

About the Author

Richard Longstreth is Professor of American Studies. After receiving his A.B. in architecture from the University of Pennsylvania and Ph.D. in architectural history from the University of California, Berkeley, he worked for the Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission and taught at Kansas State University’s College of Architecture and Design before joining the GW faculty in 1983. Paralleling his academic responsibilities, Professor Longstreth’s professional interests lie in two, complementary realms. As a scholar, he has written extensively on the history of nineteenth- and twentieth-century architecture in the U.S. In recent years, his research has focused on a variety of topics related to mid-twentieth-century architecture, urbanism, and landscape, as is reflected in his most recent book, Looking Beyond the Icons (2014). He is also editor of a University of Virginia Press series that is devoted to the topic. Earlier he examined many aspects of retail development in major metropolitan areas, relating economic, design, urbanistic, and cultural factors that have fundamentally reshaped the American landscape since 1920. The latest of these studies, The American Department Store Transformed, 1920-1960 (Yale University Press) was published in 2010. His City Center to Regional Mall (1997) and The Drive-In, the Supermarket, and the Transformation of Commercial Space (1999) (MIT) won four national awards in the fields of architectural history, urban history, and historic preservation.