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The History of Malls in the U.S.

The history of malls

You see them all the time. You drive by them, you live by them and you more than likely shop at them. They have many different names: malls, shopping malls, strip malls, outdoor malls. Maybe you have even heard of megamalls, mini-malls, shopping centers or shopping plazas. No matter the name, malls provide you a place to do your shopping at a variety of different stores. But something you may not think about is the history of malls – where did they come from? Why did they get popular? How did they evolve over the years?

The History of Malls

Malls exist so you can do all your shopping at one location – no more of driving to five different locations to get your shopping done. As such, malls are typically found away from the main center of the town or city to help with traffic; this is why many malls are found right off the highway, too. Malls also serve the need for people to meet up and interact with one another, as well as to grab a meal.

At a mall, you can find stores offering products or services that you need; these are provided in-person in real-time, unlike its online counterpart. The stores range from retail to drug stores, restaurants to supermarkets, theaters to banks and everything in between. There are two main qualities to a mall: the stores themselves (which can include big-box retailers, called anchor stores, and smaller stores or boutiques to draw in customers) and the parking lot, which typically surrounds the mall to offer the most amount of parking.

The Beginning

It may shock you to know that malls are a modern addition to the U.S. culture. The first wave of walls were all open-air shopping areas that tried to mimic the traditional downtown shopping experience that they escaped from. The first noted shopping mall called the Country Club Plaza was founded in 1922 by the J.C. Nichols Company in Missouri. In 1928, the Grandview Avenue Shopping Center opened in Ohio, followed by the Highland Park Shopping Village in 1931 in Texas. Unlike the others, Highland Park featured storefronts that faced inward away from the streets to entice customers. This became the norm for mall architecture.

The late 1940s brought about the rise of suburban malls. The Bellevue Shopping Square opened in 1946 in Washington, followed by the Town & Country Village and Broadway-Crenshaw Center in California.

The 1950s

However, the 1950s were a time of redefining malls. Northgate in Washington and Shoppers World in Massachusetts set the stage; both featured shopping centers anchored by downtown department stores. Shoppers World was also the first two-level center.

In 1954, the Northland Center in Michigan introduced the “cluster layout,” which is when a single department store is at the center with more stores and the parking lot surrounding it. This was designed by Victor Gruen, an Austrian-born architect. He incorporated European-style shopping into the mall, along with AC and heating.

The first few enclosed malls were the Valley Fair Shopping Center in Wisconsin in 1955 and Minnesota’s 1956 Southdale, which was also designed by Gruen and had two levels and AC and heating.

That’s right – enclosed malls have been around for less than 60 years, meaning your grandparents might be older than the first enclosed mall. Having heating and AC also helped combat the weather, which could turn freezing cold in the winter and burning hot in the summer. An enclosed space could additionally create a specific environment away from the real world, which could explain why shoppers spend hours roaming around malls instead of going straight home.

More Changes

Less than a decade later, there were over 7,600 shopping centers or malls in the U.S. due to the growth and development following World War II. The high demand for housing meant a high demand for retail stores. An increase in cars also meant a need for places that could temporarily house all those vehicles. However, malls still weren’t done evolving.

In the 1970s, a new wave of malls came about. One of the first modern mini-malls in California was made in 1973 by the La Mancha Development Co. The arrival of “festival marketplaces” in 1976 with the Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Massachusetts focused on food and retail specialties. The first urban vertical mall called Water Tower also appeared in Illinois.

Between 1980 and 1990, the history of malls continued to progress; over 16,000 centers were built, including the new power center, which features between 250,000 and 600,000 square feet and has big-box retailers. Outlet malls, which housed manufacturers selling their goods, grew, too. In Southern California, there were over 3,000 strip malls by 1985, and the area was dubbed the “mini-mall capital of the world.” This growth was mostly due to the disappearance of gas stations in relation to the oil crisis from the 1970s.

The 1990s and Beyond

The 1990s marked a change to the entertainment side. Malls started housing playgrounds, movie theaters, concerts, games, rides, interactive displays and more – anything to keep the shoppers occupied and wanting more. Consumers saw a rise in service-oriented locations, which included churches, post offices, municipal or business offices, libraries and more.

As for the 21st century, we will have to wait and see what happens next for the malls’ future – the rise of online commerce and the decline of the suburban areas contribute to the decrease in malls being built, as well as a drop off in stores wanting to open at malls. Again, with most malls being built away from the downtown area and near highways, the idea of shoppers driving to the mall is becoming harder to sell.

2007 marked the first time a mall wasn’t built in the U.S., something that hadn’t happened since the 1950s, and over 400 malls closed between 2007 and 2009. Instead of tearing them down, dead or dying malls are being converted into mixed-use centers, including apartments, churches, industrial and office space or even school campuses.

No matter what, malls are working hard to stay relevant and serve its consumers and their day-to-day needs, whether that be fashion and restaurants or beauty and health. The history of malls is still being written to this day.

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