Saturday, August 16, 2008

Georgia Square Mall: Athens, GA

Athens is best known for University of Georgia, the oldest university in the United States, and the small city that grew around it. While not a major city, the sheer size and economic impact of UGA gives the entire city in the northeastern part of the state a big city feel. While not located on or even very near any interstate, the city is ringed by a major freeway (Loop 10), features a vibrant urban scene and has created a relatively fast growing metro area that has spilled into neighboring counties outside of the consolidated Athens-Clarke County. Such growth and the encroaching Atlanta area has recently pushed a plan to upgrade its major link to Atlanta, GA 316, into a freeway or toll road.

The impact of the university and the money that came with it was not lost on retailers. The City of Athens had its very own branch of Davison's in downtown alongside much larger Augusta and Macon, and in 1981 Athens got its very own Atlanta-style mall with Georgia Square. Georgia Square, needless to say, was a mall of its time. It was so outlandishly 70's/80's modern that it was jokingly referred to as the "Disco Mall". Even to this day and subsequent renovations, this is not lost on the center. It's latest renovation actually seems to very successfully take it actually back to its roots as a mall that paid its reverences to the era of polyester, disco music, skating rinks and Atari.

Georgia Square was also responsible for the end of the downtown retail era in Athens. When the mall opened, all of the stores formerly in downtown including Davison's and Belk packed up and staked their claim in the large two-story mall. It is rather easy to see why this happened, as travel in downtown is very difficult on a normal day and parking was impossible. In finding the original Davison's store, I found that it was impossible to get a parking place near the store, which is now part of UGA. Nevertheless, at the time the mall was built there was concern the mall was too large for its market considering that Athens was not a very large city and that the surrounding market was all rural. Nearby Barrow County and Jackson Counties were remote farming eras when the mall opened while today they are dotted with many new subdivisions. That has not held back the mall, though, in that not only the help of college crowds but also its super-regional status have made the center more than successful...especially for shoppers weary of chaotic Atlanta traffic to the west.

Disco-style bulbs hang over the lower level entrance to JCPenney

Also, the mall's opening brought out a plethora of retail onto what was then US 29/78. Nearly every retail chain came into the area including one of the most remote locations of Richway, even though there had never been a Rich's in that city up to that time period. While the Richway is gone, the area around Georgia Square both to the west and east along Atlanta Highway (US 78 Business) remains the premier retail corridor in the city. Little changes have occurred to the mall either beyond cosmetic. All of the original anchors remain to this day with exception to the Davison's. Its wild name changes took it from Davison's to Macy's in 1986, Rich's in 1998, Rich's-Macy's in 2003 and back to Macy's in 2005.

A rare look at the short-lived Rich's at Georgia Square. Note the classic Davison's/Macy's exterior of the era. It's just as classic inside!

The mall itself has a slightly distinct layout in that it is not entirely a two-story mall. In fact, the mall shrinks to one level on the west end just before the Sears, accessed by escalators that climb beside a wall that leads to bathrooms under the esclators and a very peculiar truncation of the structure at that. The Sears is also the only one level anchor at the mall. In contrast, the Belk is one of very few original two-story Belks in Georgia. The Davison's/Macy's is what is really the experience of the mall, though. The store is completely in a time warp and has never been updated at all since the mall opened. Both inside and out, the store looks like it would have fit right in with the "Dynasty" era chocked full of women with short hair wearing silk blouses with padded shoulders. The Belk is slightly more modern looking, but what stands out is the outlandish copper-foil mall entrance sign and the very dated skinny escalators in an octagon court with tarnished brass and brown rubber railings. In the mall itself, the planters, fountains and brown tiles are long gone but yet the funkiness never quite left the place. It should be noted that the pictures are at the end of of a brand new renovation done this year. Nonetheless, many of the store signs in the mall still pay ode to the era.

Escalators in the mall take shoppers on the bottom level up to the upper level single story Sears wing.

Photos of the Belk inside and out. Note the extremely retro look both inside and outside the mall

More shots of the Rich's

Enjoy these pics of the disco mall. I'm sure many of you Athens fans and UGA grads have seen this place as well, so this should be a rather unique view of Georgia's own Athens.


  1. Another great post, JT. (I'm always afraid of taking pictures in the malls I visit.) I went to this mall once in 1995 or 1996, and from your description, it sounds like it hasn't changed much, although I must say I don't remember anything in particular. I love all of the pictures, though -- very 1980. When did you take your pictures? They've got to be at least 3 or 4 years old.

    Did you happen to get any of the pics of the downtown Davison's?


  2. I have viewed your website many times, but this is the first time I have ever decided to make a post. I love Georgia Square Mall! What a great place with some of the vintage 70's/80's architecture and style still intact. These smaller malls have always been my favorite. There is such a hometown feel that you get when shopping in a smaller mall in a smaller city. Just a little something different then a big super regional mall in the big city. Although you did say that the mall was big for the city, and the Athens had a bigger city feel to it. I have never been to Athens, but now I know where to go if I am ever in northeast Georgia.

  3. Georgia Square has aged well compared to many of its contemporaries and is thriving better than most of its contemporaries. CBL has somehow managed to retain the era among most of its malls from the same timeframe without looking unkept and deteriorated while adding newer elements. This well maintained blend of 80's and contemparary can be found at another CBL mall of the same vintage, Walnut Square in Dalton.
    Even Hamilton Place in Chattanooga has a late80's,early 90s feel even after renovations and additions right up to the present. I suppose in 10 years we'll describe Arbor Place as a well preserved example of a new millenium look mall.

    BTW, the Macy's looks better with the Rich's name than the Macy's. The script Davison's was also a classic. But it shows how much more Rich's and Davison's had in common in their heyday to one another than to the current incarnation as Macy's.

  4. This place is more than a little dated, but it doesn't look that bad. All of the anchor stores have their respective early '80ss look and feel down pat.

  5. Walnut Square, btw, is high on my list. I visited in 2006 but have no shots. That place is way more retro than this one. There actually is a pic online somewhere of the downtown Davison's, which was apparently originally "Michael Bros.". Was the Davison's there in the original blue old-style script or did it have the modernized script like the Macy's of today? BTW, I know my pics of there were was very difficult to get shots there when I was there so I had to improvise.

  6. You mention the unusual one-level area on the Sears end. Madison Square Mall in Huntsville, AL is built exactly the same way. The escalators going to that part from the lower level had the restrooms under the escalators as well until the 2006 remodel when the escalators were put next to each other without the space between them to lead to the restrooms, which were removed.

    Except for the food court location (lower level instead of upper level near Sears, this mall reminds me a lot of Madison Square).

  7. a current UGA student, I was waiting for this one. I hate that this mall gets a bad rap from my fellow students. I guess most of the people here are from the Atlanta area and malls like Lenox, MOG, Northpoint, and Perimeter have us But I think it's a heck of a lot nicer (esp. post-renovation) than say, Northlake (which still almost brings tears to my eyes to look at today). Plus it's gotten some new stuff, like a Hollister and a Best Buy Mobile in the Food Court area, so it looks like in the last few months alone, GS is in an upswing. Might I suggest a Starbucks in center court where Friedmans used to be?

  8. Oh, and another thing I wanted to comment on was the old storefronts...that circa-1990 Express (and Express Men/Structure, for that matter) reminds me of when I was little and I used to get dragged in there by my sister every time my family went to the mall.

  9. I was a UGA freshman when the mall opened. It was a big deal as I recall. I do not remember it as the Disco Mall. My boyfriend and I saw An Officer and a Gentleman there. Also there was a Bennigan's near the mall that my roommate and I used to frequent. Downtown Athens retail was already on its way downhill when the mall opened. I miss my days in Athens 1980-1984.

  10. Is it true the Athens part of Clarke County is going downhill and is subject to more crime? I read message boards advising against attending Clarke schools. I'd still take it over Atlanta or Macon. I think I went to the wrong school (Mercer-Macon, and not UGA)

  11. This is an incredible mall. I agree with Ken in loving how CBL has kept a contemporary feel to this mall, while keeping many older design elements intact.

    The 'picture frame' entrance(as I decided to call it, after seeing that pic) for Georgia Square's JCPenney is very unique, as I've never seen another JCPenney attached to a shopping mall have an exterior entrance design like that!

  12. I grew up in Athens in the 1980's, and Georgia Square was the place to go for many Athenians then. I'd go to Record Bar and Camelot Music, Kay Bee Toys and Playland (I think that's the right name), Waldenbooks and Bookland, the original arcade whose name I forget (later replaced by another downstairs that was never as good and has also closed). The original arcade had a great classic-70's facade. Besides the dept. stores, pretty much everything has changed. Where there was a popular Pizza Hut is now a bad food court. The only stores still there recently that had been there in the early '90s were Spencer's, It's About Time, a jewelry store (probably Friedman's) and Victoria's Secret. If I recall correctly from the last time I was there, they're all gone. So is the Chick-fil-a. This mall nearly went off the deep end in the late 1990's. They used to have the first-run films at their bigger theatre, which is a separate building in the back. But two stadium-seating theatres opened up closer to downtown (one at the long-standing Beechwood shopping center, which had just been a small, 4-screen place, where less-popular films like Woody Allen, Merchant/Ivory would played). Having lost the big-name first-runs, Georgia Square closed the 4-screen theater inside the mall and turned the larger free-standing place into a discount theater. It's all very shabby compared to what it used to be. Downtown has experienced a huge resurgence--first, lots of student-oriented bars, which are mostly disgusting, but more recently lots of fancy restaurants. We've even had new retail outlets downtown or near downtown--a record store, a book store, lots of gift shops, though the beloved newsstand Barnett's closed in 2008.

    You should go to the Facebook group "Growing Up in Athens, Ga." and ask if anyone there was pictures of this place from the 80's. There is at least one already posted there of the Record Bar.

  13. Question for the mid 1980's.....there was a store on the second level, first store outside of JCPenney, it sold mosty "Hello Kitty" items....what was the name of that store? It just bugs me that I can't remember after spending numerous hours looking at everything inside.

    1. Sanrio was the Hello Kitty store.

  14. Ah, Georgia Square Mall. I've never been the biggest fan, but it serves its purpose.

    A small note, though, UGA is the oldest state-chartered public university in the states (although, technically, UNC Chapel Hill actually opened first).

  15. I grew up in this mall. We lived out in Oconee County (which Clarke County was part of until they moved the county seat from Watkinsville to Athens and the indignant people of Watkinsville successfully petitioned the state to make Oconee what it is today), and we would usually go in on Saturdays. We'd shop some, then catch a movie. Also, in the 90s, the Krispy Kreme opened across from the mall, so we'd go early in the day, get breakfast, then go to the mall.

    Additionally, not only was there the 3rd Mall Chik-Fil-A there, there was an indoor McDonalds. It was across from the Pearl Vision store (which is still there) and took up a large storefront. It also had a kid-sized merry-go-round with McDonald's characters in one of the windows. Also, the Pizza Hut was downstairs, and there was a Morrison's in the back (which was a Picadillys, but I'm not sure if it's there still now). Kenny Rodgers, the country star, used to eat there a lot on Sunday afternoons.

    I actually took my wife back there the last time we were in Athens and shopped at the Belk. She needed a slip (which, incidentally, that Belk is about the only place in Athens to find a slip for a skirt without it being racy), and I needed black socks. We also picked up a nice pair of black shoes for me at the Pay Less Shoes that's been there since the store opened.

    It's a great mall, and it's been updated a few times. It's worth going to if you have the time.

  16. I love that you've captured this mall with the old Belk and Rich's logos! Great post.