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.