Friday, September 25, 2009

Westgate Shopping Center: Asheville, NC

Malls of America back in 2006 did a piece on Westgate Shopping Center, Asheville's first major strip mall located just outside of downtown. While it has long since been eclipsed by malls and other shopping centers, the little strip was quite significant when it opened in 1956. What was especially unique about it is that it was built with its very own exit ramp! When opened, the shopping center featured a Winn-Dixie, W.T. Grant and the Asheville-based Bon Marche, which at the time had a much larger store downtown [1]. With that, I actually wonder if they closed the downtown store for this much smaller shopping center version considering the two stores were less than a mile apart!


 

Westgate Shopping Center at its peak from the late 1950's/early 60's.  Both photos are from "Malls of America".

While I was not around to see the progress over time of the shopping center, the fact is that it's still around today and hardly a ghetto strip. Asheville in all honesty really does not have a lot of ghetto compared to other cities in the South, so older businesses and shopping centers tend to hang on long after their heyday is over. In fact, a fair amount of mid-century signage and architecture hangs on all up and down US 70 on both sides of downtown. However, because of this new development in the city is very susceptible to overbuilding, which is why a major shopping mall just south of the city is failing. Westgate Shopping Center itself is not exactly thriving, but what is there is working well.



Looking today at the shopping center from the smaller end closest to I-240 and at the edge of the old Bon Marche, now sided with Earth Fare.  Earth Fare is not the first Asheville store to expand.  Ingles, Rose's and Sky City all got their starts in the Asheville market and the latter two were successful for many years despite their eventual decline.

As to the Bon Marche, I really cannot predict when it might have closed, but I am guessing the location closed in 1972 when the new Bon Marche location opened at Asheville Mall.  I have heard that Meyers-Arnold took that location, eventually bought out by Upton's.  Rose's eventually took over the Grant's as well. Shortly after Bon Marche disappeared, Grant's, of course, closed with the chain in 1976. Beyond that, what I mentioned taking their places is speculation based on previous comments about the place. My knowledge of North Carolina retail is limited, and I did not pay any attention to this place when I was younger.


Looking under the covered walkway extending from Earth Fare back to CVS.  It looks like much of the classic architecture has been covered up, but the overhanging wedge signs are still there.

Today, Westgate Shopping Center faces an uncertain future...not because of its age, but because of the grossly inadequate interstate highway it sits on. I-26 was extended through the city in 2003 along I-240, creating high traffic on a piecemeal primitive freeway through the town. Plans abounding to relocate the problematic freeway have threatened the future of the shopping center, and one of those plans involves outright tearing it down for the freeway. Fortunately, the current owner feels that the history of the shopping center is important and does not want that to happen. Now if we could find some other shopping center owners that showed that kind of love for their classic retail.


Now looking at the rest of the shopping center where Bon Marche used to be.  This part is looking a little barren, unfortunately.

Westgate Shopping Center's major tenant is Earth Fare, a local natural foods supermarket that serves as a small town version of Whole Foods. Whole Foods does not seem to be in Asheville, but Earth Fare is all over the city. When I visited, this store was extremely popular and featured a very contemporary and extremely dark interior decor. The clientele pretty much represented what modern Asheville is known for...older rich people who moved in from elsewhere and plenty of hippies. Of course, the cross section of the crowd actually looked like the kind of city I would be fairly comfortable living in.


 

A look at the Bon Marche entrance, last existing as Davis Furniture.  I wonder what filled this space after Bon Marche left in the early 70's.

The only other major tenant in Westgate today is CVS Pharmacy. Other stores seem to cater to the same crowd swarming Earth Fare. Of course, the biggest tenant, the old Bon Marche, was found lacking of a store currently. Its last occupant, Davis Furniture, up and left for the old Goody's space at Biltmore Square. Considering the condition of Biltmore Square, that seemed to me like leaving safe harbor and boarding the Titanic. Of course, the empty anchor allowed me to take a few photos of the old Bon Marche, which today still carries the bearings of a classic department store: two sets of doors and a wide open room inside with high ceilings covered with a dropped ceiling filled with lots of lights under clear glass sheets.


A look inside the old Bon Marche gives a very 50's feel.  Much about this store reminds me of typical late 50's department stores when looking at the ceiling, floor and column treatments. 

What stands out close to I-240 is the abandoned Bank of Asheville branch found in the older picture. I do not know how long this has been closed, but the location today is the most vintage element left in the center, which has otherwise been renovated fully with a stucco facade. However, I would definitely say it would make a good Starbucks if they haven't already covered the city with locations.



Looking here at the old Bank of Asheville branch, which seems to have been closed a little while.  I seem to remember the Bank of Asheville sign still being there recently if my memory is right.  Does anybody else see Starbucks potential here?

As for Westgate today, the shopping center is struggling a bit with identity in a saturated market. While Asheville's downtown is a fairly hot destination, it is not a place people go to shop like it was when Westgate opened. Most of the stores there are specialty shops, and Westgate is by no means on the city's fringe anymore. In fact, this is essentially a downtown shopping center, and it is too far removed from Asheville Mall nearby to participate in most chain retail development. The shopping center as a whole could be full again, but it would not be everyday stores filling the void. One thing that makes me cringe is something like a Goodwill opening in the old Bon Marche, but this would be a perfect location for the sporatically located and wildly popular Micro Center chain. Perhaps an upscale department store outlet might also do well here.


Looking back lengthwise along the shopping center from the old Bon Marche toward I-240.

 

Nothing too exciting with the shopping center's sign.  I wonder how long ago the old googie-style sign I'm sure was here was removed.  Also note the ramp and frontage road just behind it.

Westgate has been around at least 50 years, and it has survived this long. Today, it hardly stands out as a shopping destination since the shopping center is fairly plain and its offerings are limited, yet it gets an enormous amount of exposure with its own signed exit. Judging by the business of Earth Fare, anything that was unique to the market with a good marketing scheme would do very well here, thus my Micro Center idea. In all, this grand old lady could just use a little more attention. Just painting the stucco a more showy and attractive color and adding some unique stores not found elsewhere in the market I think would bring the sickly strip back to spry. With just the right mix, maybe it will hang around for another 50 years...that is, if NCDOT keeps the bulldozers away.

[1] Source: Barrett, Mark. "Owner gears up for Westgate face-lift". Asheville-Citizen Times. March 26, 2007.

28 comments:

  1. I'm pretty sure Goody's was in the old Bon Marche spot in the 90's. In the early 00s it was a thrift store. It's been vacant ever since they left.
    Also there's an internal hallway entrance from Earth Fare to the vacant Bon Marche.
    But before Earth Fare, the only thing happening was the little mall inside the mall located at the center, where WSKY radio used to be, as well as a jewelry store. It is now almost 100% vacant.
    They are finally redoing the parking lot and are building an outpost strip of stores near the highway entrance

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  2. There have been recent additions to this area in the last 18 months. There is now additional office space (new construction) which includes not much right now but a Jason's Deli.

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  3. Bon Marche was still there in the mid-70s. I used to eat at the cafeteria beside it when I was a kid. Great food.

    Westgate's #1 problem is its impossible geography. You can't simply go there, you have to plan with a map. West Asheville is largely cut off from the rest of Asheville by its geography and a belt of interstate and bypass highways. The only way to really get to West Asheville is through a gonzo interstate junction known locally as "malfunction junction" where I-26, 19-23, I-240, and Patton Avenue jumble together in an incomprehensible mess. To get to Westgate, not only do you have to navigate this mess, but you have to know the ins and outs of how to get to a shopping center that is VISIBLE from the road, but there is no obvious way to get there unless you know the area extremely well. (Naturally, this hasn't attracted anchor stores.)

    When I was a child, I went to a daycare back behind Westgate. I can still remember going UNDER the four-lane highway bridges and back up to the level of Westgate!

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    1. I went to that daycare too -- Tot Town Nursery School!

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    2. I also attended that day care center as my mother and grandmother worked at Bon Marche. They tell some interesting stories about my days there. I must have been a real doozie!

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  4. I remember having my photo taken in Bon Marche when I was four years old. It was the day Elvis Presley died. The interior photograph of the former Bon Marche shows a balcony on the left side. This is where the photo studio was located. The space was briefly a Meyer's Arnold in the early 1980s. In the late 1980s it was Hamrick's prior to River Ridge Market Place. The space was then occupied by Goody's in the 1990s. Part of the shopping center was raised in the early 1990s. This was a strip of stores located across the parking lot from the former Bon Marche. The earth under this area was unstable due to being built on a former land-fill. Kyoto's Japanese Stake House, and a Milo's Beauty Supply Store occupied this strip in the 1980s. A barber shop was once located on the North side of Bon Marche. As a child I had my hair cuts there. Part of the area now occupied by Earth Fares was once a Rose's Five and Dime. The cafeteria was originally called Bailey's, and later became Hallmark Cafeteria. The CVS (Revco) was originally an Eckerd's. Biff-Burger, a fast-food restaurant, once was located in the parking lot next to CVS. I also remember my mother buying me shoes from Kinney's Shoes that was located there. In the 1960s through the early 1980s a little restaurant called Downey's was located in the shopping center. I remember they had the best club sandwiches. My mother still owns a GAF 110 camera that she purchased from W.T. Grants. The Bank of Asheville in the photograph merged with North Carolina National Bank (Nations Bank/Bank of America) in the 1970s. The Bank of Asheville founded in the 2000s (now First Bank) had no relation with the former Bank of Asheville. A Big Boy restaurant was also located between the present Earth Fare and the former Bon Marche.

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    1. There was a Winn-Dixie grocery store there too -- beside Eckerd's.

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    2. Yes,I worked there for a few year's.

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    3. Ashley Furniture was also located in the Bon Marche space before it relocated to the building that burned down on Patton Avenue.

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  5. Does anyone remember the amusement rides at Westgate? My kids think I'm crazy but, honestly, there really used to be a ferris wheel, merry-go-round, bumper cars and my favorite, the bullet.

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    1. I remember the rides well; It was a beautiful spot for a carnival, it use to come and stay a good bit of the summer. There was a ferris wheel, a haunted house, a ride called tempest, two sets of different cars, a bouncy thing, and the paratrooper--but, as with all things asheville--like the rec park--city had to F that up for everyone.

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    2. When I was a young child, my family travelled every 2 weeks from Lenoir to Waynesville to see my Mom's family. We stopped at the Westgate nearly every time. I loved the rides. I also remember good food there, but don't remember from what vendor.

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    3. Got to go there on Sunday after church

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    4. I certainly do remember the rides. My brother worked there at one time. There, he met the woman he is still married to today. It was a huge event back then, just as the State Fair is now, wasn't it?

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    5. I worked at Bon Marche in high school and colleg. The carnival was there each summer when we were growing up. My momma worked at that store her whole life. Roses..downeys diner...the shrimp boat...winn dixie..hobby shop..diana shop..grants. all were there then. Our daddy always drove momma to work and would let us ride the rides while we waited for her. I have sime great memories of all the people who worked at westgate. It was family.

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    6. My father in law used to run the Ferris wheel there which is where he met my mother in law. He wouldn't let her off the Ferris wheel until she agreed to go out with him.

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    7. Does anyone else remember riding the Magic Carpet Ride at Westgate? My whole family loved that ride, we slid down the "magic carpet" (it was an aqua colored large plastic slide with about 10-15 lanes across) in some kind or burlap sack as I remember it. What fun!!!

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  6. I walked to Westgate, ate at Bailey's, & went to Grant's and Roses as a teen-ager. My first job at 15 was at the W. T. Grant Co..
    What wonderful memories I have of Westgate.
    I made $1.00 an hour on that job and could buy so much with it. I was 10 when it was built.
    TW

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  7. I went back to school shopping at the Goody's for my freshman year of highschool, 16 years ago. It makes me feel so old. I went there with my husband 2 years ago and was surprised at how empty it was, other than the Earth Fair place. We did go to the Chinese restaurant to eat, it was so cheap and there was TONS of food.

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  8. I remember when Western Auto was at Westgate. I also remember Sky City in Skyland. My mother shopped there and at the one on Patton Avenue, which is now Sav-More, I think. Ah, those memories.

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  9. The Western Auto was in the strip that was on unstable ground and had to be demolished. I believe it had already vacated sometime before the discovery of the problem. There was a toy and hobby shop, very small, called the Hobby Horse that had a neat neon sign of a rocking horse that had the illusion that it was rocking. I loved going in and checking out the latest Matchbox car releases. Also loved doing that at Toy Town in the Northland shopping center. Westgate also had a Hallmark called Brad's Cards & More, at least I think that was the name. Also a beauty salon called Guys and Gals that was back behind the BonMarche space, close to the barber shop. Park's flowers/florist was in the mini-mall section, at the back, for several years. We lived in the Erwin Hills area and before the Ingles invasion we would go to the Winn-Dixie at Westgate every Friday night and would usually check out the other stores while there. I wonder what happened to that rocking horse?

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  10. Bon Marche' opened at Westgate in 1956 with William S Proctor, a long time Bon Marche' employee as the manager. There were major celebrations for the opening. Both the downtown store and Westgate store operated for several years, with the downtown store moving to the Asheville Mall when it opened. The Westgate store was unique in that it had a mezzanine overlooking the main sales floor with a broad set of steps leading up to it. There was store offices and a photo studio on the mezzanine. Each department in the store had it's own register and assigned staff.

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    1. You are right. Loved that mezzanine.

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  11. I remember when the enlistment offices for the military were in the back of Bon Marche' before moving to the Regency Park area.

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  12. When did Earth Fare open?

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  13. I remember as a child in the 1960's how wonderful Westgate was during the Christmas holidays. The crowd, excitement of the season, and the constant ringing of Salvation Army bells.

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  14. Hello Westgate lovers,
    My grandmother worked at the day care, and my aunt and uncle owned and ran the laundramat beside it. Fabulous memories of playing with the boxes Bon Marche put out back, oh, and the mini fair was fabulous. Where else did you need to go to have a waonderful time.

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