Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Phipps Plaza: Atlanta, GA

Phipps Plaza is the kind of mall that is not found in most cities, especially not in the South: a truly upscale mall with upscale stores intended for the upper class and very wealthy.  Opened in 1968, this posh mall originally served as sort of an outpost for Manhattan shopping.  When it opened, its original anchors were Lord & Taylor and Saks Fifth Avenue.  The original mall was quite small, but it had two levels and served as an elegant supplement to Lenox Square whom at the time had only local stores Rich's and Davison's.  Undoubtably, the presence of this mall has helped establish the Buckhead community of Atlanta into what it is today: the wealthy part of a major city.  Its location on Peachtree Road (SR 141) off of the GA 400 toll road sits in the middle of the premier shopping district of the city, which has overall grown upward over the past decade.

Phipps Plaza has stores in the mall not found elsewhere in the city.  Phipps and Lenox Square are both owned by Simon, so their owner sees fit to make sure that each mall is in its own niche.  Lenox is more of a designer showcase, featuring concept stores from major designers and only recently has the mall turned completely upscale.  Phipps, in contrast, holds to its status as New York, Jr. with locations of exclusive stores such as Barney New York and Tiffany's among its tenant roster.  Armani, Gucci and Versace also are found among the clothing stores in the mall.  A $1000 shirt can definitely be found in this mall.

A view of the upper and lower level Saks Fifth Avenue mall entrances.  The upper level was extended into the mall, creating an overlook inside the store that looks extremely elegant from the bottom level.

The center court of the original mall is unbelievably posh.  That is a Bentley on display on the bottom level.  I know of no other mall with a winding staircase, and that ceiling treatment looks like it would fit in the Biltmore House.  Let nobody deceive you on what an "upscale mall" really is.  THIS is upscale.  I have not been in any other mall that deserved that description.

The other mahogany escalator also has access to the parking deck below, including a hidden fountain at the base.  It almost seems from some angles as if the escalators drop down into an underground lake.  Was this parking deck constructed under the original mall AFTER it was built?  If so, that must have been quite a feat.

A view along the second floor of the original two-level portion.

Up and down escalators from the bottom level to the upper level of the original two-level portion.

I was a bit intrigued by the design of this specialty children's store.  The tile treatment on the floor is very similar to the Lorch's shop pictures in my photos of The Mall in Huntsville in an earlier post.

While Phipps started out small, the mall undertook a major expansion in 1993, adding a new three level wing, parking deck and a new anchor, Birmingham-based Parisian.  This expansion directly coincided with the grand opening of the last section of GA 400, directly connecting Atlanta to the wealthy suburbs northward.  When it opened, Parisian essentially created a flagship store at the mall for the store in the city.  The expansion also gave the mall a 14 screen theater and a new food court, which offers more fast casual dining such as Moe's Southwest Grill and Johnny Rockets in comparison to the typical mall food court.  The expansion also created a series of escalators that is not for those with vertigo.  With three levels of parking deck underneath, the escalators going up to the third floor and theater climb six stories with open sides.

This mall map explains the odd configuration of the mall.  The part on the right was the original mall, and the portion with Belk and three levels was the 1993 addition.

The mall also features many elegant touches not found in the usual mall such as a winding staircase in center court, elegant trim and flooring and a huge chandelier in center court.  Instead of Toyotas and Fords, cars on display in the mall included a Bentley and an Aston Martin.  The mall also has two upscale restaurants, The Tavern and The Grape, both of which draw huge weekend crowds.  In addition, one of the few remaining locations of The American Cafe, formerly known as Silver Spoon, is found on the Parisian wing.  Aside from upscale tenants, a few more mid-market tenants are in the mall as well such as Talbots, and the mall also features some tenants typically found in lifestyle centers such as Chicos and Coldwater Creek.

Gracefully ascending escalators like steps lead up to the Belk (former Parisian) in the three level portion.

Looking back down from the third floor.

This fountain is found in the main court on the three level wing near Belk shown in the first photo.  An identical fountain is on the opposite side of the court beneath the mahogany elevators.

A view of the three-level court from the second level.  The lights at the top are the food court.  The fountain pictured above is at the bottom.

Another view of the escalators to Belk pictured above.

Phipps Plaza never saw any anchor changes from when it opened until more recent times.  Troubled Lord & Taylor started it when they closed their location at the mall in 2005.  By the time it closed, the store was actually looking rather dated inside, and it showed the signs of a poorly operated store that had transitioned from upscale to frumpy mid-market under its then-owner May Department Stores.  It took no time at all, however, for Nordstrom to open up their third Atlanta location at the mall the following year.  Nordstrom renovated the store before they opened it and brought class back to that end of the mall.

A look at the lavish mahogany elevator and three levels.  The top level is the AMC theater, the middle level goes to American Cafe and the bottom level goes to the south mall entrance.

Looking toward the AMC theater and the down escalator to the second floor.  This escalator well drops down five floors to the parking deck level, and it is not for those with vertigo.

The American Cafe, known originally as Silver Spoon, seems a bit inappropriate for the mall, and it seems to be one of the few locations left.  It is owned by Shoney's, but it is one of three restaurants in the mall.  The other two are Grape and Tavern at Phipps, both far more upscale and very, very popular.

In 2007, Belk bought out Parisian, and they became the second anchor change in the mall when Parisian was converted to Belk.  Belk's entry was very controversial as the owners saw the store as too downscale for the former Parisian.  Belk, unlike other department store chains, has a three-tiered system of stores if A, B and C stores.  "A" stores are upscale, "B" stores are a cross between Penney's and Macy's and "C" stores are basically Penney's with a Southern touch.  Occassionally they run A-class stores, which are stores somewhat equivalent to Nordstrom or Bloomingdale's.  The problem is, Belk doesn't have many A-class stores, and this is the only one they currently operate in the Atlanta market.  Their failure to run a similar A-class store at North Point Mall led to its closure in September.  Nevertheless, the store has proven successful and operates as the Atlanta flagship.  Of course, most of us do not understand why they could not have just kept the Parisian name for their A-class stores to make it more clear which is which.

Belk (former Parisian) mall entrance from the second level.  I know this is an upscale A-class Belk, but it still doesn't feel right.  At the time it was built, even Parisian was viewed as somewhat too downscale for the mall.

Three levels of escalators inside the Belk.

Phipps today remains a popular mall, but Atlanta has had much trouble as an up and coming city trying to join the ranks of New York and Los Angeles.  Since a lot of the money is new wealth, and much of that wealth was centered around the building industry, undoubtably this is putting a strain on the higher end retail of the mall.  Even worse, Saks Fifth Avenue is struggling and Nordstrom also has rumors of troubles as luxury spending is the most directly affected by the deepening recession.  Even those with six figure incomes might be thinking twice about a $2000 outfit if they see layoffs or bankruptcy in their future.  Quite a few millionaires in the Atlanta area have lost it all practically overnight betting too high on sprawl development.  Whether this will affect the mall in the future is yet to be seen, but for right now the mall looks like it is still doing well.

The Nordstrom mall entrance is located in the older two-level portion, and it bears no resemblance to its former Lord & Taylor entrance.  I was in Lord & Taylor here once probably around 2001 or so.

Overall, Phipps is a very fascinating place with one of the best mall designs to ever come out of the 1990's.  Even if those visiting cannot afford much of the merchandise, it is still worth seeing it just to see a truly elegant mall with all sorts of special touches.  If nothing else, just go and check out all the different levels and catch a movie there.  This is what is fun about covering malls across Atlanta is not only the sheer size of most of the malls, but also the wide variation of malls from small and old to large and elegant.  Phipps Plaza is one of a kind in the South.  None of the other major cities in the South has anything like this aside from South Florida, which is why I am glad to feature this mall for the first time.


Two views of Saks.  The first is a modified 1993 stucco facade, while the second maintains some of its original 1968 design.  Honestly, the second design looks quite classy and more noticeable.  Modern architecture in the 60's was far more stately than its more brutalist variations in later decades.

Nordstrom is a hybrid of 60's and mid-00's architecture.  The store entrance was completely reconfigured whlie the rest of the building is pure 60's on the exterior.  The two styles do not clash at all unlike most "upgrades".   The store as a Lord & Taylor did not exactly look bad, but a bit more plain.


Belk has no 60's pretenses.  It is a bulky structure with a more 90's industrial design complete with a mixture of brick and mildewed stucco (part of why I loathe stucco).  At the time if was built in 1993 as Parisian, retro facades and matching contemporary design to its vintage was definitely not in vogue.


  1. No doubt about it. This is a great mall.

    I don't think Belk tarnishes the image of this mall. It's still a very nice department store, but with so much competition from some of the most luxurious names in retail, it's not going to attract as many of the top brands as if it were in a market with less competition.

    Most of the finest vendors will have their retailers sign exclusivity agreements or have such a limited market that selling to all the players in a market isn't feasible.

  2. [beating a dead horse] I miss Parisian and I really dislike Belk [/beating a dead horse]

  3. I have a few vague memories of this mall before it got added to/renovated. (I was 4 or 5 at the time, but I do have a pretty good childhood I remember that the Saks Fifth Avenue had two elevators and they were in the middle of the store (instead of the one set in a back corner today) and there was a spiral staircase across from it. I can't specifically recall escalators in there at the time. That may have something to do with me being in a storller at the time.

    Can anyone else recall this at Saks?

    I also remember making multiple trips to Niketown (RIP) as a kid because my sister would work there during the summers when she was home from college and we always got sneakers there on discount. And let's not even get started on Lord and Taylor...I felt like my childhood wardrobe came out of that store.

  4. I remember the staircase inside Saks too! They should have keep that bit of architecture, it was really rather classy I think.

    Also, as I recall, I thought Nordstrom demolished the old Lord and Taylor building and built their store from the ground (or top of the parking deck rather) up, but I could be wrong. Does anyone else recall them tearing down the old Lord and Taylor store? I really miss Lord and Taylor. :-(

  5. Brian: I really miss Ivey's and Thalhimers too and I really dislike what Dillard's and May Company did to their stores, but at some point you have to accept what happened and move on.

    Anon 5:34: Lord & Taylor's building is still there, but the interior and entrances have been extensively renovated.

  6. Maybe somebody has an answer to this one:

    I was in Phipps Plaza several times both before and after the renovation/expansion. At some point I came across a lower level to the Lord & Taylor store. It was being used as an academy of some sort [interior design or cosmetology or something like that]. The entrance to this level from a parking area made it seem as though Lord and Taylor at one point had a three-level store, but closed off the lower level at some point.

    Was this true, or was the lower level designed so that they could expand the store if they needed to later?

    1. Jim Bob, it was Bauder Fashion College in the lower level but I never remember L&T having a third level. Sad to say, but before L&T closed and Nordy's moved into the space, it was on a major decline in ATL.

  7. I think it was three floors, but closed it later. I think I asked my mom the same question some years ago, because it seemed rather odd to me too.

    I personally can't vouch for it because if it did, it happened before I was born (1988). But they did have those entrances in the parking deck that implied it did have a lower level.

  8. Speaking of lower level...Lenox hiding a big chunk of its plaza level still strikes me as strange. I noticed two stores in the mall had "basement" levels that should have opened into the plaza level mall. They also have a "Market Level" that apparently only serves for a diploma mill "university" and entrance to Bloomingdale's.

    There's more where that came from in regards to initial post skimmed the surface. What is frustrating me, though, is that I still cannot find anywhere that photo of Rich's 70's/80's mall entrance.

    1. I'm sure you've probably found a photo by now, but if not, the Rich's entrance at Lenox was pretty similar to all the other Rich's entrances across metro Atlanta in the 80s, green sign and all

  9. .....the nordstrom store was a complete re-build. lord and taylor was torn down completely.

    1. So Todd, what did L&T look like? Was it like the former North Point location (the standard look)?

    2. Yes, white building with black Lord & Taylor in script on the outside

  10. Hey J.T.

    When you say the stores that have a basement level, are you referring to the Banana Republic and Pottery Barn? I think the Plaza Level in that portion of the mall entails the "Professional Concourse" where there are offices and other things of the like. I even think there's a doctor's office or dentist or something down there. And as for the Market Level, it's the Market Food Court (hence the "Market Level") . And I think that "university" is taking the place of the old movie theater.

    I've always found Lenox's non-numerical floor nomenclature to be kind of interesting...

  11. Tres, I have actually been putting some work into Lenox Square lately in terms of posts. I have drafts of two new posts in regard to the mall attempting to give detailed accounts of all the changes to it. The whole Plaza Level phenomenon I've found highly intriguing.

    I left out many details in my first post, and I am hoping to bring more attention to historical details of the mall than I had previously. I just wish I could find that photo of the 1970's/80's Rich's mall entrance again. It was featured on an AJC photo collection a good while back, but I have not seen it since. It was a replica of Cobb Center's mall entrance...both done in 1972.

  12. That's pretty cool...Just to let you know, there are pictures of Lenox throughout the years on display on the Upper Level near the Bloomingdale's entrance. It's for their 50th anniversary.

    They have pictures from the 70's of the then-newly-enclosed main corridor. They had Circa-'72 pictures of the Davison's and Neiman-Marcus mall entrances, but interestingly, none of Rich's (unless I overlooked it). These were pretty cool...especially the Neiman's entrance with the those huge display "cubes", which I think were actually around until around 6 or 7 years ago.

    If you ever make your way down there anytime soon, you should check it out. And I'm looking forward to seeing your updates on Lenox!

    p.s. (and back on the subject at Todd, actually the Nordstrom is actually the old L&T building. They just did a very good job of renovating it (although I still believe that it seemed like it was bigger inside when it was L&T) I'm sure Nordstrom would've built a ground-up store as it's something the company actually prefers to do (they RARELY take over an old store), but given the unusual mall floor/parking deck floor correlation there, tearing down the L&T would've been an architecural, financial, and logical mess, so I guess they decided that simply renovating that particular store would be more cost-effective.

  13. Regarding the little known L&T basement...

    I worked at Lord & Taylor just after the completion of Phipps Plaza renovation in 1992.

    There is a basement, the only 2 ways to enter the basement at that time were via the underground parking lot or the elevator from another level from within the store.

    A large portion of the basement was leased to Bauder Fashion College. They had no affiliation with L&T but just happened to lease the space. The other part of the basement remained as storage for L&T. There were still old escalators down there, if I remember correctly, but they were tastefully boxed in at the top so there was no way to know there were there from the main floor level.

    Some older co-workers used to reminisce of the pre May Company days of L&T. Apparently L&T used to sell household furnishings and furniture and have a restaurant on the basement level. When the May Company took over they downsized L&T and completely eliminated the household furnishing, furniture and restaurant.

    Like the previous poster I would find it very hard to believe that Nordstrom did anything close to a complete tear down of any of the structure of the Lord & Taylor building, as the parking garage would have required a complete rebuild as well.

  14. The Silver Spoon/American Cafe closed a few weeks ago.

    The parking deck below the old mall is original to 1968. There are two underground levels, neither of which line up with the basement level of Saks and L&T. The Saks staircases look the same as they always have; Nordstrom altered the front and back entrances and left the side as it was. Originally, the back entrance had escalators from the doors up to the main floor, and the front entrance had a small corridor with access to the elevator. (Not ADA compliant, as you had to take the stairs to get to the elevator.)

    When I first started coming to Atlanta in the late 80s, the L&T restaurant was called Cafe AmericanStyle and was next to the hair salon in the northwest corner of the second floor. They were both torn out to expand the sales space.

    Saks originally had a grand curving staircase to connect the main floor (cosmetics/handbags/jewelry) with the lower level (men's, children's, gifts). Three elevators connected all three floors. There was no second-floor mall entrance, so the second floor (women's clothing) could only be reached by elevator.

    The second floor of the mall, toward Saks, was a walkway only on one side that ended with an elevator surrounded by a staircase.

  15. Hey J.T.

    I found this little gem on Flickr. Thought you may like it:

  16. That is a little gem! I sure would love to see inside pics...I bet swanky 60's was awesome to see although a tad dated in 1992.

  17. Actually, here's a circa-1985 interior pic. I've seen this one a long time ago though:

  18. Sorry about the comment overkill, but here's a circa-1986 Magazine ad for Phipps as well:

  19. Don't worry about "too many comments" LOL. That interior pic is awesome doesn't even look like the same mall! I would have absolutely loved to have seen that one-sided upper level like that.

  20. Yeah, the interior shot seems to be that area right in front of the Saks mall entrance where Mike was talking about. It's funny because like I said a long time ago, they started renovating the mall (and Saks, for that matter) when I was still just a toddler. But since we went there all the time back then (more-so for Lord and Taylor) I remember that Phipps looked different when I was little. I even feel like I remember it being under construction during the renovation, but I just can't for the life of me remember any specific details about how it looked inside, so that picture was definitely a help.

    Now, if someone could find an interior shot of Saks from back then, that would really jog my memory. It really was an elegant store back then that felt more like an cozy mansion, especially where that staircase was.

  21. So, J.T., what are your thoughts of this Legoland coming to Phipps?

  22. And here's another one (in color, this time)...

  23. Tres is correct - that picture is of the mall elevator and the stairs at the otherwise dead end of the second level in front of Saks.

    More memories - the store that is now Anne Fontaine on the corner of the Saks wing and the main court was previously H. Stern, the South American jeweler. Before that it was Parklane Hosiery.

    To the right of Parklane for many years was Abercrombie & Fitch, back when it sold sporting goods and high-end clothing. They moved to Lenox, moved back to their original spot at Phipps, then moved back to Lenox again (in the old FAO Schwarz spot).

    Tiffany is the only mall retailer in its original location from before the pre-Olympics renovation. Skippy Musket, a local estate jewelry store, was on the opposite corner where Theory is now.

    Next to Silver Spoon/Mozzarella's/American Cafe was Uncle Tai's, a high-end Chinese restaurant from Dallas. They shut down so suddenly the tables were still set for months after they closed.

    Legoland ate the food court, while the entire second floor stretch from the former Silver Spoon location all the way to Belk is empty except for one store - Benetton, which moved over from Lenox.

    I have some souvenir books with pictures of Atlanta from the mid-80s, and I know one has a shot of Parklane Hosiery and the escalators down to the parking deck below the center court.