Sunday, February 28, 2010

Gadsden Mall: Gadsden, AL

Gadsden, AL is another one of several small to medium sized cities located along US 431 (historically known as the Florida Short Route) and I-59.  It is located about 50 miles northeast of Birmingham and the state's largest mall, Riverchase Galleria.  It is also one of the more scenic locales in the state due to its crown jewel, Noccalula Falls Park, a city park built around a small gorge and amphitheater-style waterfall that remains a popular regional tourist draw.  The waterfall exists at the southern end of Lookout Mountain, a long limestone plateau with numerous significant natural features that extends northeast through Georgia to end at Point Park in Chattanooga.  The city itself is situated mostly at the foot of it with the Coosa River, one of Alabama's major rivers, flowing through it on the other side.  It is also a town that has historically been an industrial town, and its Goodyear plant remains operational despite an industrial base that has eroded in a similar fashion to many Midwestern towns.  It is a uniquely Northern situation in the Deep South where not only is the struggling local economy dependent on this industrial giant, but also of course Gadsden Mall.


Gadsden Mall sits in a fairly interesting setting.  It sits near the end of I-759, a spur off of I-59 into the city, and the mall is backed by Neely Henry Lake where it starts backing up the Coosa River.  The mall itself opened in 1974, and is a basic one level center that is today anchored by Sears, Belk, JCPenney and a 16 screen stadium-seating theater located off of center court.  It also has a small food court and one junior anchor, Books-A-Million.  Books-A-Million has been a godsend to second tier malls and markets overlooked by Barnes & Noble and Borders, though in many cases the chains overlap.  Ruby Tuesday previously operated at the mall as well, closing in a recent downsizing of the chain.

 

Here is a look at the north court.  Sears is to the left, the main mall is to the right and I am in the back right entrance corridor facing the front right entrance corridor.  Ruby Tuesday formerly operated in the background.  The first photo is a view along the main mall with Chick-Fil-A and the entrance to the built-in food court on the right just beyond it.  The direction of the photo is walking away from Belk to center court.


A look along the back right entrance corridor, which features a lot of wall with the sign of stores in the background.  The problem is that these aren't empty stores apparently.  It seems this was just a flaw in the design.

 

Facing the back right entrance.  I think that was the original movie theater on the left.

Gadsden Mall inside is a pretty basic design with a strange combination of some contemporary elements and some extremely vintage elements, but its interior design is far different from most malls these days.  In contrast with the drab white and tan scheme being applied to most malls, Gadsden Mall features a spacey violet blue and lime green throughout the mall oddly reminiscent of the late 70's when it was built to start with.  In the center of the mall is a large fountain, which was unfortunately covered in a Christmas display on my visit.  All the shops also have a fascinating angled overhang that slants toward the mall, and the skylights have been muted with a wavy pattern covering them up partially.

 

A view of center court facing the JCPenney wing (original main entrance).  Normally this is a fountain, but it was covered up for Christmas.

  

This less than ideal picture including the fountain was taken on May 3, 2008.  The slight difference in color is due to the fact I was using my older camera.


Another view along the main mall heading toward Belk this time.


 A look at the South court with the left front entrance court straight ahead and the back entrance behind me.  Belk operated there previously as Parisian, McRae's and Pizitz.  It was McRae's the longest.


A look along the left front entrance corridor walking away from Belk.

The main mall concourse is fairly healthy, though the fringes of the mall are definitely showing the effects of the economy.  The mall also features fairly strange long entrance corridors next to all four anchors with shops located only near the entrances with an otherwise big gap between them and the main mall.  This was not exactly the best planning, since these corridors did not integrate with the shops in the main mall.  Most of these have not done well, which gives these areas definite dead mall aspects.  At least one of those empty stores was an arcade, another an older theater and another a location of long-closed Morrison's Cafeteria.  All strangely had doors opening on the inside as well in lieu of the usual pull down metal grates today.  None of these shops remain operational along the back entrance corridors, though the ones facing the front of the mall were tenanted.  That is not exactly a surprise, either, since these backside stores faced nothing but Lake Henry and no department store exists on that side to lure shoppers.  Also, the food court seems to be rather anemic.  I'm not exactly sure why some food courts do well while others don't, but it seems food courts in small city malls definitely have a lot of trouble.  Of course, Chick-Fil-A proved a noteworthy exception as it remains faithful just outside of the food court.  Indeed, by 1974 they still had a ways to go before they mastered mall design for maximum sales per square foot but they were still more fun.


The Food Court, which at the time seemed to be struggling, a carousel attempts to draw children while the aroma of grease would draw the adults.  Since carousels were the rage in the 90's, I am guessing this came with the 1994 renovation and was likely a Woolworth's or McCrory's previously.

The anchor shifting over the decades has been highly confusing.  Belk has moved three times and JCPenney twice.  Only Sears has remained static.  The original anchors when the mall opened were Pizitz, Belk Hudson and Sears.  The Belk Hudson appeared to have the largest store, possibly two levels, but only one level was used if so.  The building still stands as the back anchor, and is now a theater.  Belk Hudson operated at the mall for around 20 years before closing the location in 1994, reopening in a new store in the front of the mall as just Belk across from the original Belk.  At that point, JCPenney took over the former location and operated there until it closed in 2000 due to a company restructuring.  In 2003, the former Belk Hudson/JCPenney was replaced with a stadium seating movie theater.


On the back of center court is the Premiere 16 Cinemas, which operated previously as JCPenney and Belk Hudson.

 

Across center court is this wing, which ends in JCPenney.  This was the original main entrance up to when Belk built in front of it in 1994 to replace its original Belk Hudson location in the back.


Another view of Belk, which made its third move to this spot.  If Sears wanted to trade, then they could warm their feet at every anchor spot in the mall.

 

Of course, Sears will have to die before they'll leave this spot.  In a town perfect for Sears, it has been holding firm here since 1974.

The Pizitz store (south anchor) had the most anchor changes.  It became McRae's in 1987 and remained so for years.  In 2006, Belk bought out McRae's.  The problem was, Belk was already at the mall.  As a result, Parisian replaced the former McRae's while the struggling Saks division was on its last legs.  Parisian was an odd fit for the mall, which was by no means upscale enough to support it, but this was a short-lived corporate move.  Belk soon abandoned its recently built location, moving into the former Parisian after buying it out and effectively taking control of both major department stores in Alabama.  The second Belk location did not remain empty long, though.  JCPenney wanted back into the mall, and they gutted the store for a brand new JCPenney.  This new one-level JCPenney features a very contemporary look inside and out, showcasing their new red logo and a radical departure from their often dingy looking stores in the past.  Its design is identical to the new free-standing store recently opened in Hiram, GA.  In all, this is an extremely confusing chain of events that took place, and I thank previous contributor Evans Criswell (The Mall) for clearing this up for me.

 

Entering the main mall from the north court with Sears behind me.

 

A happenin' spot in the mall with Gap on the right and Books-A-Millon on the left.  It looks like a wavy design was used to partly cover the industrial-style roof (or how was it originally?).


It doesn't look too complicated now, but this map in 1974 would completely disorient any potential shopper.

Aside from the department store musical chairs played to piped elevator music, Gadsden Mall has been renovated somewhat less than other malls.  Its last renovation came in 1994.  Malls like Gadsden Mall are in a precarious position today, but Gadsden Mall is better off than many like it in the state.  It is the right size for the market, its anchors are popular department stores and it is not situated too close to any other city.  It is also better off because Gadsden lacks many suitable building sites due to terrain, waterways and the odd configuration of the transportation infrastrucutre.  While there might be a better site for a mall land-wise, it would fail on other factors.  The mall, however, faces dangers related to the city itself.  The economy in the country is fragile enough right now, but the risk lies in the fact that Gadsden is an industrial town in an era when American industries have been closing and shipping overseas at a steady, even accelerated pace.  If for any reason, that plant closes it won't just be Gadsden Mall that suffers, but it will definitely be a casualty. I guess my point is that considering this mall was faring better in 2008, the economy in a relatively blue collar city is having an effect.

 

The front north entrance has a simple, but very contemporary touch.

  

But the rear south entrance is straight up 1974, I love it!  The window on the left was for the Morrison's Cafeteria, which was accessible just inside the door.

While I have painted a picture that seems less than rosy, I still want to point out that this is a successful mall with solid anchors and A-list tenants.  In fact, it has seen an enormous investment lately for a mall its size and age adding in a brand new JCPenney and Books-A-Million as two major anchor tenants.  How many other malls these days are getting new department stores?  In all, I think the food court is probably the biggest problem it faces, which seems to have seen its better days.  I still find that odd, though, considering that a trip on any given day to the mall greets you with a full parking lot, and the mall is not to any knowledge on any dead mall lists.  In fact, when I visited on a random Saturday in spring 2008 it was swamped.

 

The only thing that is not 1974 in this photo is the Sears logo.  Too bad they changed it.  The strange stone they used on the gray part of the exterior made the store look even older.  A plaque denoting opening day is found on the front.


From this angle, you would think the mall was new with JCPenney and Books-A-Million sporting their latest looks.



Belk has been considerably modernized on the outside, though it is not known which store did that.  It still has similarities to the original Pizitz, though.


While this loud theater entrance is the first thing you notice, this is the same building that Belk Hudson and JCPenney used.  You can faintly make out a Belk Hudson labelscar on the upper left.

  

Sears also has an auto center off-mall.  Since the 70's, most Sears Auto Centers are built into the store itself in lieu of an outlot.

For me, while it is a simple mall I am charmed by the vintage trappings including the big modern fountain, moody colors and left-over architectural styles from the era it was built.  While not particularly special, it is a mall that makes me feel nostalgic for those like it in my youth such as long-demolished Riverbend Mall in Rome, GA.  It also helps, too, that Gadsden as a city is noticeably more modest in its retail offerings placing more emphasis on the mall.  In an era where 25 year old malls are treated as dinosaurs, this 36 year-old mall serves its purpose well, and it also continues to provide one badly needed climate controlled escape from the Alabama humidity which tends to be severe in the Coosa Valley.

 

A mall panorama from JCPenney to Sears on the front.


A stucco clad sign is found on the road, replacing the much more distinct tuning fork used for the original mall logo.

More Gadsden Mall images, ads and drawings coming from opening day are coming on the next post!

6 comments:

  1. This mall has done very well ever since it opened, and is very lively on a Saturday night. This is the mall I got to see most often as a kid since it's the one my parents went to (mainly for Sears). I always remember the north end of the mall (the Sears parking lot) looking low-class and run-down since the major power line infrastructure runs through that parking lot. It looks the same as it did when I was a kid except for the newer Sears logo and the area where the lawn mowers used to be displayed being covered up by that tacky looking wall or whatever to the right of the store entrance. The layout of that Sears has changed somewhat on the inside. The tools and such are still in the wing to the right of that entrance, but the electronics and most of the clothing sections have moved. As you walked from that entrance stright ahead to the mall, the men's department was on the right before reaching the mall. The stereo department was in the middle of the store, but in a different place than before (I think it was on the opposite side of the middle).

    After walking into the mall from Sears, I remember Record Bar being the first store on the right past the hallway leading to the Mall Triple Cinema and the arcade. Until 1986 or 1987, it was the only record store in the mall until Camelot Music moved into the other end occupying half of what fye has now. I bought quite a bit from both of these stores back in the 1980s.

    Anyway, the arcade moved across from the Mall Triple Cinemas in the early to mid 1980s. The arcade used to be down near Pizitz and was the last store on the left before the hallway leading to the left before Pizitz. After the arcade moved across from the theatre, that corner of the mall was active since both businesses were open after normal mall hours. There were no other stores between the theatre and arcade and the main mallway because the walls were the sides of stores with entrances elsewhere.

    Pizza Boy used to be in the hallway to the left after coming out of Sears. Ruby Tuesday was there later. Across from Ruby Tuesday at the mall entrance was Radio Shack, back before Radio Shack was slowly transformed into what it is today.

    That hallway at the far end leading from Pizitz to the old Morrison's Cafeteria was always bland. It had the restrooms in a strange little place on the left (going toward the exit).

    I still visit this mall every 2-3 months, usually after going to Birmingham and stopping by on the way back to be coming back a different way. Saturday night is the most probably time for me to end up there and it's never dead then. That's a good sign.

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    1. I loved the Pizza Boy, which served some of the best Pizza I ever had in my life.
      I also have fond memories of the Exchange Lounge.

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  2. Gadsden Mall, like Quintard Mall, has continued to do well despite the current recession and the long term problems that Gadsden and Anniston have had with job losses since the 1970's. Anniston is becoming an exurb of both Birmingham and Atlanta, so the closing of Ft. McClellan and loss of industry has been somewhat mitigated. Gadsden is just now beginning to transform into a Birmingham exurb.

    Gadsden was bypassed by the expansion of both retail and housing from the 80s-00's, so the overbuilding and runup that plagued many areas never happened. Despite the loss of industry, there hasn't been a massive decrease in population. Gadsden city peaked at over 55k in 1950 and declined to 38k in 2000, with 36k as the current estimate. But the surrounding suburbs of Rainbow City, Southside, Glencoe, and Hokes Bluff have gained almost as much as the inner city lost, while Attala has remained stable.

    Rainbow City and Southside are fairly affluent for a city of this size. Gadsden Mall was fortunate to be located close to this area. The anchor mix of Sears, JCPenney and Belk do well in this size city as well, and the inline stores seem to be doing well. New development along Alabama 77 to I-59 exit in Rainbow City may eventually result in the mall losing relevance. Ruby Tuesday has set up shop near the new Walmart Supercenter in that area, so I wouldn't be surprised if a power or lifestyle center is in the works.

    In the early 90s, I lost a tire to the potholed condition of I-59 between Birmingham and Gadsden, and had to make an emergency stop at the Sears Auto Center. Aside from the logo change, the exterior of the mall is little changed.

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  3. In the early 90s, I lost a tire to the potholed condition of I-59 between Birmingham and Gadsden, and had to make an emergency stop at the Sears Auto Center. Aside from the logo change, the exterior of the mall is little changed. - same here KEN!

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  4. I remember fondly a Baskin Robbins at the end of the hallway on the Pizitz/McRae's side. An Asian family I believe ran the ice cream shop. It closed, sadly, sometime during my early teens (1990 approx.?)

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  5. Antone remember the Orange Bowl? They had the best hot dogs around.

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