Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Hillcrest Shopping Center/Hillcrest Mall: Spartanburg, SC

An accurate description of Hillcrest Mall is that it is a mall that never should have been built. What details exist of this mall online up to now are quite inaccurate, but looking through old newspaper articles should clear up the confusion. Basically, Hillcrest Mall started out as Hillcrest Shopping Center, which opened as strip mall in 1956 anchored by a mere three tenants: Community Cash, Smith-Ouzts Drugs and Hall Hardware. It was just an early strip mall with no department stores and not even a grocery store, but it continued to expand over the next decade. It has always been very successful as a strip mall as well, but its later mall expansion could hardly share that claim of success. With that, Hillcrest was definitely not the first mall in Spartanburg, but it definitely was the first strip shopping center.


Aerial shot of original Hillcrest Shopping Center in Spartanburg after a new expansion in 1964.

The first change at Hillcrest Shopping Center came in 1964. This was when a new A&P Grocery store was added to the strip as well as a Lambert's variety store. Other tenants in the 1964 shopping center included Amelia Anne Gifts, Hillcrest Styling Salon, The Cobbler Shop, Crestmont Restaurant, Smith-Ouzts Drugs, The Carousel Shop, Hillcrest Coin-Operated Laundry, Wallace Hunt Furniture, Jennings Shoes, the Barn, Friendship Room (group meeting place), Hlllcrest Barber Shop, Cambridge House, The Pastry Shop, Ellis Clothes of Distinction and Community Cash. Community Cash and Smith-Ouzts Drugs remained through the expansion. A couple other listed tenants were part of the new expansion. The biggest change to date, however, came in 1965. This is when a new Belk Hudson opened at the center, bringing a legitimate department store to the shopping center nearly 10 years after its construction. This store was added onto the north end of the strip, which created the first suburban location for Belk Hudson in the city.


Belk Hudson at Hillcrest Shopping Center prior to opening in 1965.  This was the only department store found in the original strip center, located on the end of the shopping center.  It was built after the last photo, but it would be located at the top if so.

South Carolina as a whole was slow to catch on to the mall craze. Richland in Columbia was probably the very first mall, but it was not until 1968 that Greenville opened the state's very first enclosed mall with McAlister Square.  While most cities of any size had a mall by 1965, Spartanburg had no mall even though I-85 was already built in the city. In fact, no mall of any kind existed in the city until 1975 when Westgate opened. Westgate featuring another Belk Hudson and Meyers-Arnold, which was based downtown. Although the two Belk stores overlapped, the two shopping centers co-existed peacefully. One was a mall, and the other was just a regular strip shopping center. Basically, you would buy groceries at Hillcrest and do your big shopping at Westgate, right? Wrong.

Jim Wilson & Associates, who had previously built many smaller malls including Jessamine Mall in Sumter, changed the plan for Hillcrest in the early 80's. Apparently Ivey's was looking for a store in the city, and Belk Hudson obviously needed a boost at the center. This was not a traditional mall in any sense. Instead, it was a mall appendage onto the existing shopping center. This new mall would be built leaving all of the existing shopping center in place, renovating the Belk Hudson and giving Ivey's a mall to be attached to in lieu of simply opening a store at Westgate Mall.


Ivey's under construction at Hillcrest in 1982.

Astoundingly, the major reason that Jim Wilson gave for building a mall on the undeveloped part of the site was that his daughter was in college in the area and "[He] was looking for a reason to come up and see her more often." [1] Huh? I understood he missed his daughter, but couldn't he have just built a Richway there or something? Unfortunately, this kind of logic applied often in ill-fated, poorly researched mall projects in the 70's, 80's and early 90's, which is the biggest catalyst behind the dead mall phenomenon today.  Market research and careful planning are incorporated much more in large scale retail projects today even though some still charge ahead without any thought.

Opening day comes on August 12, 1982. Dignitaries arrive to celebrate a mall that has a mere 110,000 square feet with 29 stores. If this had been built in 1965, it would have been worthy of a governor's visit, but why build this in 1982 when there is already another mall? Ivey's opened with 60,000 square feet of space to add to the mall, and the existing Belk brought the entire mall portion to little over 200,000 square feet. The mall was also built with the idea of expansion to a third anchor, which was promised but never materialized. The rest of the older strip shopping center was unaffected by the new mall except maybe in increased business. The mall itself was single level with breaks built in to deal with the sloping terrain it was built on. Inside were typical early 80's trappings such as planters and earthtones, though the mall did have skylights.


Ribbon cutting at Hillcrest Mall in 1982.  This is apparently center court, though it is difficult to tell.

Tenants in the new mall were not exactly those desired in a first-tier shopping mall. While chains such as Casual Corner, Waldenbooks, Hallmark, Radio Shack, GNC, Morrison's Cafeteria and Baskin Robbins were found in the new mall, most tenants when the mall opened were small locally-operated tenants. These "specialty shops" filled a mall when they were new, but they meant that the mall was a flop from the start. Unfortunately, the retail graveyard is full of small niche malls, and Ivey's here was definitely the niche that held it together.


Hillcrest Mall logo with part of the grand opening advertisement.  The logo seems strangely 90's, actually.

Now, fast forward to 1992. Owners already admit the mall is having vacancy problems, and less than 65 percent of the mall is leased even with anchors Belk and Dillard's. Dillard's has since replaced Ivey's, which was bought out in 1990. The buyout made people in the city very nervous noting that Dillard's was not exactly pleased with a smaller than usual store in a less than conventional mall in a new market, and Westgate was courting stores like Dillard's in a planned expansion. Even worse, the undersized mall in a less than ideal location was bleeding tenants. Chains stores in the mall were bailing out, while existing tenants were mad and the owners worried. [2]


Ivey's ad published after opening day.

In April 1995, the mall owners' worst fears were realized. Dillard's announced they were constructing a new store at Westgate Mall in an expansion, subsequently closing the Hillcrest store. After the new store was completed, Dillard's closed at Hillcrest in February 1997. At that point, all hope was lost for the long-struggling mall. Westgate was not doing this, though, just to do Hillcrest in. It was about survival. Rouse Company threatened Westgate's own well-being by planning its own huge regional mall anchored by White's, Dillard's and they were in talks with Rich's as well: long a coveted anchor in the city. Westgate's expansion was done to make sure that would not happen, but Hillcrest had to pay the price. [3] After Dillard's closed, the reason for the mall existing was over. Belk was cannibalizing its own sales operating stores at both malls, and in December 1997 Belk closed its older location at the mall after 32 years of operation.


Aerial shot of Hillcrest Mall on opening day.  This was the busiest the mall parking lot would likely ever be.  The new Ivey's store is in the foreground while the old strip mall is in the background on the other side of Belk Hudson.  This is all looking southwest.  The mall lasted a mere 16 years.

When Hillcrest failed, the owners wasted no time demolishing the mall. In June 1998, the last two tenants were kicked out and the mall closed. Demolition began on the mall in late summer 1998 and was completed late in the fall that year. In lieu of a mall, a new Super Kmart, Publix, movie theater and Stein Mart was constructed on the site. Hillcrest Mall lasted a mere 16 years, while Hillcrest Shopping Center was over 40 years old. Instead of a mall, Kmart should have been built there to start with.

Today, Hillcrest Shopping Center is a center full of big box tenants. While the offerings are more of the national chain variety, it has never faded. Kmart eventually closed, but the store was subdivided into Petco, Office Depot and Ross Dress For Less. However, Publix and Stein Mart continue to operate at the redeveloped center. Publix sits today where Belk Hudson was previously. The old A&P has also since been subdivided into smaller spaces. While the original strip is definitely showing some vacancies, it is doing very well considering it is Spartanburg's oldest shopping center.  Hillcrest indeed came full circle after 54 years, and it has withstood the test of time and a peculiar mall addition that proved not to be a wise move.  The stores are different, the look is different but Hillcrest is still there.

[1] Atkins, Nancy.  "Mall Opened Thursday, Two Months Ahead of Schedule." Spartanburg Herald-Journal.  13 Aug 1982. pg. B1
[2] Jean, Sheryl. "Hillcrest owners determined to survive". Spartanburg Herald-Journal. 11 Aug 1992. pg. B3
[3] Nelson, Kathy. "Dillard's to close its store at Hillcrest". Spartanburgh Herald-Journal. 13 Apr 1995. pg. A1

12 comments:

  1. You gotta love the Ivey's ad and funky zigzag canopy on Belk Hudson. Very nice.

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  2. Didn't realize the mall opened in '82. I remember going there in the late '80s and it already seemed tired, and I recall going there in the early '90s and seemed like a tired, dead mall, and the Belk's seemed ancient, from the entrance onward. Poor mall, although it seems to be doing fine now.

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  3. great story. I've been looking for info on Hillcrest for a long time. My brother lived in Spartanburg, near the mall, in the late 80s and early 90s.

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  4. To add: in the mall there was a Corn Dog 7 (right near one of the entrances), the Waldenbooks that was mentioned, maybe a Sound Shop or another music-type store?, an Avenue women's clothing store, and others that I can't recall. The mall really seemed tired even in the late 80s, when it was still new-ish.

    Spartanburg is not huge and this mall probably lasted for as long as it did because Westgate was even more decrepit until its 1990s re-do, despite being the dominant mall in town, and the downtown Belk store (a Belk affiliate, called the Leader), which survived until probably the mid-90s, was the most decrepit of all.

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  5. Hey there,

    I read this blog about Hillcrest Mall. Although I appreciate the timeline and I even learned some things I didn't know, I strongly disagree with your assessment:

    "An accurate description of Hillcrest Mall is that it is a mall that never should have been built."

    I loved that mall growing up. It was simple in its layout, but I felt like in many ways it was far better than Westgate. Westgate won out in survival, but in terms of character and uniqueness, Westgate failed and still does today, IMHO.

    For you or anyone else who is interested, I created a tribute group to Hillcrest Mall on Facebook called Hillcrest Mall: Bringing Good Things Together, which you can join by clicking on my name at the top of this comment.

    Hillcrest may have not been fondly remembered by most people in Spartanburg, but it was and still is by me as well as others who've joined my group. I hope you'll take a look at it.

    Either way, even though I disagree with you, I still thank you for taking the time to write the blog.

    Tommy Thomas

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  6. Tommy,

    Please don't be offended by me saying that...I actually would have loved a mall like that myself...the reason I said it is because it was a major commercial failure built far too small. It was destined to fail and only held on as long as Ivey's held on. Note on my second latest post about malls converted to strips on how they actually do worse ultimately than the mall that it replaced. I am all for joining that group...thinking about making one myself for Cobb Center.

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  7. Hey J.T.,

    I'm sorry for being so quick to jump to conclusions. Thank you for clarifying that. The thing is, there were many people around here that didn't care for Hillcrest and they would berate it. I guess after you hear so much negativity about a mall that was so much a part of your childhood, it gets old after a while. My apologies to you!

    I really hope you'll join the group! Do you have any other pictures or info about Hillcrest? I'm really looking for color pictures of the mall, as all I've been able to find is microfiche pictures. I really enjoyed your timeline and history about the Hillcrest Shopping Center and eventually the mall. :)

    The mall had been in a decline probably starting in the late 80s/early 90s, and definitely became apparent by the mid-90s. When Dillard's left, that was really when it looked bad for Hillcrest. I had a gut feeling once Belk's closed, it would be 6 months or less before Hillcrest closed. Sadly, I was right.

    Does anyone here have any memories or pictures of the mall to share? I'd really appreciate anything you have to share! If you'd like to join the Hillcrest Mall: Bringing Good Things Together Facebook Group, please click on my name above my comment.

    J.T., I'd like to ask you if you would consider looking into writing a blog about Carolina Circle Mall, which was in Greensboro, NC? My good friend, Billy Coore... this was his all-time favorite mall. It was because of him that I was inspired to create the Hillcrest Mall FB Group. He has a website: http://www.homeofcarolinacirclemall.com. It has links to Carolina Circle City, which is his blog about Carolina Circle Mall and a link to the Facebook group he created called Carolina Circle Mall Fan Club. :)

    Thank you J.T. for writing this blog and please forgive me for my "knee-jerk" reaction. :)

    Tommy Thomas

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  8. Would you mind e-mailing me at skycityretail@gmail.com? I can respond to you better there than I can here. Yes, I would be glad to join your group :)

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  9. I was so excited to read about Hillcrest Shopping Center. It holds many memories for me.
    My grandmother owned and operated the very successful Ellis' Clothes of Distinction and the Barn. She was a revolutionary in that she was a woman business owner from the late 50's until the late 80's. Converse College girls and well-known (and not so well-known) Spartanburg women shopped at her stores. The clothes were for women of a era who cared about classic, well-made clothing.
    When I was a little girl, she bought clothes for me at the Carousel. I remember trying them on. I wore them for my elementary school pictures and church.
    Thanks for the memories!

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  10. I grew up on the east side of Spartanburg & Hillcrest was a frequent hangout as a teenager in the late 80's. But on top of being small, it always seemed to have vacant stores, so it didn't come as a surprise to me when it ultimately went under. An even more niche mall was the one in Gaffney - Waccamaw Pottery. It had bizarre stores like one devoted to just socks & I remember the demographic leaning hard towards senior citizen.

    Some random stores at Hillcrest I remember were Record Bar, the arcade (The Castle, maybe?), Pic-a-Book, the hobby shop (forget the name - had model airplanes & trains), Treasure Box, etc. I worked for a summer at Carmike 7 Cinema behind the mall. It's still open.

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  11. As a kid growing up in Hillbrook on the east side, I LOVED Hillcrest. It was the center of social life and I have so many great memories there. I was part of the Belk's modeling team and the center stage had many events of tiny local importance. Hillcrest may not have been. great idea in the grand scheme of things, but many of us old east siders loved it and are so sad its gone. Publix and Panera are great but they lack the soul of the unique old stores. I have some pictures of some of the modeling team events at the mall in center court near Corn Dog 7 and Basil's Sweets. :)

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