Sunday, May 16, 2010

Houston Mall: Warner-Robins, GA

Once in awhile, I run across a mall so completely dead I wonder how it keeps the doors open. Malls like this tend to be creepy, run down, moldy and void of any reason anybody would want to go there unless they are, of course, a modern history photographer like myself. Houston Mall (pronounced "How-ston") is indeed a textbook example of a dead mall in one of Georgia's military towns. It is small, old, somewhat run down and creepy, but actually was not moldy at all and quite clean despite the fact it barely functions as a retail center in any form anymore. At 364,000 square feet, it was never much of a mall...a small, simple center with all of the trappings of a typical late 60's/early 70's mall. Nevertheless, finding malls of this vintage tend to be very difficult since those of this style in that period are centering on 40 years of business meaning they are either demolished, extensively renovated or expanded. The fact that the owners discovered that it could handle a myriad of uses is why the doors stay open and the air conditioner running in the sweltering Middle Georgia heat.


When the actual mall opened in 1971, it was more than just an enclosed mall. It was actually appended onto an existing strip mall that had opened in 1968, which made it a rare hybrid strip mall and enclosed shopping mall. The mall portion included anchors Belk Matthews and Sears with an existing Grant's tying onto the mall as the north anchor. Also previously existing in the strip mall portion was A&P grocery store, which was in a separate portion of the strip detached from the mall. In addition there was Elmore's, obviously a five-and-dime operation, that fronted the mall but had no mall access and may not have predated the mall. Eckerd Drugs was included in the mall with an old-fashioned soda counter [1]. Grant's was the first closure at the mall when it liquidated with the chain in 1976. After closing, Key Wholesalers Showroom took over the spot until it closed in the mid-1980's [1]. The former Elmore's location also saw new life operating as Goody's until it joined Belk and Sears at the new mall in 1994. It is curious as to why neither Burlington Coat Factory nor JCPenney ever considered that location. For the time it was built, Warner-Robins was a small town whose growth largely centered on Robins AFB (now Robins ARB), so the mall at that time was just right. Because it was a hybrid of the enclosed mall and strip mall, it also was one of the few true all-in-one shopping plazas where, as John Belushi said in Blues Brothers, "This mall has everything!".


Upon entering the mall, a few shops remain close to the outside entrance. Le Nails is the shop with the neon sign to the left. The first photo is of the mall sign, which is about as plain and old-fashioned as you can get.


Walking from center court towards the former Sears. The kiosk is original. It intermittently functions as a hot dog stand, but originally it was an Orange Julius.


Continuing toward what was Sears, no stores to be found here on the right. I wonder what the store was with the wood trim.


Approaching ahead is the former Sears. Medical billing offices took over the former Eckerd Drugs location on the left. Straight ahead is the Houston Medical Pavillion, which operated as Sears until 1994.


Looking back from the former Sears, this photo attempts to capture the entire length of the mall.

Inside, the mall is a basic t-shape with a non-functioning fountain in the center, a few planters, high windows, a few small skylights and flooring that looks original. About the only renovations that appear to have ever been done is the bizarre and depressing blue color painted on all the ceiling tiles and the addition of some new painting and trim. This mall has every reason to be boarded up or demolished, and the fact it hangs on 16 years after it was replaced is very odd. The only reason it is even open today is primarily due to the creative non-retail reuse. The old Sears is now Houston Health Pavilion, an outpatient center. Belk Matthews now houses the Air Force Reserve Command. Warner Robins Municipal Court uses one of the spaces in the mall in what was previously a book store. Also in the mall is a law firm, doctors office, tax service and janitorial service. The only actual retail left in the mall is near the front featuring a nail salon and a beauty supply store. Evelyn's, an upscale dress shop, obviously gave up before I arrived. Penny Pinchers Home Decor took over the former north anchor at some point once held by Grant's, but appeared to be either closed or out of business when I was there. In other words, with a few exceptions there is no real reason to go there. I did, however, observe two mall walkers while I was there so it still serves that purpose.


On the left is the former Belk Matthews mall entrance, which reminds me of a prop on The Price Is Right. The old fountain is visible to the right, which was completely dry.


Another view of the former Belk Matthews mall entrance. Were those doors there it or was some stuff plastered over with sheetrock?


Directly across from the Belk Matthews entrance is the opening to the main entrance corridor shown in the second photo.


A map I made of Houston Mall the way it was laid out when it opened.

The strip portion of the mall does not appear to be faring much better, but it is not empty. Tenants outside appeared to be those that were attracted to the low rents offered meaning all non-government were small mom 'n' pop businesses. One of those, a new/used office furniture store is located in the old Winn-Dixie, but did not appear to be open. A Disabled Veterans Services office is next door is there as well along with a hair salon, alterations shop and a local ministry in the corner. A local furniture store looks to be in what was either the Elmore's or the former Eckerd Drugs. In all, the mall inside and out reminds me of The Mall in Huntsville just before it was demolished except for the cheap stucco early 90's renovation.


I am now headed toward the former Grant's, which did not appear to operate as anything since then. On the right is the Warner Robins Municipal Court where those in the town treated to blue light specials often wind up.


This brick-fronted store piqued my curiosity as to what it was.


This is possibly one of my favorite shots of the mall. It reminds me of photos I've seen of Dixie Square Mall when it was still in business. A law office sits in the store with the faux arches.


The mall entrance to Penny Pinchers Home Decor, originally Grant's, obviously is not functioning as such anymore. It looked creepy with this brick entrance and Persian rugs piled up everywhere inside.

Houston Mall as it is was built in a strange location. It is situated on top of a hill at the intersection of Watson Blvd (SR 247 Connector) and Houston Road (Old SR 11). It is situated both away from the interstate and away from SR 247 (US 129), the major north-south highway connecting Macon to Hawkinsville through Warner-Robins. It was clearly built largely to serve the military families, and by and large it was a community mall since at that time the better shopping was found at Westgate Mall and in Macon. Since the area was largely undeveloped before the 1990's, the mall thrived for over 20 years.


A back entrance is found next to the old Grant's entrance. Apparently the entrance opposite to this one was sealed off years ago.


This shop next to that entrance was sitting empty. Was this where Evelyn's was?


Another view of the dead store, which looks 60's with its main-street style entryway.

By the time the 90's rolled around, Houston Mall was not adequately serving the needs of the area. With substantial growth taking place pulling away stores from the strip combined with a very basic mall, Zamias realty planned and constructed a new mall closer to I-75 in the Centerville community. Called the Galleria, the new mall was subpar by big city standards, but it was spectacular in comparison to the dreary Houston Mall. The new mall would also have far more anchor space as well, and in the process would easily lure away Belk Matthews and Sears. Both stores were joined by JCPenney and Goody's at the new mall, and in all it seemed that Houston Mall would have simply died and been demolished overnight. Many older malls were meeting the wrecking ball the year that Houston was essentially replaced in 1994, but Houston Mall's offbeat location close to the center of Warner Robins is probably why the mall found new uses in the years since.


Now, I am standing in front of the old Grant's looking back toward Sears on the opposite end of the mall. Here, I showed some detail of one of the four planters I noticed in the mall. The planters are located under the largest overhead skylights, which are a simple domed design.


Here, I am walking back toward the main entrance from the main mall. That seating area looks very odd.


Here, I am looking just inside the main entrance doors. The ceiling through here looks like shiny brass. From this angle, the mall looks lively and the parking lot outside was not exactly empty.

Other than that, I can only speculate as to why Houston Mall holds on. It is partly a strip mall, and for its size it could easily be transformed into a myriad of other uses besides a mall. The over-retailed environment along Watson Blvd has done little to make the mall appealing. Even worse, it is not facing Watson Blvd, and it is mostly removed from the bulk of the shopping that has sprung up around the Galleria. Despite the 3-4 stores that still operate in the mall, the medical center and government offices the fact that the lights are still on and anybody is even there is something to behold. The strip mall part outside is also just as dead as the mall itself, and the gray stucco retrofit only made the mall look worse.


"Penny Pinchers Home Decor", formerly Grant's, from the outside, which looks to be very much out of business. There is a small store on the end, which I understand was a Radio Shack. There is a small gap that separates the mall from the old Winn-Dixie strip portion just to the right.


The Winn-Dixie portion of the strip with the former Winn-Dixie in the center.


Looking back along the rest of the Winn-Dixie strip toward the mall. The old Grant's store is visible on the left. To all appearances, this is still fully tenanted.


Houston Mall's main entrance from the outside. A store called "Furniture Express" next door I believe was either where Eckerd's was, but I cannot confirm this.

One thing I pondered on was to whether Houston Mall could be revived through an expansion. That would basically mean that on at least one side of the mall, a new two-level portion was constructed luring in JCPenney and subsequently luring back Sears and Belk. This would, of course, mean buying adjacent property and would also mean the death of the mall that killed Houston Mall, but this is pure harmless fantasy. Obviously, Belk and Sears would both have to be reconstructed, possibly as two level stores, to accommodate the addition. I see a couple scenarios on how this could be built. One would be purchasing the lot next to the southwest corner of the mall and expanding the mall over that area extending from the southwest entrance. This would give a new JCPenney high visibility, and the new mall addition would essentially have escalators drop down to the lower level portion since the adjacent lot is on a lower grade. The new wing would make the mall far more appealing from the road.


While not the best angle of Sears, it is the one I had to use because the sun was making photos of the mall from the east side near impossible.


Here is a side view of the Sears, which I should have taken from the opposite angle but for some reason didn't. This was obviously the old customer pick-up area.

Another idea to fix this dead mall would be to expand the mall through the former Grant's location and turn it back east toward the parking lot where the old Winn-Dixie and strip is. The strip would be demolished and replaced with the same JCPenney store. In the first scenario, the old Grant's would either be converted to mall space or a junior anchor such as Books-A-Million or Barnes & Noble could fill the spot. The second scenario could replace the old Winn-Dixie strip mall portion with the same bookstore connected to the mall. Any way it was done, though, the original mall would have to be extensively renovated inside and out to make it more appealing. Would anybody want this, though? Such drastic measures saved previously dumpy Oglethorpe Mall in the 90's.


A Belk Matthews labelscar is barely noticeable on the side of this building. While the logo is not there, you can tell by the holes in the side of the building.


I never remember Belk entrances looking like this, but I also never remember a Belk from 1972. Obviously no arches were put at this store, and the design is completely brutalist.


A side view of the store with the sun casting an eerie glow on the side of the building. Where was the sign from this side? I couldn't make any labelscars from this side anywhere.

In all, Houston Mall is one of many second generation malls that still litter the landscape. Way past its prime and no longer a retail destination, the mall has avoided redevelopment. This is most likely due to the huge amount of sprawl to the west and easily available land in the area that the mall found new life despite complete failure as a retail shopping mall. Its plain and dark design is probably the reason that nobody ever tried to remake the center, but there is still an outside possibility that one day someone might try to revive it such as what I suggested if they had enough cash to do it. The most likely scenario, though, is that the enclosed mall will eventually be sealed off with different parts reverting to various non-retail uses. Still, as the mall in its state approaches 40 years old it is amazing that it is still around and open to the public.



ALSO: Check out this video link above on You-Tube created by KA Turner of the mall. The video entitled "Ill Mall Housto" was designed as a parody of never-released Paw Filmworks DVD about Dixie Square Mall.

[1] Turner, KA. (2010, May 14). Houston Mall. [Electronic mail message].

39 comments:

  1. I've read that the Elmore's junior anchor was later a Goody's until that store moved to the Houston County Mall in 1994.

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  2. Warner Robins lacks a true downtown and much of the older strip centers and Houston Mall seem to function much like the downtown of an older city of similar size. Plans to eliminate the urban/suburban blight of the older strips and create a true downtown have taken effect for a small section of Warner Robins. Traffic is generally heavy on Watson Boulevard, so despite its location, customers/patrons/clients are abundant.

    A&P had a non-centennial store in Houston Mall as well, though I'm not sure of its location. It was short lived, replaced by the Family Mart just north of the mall by 77-78, on North Houston Road. Family Marts were ahead of their time in offering a food-drug combination superstore in the Deep South, the sole region A&P operated the format, which should have been rolled out chainwide and more extensively in the region. Eddie Floyd, who frequently contributes to Groceteria, would be the one to tell where it was.

    Houston Mall reminds me very much of the now defunct Cleveland Mall in Cleveland, Tenn. with the exception of the strip center portion. Cleveland Mall was anchored by Sears, JCPenney and Roses. The brick facaded store even resembles the facade of the old Morrison's Cafeteria in Cleveland Mall, though appears to small to have been a Morrison's. I suspect a salon or boutique is the more likely tenant. That this mall still stands allows someone to experience what malls such as Cleveland Mall and Riverbend Mall felt like.

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  3. One correction to your post. The spot that you have outlined on the overhead map of the mall actually started out as an A&P supermarket. The A&P and Grants were actually opened in 1968, and the surrounding mall was built around them, Sears and Belk opened in the mall in 1970.

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  4. I made the corrections all of you mentioned here...I assume the mall was just tacked onto the end of Grant's when it opened, right? Was A&P there ever anything else? Also...I need to know if there were any other stores located in the old Grant's and Elmore's that I failed to mention.

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  5. Did a little digging. Key Catalog closed in 1988.

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  6. Well done. I am freaked that Houston Mall was predated by the attached strip containing Grants and Winn-Dixie. I remember the last Christmas I shopped at Grant's. There was a cubby hole on the northeast end of the store with wooden tables. I also remember Belk's being in the old Williams Plaza on Watson in the early Seventies.

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  7. When we moved to Warner Robins in 1966, the only places to shop were Miller Plaza and Williams Plaza. Houston Mall was such a step-up when it was built! Back then, it was good enough. I remember the Braves coming there to sign autographs, and singing there at Christmas with the church youth choir. How has time passed by so quickly.

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  8. I spent my childhood in Houston Mall. I was born in 1966 and my mother worked at Grants in the collections department. I stayed with my grandmother as a little girl and because she didn't drive, we would walk to Grants and have lunch with my Mother in the cafeteria. I had my 10 birthday party at the Dipper Dan Ice Cream Parlor (on the right as you walked thru the front doors of the main entrance). One of the favorite past-times of the kids and teens of Warner Robins was to play the video games and air hockey at the "Barrel of Fun" located right outside Grants to the far right corner. There was a giant wooden barrel that we had to walk thru to go inside the entrance. Those large sheetrocked areas over the old Belks were giant windows where all the young teenage girls drooled over the clothes and make-up we all wanted. Only the "coolest" kids had the clothes from Belks. We all bought our prom dresses from Evelyns located directly in front of Belk's on the corner and across from Orange Julius.

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  9. Penny Pinchers is in fact open, but the inside gate you saw is always closed. The only entrance is from outside. They have clearly closed off several stores which once were separate.

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  10. This is one of my most popular mall posts. Suppose it has to do with it being a living dead mall in an everlasting time warp? :)

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  11. This was literally right down the street from me. Every time I went to town I passed this place. Been in it a few times but mostly the big crafts shop anchor and I used to visit the old Radio Shack outside the place quite often.

    When you entered this place, you could SMELL it was old. But it had some interesting and nice people working there. The few times I went in, I felt "transported" back to the 70's and 80's.

    Thanks again for another cool blog post!

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  12. Did Belk Matthews come later? It is possible it was added on in the mid to late 70's, and it's odd location in the mall definitely suggests it as well.

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  13. The Galleria was an interesting story in itself I recall. The mall was half-finished and the developers ran out of money, and it just sat there as a conspicuous pile of red girders for a good year or so, giving the Houston Mall a stay of execution. When I was a kid I never thought that thing would get finished.

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    1. What happened with the Galleria is when the contractors built the metal frames, they settled more into the ground than expected. The skeleton stood for a long time before the problem was fixed and construction resumed.

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  14. Maybe I'm misremembering, but I swear the brick storefront is where Evelyn's was.

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  15. Also, TenPoundHammer is sort of correct-- it's the Grant's location, not Elmore's, that was home to Goody's.

    Before Goody's, it was a department store called Wilbro (and I have *no* idea why I remember that).

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  16. My husband was stationed at Robins AFB in the late 80's and my first job in the area was at Houston Mall. I worked at the Maurices in 1987-1988 before taking a job at Lerner in the Macon Mall. This was a nice little mall. I remember a busy Chickfila, KB toys was located right beside the Maurices, Sears, Belk, Service Merchandise, Eckerd, Brooks, Evelyns and a record store(can't remember the name).I remember this location being very convienent b/c when we first arrived in Warner Robins we lived in a complex called Tanglewood. Always thought it was weird that this city didn't seem to have a downtown. We left Warner Robins and returned to North Carolina in 1994 and the mall had already declined w/The Galleria that was sceduled to open in Centerville. Sad to see that this is now a Dead Mall. We enjoyed this mall back in the day.

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    1. The record store was Starship Records and Tapes. I would go there on Wednesdays and get double stamps. There was some guy in there in the late 80s still dressing like Don Johnson from Miami Vice. It was hilarious!

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  17. Sir, the mall is 94% leased and Home Decor has been there 14 years and has 70,000 sq. ft. of retail. Before you write, get the facts.

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  18. Of that 94%, how much is retail? If it's less than 30%, that is still a dead mall even if it's repurposed. Sears and Belk Matthews are long gone and the only "shoppers" that are there are mainly there to buy a Get Out of Jail Free card for having too much fun in Warner-Robins.

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  19. The record store was called star ship records. It was on the left hand side of the main entrance.

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  20. In the 70's, next to Starship Records' location, was a pet shop. This was directly across from the old Dipper Dan Ice Cream. Later, the ice cream shop became a picture frame shop. Next to it, during the 80's, was an art supply store. Also, in it's prime the mall had a sporting goods store located near Sears (left side of mall if facing Sears) - I believe it later became a clothing store. For the life of me I can't remember the name of the sporting goods retailer. Across from it was Toy Land (later KB?), and next to Toy Land immediately ajacent to Sears was, I believe, the GAP. Eckerds was located on the south side of the entrance north of the main entrance near the book store. At the very end opposite Sears was the Barrel O' Fun which operated as an arcade during the 80's. Finally, there was a Radio Shack next to where the Home Decor place is.

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    1. Maurices was adjacent to Sears.

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  21. Home Deoor went out of business around the end of 2011.

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  22. Wasn't the sporting goods store a Wall's Sporting Goods? Been a long time....

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  23. I went by there a few weeks ago to meet my wife for lunch at the new academy sports store, and I seen the label scar for Grant's!! Thought it was pretty neat to see since they closed the penny pincher store!!!

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  24. The Macon Telegraph at Macon.com advises that Houston Medical Center has bought the old mall as of today. http://www.macon.com/2012/09/18/2181827/houston-medical-center-buys-old.html#storylink=rss#wgt=rsshp

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  25. FWIW, voting goes on right around that fountain for elections.

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  26. Wall sports was there

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  27. To codeman 38, you are remembering correctly! Evelyn's was indeed the brick-front store. I can't tell you how many hours I spent there! Across from the entrance to Belks, if you are facing out as if you're inside the front doors of Belks, there was a shoe store on the right side of the long hall that leads out to the front entrance of the mall. All the way down to the far right on the way into Sears where the doctor's office is now was Chic-Fil-A. Oh, and back outside in the strip mall where the used office furniture store now occupies the old Winn Dixie building, there is a store with an oddly shaped window/door that looks kind of "futuristic" (if you were a kid in the 60's-70's). That was Jakana Grooming Salon where my poodle had her hair clipped for years. It was catercorner from Grant's, which later became Service Merchandise. I walked through the mall a couple of years ago, just reminiscing, and I could remember most of the stores and their locations. I loved that entire place, and I'm so happy that it's still there and intact.

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  28. Why didn't anyone mention Smoke's Bar and Grill there..best place in town to get a real drink.

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  29. Remember going there on opening day as a 7 year old....great memories. Believe Elmore's was on the west side, between Belks and Sears.

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  30. I have so many memories of Houston Mall.
    When I got married, I lived right across the street from it for years and I had my first job as a Christmas gift wrapper and when I was pregnant with my first child I walked over at least once a week for a hot dog and Orange Julius. I bought my groceries at Winn Dixie for years. I worked at the Bookland in the mall for 4 years and I only lived two blocks away for 13 years. And now I live about 1/4 of a mile and I smile every time I pass her. It is beautiful memories for me.

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  31. The mall has now been purchased by the Medical Center. They will let the ones still located there rent from them. It will keep life in the old mall for many years to come.

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  32. "whose growth largely centered on Robins AFB (now Robins ARB)" ARB means to me "Air Reserve Base".... I've been serving now going on 30 years and hate to tell you Robins is not a RESERVE base..... Far from it..... It is alive and well and the state's largest industrial complex as well as the states single largest employer..... It is a city within itself...

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  33. The Furniture Gallery has since left due to the purchase by the Hospital which is now expanding the Pavilion into the mall area.

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  34. The Grants was first...then the Sears section. We had the county fair that year, in between the two anchor stores before they finished the mall.

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  35. I just went by the old Houston Mall tonight and it's under full renovation so it certainly isn't going to remain dead for long. I don't know what's going up but they aren't doing a massive amount of work without reason.

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