Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Kingsport Mall: Kingsport, TN

Back in 2003, a site was created called Kingsport.org that was a spoof of those gimmicky chamber of commerce websites.  The site was indeed hilarious, but it was very very harsh on this mountain city effectively enraging the city leaders, chamber of commerce and likely miffing much of the local populace who were being painted in a less than rosy picture.  To this day, I am wondering what motivated the webmaster of that site who featured, for example, a snarling possum as "local fauna".  It seems like he was getting even with the town for something.  While the site no longer exists, the site featured Kingsport Mall.  Why did they feature it?  To effectively trash the local retail scene as dead, backwards and ugly.  What the webmasters did, however, was actuality give us a rare glimpse into a well-preserved dead mall that opened in September 1970.  Unfortunately, I have only been able to save a couple photos of the mall, which was demolished for a strip mall known as East Stone Commons in 2002.  I attempted to contact the original webmasters of Kingsport.org to no avail.


When Kingsport Mall opened, the mall featured a classic T shape with two anchors: Montgomery Ward and Hill's discount department store.  Also included in the mall were the Martin Twin Theaters, which provided mall patrons a way to kick back after shopping.  The mall featured plain decor, lots of glass, brick, shiny metal and clean lines, which were common in malls built into the early 70's.  It still seemed adequate considering that The Miracle Mall in Johnson City was built on an even smaller, plainer plan though the Johnson City mall had the distinct advantage of better luck and better anchors.  In all honesty, it seemed like a cozy yet largely boring shopping experience especially after Fort Henry Mall opened.


This is the first of several photos I saved from the archives that were posted on Kingsport.org.  In this photo, you see Office Depot, which still exists unchanged, the min mall entrance and Ames in the background.  I cannot tell what store is beyond it, though it appears to be a drug store or dollar store.  The first image with the map of the mall says "unknown" for the last store.  I also suspect a Woolworth or McCrory's was next to the Martin Twin Theaters.  Photo from Kingsport.org.

Kingsport Mall never got much of a chance to soar.  Judging by the design, exterior sign and anchor positioning it looks like the mall is unmistakably similar and probably built by the same people as abandoned Lexington Mall in Lexington, KY. It was built way too small when it opened with a terrible anchor line-up, but such simple floorplans were unfortunately typical for the period.   I assume that in 1970 that the downtown stores did not want to invest into the mall, but only five years later they would all bound across town to Fort Henry Mall, which seemed terribly unfair.  Kingsport was dwarfed, but it was in a good location with anchors that had no intentions of leaving, which made it a decent ancillary mall into the 1980's.



The Kingsport Mall sign has a gothic look, but the overall design is IDENTICAL to the Lexington Mall sign in the link above.  What was taken off the other hexagon sign?  Note Martin Theaters at the bottom.  It looked really hot the day those were taken.  God, I love this sign!  Photo from Kingsport.org.


This looks to be the mall entrance adjacent to Hill's/Ames from the front.  Bassett's Dairy Bar looks to be a local establishment that figured out that no matter how low the rent that a mall with no customers is a poor business model.  Note the Martin Theater in the background.  I recall Martin Theaters owners sent a nasty letter to the owners of Kingsport.org who claimed the theater was out of business at the time, but I wasn't there.  The owners published it proudly.  I guess it was easy to bash the dead mall in town back in the 90's when you thought they would always be there.  Photo here from...Kingsport.org. 

The fact that Kingsport Mall held on as long as it did was pretty amazing.  Montgomery Ward, however, was pretty well stuck considering that Fort Henry Mall opened with both Sears and JCPenney despite the built-in anchor pad for a fifth anchor.  Five anchors back then was unheard of anyway.  Hill's was also reasonably successful until the early 1990's when the chain declined and sold out to Ames in 1998, which itself folded in 2000.  Montgomery Ward also lost its way in the same time span, so an aging dinosaur mall was likewise laden with two dinosaur anchors.  Montgomery Ward itself would last until the chain folded in 2000.  By 2001, the mall was effectively dead other than Office Depot.  Even before both anchors emptied out, the mall had never been updated and looked yellowed and decrepit after nearly 30 years of business.  Most inline stores had closed or moved out by then, and the owners apparently attempted to gradually convert the interior into a strip mall.  Office Max itself was squeezed into the northern portion of the mall cutting off the Wards former mall entrance from the rest of the mall.  The result was that the remaining mall was even smaller and more dead than before, thus becoming fodder for the Kingsport.org mockery of the mall as a "shopping mecca".


 I believe this was taken along the back side of the mall, and this shows part of the old Montgomery Ward.  The better pictures did not seem to be available.  If anybody saved the photos from this site when it existed, please send them my way!  Photo from Kingsport.org.


The mall office actually looks pretty sharp for a dead mall never mind it is obviously filling space of a former actual store.  The homemade "Mall Office" sign, however, suggests that the management is out to lunch 6 out of 8 hours daily and that you better call ahead if you want to talk to them about leasing in the mall where one of the two parties will be laughing after the meeting adjourns.  Of course, that is if, first, you don't just get the recording that informs you your call will never be returned.  Photo from Kingsport.org.

Apparently Kingsport's crowning as a "shopping mecca" took an ironic twist after the mall was demolished in 2002.  Only the original Montgomery Ward building remains, which is now split into Hobby Lobby and a row of small tenants along the former northern outside entrance.  Office Depot, however, remained unchanged through the redevelopment other than small tenants tacked to the right side of it much like what happened to the old Montgomery Ward. Converted to a strip mall, this indeed brought new excitement to a long dead corner bringing in big box stores including Ross Dress For Less, TJ Maxx, and PetSmart.  Smaller tenants were also built onto each side of the old Montgomery Ward building and along outparcels that numbered closely to what the mall once offered.  Locals today even claim that the new East Stone Commons is more successful than Fort Henry Mall.  The center today is fading somewhat, but still far more popular than the old Kingsport Mall ever was, and the redeveloped mall did indeed become a "shopping mecca".  With Fort Henry Mall to the south and massive new development to the east, the mall's already excellent and central location for the city's suburban shopping district is a big part in why it is doing well today.  Now, if only they would purchase the land behind it to tack on a new mall addition into the existing redeveloped strip...

24 comments:

  1. The "unknown" store was Heilig-Meyers Furniture from the late-80's or early-90's until the chain went under. Before that, it was Kingsport-based chain Giant Super Market. Giant was bought out by Food Lion in the mid-80's. There was also a Treasury Drug at the Kingsport Mall, I'm assuming it was there till the early-80's or so.

    I stopped by the Ames store on a trip to Kingsport around 1999-2000. I decided to browse the mall and it was in rough shape then, with areas taped off and trash cans where the roof was leaking. The airbrushed t-shirt shop was the only tenant in the mall part.

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  2. I remember visiting the Kingsport Mall in the early 90s. It was a dump then. Very few stores open inside.

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  3. Just a note to say that the blog is fantastic. It is rare to come across archives of "southern history" that don't simply repeat the tropes of southern living and the nytimes magazine: character, tradition, eccentricity, curious dioramas of three-day weekends. The blog documents with light academic comprehensiveness the lived architectural and commercial landscape of the "South" as it has been known for the last thirty years. Beyond the romantic images of tin shacks and roadside goober stands, the aerial images of abandoned malls are far more accurate portrayals of a petit bourgeois wholly attached to a strange and peculiar and dying regionalism. Although I don't live there anymore, people seem compelled to repeat the most obvious cliches whenever I say I'm from South Carolina. More than grits or hydrangeas, I wish i could simply show these people the old Rose's on Aiken-Augusta Highway, the one that was torn down --the site expanded from ten acres of brick and pine trees to an industrial complex anchored by a super Wal-Mart and a Chick-fil-A.

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  4. Beautifully written comment! The unfortunate thing about stereotypes are that they so often are deserved, and because of them everything worthwhile is overlooked. It is true that the South is still the poorest, most traditionalist part of the country but I personally resent how the rest of the country seems to want to look down on us and marginalize us while they take the good parts of it and make it their quaint little playground. They ignore that Souther people are just like everybody else. They also forget that much of American popular culture overall is from the South.

    One thing that is nice about this blog is that it is way of saying that the South is just like the rest of America with the same goals, dreams and aspirations. In fact, since malls went global they seem to be a unifying force worldwide in a sense: an artificial realm of peace, order and fractal similarities that remove some of the boundaries that separate us so much.

    I guess another odd thing about this blog is that even though I was born and raised in the South and, in fact, am more Southern than many who claim to be that I actually do not embrace many, many aspects of so-called Southern culture. I can actually accept that other places and even other COUNTRIES might have ideas better than ours, and one reason that this blog is significant is that it presents a South grits and Magnolia-free. That is why I try with this blog to preserve the modern history, which is what the South is really known for: much of this part of the country developed in the late 20th century.

    The South is where I am geographically, and it's what interests me to cover. It's what I know, and I enjoy presenting my own unique perspective of life in the South...the modern life, not the overly-glamorized days of the (hot, sticky) Tobacco Road. I'll admire the Olde South from the comfort of my air conditioned vehicle. I also enjoy Sushi, diverse musical tastes and all different kinds of people. I imagine a wealthy South far removed from its days of poverty and misery, so I am glad this shines through.

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  5. Seems like I remember a Rhodes furniture store where the Heilig-Meyers was.

    I live in Kingsport, and the only memories I have of this mall are (sadly) of it being so bland, decrepit, and run down that nobody would go there.

    I love those pics of the mall that you have, and I'd love to know where we could dig up more info on the Kingsport Mall.

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  6. I remember the Kingsport Mall with fond memories!! In the late 70's early 80's Christmas shopping with my family, and it was booming!! I remember the Orange bowl, best pizza ever! Aladins Castle Arcade, and going to many movies at the Martin Twin! Had my first date ever at that movie theater! It was great in it's day.

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    1. Your comments pulled my memories right out of my head. In fact...me and my older sister was talking about Orange Bowl Pizza today! It was the best!!!!

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    2. they used to be a record store also,but I can't remember the name of it

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    3. The record store was "The Sound Shop". It was a very small store with limited inventory and just couldn't compete with the larger "Record Bar" that was located in the Fort Henry Mall.

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    4. Sound Shop was the record store. I bought many a cassette there.

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  7. What was the Office Depot originally?

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  8. Perhaps most people remember the Kingsport Mall as run down facility, however when it opened in the early '70s you could not walk through the corridors without bumping into people on weekends. It was the place to shop in Kingsport.

    In later years the Mall Owners did not reinvest in maintenance of the facility and let it fall to ruins, at which time the only option was to demolish it and rebuild under new owners. I went there as a kid in the 70s and I actually worked at Aladdin's Castle Video Arcade in the 80s. At that time the Video Arcade business was booming, remember FLYNN's in Tron, well that was actually the way it was back then. But as with all things the market changes (playstation, Xbox, etc) and the Arcades took a big hit. As far as the Office Depot it was part of the "Hall" or corridor that connected the two anchors Montgomery Wards and Hills. I believe in that area there were a couple of stores at various times, one was "The Sound Shop" which was a record store (I know most people are saying "What is a record?") and some others if you go way back. It is sad the owners of the mall let it fall it such decay, but it is good to see something take its place, and see people working again.

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    1. What about the store Shipwreck? Does anyone remember that?

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    2. Yes I remember Shipwreck. It was an odds & ends type store owned by a guy named Jack Bogan (sp?) who also owned the small disco called Tom Foolery's that opened in the mall sometime around 1978.

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    3. Tom Foolery's opened in 77. The place didn't last more than a couple years as it was towards the end of the disco era. By the time it closed it had developed a reputation as a gay club due in no small part to the owner being gay. Mall management had to remove all partitions from the stalls inside the nearby public bathrooms to deter gay activity by disco patrons. By this time the mall was already entering its death spiral and the disco's reputation only compounded the problem.

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  9. I would love to have seen that kingsport.org site. Frankly, the Tri-Cities area can be quite exasperating. Although the region has seen an influx of wealth during the past decade, the cities themselves are struggling to maintain their identities. The downtowns resist development, no matter how many short-sighted attempts are made to being new life to the heart of each city. There is an obsession with "big box" building. While across the mountains, almost every NC city and town is flourishing, and discovering new ways to reinvent and restore their history, Upper East TN just can't succeed.

    I have had family in the region since the 1920s. The area was once bustling, and always developing. Now, all of the three cities are a shadow of their former glory.

    That aside, even the malls of the region are suffering. Yes, the JC mall appears to be flourishing, but its offerings are very limited. I fear that what will eventually happen, and what has been discussed, is the building of a single large mall for the three cities. It will further erode not only the livelihood of the existing malls, but the three downtown districts, as well.

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    1. kingsport.org was a masterpiece of tongue-in-cheek sarcastic humor. My favorite photo on the site was "downtown Kingsport" which appeared to be really taken on one of the barren downtown back streets on a dreary gray Sunday afternoon... no cars, no people, nothing. Anyone with half a brain could figure out it was a sarcastic poke at Kingsport but the anal-retentive city leaders proved they couldn't take a joke and had kingsport.org taken down. If I had the photos, I'd rebuild it as a personal blog and Kingsport's city leaders could be damned.

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  10. The empty space behind the mall was used for a circus event back in the 70's, and I also remember watching a stunt man jump a car over a long line of junk cars. He didn't make it all the way. It turned out to be a gigantic nose dive. I was too young to remember much more.

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  11. I worked at that Montgomery Ward in the late '90s, after it had been cut off from the mall by Office Depot. Even so, I remember going to that mall regularly as a kid in the '80s. Houser Shoes was in there for years. At some point, near the end of the mall's life, there was a country bar in there too. Other than those two things, and the movie theater, my memory is pretty blank other than the anchor stores. Thanks for the memories!

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  12. I almost forgot...Woolworth's was never in this mall. It was always downtown.

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  13. I used to shop at Ames. We used to call it "A-mess" lol. I also remember walking around the mostly empty mall with my mom and my cousin around 2000 or 2001, trying to imagine What it must have been like years before.

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  14. The Kingsport Mall was once a wonderful place to shop. The name of the grocery store on the far right next to Hills escapes my memory. Hills was the highlight, especially for back to school shopping. I was in elementary school in the 80s and you could find everything in that one store... clothes, shoes, school supplies. Later when I was a teenager in the 90s my friends and I lived in the Kingsport Mall. The Martin movie theatre, the video arcade, Waldenbooks book store, Bassett's diner... it was the perfect spot to hang out. There would be a haunted house at Halloween in an empty store down from Montgomery Ward. Even the DMV was located at the mall entrance near Bassett's in 1990 because that's where I took my driving test. I had to pull onto Eastman Road, turn right onto Stone Drive, back into the mall parking lot and then park... pretty easy. :) I was so sad to see how run down it became. Ames was a joke and cutting off Wards with Office Depot was just plain stupid. At least I can remember it in its heyday. Anyone remember as a kid checking the bank of pay phones outside of Hills for change? ��

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  15. The grocery store to the right was called Giant. My mother would use her S & H stamps there and I remember throwing a temper tantrum in the floor just to get a butt beating in front of everyone! Loved Orange Bowl pizza and Bassett's! Saw my first movie "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" at the Martin Twin and worked a few years for Hill's in the early 90's! Hill's definitely was the place for Toys and I would spend my entire paycheck shopping on Friday! Miss those days!

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  16. I had forgotten about the Shipwreck. I loved the Kingsport Mall !! I would live the names of the stores that used to be there. I know there was a 70's clothing store but can not remember the name of the store.

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