Friday, November 19, 2010

Fort Henry Mall/Kingsport Town Center: Kingsport, TN

When it comes to malls, Kingsport seems to be falling behind.  After Kingsport Mall closed and was torn down in 2002, it was a ripe opportunity for Fort Henry Mall to shine, and it appeared for awhile that elements were coming together to make that happen.  While the plans have been laid to rescue this mall from its unfortunate trip to tacky land, apparently shoppers have not been very happy for awhile considering how much this mall has lost ground to its competition in Johnson City.  Even worse, it seems the mall is falling into the Cookeville curse with tenants actually being lost to area strip malls in lieu of a newer mall or lifestyle center.  The mall was still very busy for a Friday night, but nowhere near the mob at The Mall at Johnson City.  This should not be the case, though, with Fort Henry Mall offering over 500,000 square feet of shopping, three solid anchors and two levels of shopping.  In addition, Johnson City is still 25 miles away and Fort Henry Mall sits at the center of a thriving retail corridor.  The fact that the mall is still not fixed may just be a case of bad luck, bad timing and/or a bad economy, but maybe there is there something I do not know?

When it opened in 1976, Fort Henry Mall was on top as it wiped out downtown shopping bringing in a first-class mall experience to the mountain city.  Anchors when the mall opened included Parks Belk, Miller's, Sears and JCPenney.  It was the biggest and best mall in the region dwarfing the then-Miracle Mall in Johnson City and drawing shoppers around a large radius including bordering areas of Virginia and North Carolina.  Close-by Kingsport Mall, only five years old at the time, could not compete and began its long, slow death over the next 25 years.  Bristol also did not have its own mall yet, which helped it gain traction as a super-regional center.  The completion of TN 137, now I-26, also helped bring in shoppers despite the fact the mall is somewhat difficult to get to from any freeway.

The two scenes above along with the lead photo are along the lower level in the main part of the mall starting in front of Belk (Parks Belk) continuing to the theaters (Miller's) in the last photo.  Shouldn't garden malls have more plants?

The completion of Fort Henry Mall left Bristol envious and Johnson City's Miracle Mall reeling, so Bristol was the first to challenge the mall.  Bristol Mall was similarly large like Fort Henry Mall, and it opened in 1978 eroding parts of its base, but the malls seemed to co-exist peacefully for many years to come.  Bristol Mall also was apparently built by the same developer with a highly similar design and identical anchors.  Miracle Mall at this point had to go much further to survive, more than doubling the mall's size in 1982 and anchor offerings as well, changing its name to The Mall at Johnson City.  Fort Henry Mall then assumed a less substantial position in the market, but still a dominant one for years meaning that the Tri-Cities could clearly support three fairly substantial malls with similar stores and anchors.  Kingsport Mall, meanwhile, lurked in the shadows like the bullied kid it was.

Here, I am looking along the JCPenney wing, which extends from the upper level in front of Miller's to the store entrance.  This appears to be the healthiest wing of the mall.

Close-up shot of the JCPenney mall entrance.

Over the years, the successful mall would see a few anchor changes.  Miller's was the first to change in 1987 converting to Hess's and again to Proffitt's in 1992.  Parks Belk would change next with Proffitt's buying them out in 1995.  The result would be two Proffitt's stores in the mall.  With Proffitt's, the former Parks Belk would become the main store while the former Miller's/Hess's would become the men's and home store.  In 2006, Proffitt's was bought out by Belk with the original Parks Belk store again become Belk in 2007, just without the Parks.  The second Proffitt's became a men and kids store, but only briefly with Belk closing the store in 2008.  The lower level of the second Belk, which operated previously as Miller's, Hess's and Proffitt's ultimately became Marquee cinemas.  The upper level, closed during my visit, was being prepared for a future new food court.

I am not sure what went wrong, but my camera would not cooperate, so I got a lot of blurry shots.  Apparently my camera was having problems with the freaky color scheme.  This is on the lower level wing extending from the Miller's court to the open-glass window that forms a never-filled anchor pad.

This is the same angle as the above photo, but on the upper level.  This part of the mall had the most vacancies as well as mom 'n' pop stores.

Upper level here of the court in front of what used to be Miller's.  A new food court is planned here in the near future behind the walls of the empty anchor.  The style of this court is ugly in every way.  The ceiling for sure needs to be raised with high windows, skylights or something.  The new lighting only highlights what looks wrong.

In addition to the four anchors, the mall was also clearly retrofitted for a fifth anchor from the beginning located on the southeast entrance of the mall.  This pad is two levels and features a large glass window on the second floor with steps going down to the first level in front of it.  It is unclear what the mall hoped to attract, because Montgomery Ward was obviously disinterested in leaving Kingsport Mall and the better department stores in other cities were still overlooking the region.  Perhaps they were thinking Thalhimer's, Stone & Thomas, Ivey's or Castner-Knott would give them a full deck, but obviously not.  People in the region still hold out hope for Macy's and Dillard's, but so far Dillard's only seems to be interested in parking at The Mall at Johnson City.

I have to say I really liked this style of mall entrance that Parks Belk used here.  It is simple, but distinct looking.  It was also nice to capture the old-style Belk logo here: an endangered species.  Labelscar captured this mall entrance while it was still Proffitt's.  This store was Proffitt's from 1995-2007.

The mall, while somewhat troubled, is not in a time warp.  Fort Henry Mall would see two renovations since it opened. One of those was in 1989 and the second came in 2005.  It is not clear how much was done in the 2005 renovation, but at least one of those renovations resulted in the gaudiest carpet ever encountered in a mall.  This carpet is in a groovy psychedelic pattern that defies all good taste, which is a mistake I am sure they are overeager to rectify.  It seems that both renovations were purely cosmetic as items such as railing and other interior decor still resemble much of what was in the original mall.  I am sure the 2005 renovation was primarily commenced to remove much of the greenery and water features that may have survived in the 1989 renovation.  I am sure the original mall, like many malls of that period, was quite a sight for the area residents who probably were somewhat disappointed in Kingsport Mall.

Here are a couple views from the upper level of the mall along the main mall concourse.  The first photo is looking towards the former Miller's/Hess's and the second photo is looking back towards Parks Belk/Proffitt's.

The terrain of the Tri-Cities region is very mountainous, which makes retail development difficult.  All of the malls of the Tri-Cities have bizarre floor plans designed to deal with this issue, and Fort Henry Mall is no exception.  While the mall is two levels, the two-level portion only extends from Belk (original Parks Belk) to the now-closed second Belk (originally Miller's).  JCPenney is located at the end of a one level wing off the upper level on the original Miller's side.  Sears is located at the end of a one level wing off the lower level on the original Parks Belk side.  This overall gives the mall a backwards "S" shape.

I am back to the extension of the upper level from Miller's to the big glass front anchor pad.  This is by far the most fascinating part of the mall since it offers a view from the upper level as well as a rather unusual mall entrance.  Stairs connect the end of the hallway to the lower level.

A view of the stairs and windows overlooking the parking lot.  The outside entrace is visible behind the glass in the railing.

Here is a view from the top level outside.  You can see Sears in the background.  The mall redevelopment will extend the mall beyond this window back to the Sears providing two mall entrances to Sears and expanding the mall greatly to hopefully attract better stores. 

Overall, Fort Henry Mall was doing fine over its first 30 years of business.  The problem has a lot to do with the current ownership, which has so far been full of big promises, but have delivered little.  However, it does appear that some progress is underway.  Somera Capitol Management owns the mall, and they also own Laurel Mall in Maryland: another mall desperately in need of reworking.  With General Growth managing the mall, very ambitious plans surfaced to renovate and expand the mall.  In the process, the mall was renamed Kingsport Town Center: at least on paper.  This new renovation would update the decor, extend the mall from the empty anchor pad back to the east entrance of Sears, add a new food court inside the upper level of the former Belk Men's, Home and Kids, vastly improve the plain and dated mall entrances and update the lighting.  As of late 2009, about the only thing actually completed was the lighting, which only helped to spotlight how garish it still looks.  The owners, still publicly optimistic, produced a You Tube video detailing these plans, but just as they had finished shooting the video several major chain stores departed including Chick-Fil-A, Waldenbooks and Radio Shack.  Belk also consolidated their operations into their original Parks Belk store the following summer as well, though that is actually part of the redevelopment process.

I am now moving along the Sears wing extending from the lower level from the Parks Belk court to Sears.  An entrance wing intersects this wing in front of Sears.

Sears here sports the latest logo.  This must be a reasonably profitable store.

I gave in and added this blurry photo for a reason.  Piccadilly Cafeteria is on the right, but on the left it very curiously looks like an old Morrison's Cafeteria.  Did Morrison's or Piccadilly move to the current location from that one or was this something else?  This is the fore-mentioned entrance wing next to Sears.

One fact remains with Fort Henry Mall, though, is that this mall has dived to B-mall status, so this redevelopment is in rather desperate need of moving forward if the mall is to avoid ending up like its beleaguered cousin Bristol Mall.   Both malls have been bleeding popular chain stores while The Mall at Johnson City seems to have drawn in the best of the region without even trying.  I would suggest to the owners, however, to drop the pretentious and grossly unoriginal "new" name with Kingsport Town Center.  This is not a cookie-cutter lifestyle center imitating downtown, it is a MALL and to all appearances will stay one.  Additionally, the current name is very unique and original kept as is, and from comments I have viewed other people really like the original name as well.  What about just Fort Henry Center?

Piccadilly Cafeteria sports a modern classical look for a mostly silver crowd.  As a rather traditional, conservative area places like this are bound to do well. 

If my description of the mall is rather confusing, this should help.  Note the main two-level wing, the two single level wings connecting JCPenney and Sears, the two-level entrance wing exetending off the blue court and the small entrance wing next to Sears.  Note the mall map still says "Fort Henry Mall".

Fort Henry Mall's two-level main entrance from the outside.  Unfortunately, they refuse to light up the red "Fort Henry Mall" sign since they have decided to retire that name apparently without any public input.  I would say until you can afford the new signage, light up what you have.  They had the sign along the main road dark as well.

Here is the two-level mall entrance from the side from a distance.  The old Miller's/Hess's is to the right of the entrance.  I was unable to get a decent photograph of Miller's because of the poor lighting and darkness.

Another idea the mall should consider is luring in a new anchor distinct to the region to increase its appeal as part of its renovation.  The mall definitely has room for Dillard's, for example, and the current anchor line-up offers no advantages vs. the other two malls in the region.  I would also suggest a standout renovation for the mall.  Seeing the drawings, the interior renovation looks pretty generic 2000's, so why not experiment with a more distinctive, elegant, moodier look?  Bring in something special like a spectacularly designed center court complete with high windows, a vaulted ceiling and an elegant wood-trimmed ceiling treatment coupled with an elegant water feature at the base.  One mall they could look at is the beautiful Northlake Mall in Charlotte whose design would better fit in with the region.  If they incorporated the food court and center court together in the fashion they did with Northlake, that part of the mall would be far cozier and more enjoyable.  Even the more basic ceiling treatments like those used in Three Star Mall would look nicer.  Sure, this may be Kingsport, TN, which hardly invokes images of glitz and glamour, but it is a region that is starving for better malls thus the overcrowded success of its Johnson City neighbor.  While I am sure the current redevelopment plan will help, I definitely think much more could be done to make this mall special and truly competitive.

JCPenney from the outside lit up for the evening.  The white pine tree looks spooky in front of the sign in the second photo.

Belk here is caught in a time warp with this store, but I still like it.  If you look carefully in this photo you will make out the Parks Belk labelscar behind the Belk sign.  Proffitt's apparently did not leave any labelscar from when they were here, but apparently they painted the awnings to match their green signs.

MORE: See Labelscar's post on this mall, which was photographed when Proffitt's was still at the mall as well as a few other angles I failed to capture.


  1. Hi, I discovered your blog as a link from Labelscar - I'm glad I found it - being English I've always had a fascination with American mall 'culture' and you guys satisfy my curiosity on a regular basis!

    I had to comment on the carpets - not only are they very odd but they also look rather expensive, perhaps even one-off designs specifically commissioned for that mall. It seems like a strange choice when (as you implied in the blogpost) the last renovation was aimed at de-cluttering the place (although I'm with just about everyone else on this issue regarding renovations - 1970s fountains and the like should be allowed to stay where they are!)

  2. Hey Londoneer, I was indeed curious about international fans of the blog (or even fans on the West Coast for that matter), because I really did not think there would be interest outside of the Southeastern US aside from an accidental click, but I guess I was wrong! I'm glad you love this (and Labelscar), and I personally wish there was something similar for retail in the UK as well as other native English-speaking countries that have embraced suburbanization to a degree as well. Labelscar has made some effort outside of the US, but international travel has been unaffordable for me aside from Google Street View lol.

    I am not sure exactly what you mean by "mall culture" other than it having a lot to do with the fact that the development here tends to be so much more recent and so heavily pushed by the government post-WWII to de-centralize the population during the Cold War. These suburbs cropped up on undeveloped woods and farmland for the most part: a whole new area evolving in almost every city overnight, but also built with minimal planning and maximum profits in mind thus the intoxicating suburbs. The whole advent of suburban shopping centers was all a result of a change in the tax code in 1954 that allowed large scale developments to claim a loss in order to not go bankrupt, thus the large malls and strip shopping centers in lieu of the classic downtown stores. It was sad, though, to see over a century of downtown retailing and storied department stores all close due to suburban cannibalization, mergers and emigration from the city, but nobody can deny it is far more convenient and cheaper.

    If you look at my description, I think it's pretty clear what drives us with this is the fact that places like this were our downtowns. It was rather shocking to us to see the places we grew up with just fade and disappear as we reached adulthood partly due to the aging of such places coupled with migration of the poor from the inner cities into the older suburbs. The development was cookie cutter, often unsightly and very unnatural, but it made a strong impression on us nonetheless as it was the world we knew best full of symbolic fractal patterns (all similar, yet different). In fact, it seems most that we found familiar as kids is gone...succumbed to even more generic developments that made the these older places seem quaint and elegant like a golden age, which it indeed was.

    As for me, I sorely miss the older 60's, 70's and 80's elements and clearly I am not alone. Malls were visually striking in those days, and they were more fun too with a more diverse selection of stores than they have today. Toy stores, book stores, sit-down restaurants, food courts with unique flavors, drug stores, electronic stores and other specialty shops seem to have mostly left the enclosed malls. This lack of diversity makes the less fashion-driven malls extremely vulnerable, thus the spike in dead and dying malls (aside from the economy and overbuilding). Shopping centers also had far more to choose from with many competing regional grocery, discount and drug store chains. Add to that that the unfortunate American way is to trash our own history: it is a huge fight to save any structure over 40 years old, because we seem to believe that new is always better even if it is not. The modernism backlash that began in the 90's only intensified that.

    A note on the carpets, expensive or not they tend to look pretty bad, but obviously better than a plain tile floor. I believe that such noisy carpets were partly used to distract shoppers from the fact that the truly expensive, elegant features were all but removed. This does not mean that outstanding malls do not still exist, however, as you can find among both of our blogs. Oglethorpe and Mall of Georgia are two good examples.

    I hope this was some interest to you, and I also hope I properly hit on the points you were trying to make.

  3. Thanks yes you did, but there's something about Great Britain that marks us apart from the US.

    All of our towns and cities have walkable central areas where the small to medium sized malls are found, usually incorporated into the down-town streetscape in some way. In recent years we've also seen the development of groups of 'big box' stores on the outskirts of most towns, but that's where the comparisons end.

    Because of our strict planning laws, amongst other factors, you can count the big out of town malls in our country on the fingers of two hands... London, a city of 7.5m people, only has three large malls on its edges, Lakeside, Bluewater and Brent Cross, with one large new development in one of the fairly central western suburbs, a huge Westfield.

    The thought of the hundreds and hundreds of malls across the US is at complete odds with what we have here, and explains why I'm so fascinated with it :)

  4. Thanks for the photograph of the Sears entrance. I haven't seen that since I left Kingsport in late 1979, and it brings back memories. At that time, to a child, that entrance was HUGE. There weren't any stores on either side that I can remember, and walking down the mall and coming to that huge entrance left an impression on me I've never forgotten. The Sears logo may have been updated, but that huge white wall hasn't.

    Under the escalator that leads to the second level, in that boxy corner, there used to be a restaurant and a video arcade. I wish I had a photo from that time.

  5. I rarely go to this mall when visiting East TN, but every time that I do, I become completely "turned around." The layout is confusing.

    Yes, the carpet is quite horrendous.

  6. Hi,

    Sorry, but your article is highly in accurate. The Bristol Mall opened in 1975, before the Fort Henry Mall. The Fort Henry Mall was a bit more modern and up-to-date, and in addition to basically the same stores and nearly identical aesthetic design as the Bristol Mall (they were both built by Arlen Shopping Centers out of Chattanooga), the FHM also had a JCPenney, making the largest mall in the region, passing the Bristol Mall in that regard. How can you write an article like this when you don't even have your facts straight? Did you just go from memory? Don't agree? Check the newspaper articles from the Bristol Herald Courier in April of 1975 (and the groundbreaking in April 1974).

  7. To Anonymous, I did not have the information at my fingertips when I wrote that post and you are the first person to even correct me on it. I relied on word of mouth from someone who knew the area better, and I appreciate the information and will change both posts to reflect that along with many other errors due to missing data in the future. I wouldn't get so upset about it, though. I am not from the area, and I was covering it with what information I could find, and I do not have access to the local newspaper there like I did with the Kingsport malls.

  8. This mall reminds me of malls I used to visit when I lived in Florida 20 years ago. That's not totally a put-down because those malls were way more inviting than newer places like Tampa's International Plaza. Still, I'd like to see them do a little more with this mall. At the very least they should give the exterior a good powerwashing, paint job, or something. The latest I've heard is that they're expanding the theaters into a two-story entertainment complex. I hope this pans out because Kingsport is my home now and I want to see this place thrive.

  9. This mall was once a big thing for Kingsport but it has become a relic of the past as have most malls. As recently as Sep 2015 rumor has it that this mall may be sold, demolished, and replaced with an upscale 400 to 600 unit condo development.