Wednesday, March 31, 2010

West Lake Mall: Bessemer, AL

Birmingham has lost many malls over the past decade, but none have been as forgotten as West Lake Mall.  West Lake Mall these days is like many malls across the nation that were once viable, but were lost to the city's collective memory by its location in a more blue collar area that began a steady decline into poverty and crime.  Malls like this one also shared a common aspect in that they were successful regionally in their time, but were not major players in the entire market area.  Over time, they found themselves eclipsed by burgeoning retail areas elsewhere as well as bigger and better malls.  As a result, they also were some of the first dying malls.  This is why West Lake Mall is rarely mentioned today when discussing Birmingham malls, and little information exists about its history.

West Lake starting out promising when it opened in 1969.  It was a 300,000 square foot mall, and it had tthree major anchors: Sears and Loveman's of Alabama and a Grant's discount store.   Local chains such as Sokol's and Aland's would also have locations in the mall.  Sears was on the southeast side of the mall, Loveman's in the middle on the southwest and Grant's to the northwest at the other end.  In all, it was a basic T-shaped single-level mall built on a filled lake known as West Lake where the mall got its name.  Overall, the mall still was modestly successful, but only for its first 15-20 years.  The biggest change in that time was when Loveman's went out of business in 1980 and was replaced by Pizitz.  Stores like Sokol's and Aland's look to have faded out in that period as well.  When Grant's closed in 1976, it was replaced by Consumer Warehouse Foods.  Consumer Warehouse Foods was a division of Bruno's that was phased out by the mid-1980's replaced with regular Bruno's, Foodmax and Food World . 

This photo is of the main entrance corridor, which is a long open-air wing into the mall in front of what used to be Sears mall entrance.  The fist photo is the West Lake Mall sign on US 11 still showing Food World.  The other side has a big, very homemade "Flea Market" banner.

Looking along the main entrance corridor.  the store on the left is the back of the Food World, which is otherwise the old Sears building, which closed in the 1980's.  An empty store on the right was most likely where the Grants was originally.

The main entrance looks like a cheap late 80's renovation, and it is definitely showing the stains of time.  A boxwood adorns the center of the walkway along with a tree oblivious to the mall's overall condition.  It still has character, though.  I like the grand entry element.

Signs that the mall was troubled were obvious by the mid-1980's when, according to Bhamwiki, Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company attempted to remake the mall as a factory outlet mall despite the fact the mall was still viable in that time.  Somewhere between then and 1990 , the mall also looks to have had a major renovation.  When Pizitz was bought out by McRae's, it appears that McRae's never joined the mall opting to close the store instead.  Sears would also close by 1989, opting to locate in the Flintridge Shopping Center in Fairfield in lieu of the troubled mall.  Despite the mall's decline, it continued to maintain at least two anchors at a time into the 2000's.

A second entrance was closer to the Loveman's/Goody's, but both entrances faced the northeast.  This one lacked the grand entryway in lieu of just a simple doorway.  Typical of renovations of that period, the design looked completely out of character with the rest of the mall.

A look at the doorways, which clearly are original along the second entrance.

Inside, I see what looks like screens or parts of booths for the Flea Market.  In the distance I see light suggesting there are some skylights in the court ahead.  I wish I could have seen how the old Sokol's/Goody's worked into the mall.  Perhaps it has reopened, and I was unlucky enough to see it...or lucky considering this area was not the safest.

The Bruno family was the most committed to the mall's success.  In 1994, Bruno's closed its store in the old Grant's, opening up a flagship store in the Sears that would ultimately become Food World five years later.  The Sears location had much greater visibility than the old Grant's  On top of that, Goody's would take over the former Loveman's/Pizitz location bringing two anchors to the mall.  World Gym was also in the mall at one point, though it is not clear exactly where: most likely in the store with the outside entrance at the main entrance corridor.  The only problem with the grocery store conversion of the old Sears was the fact that the supermarket sealed off an entrance into the mall, sealing the mall's fate as well.  It literally hid the mall from view when that happened.

Here, we have a peak inside the main court in front Sears.  Although its hard to tell, it looks like the mall was mostly dark and plain aside from these courts.  This really does not look that much updated from the 1960's except for the color schemes.  The Sears mall entrance would have been just to the left of the first photo.

West Lake had so much working against it, so it was literally amazing how it kept reinventing itself in the past two decades.  It was located far from the preferred urban center, and it was most likely built to take advantage of growth that never occurred on the southwest side of the city as well as outlying areas such as Tuscaloosa.  The problem was, Tuscaloosa got their own mall the same year and Western Hills Mall opened only a few miles up the road in Fairfield a year later.  20 years later even those malls would be eclipsed, further drying the potential pool of shoppers.  On top of that, a new mall portion was built onto Five Points West shopping center in the early 70's including a Pizitz department store making Fairfield more of a shopping destination early in the game.

A look at the former Grant's, which later operated as Consumer Warehouse Foods (a division of Bruno's).  It looks like a big part of the canopy is missing.

Looking along the back of the store.  It looks like another small entrance was in the back, but it has long since been sealed off.

Inside the old Grant's/Consumer Warehouse Foods.  Here, I can clearly see booths that either have just been set up or are in the process of being removed...I don't know which.

While Fairfield itself is in decline today, it was the expansion of retail in Fairfield that heavily contributed to the eventual failure of West Lake Mall.  Early on, the market was overbuilt and Loveman's overlapped with Western Hills Mall: a plausible factor in why Loveman's liquidated in 1980.  Nevertheless, when Pizitz bought the Loveman's at the mall, apparently they instead decided to eventually close their Five Points West store in lieu of West Lake, which offered a more traditional mall experience.  Of course, consolidations from the 80's to recently made it difficult for even successful malls to maintain anchors, so West Lake Mall was a prime target for store closings.

Loveman's/Pizitz was the southwest anchor of the mall, and apparently was also the smallest in the chain.  It last operated as a location of Goody's, but it is not known when Goody's closed at the mall.

By the late 2000's, the future of West Lake Mall was looking increasingly bleak.  Goody's was gone, nothing had been in the old Grant's for awhile and Food World closed in 2009.  At this point, the mall was effectively dead and sealed off.  Nevertheless, no matter how bad it looked for the mall, the 300,000 square feet center always seems to have a new plan set for it.  Right on the heels of the Food World closing, a local car dealer's plans to resurrect the mall as a flea market were announced.  He had bought the mall two years before just for that purpose.  When I visited, the mall was sealed off but I did see some progress toward setting up space in the old Loveman's, but it looked more like they were moving out instead of in.  A sign on the door said the flea market closed in November 2009, so I have to wonder if this plan is for real or if the 40 year old mall is finished.

A recent Google Earth aerial shot of the mall, which I labeled with the original anchors as they were when the mall opened in 1969.

Now a look at the sign with "Westlake Flea Market".  Since this really IS a mini-mall, when is Sammy Stephens coming here to promote this mall's last stand?

What I saw of the mall was far from pleasant.  It was a scary, seedy place surrounded by worsening urban decay.  The US 11 corridor to the north of the mall was the most blighted I had seen anywhere in the city.  Despite a new theme park being built nearby, this also did not seem to reverse the fortunes of the mall.  The scene has changed dramatically since it was built, so while it is possible that the mall may succeed is a flea market it is for certain that it will never again be the retail destination it once was.  I do wish the owners the best of luck, though, because this mall is one of the oldest in the region and is small enough to easily be converted to a multitude of uses.  At least a flea market keeps it an actual mall.

PLUS: A whole lot more photos in this Flickr set!  I was so happy to find these since I couldn't get in!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

University Mall Opening Day 1980: Tuscaloosa, AL

Looking at the Tuscaloosa newspaper the day that University Mall opened, you would think that a palace or 100 story skyscraper had opened in the city.  Indeed, it must have been a major spectacle to have a mall that was semi-upscale after a decade of inadequate McFarland Mall.  The only problem was that McFarland Mall was not big enough to kill off downtown, but University Mall was.  While many stores have come and gone, what is remarkable to me is how little University Mall has actually changed.  Although its 90's renovation did strip away some of the more hardcore modernist elements, the mall in these pictures here does not seem that much different than it does today, which to me is a good thing.  If they were looking to build a showplace mall that they would stay proud of, then stripping away the good things would mean it was all for naught.  It is an 80's mall, and that is what it will always be, so why try to disguise that?  It's not at present in danger of failure either, so obviously what worked in 1980 still does today.

The span of time has changed many stores, and it was interesting to note how many original stores were highlighted in the newspaper that day.  There were so many storefronts photographed that I only picked a select few, though I tried to capture every department store image the best I could.  Bon Appetit, a crepe restaurant obviously similar to Magic Pan, has since closed and Ruby Tuesday is today Applebee's.  All of the trendy clothing stores of the time both regional and national such as Foxmoor and Chess King have been replaced with the standard American Eagle (in the old Bon Appetit) and Gap today.  Parisian has since been downscaled as part of a dual Belk, Pizitz is long gone and Morrison's is now Piccadilly.  Harco Drugs, located next to JCPenney, is today Rite-Aid and no longer in the mall.  McCrory's disappeared with all the other five and dime stores. 

A view into the mall from one of the courts in front of the anchors.  The brick cased planters have since been replaced with more classic fountains and potted planters.  The first photo is of center court showing the most complete view.

A view of the Sears court.  It looks like it was originally a sunken area.  I am trying to figure out what exactly the sputnik-shaped thing is in the front.  Is it situated in a fountain?

Lush landscaping...still in the mall to a lesser degree, but lost from most malls today.

Another view along the mall corridor.

Darker part of the mall with a Lerner store on the left.  I remember an older, classier logo, but this must have been standard for 1980.  Lerner Shops disappeared completely by the 1990's.

JCPenney court.  Harco Drugs was to the right, but today is a clothing shop.  JCPenney still has the diagonal wood look on the entrance, though it has been painted white.  This was typical treatment in the early 80's, apparently.

What did not change in the mall was surprisingly much.  Lorch's Diamond Center, a North Alabama chain, continues to operate at the mall.  Taco Casa, a popular local chain, continues to do business in the exact spot it opened in.  Other national chains that opened in the mall such as Spencer's Gifts are still there.  In a time when so much old is lost to both progress and decline, it is comforting to see that some things do not change as much.  While those fortunes could always change, the fact is that the mall is representative of the city, which is showing quiet resiliency.  Its combination of education and manufacturing are beginning to establish it as a respectable city in its own right, though it lacks the name recognition of Alabama's largest and more colorful cities.

This was pieced together to give a complete map and list of the layout and original tenants at the mall.  Note the original mall logo.

Aaron Aronov, whose company still operates the mall today, is pictured on the right.  Note one entrance with this style had not changed in my newer photos.

A not-so-clear picture of the original Pizitz store, which later became McRae's and today Belk Men's.

Pizitz of Birmingham...which it was only known as such in Tuscaloosa...created a short-lived, but confusing mess of two completely different stores both named Pizitz.  The Pizitz Tuscaloosa chain faded away by the following year, so the "of Birmimgham" would soon be dropped.

The only thing different on Sears today is the logo.  The store still looks just like this otherwise.

Parisian did not have their store complete for awhile after the mall opened, so they created an inline boutique known as "Parisian Preview" offering a more limited selection while they waited for the store to be completed.  The store, when completed, operated as Parisian until 2007 when it became Belk Women's.

The 70's and early 80's were the beginning of boring and subdued logos.  The bright, often tacky and glitzy signs so common up to then were replaced with these super boring signs almost always printed in Helvetica or similar.  Note they also featured some artwork created out of the initials as well.  The modern logo is such a vast improvement over this!

Realizing what a surprisingly notable history that Tuscaloosa has had retailwise, I regret that I did not cover even more than I did.  Taco Casa definitely deserved its own page, and one of the few remaining Bruno's was operating right next to University Mall.  This post also marks the end of the Tuscaloosa series, but this also marks the first time this region has received any spotlight in retail history.  What brought me to Tuscaloosa, though, was the realization that one of Alabama's oldest malls would soon fade into history.  However, I was surprised to find that the mall that took the helm was interesting enough itself.

"A grand new place to dine".  Uh huh.  They moved twice in less than five years, but this would be their last since Morrison's was bought out in 1995.  Morrison's actually featured a country-styled pointy serifed logo on their stores, so the logo they are using there is quite unfamiliar.  It's amazing how cafeterias fell so hard out of favor, but that is a whole other discussion. 

This place LOOKS fun.  As a kid, I would have been instantly drawn to a place that looked like this!

What is Jeans West?

Adrian's looked to be a regional chain like oft-covered Budd's in these posts.  Budd's did open at the mall, but did not provide an image like this quintessential 70's storefront drawing. 

Harco's logo was nothing short of cute...honestly.  They were apparently absorbed into Rite-Aid in the 1990's, and Rite-Aid has long since left this mall.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

University Mall: Tuscaloosa, AL

University Mall seems to be a popular name for a mall, and Tuscaloosa's mall of that name is indeed a popular mall.  That was definitely the case with University Mall when it opened in 1980 much to the misfortune of McFarland Mall.  What is amazing, though, is how long McFarland Mall held on with this mall only a couple miles up the street.  University Mall had four department stores, McFarland had one.  University Mall had more than twice the inline tenants as well, quickly relegating the older mall to a second tier status while putting a strain on the original second tier mall, Meadowbrook.  Most of all, it had Birmingham stores that McFarland never had.  It was a superregional mall in the truest sense despite all being on one level.

The main reason McFarland survived the opening of University Mall is that University Mall made one mistake, possibly deliberately, and that was not designing a mall that could adequately support a fifth anchor nor luring away McFarland Mall's major tenant, Gayfer's.  That is how Gayfer's and later Dillard's ended up shoring up the city's oldest mall instead of joining the parade at the biggest mall in town.  However, McFarland did lose Pizitz Tuscaloosa to the new mall as well as its status as the city's premier shopping destination.

Entering the Parisian (now Belk Women's) court from the store into the mall.  I found the main entrance is not a good way to start mall photography unless there are no other options.  The picture above is a view of the glorious center court.

Continuing from center court to the other Belk, which was McRae's for most of its existance.

Pizits/McRae's/Parisian/Belk court, which is identical to the JCPenney court in every way.  A small wing is off to the left leading to an outside entrance.

Detail of the fountain in Pizitz/McRae's court.  The mall has a total of five fountains, which is unheard of for a mall its size in 2010.  I'm not complaining one bit.

A look down the entrance wing off of the Pizitz/McRae's court.  In the JCPenney version, a Piccadilly would be near the entrance on the left.

When the mall opened, it was an elegantly designed center with a huge center court atrium featuring a large fountain in the center of an expansive sunken garden.  A huge vaulted skylight also brought substantial natural light to the lush center court as well to not only feed all the tropical plants but also to add to the ambience.  Large planters and seating areas surrounded by brick holders also were situated in small courts in front of all the anchors in addition to modern art sculptures.  Overall, the mall was a contrast of light and dark including bright skylights and dark faux brick linoleum tiles, which were popular in the era.  Each anchor was situated at equidistant wings off of the center court, and all the smaller courts in front of each anchor shared almost exactly the same design, essentially making it a plus shaped mall.  The only differences are a small entrance wing facing west that created a fifth leg on the mall, which is today the food court, and two small wings near JCPenney and Belk Men's (former Pizitz/McRae's) where the Morrison's Cafeteria (today Piccadilly Cafeteria) is located.

Looking back along the Pizitz/McRae's wing toward center court.

Now looking at JCPenney, which only differs from the Pizitz/Belk court by the fact that the JCPenney features the period diagonal wood paneling.

A look back along the JCPenney wing to center court.  The lighting is far less in these corridors than in the courts, creating a huge contrast in the middle of the day.

Something about the mall's shape here makes me think of some villain on an old Atari game.  Note the off-base food court wing on the upper left, which I guess is the head. 

The outside of the mall today still carries much of the period design.  This includes a deep red brick, which was also used on Century Plaza in Birmingham.  The entrances had the brownish black tones, and one of those rear entrances still maintains the original look today.  Morrison's Cafeteria also had outside windows forming a nook in the mall between the Parisian and JCPenney wings.  In other mall food, the food court is very unusual.  Instead of a big seating area with walk-up order areas facing the mall, the eateries are located in actual stores with sit-down areas inside.  It was perhaps the only time I've ever seen a sit-down area in a Sbarro.  In all, it was and still is high design in a quintessential second generation mall.

Looking back along the Parisian wing toward current Belk Women's.  I will never understand why Belk let Parisian go, and you can bet the folks here in this town and Birmingham are having an even harder time with that decision.

This shot came outright professional looking!  The mirrored sign backing definitely helped with that.  I'm sure this looked awesome with the old Parisian logo.  I have noticed the older clientele seems to linger closest to the Belk stores, and Belk is having a bit of trouble shaking that image as well.  

Original anchors to the mall also established Tuscaloosa as an up and coming town in lieu of an average small city.  Upscale Parisian and traditional Pizitz (of Birmingham) joined Sears and JCPenney.  Since it is not obvious today, Parisian was the northwest anchor and Pizitz the southeast anchor.  A mix of local, regional and national tenants joined the fray as well including previously mentioned Morrison's Cafeteria, which had moved twice since 1977.  Morrison's had previously operated at Meadowbrook Mall and McFarland before that.  In all, though, nobody was much worried about the health of the two older malls but they were very worried about the health of downtown.  Downtown did indeed receive a crushing blow as Sears and JCPenney closed their downtown shops and the independent Pizitz Tuscaloosa chain closed soon after.  With three malls in the city, there was not much of a need for downtown by that point.  On the flip side, Tuscaloosa was well served with plentiful and quality retail options.

I would love to have gotten more detail of the pill-shaped fountain in the middle of the court, but a relatively high security presence made photography difficult here as it was.  I seem to come to this mall prepared for a more difficult time getting pictures, but I got through it without the drama.  Note the kiddie train surrounding the fountain in the second photo.  This is one of the finest center courts ever, quite frankly.

Over time, the mall has indeed seen a few changes.  Mostly, this had to do with the mid-market department store shuffle.  First, Pizitz converted to McRae's in 1986 later to be renovated in 1998.  Later, Morrison's Cafeteria converted to Piccadilly in 1995.  This was followed by a multi-million renovation of the mall completed in 1999 that mostly replaced the dated floor tiles, upgraded the main entrance and replaced the blocky courts in front of the department stores with a more subdued style featuring potted planters and small, elegant fountains.  The wild consolidation fever also did not leave the mall alone in 2005 as Parisian was doubled at the mall after McRae's was sold to Belk.  Only a year later, Belk would buy out Parisian, ultimately ending up in the mall anyway.  The popular mall would also be supplanted a short time later after a small lifestyle center opened directly across the street originally promised to lure Dillard's from McFarland.

A look at the front entrance wing doubling as the food court.  Unlike most food courts, this is a very integrated one with restaurants built in like stores with sit-down areas inside in lieu of the hot dog stand-style eateries popular in most food courts today.  I liked it.

An important thing to note about Tuscaloosa is how significant its major industry is: University of Alabama.  Not only that, but in the past 15 years the city has grown a substantial industrial sector as well including a Mercedes plant that opened in the late 1990's.  Considering this, University Mall's major success along with struggling McFarland Mall's survival is essentially a reflection of a very robust local economy that expanded beyond simply "college town" status. Tuscaloosa also is a central location for shoppers in Mississippi looking for Birmingham-quality retail options without actually having to drive all the way to Hoover.

Looking along the Sears wing from center court.

Sears mall entrance is custom here in lieu of the ugly tiled look on most malls.  I like it much better.

I imagine the sign backing is the same as when the mall opened aside from a different style of logo.  Once complaints.

Despite this, the city is still in danger of being over-retailed as significant suburban growth coupled with new shopping center construction threatens to marginalize all of the older centers, including University Mall.  The lifestyle center across the street, for instance, kept many upscale stores from opening in the mall instead while McFarland down the street is quickly emptying out.  Perhaps it is time for University Mall to expand?  I would suggest right away that Belk reconstructs the original Parisian as a two level store coupled with a mall expansion along the Belk/former McRae's wing to include a new Dillard's.  Perhaps the expansion could also lure in Borders or Books-A-Million currently situated in the old Winn-Dixie at McFarland.  Dillard's had planned to build in the lifestyle center across the street, but why not at University Mall?

University Mall shows a clash of two different styles here.  The older 80's red brick and brutalism here is hard to hide behind the splashy 1998 entrance.  The American Eagle with outside windows is one of the oddest things here, though.  Applebee's is on the right, and likely has been here most of the mall's existance.

The back of the mall, however, shows the original design intent.  This entrance is unchanged from when the mall opened over three decades ago, but is well hidden from busy Skyland Blvd (US 82).  Piccadilly Cafeteria's mall entrance is just inside that door on the right, and Piccadilly makes up the entire corner to the right of the entrance.

This sign on Skyland Blvd is definitely not original, but is quite awesome compared to the minimalist original logo.  In the background on the right is one of the last operating Bruno's locations.

All around, University Mall was one of the most attractive malls I have visited in the South, and I was actually pleasantly surprised as well.  It was wonderful to see that the 1998 renovation did not strip away the original mall elements that made it enjoyable in the first place.  It probably helps that the original mall developers, Aronov Realty, still own and manage the mall.  Aronov is legendary in Alabama.  His company built one of the very first malls in the country in Montgomery in 1954, and he was instrumental in bringing modern retailing to Yellowhammer State.  If Simon had owned the mall, it would have been a guaranteed that the lush center court would have been replaced with a flat spot looking like the third world bazaar under a skylight.

Looking at this store, it is absolutely amazing to me that this was Parisian.  For a store known for elegant, cutting edge design features, I'm sure this was such a store for its time.  Today it looks so simple and 70's, but it is very eye catching.  I'm sure people in Atlanta, Nashville and Columbia would have a hard time picturing a Parisian looking like this, however.

Sears was definitely going for a Space Mountain look on this one.  I do not think I've ever seen another Sears with this design, so I'm guessing Sears did not design it themselves.

I'm not sure if it was Parisian, McRae's or Belk that did this entrance overhaul, but today there is no evidence whatsoever of what this store looked like when it opened as Pizitz.

JCPenney, unfortunately, spoils the party here in design.  JCPenney was at its very worst form with this design in 1980 when quite a few of their stores opened.  I also noted this look at Haywood Mall.

In all, it is rather interesting to note how many malls in Alabama remain under local management.  Quintard Mall in Anniston is also locally operated, and it has thrived as well.  In fact, University Mall today looks to only be attracting commerce as the new lifestyle center across the street appears to be fully complementing the thriving center.  This means that today University of Alabama students shopping at a mall built before they were born still see the place as hip as the day it was built 31 years ago.

UPDATE 5/01/11: University Mall was close to the tornado that hit Tuscaloosa, but narrowly missed the mall.  The mall is open for business.  It is unknown how much, if any, damage occurred at the mall.