Wednesday, January 19, 2011

West Town Mall: Knoxville, TN

Knoxville is not one of the most recognized areas retail-wise, and indeed I have heard comparatively little about it compared to other cities in the South.  It is also a fluky and difficult to understand market where stores that have come there tended to fail while stores that come out of there also do likewise.  It is still a modern, interesting city with TVA and University of Tennessee both major employers, but its hillbilly image proves a bit difficult to shake: at least to prospective retailers.  Nevertheless, the Knoxville area is among one of the most scenic locales, and its proximity to Great Smoky Mountains National Park has drawn significant vacation home growth as well as tourism.  The area infrastructure has also had to expand significantly to handle football crowds, tourists, traffic from the junction of two major interstates and, of course, organic growth in the area.

In all, the Knoxville area has had four major malls in recent years.  In addition to West Town Mall, these include East Town Mall (renamed Knoxville Center), Foothills Mall in Maryville and Oak Ridge Mall in Oak Ridge.  Oak Ridge Mall was a poorly conceived idea where a 1950's strip mall was converted to an enclosed mall, and it was never successful.  It was sealed off in 2008, though I took pictures in 2005 and covered it in depth.  Foothills Mall is marginally successful, but it is a weaker player in the market, and it lacks the offerings of Knoxville's two major malls.  West and East Town Malls, however, are a vastly different story with both carrying the torch in different times as the star of the city.  East Town held it in the 80's and early 90's and West Town, the first, still does today.

Here, I am first entering the mall from the Dillard's wing.  This is the oldest part of the mall.

Dillard's is located on the site of what was previously Hess's and originally Miller's of Tennessee.  The store, however, was gutted and rebuilt with two stories vs. the original anchor.

One of the things I find so special about this mall is that instead of making it all kiosk hell, they actually kept scultures and built-in planters all throughout the mall.  This one is on the same Dillard's wing.

Detail of the planter pictured above.

West Town Mall is not just one of the malls.  It is, in fact, the premier mall for all of East Tennessee.  This one story mall checks out at around 1.5 million square feet anchored by two Belk stores, Dillard's, Sears, JCPenney, junior anchor Forever 21 and a large movie theater.  While the anchors are mid-market, the mall offerings are somewhat more upscale featuring many of the trendy shops, including some of those typically found in lifestyle centers such as Pottery Barn and Williams-Sonoma.  While the mall is no Lenox, SouthPark or Green Hills, the mall definitely leans upscale with such stores as Brooks Brothers and Banana Republic.  The Belk also was set up as an A-class store offering merchandise closer to Nordstrom in lieu of the typical Belk offerings making it similar to its flagship stores at South Park in Charlotte and Phipps Plaza in Atlanta.  However, Belk is struggling to obtain brand loyalty after it purchased Proffitt's and Parisian, which were both extremely popular stores in the mall.  Dillard's, recognizing that the mall has no truly upscale anchors, features more exclusive offerings since Parisian became Belk.  Macy's is not in the Knoxville market at this point, and since the city has no luxury department stores so mall patrons are likely grateful that Dillard's has helped.

Here, I am entering the longest part of the mall with many more surprises and a lot of walking in store.  Belk Women's is behind me.

Here, I am entering a court area that includes an arbor, trees and skylights.  To the right is the food court, which originally was Frankenberger's.  The path to the left leads to an outside mall entrance and straight ahead continues to Sears, JCPenney and Belk Men's (formerly Parisian)

Here I am walking under the arbor in the same court.  Thank you, Simon.  This was special for a change.

Another view of the court pictured above coming from the food court

This is the path to the left of the arbor going to the northwest outside entrance.  It's a little bland, but the tree there definitely helps.

You do not have to be directionally challenged to get lost in this mall.  Where I am standing is in the wing dividing the blue part of the mall, and the court pictured above is where that wing junctions with the main part of the mall.

A view of the food court, which once was the inside of a department store.  Unfortunately, I know nothing about Frankenberger's.

West Town Mall was the city's very first mall, and according to Mall Hall of Fame, it was planned as early as 1965 but delays led to it not being completed until 1972 making it slow to gain a mall for a city its size.  In fact, Chattanooga, Cleveland and Kingsport all had malls open for business years before West Town Mall opened its doors.  When finished, the mall featured Proffitt's, Miller's and JCPenney as its major anchors and Frankenberger's as its junior anchor.  Sears would arrive soon after the mall opened giving a city that had never previously had a shopping mall of any kind a five anchor mall.  Five anchors for 1972 was astounding.  All original anchors in the mall except Frankenberger's were two-levels.  As for Proffitt's, this was their first mall-based location as well as the newly designated flagship for the Maryville-based chain.  Proffitt's was also only barely two levels with its home store on a small lower level.  Miller's was also entering the mall business for the first time, and it is not to be confused with Miller Bros. in Chattanooga, which did not consolidate into Miller's until 1973 and already had mall locations in Chattanooga and Cleveland. 

Here, I am walking along the Sears wing.  The second photo shows a ramped area with the wing extending to the food court visible on the right.  About the only surprises this mall does not have are a surprise second level in one of the wings of the mall.

Here, I am approaching Sears.  Despite being an original anchor to the mall, the store has been expanded and renovated to the point that it looks like most any other.  With the way Sears is going, this may one day be a Macy's, Nordstrom or even something like Von Maur.

Malls in this period tended to include several items guaranteed: a supermarket, a cafeteria-style restaurant and a movie theater.  While Morrison's Cafeteria filled the restaurant slot in the mall, both A&P and the movie theater were located on outparcels of the center.  With the mall doing very well, the mall existed free of competition until 1984 when East Town Mall attempted to steal some of its thunder.  Oddly, the mall did not react for quite awhile to the news, and the mall co-existed with its new crosstown competition unchanged for a long period of time.  Apparently the mall was not worried due to its nonchalant response to its new rival.  About the only change to occur at all in the first couple decades was the closure of Frankenberger's in the 70's, which brought a new food court in by the early 80's.  In the mean time, one of the mall's original anchors Miller's turned into Hess's in 1987 only to close in 1992.  Dillard's reopened in the space in 1993, gutting the store and adding on to the building according to their own needs while keeping some of the original Miller's exterior intact.  Dillard's then was new to the market, and they also opened a location in the former Hess's of rival East Town Mall.

This court is in the new section of the mall where the small JCPenney wing splits off from the longer Belk Men's (Parisian) wing.  This did not turn out the best since it was overloaded with Christmas decorations.

A look at the mall entrance to JCPenney v.2.0.  Opened in 1998, it replaced JCPenney v.1.0 the original 1972 store that is now part of the mall itself.  Insert tech geek joke here.

Belk Men, Home and Kids featuring swanky wood trim.  Inside, an A-class store awaits shoppers still pissed off that Parisian is not there anymore.

Dillard's arrival to West Town Mall spelled the beginning of major changes to the already unusually shaped mall.  By then, it was the smaller of the two rivals, and it joined many other malls in the 90's to do humongous expansions in order to remain competitive.  With the U-shaped mall already enough of a maze, the layout would become much more complex.  The reason for this is because the new wing would extend on the other side of the existing JCPenney to include a new JCPenney store and Parisian.  One might then ask what happened to the original JCPenney?  This is where it gets interesting.  The old JCPenney did not actually get a new anchor in its place.  Instead, they cut the portion where the mall corridor passes through down to one level.  The rest of the upper level was restructured into to a Regal Cinema on one side and family entertainment complex on the other side, the latter of which has since closed.  Along with that came a six story parking deck and two new wings forking off the other side of the de-anchored Penney's connecting to the relocated JCPenney and brand new Parisian, all completed in 1998.  By then, what was first and still a dominant mall suddenly became a force to reckon with.  This also made West Town Mall the largest in the entire state.

Now, for the most amazing feature of the mall is this pond and fountain with a bridge over it.  On the other side of this was the original JCPenney mall entrance prior to 1997-98.  You can still get to JCPenney that way, but you have to walk through what was the store to get there.

A view of the fountain from the bridge complete with more sculptures.  All malls should be required to have something like this. 

Walking across the bridge.  This whole feature should be in every advertising brochure of this mall.

Obviously, the mall has seen some anchor shifts over time.  Not only had the anchors expanded, but they were also moved around.  Proffitt's was expanded the most, expanding both into the mall (eliminating the front entrance wing) and into the parking lot.  Since 2005, the anchor shifts were all due to Belk moving in to completely dominate the market through the gradual buyout of the whole Saks, Inc. portfolio aside from Saks Fifth Avenue itself.  First, Belk purchased Proffitt's in 2005, converting the store by 2006 to the Belk banner.  Belk would then move in and grab Parisian later in 2006: a move which forced the chain to create an A-class store to appease the removal of an upscale department store anchor.  The dual Belk setup resulted in the old Proffitt's flagship becoming a women's store with the Parisian becoming a men's store.  Belk also was left with excessive space, so the lower level of the old Proffitt's was sealed off and what appeared to have been the Proffitt's Home Store was spun off to Forever 21.  As a result, Belk's arrival did lead to definite changes to the mall including the loss of the popular Proffitt's flagship store, which chain-wide apparently was not profitable enough for Saks, Inc.

Belk Women's here was Proffitt's flagship store up until 2006.  It is an unusual store with a basement level that is currently sealed off as well as parts of the store that are expanded into existing mall space.  The mall makes a 90 degree turn at the mall entrance.

The court in front of Belk Women's is the way they used to be: a lush jungle of vegetation and modern art.  Note the sculpture on the right.

My visit to West Town Mall presented me a mall that was more like one of the 70's than so many of the struggling malls of today.  The parking lot was nearly to capacity even with the parking decks.  Having never seen or paid any attention to the mall before, I was not prepared for how incredibly huge this mall was inside.  The mall also featured many distinctive court areas including a small pond with a bridge, ironworks, trellises and trees.  The detail reminded me a lot of Biltmore Square Mall but less elegant.  I also was surprised to find that such an extremely popular mall was only one story.  Did structural issues keep them from just making this a two-level mall to start with?

I personally detest night shots of mall anchors from the outside, but I was here at night and I did well to get all of these to turn out.  Photos are of Dillard's, on site of the former Hess's and Miller's, Sears, Belk Men's Home and Kids in the former Parisian, JCPenney and Belk Women's in the former Proffitt's flagship store.

The expansion of West Town Mall may have been a little too successful.  The reason for this is that the other three malls in the city took a big hit from that 1998 expansion.  East Town Mall (now Knoxville Center) is also owned by Simon, and it is struggling to stay alive especially after losing Dillard's in 2008.  Foothills Mall in Maryville has also lost ground to the behemoth, and Oak Ridge Mall faded into history 10 years from when the project was completed.  Perhaps West Town Mall is too much of a good thing when city residents have apparently lost interest in patronizing the other malls of the area.  Granted, I will say that Knoxville Center and Foothills Mall could be better, but what comes of these other malls is unknown.  Foothills Mall is in a lower growth area, which makes it difficult to evolve, but Knoxville Center has one advantage in that West Town Mall will have a difficult time expanding to accomodate any new anchors such as an entry of Macy's into the market.  This gives Knoxville Center a slim opportunity to recover despite the fact that retail has only gravitated west of the city, not east.

One of the outside mall entrances between Sears and Belk Mens, Kids and Home

I cannot complain about the mall sign posted along Kingston Pike.  This is pretty elegant!  I don't much like the name, though.  I would rather this have been called Kingston Square Mall (for Kingston Pike, where the mall is located), Kingston Ridge Mall, Knox Ridge Mall or something else more distinct.  At least they avoided the moronic elegant "e" on the end of town.

This was my best attempt at an early map of West Town Mall.  Imagery used was from 1993, so I am uncertain of the original size of Miller's or Sears.  Please feel free to make corrections.

West Town Mall is not going anywhere, however.  Few malls are this solid, but I do believe that the mall will have to make some changes in the future to its design: namely a major renovation to make the mall not so colorless and a reconfiguring of the former JCPenney location.  However, the unusual layout and special touches really make this mall.  The pond and fountain in the middle of the mall is the biggest treat with the bridge crossing the middle of it.  It is rare to find themed court areas in most malls these days, especially Simon malls.  Fortunately, it seems that Simon has shown more interest in keeping the mall distinct to protect its status as not just a mall, but a tourist destination for East Tennessee in the region's largest city.

ALSO: Check out the new Google Maps link to the mall.  This is a new feature I plan to add to more posts in the future.


  1. Oh, I've been to this mall, I visited it with my brother when he lived in Oak Ridge. Knoxville today gets points from me because a local frozen yogurt place (Spoons) opened a franchised location in town.

  2. My first post got an error message, so this may be a re-hash, but a couple of corrections. Frankenberger's was only in the mall for a couple of years and was converted to the food court in the early 80's.

    The Miller's was built as a two-level store. Hess's maintained the Miller's space and made no changes. Dillard's purchased the store and the space from Hess's during their liquidation and expanded the footprint to the size of the store they had planned on building elsewhere in the mall. See below.

    Proffitt's was the only one-level anchor, though they did have a small basement that housed their home store and offices.

    Forever 21 took up former in-line space and the exterior end of what was once Walgreens. Walgreen's left the mall in the late 90s, with Guess and Build-a-Bear taking it's in-line space, while the side facing the parking lot was sealed off for storage. F21 took that space and knocked out 5 in-line stores, including a former Baskin-Robbins for their store, the majority of the space cming from the in-line stores.

    There was never a down period for the mall, despite the competition from East Towne. ET drew JC Penney and Sears stores from their downtown locations (Miller's opened at ET as well, but maintained a downtown store thru Hess's until that chain liquidated, but the more affluent West Knoxville shopper never crossed town to do its shopping. That would be East Towne's (now Knoxville Center) ultimate downfall. It was nice, but it was never an A-level mall. West Towne was always the jewel, and had many upscale local in-line retailers that had moved from other Knoxville locations. Proffitt's constantly expanded and renovated their store to try out new concepts and decorative elements that they used at other stores in the chain.

    Though Belk announced that this would be an A-level store, I would not agree that it has remained at that level. The backlash from former Proffitt's and Parisian shoppers has been substantial. They have slowly downmarketed the offerings, while Dillard's has greatly upgraded its upscale offerings to lure former Parisian shoppers.

    One irony of the expansion was that it nearly didn't happen when Dillard's announced they were purchasing Hess's assets in Knoxville. Dillard's had signed on to build a 200,000 sq foot store in the area which ended up being Parisian. At the same time, Belk cut back on their expansion plans and not only dropped the proposed Knoxville store, but exited Tennessee entirely, selling stores in other markets to Proffitt's and Dillard's. Parisian, not yet a part of Proffitt's, took the Dillard's pad, and JCP moved to build their new store on what had been slated to be Belk.

    This is a cliffs-notes version of my original post, it got lost in an internet/google/blogger sneeze/wet fart. I may expound on this more in the future, unless the mighty internets spits up my original post

  3. By the way, wish you would have looked me up when you were here, could have given you the annotated tour of the place. Still a couple of neat old relics from the original mall and stores if you know where to look.

  4. Brian, I made the changes you mentioned. Hope it reads more accurately now.

  5. It surprising that Simon didn't take out the arbor, fountain, etc. The effect is tacky and gaudy but at least it has personality.

  6. There is nothing wrong with the arbor and fountain. What is wrong is that without them the mall would be plain and boring. Simon has caused this mall to be very chalky and dull otherwise. The skylights and ceiling treatments leave much to be desired as well. This mall needs some impressive court areas and a better design since it is so popular, and the mall entrances seem to lead you believe you should expect that inside. Consider what was done to Oglethorpe Mall in Savannah...a dirt plain 70's mall that got an incredible upgrade in the early 90's. This mall definitely brings in the money to do an amazing renovation, but I do not see it ever happening.

    East Tennessee malls for the most part have very uninspired architecture, so it would be nice if they could make at least one truly stand out. Some very good candidates are this mall, Mall at Johnson City and Northgate in Chattanooga. I would still say this is a far more interesting mall than Hamilton Place, however.

  7. Seeing that Parisian with the Belk sign on it makes my skin crawl- what a great chain was lost! That store looks like a clone of the Greenville (SC) Mall store, which opened in 1995.

  8. A lot of those mid-90s Parisians had this look. A couple of their ATL stores are very similar, as is the Cool Springs store in Nashville.

  9. Last time I was in this mall about 11 years ago, it felt far more upscale and larger than I had remembered it, and it had been expanded. When I first went in it, it was the smaller U shape and I wondered, "Why don't they just build a mall corridor between the ends of the U and make it into a square shape?"

    I hope you'll also do a post on East Towne since it used to have two neat waterfalls in it. When I was younger, I found it very neat and interesting because in my 20s I considered one-level malls inferior to two-level ones although I don't feel that way now.

  10. Aah, the memories I have of this mall from my one year in Knoxville. Have you made it to East Town yet, JT? When you do, you'll probably figure out why WT has never had to worry too terribly much about competition.

    WT has to rank up there as one of the largest malls in the world with just one floor. It's amazing, isn't it, how people will complain about how far away they have to park, yet walking throughout an entire mall is fine?

    But I digress. I remember when Belk split the stores there was talk about leasing out that basement area, and for the life of me I could never figure out who would want it, as it is literally a basement with no (public) access other than an escalator and elevator.

    I miss the Proffitt's store there -- I was fairly spoiled by it compared to the one in Greenville, South Carolina. Brian, would you say that WT was the Proffitt's flagship?

    Also, Brian, they built that Belk out at Turkey Creek not long after I left. How's that been doing? It seemed somewhat odd to me that Belk went there in the first place, and I suppose it's far enough out not to cannibalize from the WT store once they inherited it?

  11. It was certainly the nicest store Proffitt's had, so it would be considered the flagship from that standpoint, but the Foothills Mall store(s) in Maryville held the Store 001 designation (and had a nifty "Proffitt's Employee Wall of Honor" which honored the company's 25+ year employees from across the chain).

    It didn't start that way, tho, and was by far the smallest anchor at West Town until they began swallowing up the in-line stores (and eventually an entire wing and mall entrance) in the early 90s. The East Town store was at an equal level or better well into the 2000s, when they removed the Polo and Hilfiger departments and made it a B-level store.

    Simon actively tried to get restaurants to open in the basement. I can't even imagine what a disaster that would have been. Two of the major Knoxville-based restuarnt operators passed. Connor Concepts actually thought it was a joke when they were first contacted.

    Regarding the Turkey Creek store, as you may or may not know, Proffitt's was planning on building a true flagship there at two-stories and over 215,000 sq ft. They had grand plans for it. Ground had been cleared but construction had not begun when Belk made the purchase, and they instead went with a one-story 115,000 sq ft store on a slightly smaller footprint. They opened it as a B-level store for the most part. No Polo, no suits, but they did have Tommy Bahama, because at that time Parisian had an exclusive on it at West Town.

    Of course, the tiny mid-level store was a huge flop. Belk eventually built a 60,000 sq ft Men's and Home store next door in the next Phase of Turkey Creek, but you can't easily walk between the two. They upgraded the merchandise a bit, added Polo to the men's store, and renovated the main store to women's and children's. Neither is nearly as successful as the West Town store.

    They also built at JCPenney at Turkey Creek, and it's super-nice, probably the most upscale JCP I've seen. It sits way out by itself on the location that Macy's had been rumored to be building on when they were in negotiations to also buy the West Town and Hamilton Place Chattanooga Parisian stores from Belk before the changeover. Employees of Parisian West Town had actually been told of the possible sale by management. When it fell thru a couple of weeks later, management denied that they had ever addressed it with employees, which was pretty much the beginning of the end for Parisian employees with the new Belk management.

  12. Whoa -- I never knew the Proffitt's info about Turkey Creek. That sounds really, really exciting even though it still seems miles away from everything else to me. I also had no clue that JCP was there. I guess a lot happens in...uh...8 years!

    Gees, restaurants in the basement? I agree -- total disaster in the making, and it makes you wonder about the person who floated that balloon.

    Only after I actually posed the question about the flagship WT store did I realize I glossed over the part where JT mentions it -- my apologies, sir! I went to Foothills once but it was just for a quick in-and-out trip, so I never ventured farther in than about 15 feet.

  13. Matt, you wouldn't believe Turkey Creek if you saw it. Completely built up and full on both sides from Lovell to Campbell Station. It's a traffic nightmare every day of the week.

  14. Wow judging from these photos this an impressive looking mall, especially that one of the arbor! A great looking and busy looking one level mall much like Columbiana Centre in Columbia, I hope to visit this for myself some day.

  15. I have a 1981 Knoxville phone book that has Frankenbergers Dept store listed. I know that I have been going to this mall since I was like 3 and that was in 1981. I remember the renovation in the early 1980s that improved the mall and brought in the food court.

    I remember the fountains which the one where JC Penny used to be is still kinda there with the bridge and water. When you are 3 and 4 you love a fountain with colored lights.

    What other gems of the original mall have you found? post them here or i can email you and get them that way.

  16. Man you ought to see the mall recently that are trying to renovate the mall to make it look more modern I guess, all the gardens trees plants exc. have been removed, the fountain has been removed, the food court will have new tables ( long bench / outdoor style tables, plus other things replaced check west town