Thursday, November 3, 2011

Catawba Mall: Hickory, NC

Nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, Hickory is the largest city in that region as well as the only significant outpost between Asheville and Winston-Salem.  While nearby cities such as Lenoir and Statesville have malls, the former is dead and the latter has less to offer than the average strip mall aside from its anchors.  Hickory as a population center is significant with the city holding about 40,000 residents and the region holding over 300,000.  Hickory is also the center of North Carolina's furniture manufacturing industry, and it was the first city in the state to commence furniture manufacturing.  This is part of why Hickory has the region's dominant shopping mall, Valley Hills Mall.  Before Valley Hills Mall, however, this title was held by tiny Catawba Mall.


Catawba Mall, today Catawba Furniture Mall, was the first shopping mall in the region as well as one of the oldest in Western North Carolina outside of Charlotte when it opened in 1968.  For its compact size, it was effectively the only enclosed super-regional mall in that part of the state since Charlotte had yet to build a mall like Catawba and the nearest mall like it opened itself in High Point around the same time.  Surprisingly, this mall was also built by Simon: obviously one of their first.  Unfortunately, this potential was offset by the fact that Catawba was a plain, brutalist building that over time proved much too small for the city.

Front entrance hallway headed to center court.  Originally, Rose's would have been straight ahead.

Center court walking toward west wing.  This way went to Belk Broome, Spainhour's and Big Star.  It looks so spooky from this angle.  The mall is very dark outside of the court areas.

After turning left at the former Belk Broome entrance, I am walking toward the back entrance where Big Star used to be.  Spainhour's would have been somewhere on the right here.

Belk Broome here would have been on the left and possibly straight ahead.  It had only one outside entrance.

When Catawba Mall opened, it featured a large JCPenney as well as Rose's, Belk Broome and Spainhour's.  Spainhour's was centered in Hickory, so it was a logical anchor since early malls always had at least one local or regional department store.  A Big Star supermarket also anchored the southwest corner of the mall, possibly opening as Colonial, but it did not connect to the interior portion of the mall.  The single-level center featured an L-shaped main hallway with one additional entrance wing connecting through center court.  JCPenney was the largest anchor and the only anchor with two levels.  Rose's extended straight back from center court also containing an outside entrance behind the mall, which is now bricked up.  Center court features a rectangular room with high windows roughly halfway between the former JCPenney and the former Belk Broome.  Spainhour's was situated on the west side behind Belk Broome (and attached). In all, it was a very tiny mall packed with anchors that to all appearances left room for no more than about 15-20 inline tenants aside from the anchors.

Here I'm further back from the last photo in the vicinity of where Spainhour's entrance once was.

Here, I'm back in center court with full view of the small fountain with the front entrance hall on the left and the east wing on the right heading to what was JCPenney.  How much, if any, part of this fountain is original?

I am now looking down the former JCPenney wing just east of center court otherwise known as the world's longest furniture showroom (my bad joke).

This photo was captured precisely where the JCPenney mall entrance was.  The former JCPenney has since been integrated into the "mall".  What I'd give to see this seen with that funky old Penney's logo.

When Valley Hills Mall opened in 1978, Catawba Mall did not immediately die as a traditional shopping mall.  While it was clear that Valley Hills was the superior mall, the mall curiously opened with only two anchors including Belk Broome, which duplicated stores at both malls, and Sears, which the older mall did not have.  JCPenney did not initially relocate to the mall, and Spainhour's stayed put.  Regardless, Belk Broome had a small one-level store at Catawba while its Valley Hills Mall store a mere 2 1/2 miles east was a spacious, elegant two-level store with a wider assortment of merchandise.  Only because Valley Hills opened with skimpy anchor offerings was the game not already over for Catawba.  In fact, the two malls completely complimented each other for a decade.  If Catawba's owners had been proactive and enacted an immediate expansion through the back of the mall making it larger and more attractive, perhaps the ultimate outcome would have been very different.

The mall's main entrance along U.S. Hwy 70 looks a bit gaudy, but it appears it was always plain.

Belk Broome is now "In Your Home Furnishings".

Further inspection of Belk Broome reveals the display windows are still intact next to the entrance.  Instead of looking at chalky mannequins shaped like bulimic chicks, you can imagine yourself looking at them while instead fawning over the couch in the window.  At least you can sleep on the couch (after you buy it).

The northwest corner of Belk Broome reveals no outside entrance but a steady line of ribbed concrete protrusions extending along the back side as well.

Despite the complimentary nature of the two malls, Catawba proved to be very outmoded by the late 80's.  By then, the mall was already struggling, and this became painfully obvious when in 1988 JCPenney built onto Valley Hills Mall, closing their Catawba Mall store once the new store was completed.  Without a major anchor to pull in traffic, Belk Broome joined JCPenney simultaneously in the exodus finally recognizing that they only needed one store in the market as well.  Rose's also joined the exodus moving west into a new strip mall just west of the US 321 expressway at U.S. 70 and 12th St with Big Star likely anchoring that new strip as well.  With an exodus like that, the mall was in a tail spin.  Nevertheless, Big Lots moved in to replace Rose's and Spainhour's continued to do good business.  Even then, the Spainhour's location no longer appealed to the company.  At the time, they were already in the process of phasing out their department stores.  Spainhour's itself left the mall in 1991 leaving the mall dead.  Big Lots would ultimately leave as well seeking more space than the Rose's had to offer.

At the very rear of the mall is this bricked up entrance, which was originally the back and outside entrance to Rose's, later Big Lots.  Bricking up any entrance always looks spooky like a dark secret is hiding on the other side.

Here is more of the back side of the mall with Penney's on the right and the mall on the left.  It is unknown what the solitary door connected to.  Was this a drug store of some sort?  The store would have been very deep.

The southwest entrance is the only rear access to the mall today.  The grassy lot to the left was the former location of Big Star before the building was demolished a couple years ago.

This photo lacks detail of the entrance due to a couple annoying yokels haunting the door, but this brick portion was where Spainhour's was located.  Spainhour's was the last anchor to leave the mall in 1991.

The death of one of the state's oldest malls was not lost on the city nor developers.  Several developers came forward with proposals to resurrect the mall, but all fell through.  The city also considered, but rejected the mall site for a civic center.  Of all the proposals, the most unusual one of all came forward in the late 1990's: transforming the mall into a "furniture mall".  A novel concept indeed, a "furniture mall" is essentially different furniture vendors setting up as tenants throughout one center.  The concept was also tried on nearby Lenoir Mall, but failed.  In the case of Catawba Mall, though, it was a total success.  The mall reopened in 1998 as Catawba Furniture Mall, and it is still going strong today.  As a city people travel to just for furniture, it was definitely the best way to reuse as well as rescue a mall that otherwise would have been doomed to a date with dump trucks.

Last but not least is JCPenney...the largest single anchor at the mall.  This is the front entrance.

Here is a side view of JCPenney, which is now simply a mall entrance for the rest of the bizarre furniture bazaar.

More detail of the JCPenney side entrance.
Behind the mall, prior to the conversion to a furniture mall this very peculiar building was spotted on an aerial photo.  Apparently this was a Carmike Cinema.  It was divided into four screens and downgraded to a dollar theater before closing in the 1990's.  It has since been torn down as part of a state road improvement project.

Here is a map of the mall showing its anchor line-up the way it was during its peak of success around 1977.  It is still unclear what other tenants were in the mall, how they were positioned or how many.  I also do not know if any other hallways existed.

The sad part about Catawba Mall is that its contemporaries have for the most part not been able to survive next to competition, demographic changes and even natural disasters.  Charlottetown failed due to its small size and poor offerings.  Tarrytown in Rocky Mount was ultimately demolished after being destroyed in a long, devastating flood.  If Hickory itself had built any more malls, Catawba would have likely seen a similar fate.  While it is sad to see the old anchors with their iconic signs re-dubbed as something less glamorous, at least it is still possible to see Catawba for what it was for the most part.  As expensive, elaborate and expansive as malls are to build, even the small ones, it is worthwhile to try to save every one even if its use is not retail.  Catawba was fortunate enough to find a second life as a retail center: even if the only "retail" being sold there is furniture.

32 comments:

  1. Nice job, JT! I had the pleasure of visiting Catawba a couple of years ago while furniture shopping. Did you make it upstairs in Penney's? There's definitely a retro vibe up there in a part which wasn't drastically renovated, especially the tiled floors. (Of course, a lot does change in two years.)

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  2. Let me help you with some info. That Mystery Building in the back of the mall was the old Carmike Cinemas Movie Theater. It only had 2 screens when it was first opened but later was remodeled to have 4 smaller screens. After Carmike build their new theater behind the Valley Hills Mall they changed the old one to a $1.50 theater. It stayed open for many years before it was torn down to make way for a new road to complete the NC Hwy 127 project.
    As for where the Roses was, it was about dead middle of the mall on the back side. They where there until they opened their bigger store about a mile away. One Roses still use. After Roses left the mall, the empty space became one of the first Big Lots to open. I think they where there until the mid 90's when they too moved to their current location. And to answer your other question about JCPenney's. Yes they used both levels of their store. Also I Lived in Hickory for the first 30 years of my life and I can't remember that Belk store ever being called Belk Broome. The sign on the store front was always Belk from what I can remember.

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  3. I guess I want to know if my mall map was correct. Was that bricked off entrance actually to Rose's/Big Lots? As to Belk Broome, many Belk partnership stores were not signed so quite possibly Belk Broome was never signed on the stores. I know for certain that was Belk Broome, however.

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  4. Yep that Bricked off back entrance was actually the Rose's/Big Lots. It wasn't a very big area and is why both stores moved on to bigger locations.

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  5. Back in the early 90s I had a membership at a women-only gym that was at the back of the mall. The entrance more or less faced the theater; there was no in-mall entrance. I wonder if that's why the wing was bricked off.

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  6. Great post. I've always been a little fascinated by the Catawba Mall. The first time I saw it was (I think) 1984 or 85. The signage on JC Penny was their very old "Penny's" logo and the Belk was actually a BudgetFair store which was Belk's clearance center. There was also, I believe an Eckerd drug store in the front to the right of the main entrance. A few years later, the place was clearly struggling but held on to the anchors: Hamricks was where Penny's was, Heilig Myers furniture was where Belk used to be and a very junky Big Lots was in the center as this article says. The fact that it survived at all in such a small city that already has a regional mall is miraculous. It's nice to see that today, it's doing well as a furniture mall.

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  7. Wayne Sharpe (of Hickory)December 2, 2011 at 2:52 PM

    I recall other shops in Catawba Mall during the late 70s to mid 80s. Looking at your map of the mall, there was another entry corridor adjacent to JCPenney on the front/Hwy. 70 side of the mall. To this corridor's 'west' side was a Radio Shack, then I believe a Kinney's Shoes, then a Music Eye record store. To the 'west' of the center entry corridor was an Eckerd's Drug Store, which had its own lunch counter. Moving toward Belks was an Orange Julius, and I recall a Singer Sewing Machine store just before the Belks. I don't recall Spainhours being in any location except between Roses and JCPenney. The 'green box' on your map was the location of both a restaurant/bar called 'The Establishment' and the single screen Terrace Theater prior to their construction of a twin theater in the parking lot behind the mall. Between Roses and Belk, the only shop I can recall would have been a Bumbarger's store, which sold gifts, stationery and some office supplies. And in the center court, I remember getting ice cream at what I think was a Bresler's Ice Cream stand. Big Star also closed as a grocer, and the space later was remodeled into a Gold's Gym. There were other shops that I am drawing a blank on now, that sold clothes, shoes, jewelry.

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    1. Enjoyed reading your accurate description of the mall. I worked at the Terrace Theater in 1974 and still have a candle holder I bought at Bumbargers when I moved to Hickory in Feb 74.

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    2. Enjoyed reading your accurate description of the mall. I worked at the Terrace Theater in 1974 and still have a candle holder I bought at Bumbargers when I moved to Hickory in Feb 74.

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  8. Reaching way back for this, but I believe the lone entrance on the back beside the bricked up Rose's was a DMV tag office.

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  9. http://www.catawbafurniture.com/

    I would encourage you all to visit the website for the current company there. Every spot in the building now is being used as display for furniture, accessories, lighting... and even a wine and gift shop. I think its great that this old building is still being put to good use.

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  10. Timeout Arcade was at the back entrance opposite the Big Star. Also up from The Establishment restaurant was a barber shop/salon. Can't remember the name. Peanut Shack had a kiosk thing in the mall center. Roses originally had a diner/lunch counter.

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    1. My Dad and I got our haircuts at the "Stag Cutters" when I was a boy.

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  11. The whole furniture mall is owned by one company, even though it is broken up into stores. Their business has not been good for a while now. I've heard that they've told their employees that unless business picks up, they will be closed in a few months.
    They have some great furniture here!
    I have always heard that when this mall opened, that it was built with mob money!
    The major problem with this mall is that it's in what is considered a poor side of town, not far from the projects.

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  12. Does anyone have any pictures of The Catawba Mall during the 1980s? Just looking at the lay out brings back so many memories.

    Wasn't there a TimeOut near the back entrance facing the old movie theater.

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    1. There was. It had an interior and an exterior entrance that allowed the arcade to stay open late nights to catch some traffic from the movie patrons.

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  13. There was also a store outside JC Penney's call Melville's... (not sure on spelling) it was on the left leaving Penney's.

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  14. It was recently announced that the Furniture Mall is closing. I wonder if bulldozers are in the near future for this site. Its sad to think about a building with so much nostalgia attached to it being gone.

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  15. I don't think that the fountain in the center is original. I recall the mall having seat benches down the center. I remember my grandmother sitting out in the mall as we shopped. Spainhours was located between Penneys and Roses and had a door that went out to the back parking lot. Penneys also had a back door and it's catalog sales was located close to the back door. My mom ordered a lot from the catalog. We always parked in the back of the mall. Driving to the mall, there was a small house on the left that sold Indian arrowheads - anyone remember that? The movie theater was located left of Belks and I remember going to see Herbie the Love Bug there. The Catawba Mall - Sky City area was the retail hub of the city in the late 60's and early 70's. The other strip shopping center beside of Catawba had a Grant's Dept Store. I remember a carnival locating in the parking lot one summer and riding an elephant. One of the rides malfunctioned and hurt someone - that was in the news. My mother bought my music from Sky City - I recall getting a Jackson 5 album!

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  16. Does anyone remember the building outfront of Pennys and 64/70 which was the Pennys Auto Service Center.. became Auto Shack which is now Auto Zone??

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  17. I was the assistant theater manager of the Terrace Theater in 1974. I worked for Manager Ned Thomas. The theater was located near Big Star supermarket, beside The Establishment Bar. I spent many nights getting the crowd in, then putting down a few beers next door at The Establishment. The Terrace Theater was a large, modern, single-screen movie house with a green lobby. It was a popular hangout for many mall patrons.

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  18. Most of the mall is now closed. Seems to be only Uhaul in the old pennies part of the mall. That fountain is not original to mall. Also, there's a fountain out front that was suppose to be a part of an area beautification project. Didn't help and it's an eye sore now! I hope this building doesn't get torn down. Would make a great arts learning complex. Also, there was a Gold's Gym in the back in the mid to late 80s.

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  19. Wow! Those were the days.......

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  20. Wow! Those were the days.....

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  21. It seems like I remember a Orange Julius there, and possibly a Revco. The only thing left now is U-Haul. Can the mall part be accessed through U-Haul?

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  22. If anyone has any additional information, history, pictures we would love to see them.

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  23. I use to pull my little red wagon all the way across town, so I could sale my glass pop bottles that I would find along the way to Big Star grocery store. People use to throw glass pop bottles out on the side of the roads like they do cans now.

    Yes the DMV was on the back side of the mall for years. I have been there numerous times.

    Thanks for mentioning the name of the theater, Terrace, because I have been there many times too. Saw a lot of really good movies in there, but I saw the original Star Wars in 1977 at the Carmike down the street from there across from the old K-Mart. Carmike building is now gone.

    Had my hair cut a few times there too, and then when I got done I would go next door to the Establishment, and have a sandwich basket with a couple Long Island Ice Tea's.

    Life was better back then!

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  24. I remember the Orange Julius and the theatre. Also had a pretty neat game room. I eas also wondering about accessing the mall through U-Haul.

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  25. One of my first jobs was working at the Bumbargers beside the Belks store. Lunch break would be a trip to the TimeOut game room. Would love to see some old photos. As a child I remember going into Roses and eating in the diner area. I can still smell the coffee as I walked through.

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  26. I used to go there all the time to time out we would all cruise the old Catawba mall on Friday and Saturday nights they were people everywhere miss the old days and going to sky city and grants where old Kmart used to be !!

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  27. Does anyone remember the name of the Company that sold those beautiful kitchen and outdoor islands??

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  28. Good memories at the Catawba Mall. I worked there for years as Manager at a little craft store called Bethanys crafts which was in the old western clothing spot on the corner on the side where Bumgarners was and across the corridor.

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