Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Lenoir Mall: Lenoir, NC

It is rare today to find a truly vintage mall: one that has never been updated at all from the day it opened over 30 years old.  It's even rarer to find a mall far past its useful life still open to the public.  If the mall is successful, it's been renovated one or two times at least since it opened usually stripping out everything fun.  If it is unsuccessful, the mall has been either boarded up or torn down sometime between 1995 and 2005.  Lenoir Mall is all of the above: vintage, dead and still open!  It is even more unusual, too, considering a mall that has been largely unsuccessful for 20 years usually would have been gone by now.  This is why Lenoir Mall is such an amazing find. 

A few things do exist online about Lenoir Mall, but it is not terribly easy to obtain.  The mall itself was not well-positioned to survive long-term.  It is located away from the main retail district in Lenoir, it was situated with anchors that folded and it was located in a city with too much competition both from nearby strip malls and a much better mall in Hickory a mere 20 miles away.  Even worse is the decline of the local economy, which has heavily been very dependent on furniture manufacturing.  All of the furniture factories have closed plants, outsourced jobs and downsized operations in the city resulting in fewer people to shop and a higher poverty rate.  All of this combined with a mall that was relatively weak to start with have brought the mall to the end of its life with no hope of ever salvaging the property for retail use.  So why has it lasted this long?

The first two photos are of the center court, which still features planters and a dry fountain basin that apparently once had four bubble fountains. The ceiling dips down at an angle towards the fountains with reflective panels magnifying the sunlight from the skylight onto the fountain.

Another view of the center court fountain looking down the Belk wing.

Walking down the Woolworth's wing toward Woolworth.  The only thing lighting this corridor were the skylights, which probably partially explains why this mall closes at 6 PM.  The two operating stores still have electricity, though, so they are probably just keeping them off to save money.

Woolworth's mall entrance.  Unlike the rest of the mall, the wall is simply hiding the medical facility that took over the Woolworth's space on the other side.  The medical facility does not maintain any direct access to the mall.

Another shot of the Woolworth's mall entrance.  Note the unusual style planter at the bottom of the photo.  Does it resemble an in-ground trash can to you?

The doors in this shot are one of three mall entrances.  They lead to the back of the mall and are locked.  Another picture showing the writing above the door is shown below.

Opposite those doors is where "the Rock" church was.  This had formerly been mall space, but was consolidated into space for the church, which saw the light and rose above this place.

The mall did, however, have a successful era.  When it first opened in 1979, it hosted three anchors and a solid roster of tenants in a relatively compact mall with its period of success stretching for 10 years.  Inline tenants included national and regional chains such as Junction, Spencer's Gifts, Cato, Fashion Bug, Sound Shop (was also Musicland), Foot Locker, Regis salon, B. Dalton Bookstore and Barrel of Fun.  Anchor stores were Belk (confirmed not to be a partnership store), regional chain Spainhour's and an unusually large Woolworth comparable in size to the early Wal-Marts.  Trouble brewed when Spainhour's closed at the mall in 1989 with no replacement.  This was soon to be followed by the closure of Woolworth's around 1992 leaving Belk as the sole anchor.  For awhile, Belk was trapped at the mall but seized an opportunity when Kmart closed on US 321 in 2002.  They then left when they renovated space in the old Kmart to became a new Belk store in 2003 leaving the mall to fade into oblivion.  In most instances, the mall would have been closed and boarded up, but the owners got creative before that happened.

The homemade signs posted by mall management (which from what I can tell is all of two people) is a hoot.  There were maybe two people in the mall, and both worked in the two stores left...except me and my friend.  Even mall walkers are apparently terrified of this place.

A look back into the rest of the mall from the former Woolworth's.  The small store siding is clearly not original indicative of the mall's second life as a furniture mall.

The friendly snowman is bundled up and there to inform you it's a chilly day in August.  If they were running any air-conditioning at all, that might explain why all the lights were off. 

Another sign: "THIS IS NOT A TRASH CAN".  Well shoot, it looked like one to me.  I wondered what that plant was growing in there for.

GNC apparently was the last to be informed that this mall is, in fact, completely dead.

The planters and uncomfortable wooden benches next to GNC seemed to be the only non-carpeted part of the mall featuring those quintessential brown tiles.

The skylight shines brightly into an otherwise dark interior.  The scene looks like a square alien spaceship is landing in the middle of the mall.

The first attempts to save the fading mall came in the 90's.  Around the same time as Hickory's oldest mall was being considered for a furniture mall, the same plan emerged for Lenoir Mall in 1996.  With the town a center of furniture production, this seemed a logical course.  It did, in fact, work for some time with local companies Broyhill and Bernhardt both opening showrooms in the empty stores of the mall.  The timing was right for this, because it came in conjunction with the beginnings of the real estate boom.  In addition, major anchors Belk and Woolworth were both finding new life for other non-retail uses.  The Belk store was converted partially into space for an electronics manufacturer known as AMP-RTI in 2006, Woolworth was also converted during this time into a medical facility with Quest 4 Life Medical Center as the main tenant in that building and the Spainhour's was recycled as a showroom for Bernhardt.  In addition, a church called "The Rock" took over a large inline space next to the old Woolworth's and a few local shops continued to operate within the mall.  .  Of those listed, only the medical campus in the old Woolworth remains today.

Detail of the skylight in the previous photo, which is actually a high window with a wedge shape reflecting light into the mall.  These were very similar to the skylights on older Richway stores.

Back in center court, I am focusing on the view looking towards Belk showing all the planters and the ball-shaped light fixtures in the center.

A closer-up shot of the same.

Detail of the fountain itself with an ironically placed American flag.  Is this some unusual statement about the economic and financial situation of the country?

Just off the center court from the first photo is the Spainhour's mall entrance.  It was far more spartan than the Belk and Woolworth's entrances with no skylights overhead.  Apparently Peeble's was never interested, but it was last used by Bernhardt for a furniture showroom.

A couple stores retained their original signage long after the mall closed.  This is one of those.  Just realize there is a long wait for a haircut here.  You'll be waiting forever.

The Belk wing features three skylights instead of one.

The mall's revived fortunes seem to darken again in 2007.  This is when the mall changed ownership to business partners from Miami.  It is not known what changes transpired, but it was after the mall was sold that the mall's revival failed.  This was also, of course, a factor of the failing real estate market and economy as well.  Since the beginning of the year, what few stores remained in the mall have all left but two.  Even the local church known as "the Rock" has left for more sacred ground.  Amazingly, one of those two stores left is GNC.  Is GNC a company not dependent on mall traffic for business?  Located next to center court, the sign lights up an otherwise dark corridor other than natural light coming from the skylights.  The only other store is a Christian bookstore known as Corner Stone located next to the main mall entrance.

The Belk mall entrance is a wonderland with the best planter features, the awesome stone, wood and copper overhang design, seats and best of all...a trash can!  The trash can is there so that unwary shoppers do not mistake those planters as a good place for their sticky Dairy Queen Blizzard cup to end up.

Why can't department store mall entrances look like this now?

Diagonal wood trim, fake stone, lantern light fixtures and a funky shaped copper overhang...pure 1979 at Belk.  Sadly, Belk couldn't wait to leave this place.

The indoor garden was noticeably more lush next to Belk.  I wonder if Belk would still be here today if JCPenney had anchored the mall instead of Woolworth's.

Looking back from Belk into the dusky beauty of the mall.

Walking back into darkness away from Belk toward center court.

The mall directory is now blank.

Aside from the skylights, the mall is basically in darkness with all lights shut off obviously to save electricity.  Climate control also appears to be kept to a minimum if used at all.  I am assuming that the only thing that keeps the doors open is rent collected from the medical facility, but that is hardly covering the increasing disrepair of the mall.  Carpet is bunched up on the floors, a couple skylights have started to leak and the grounds outside the mall are becoming overgrown from a total lack of maintenance.  Still, the building is in amazingly good condition considering the state of the mall, suggesting the rent-draining exodus from its last attempt at re-purposing is very recent.

This now abandoned store was last Corner Stone books, which has since moved next to the main mall entrance, including outside access.

A row of dark stores not hidden from view at all leading to center court.

A look inside one of the vacant stores.

Vacant stores next to Belk.

More diagonal wood on a long-closed store.

At least one sign was left over.

Walking towards the front entrance.

Walking through the mall, it was an eerie silence.  There was literally no noise at all other than the popping sounds coming from the likely settling of the building with the occasional sound of a door slamming or foot steps probably coming from the two stores in the mall or the other side of the old Woolworth entrance.  Thunder could also be clearly heard from an approaching thunderstorm adding to the suspense.  The features in the mall that remain are fascinating.  The skylights were extremely well designed with the wedged look similar to those used on old Richway stores, providing uniquely filtered light.  Shiny metal panels in the center court amplified the light from the skylights onto the non-working bubble fountain.  Planters exist all throughout the mall forming all different shapes of islands surrounded by brick still filled with tropical plants.  The carpet is also original, possibly one of the first carpeted malls.  Old mall directories also remain with the mall maps removed.  Storefronts also reflect an earlier time with many featuring wood trim common in the era it was built.  The former Belk mall entrance also features its distinctive copper, wood and rock look that fronted many stores built in the late 70's.

Don't go towards the light!  Actually you NEVER will because we locked the doors bwhahahahaha.

However, you may kindly leave the mall through the FRONT doors.  We hope you'll come back soon, but we doubt you ever will.

Another angle of center court just to show how cool malls used to be before the late 1980's.

Detail of the globe light fixtures hanging over center court.  Photo by digital sky taken April 10, 2011.

Inside another vacant store.  This looks original.

My best guess is this was a jewelry store.

And now outside...a view of the spooky main mall entrance missing an "L".

An unusual idea I have for future use of the mall if anyone considered it is to use the mall for TV shows and movies.  In all, it is a perfect set for a mall scene based on the 1970's or 1980's.  With so much original in the mall, a little sprucing up would make this mall a great choice for shopping scenes in TV shows and movies.  In addition, the mall is in amazingly good structural condition considering how long it has struggled.  It would bring money to the town, creating the sets would be minimal cost and the the mall is attractive and distinctive enough to work well for that purpose.  Of course, I would definitely put a JCPenney sign on the Spainhour's mall entrance and whatever regional anchors needed to be represented on other mall entrances for the maximum effect.

Another mall directory mentions has flyers mentioning the stores that gave up and headed for the busier strip malls down the road.  Photo by digital sky taken April 10, 2011

Belk front entrance featuring the exact same look that used to front Monroe Mall as well.

Detail of the outside entrance.  It looks good even today, and would fit nicely into Gatlinburg.

Belk has been gone 8 years and AMP-RTI once operated here, but nobody ever bothered to remove the Belk stickers on the doors!  Photo by digital sky taken April 10, 2011.

No longer a mall entrance, but still marked as such.  This is the rear entrance next to Belk.  The other rear entrance looks just like this except it's not missing part of an "L".

Close-up of the same mall entrance next to Belk with a rusty door and weeds.

Another photo of the Lenoir Mall front entrance.  This photo was taken by digital sky on April 10, 2011.  Note the "L" is missing here, too.

Whatever happens, it is unclear what in all is happening at Lenoir Mall.  It is plain that an exodus is occurring in what is left of the mall with the mall likely closing for good by Christmas.  For certain, the original re-purposing plan failed as badly as the mall itself did with exception of the medical portion.  My best guess is that the mall will be demolished or reconfigured entirely for a medical center or some other non-retail use if not outright abandoned.  In fact, a real estate listing referred to it as "Lenoir Medical Mall" suggesting that is their final plan to save the mall.  What I do know is that the mall seems to be very similarly designed and built to Monroe Mall in Monroe, NC and Boone Mall in Boone, NC.  Of those three, it is by far one of the most attractive as well as the only one to completely retain its original design.  Unfortunately that is only because the mall has been slowly dying since the early 1990's.  While Lenoir Mall leaves nothing to the residents there but blight and disappointment, the mall also left a unique window into the past in apocalyptic style.  Will this doomed mall see the wrecking ball, become abandoned or just become something else like a hospital or government center?  We will find out soon enough.

"the Rock" (notice the cross in the "t') included a small outside entrance thus the light shining in on the first photo.  This is the only visible evidence of the former tenant of worship.

Spainhour's looks lonely and forgotten in the back side of the mall.

Amazingly there was still a sign here a few months ago referencing its last use as a furniture show room for Bernhardt.  Photo by digitalsky taken April 10, 2011.

Spainhour's outside entrance looking in.  An old Master Card logo is on the door clearly dating to 1989.  I guess old stickers were just not important to the last tenants...or maybe they found them cool like I did and left them alone.

Looking inside Spainhour's with the mall entrance in the background.

Woolworth is the one exception maintaining nothing of its original appearance.  This looked so ghastly and out of place I didn't bother to get a picture of my own.  Photo by digital sky taken April 10, 2011.

Leaving Lenoir Mall with a mostly blank sign.  Corner Stone & GNC are Open, according to the billboard.  It was fun shopping with you!  Thanks for the experience Lenoir Mall!

An aerial shot of Lenoir Mall.  The east anchor was Belk, south anchor Spainhour's and west anchor Woolworth.