Sunday, November 4, 2012

Patrick-Henry Mall: Martinsville, VA

The retail news today continues to report the trend towards "open-air malls" from the enclosed malls of yore. The truth is the open-air mall was the earliest incarnation of a mall in most cities across America, but for some reason the new open-air trend seems to have forgotten that an open-air mall is a pedestrian-only facility with covered walkways designed to protect you from the elements where you do not have to dodge cars to shop at each store. This is unfortunate as a few of these classic open-air centers are still hanging on across the country including this tiny gem in Blue Ridge foothills of Virginia.

Patrick-Henry Mall is hyphened, because the name actually refers to the two counties that border each other: Patrick and Henry. The mall itself, however, is actually in Henry County. The name of not only the mall, but also the counties is also obviously a nod to the early American revolutionary of the same name. For quite some time, this mall has captivated my attention because of its striking mid-century design that has endured well past its useful life. Indeed, if the mall had ever actually been enclosed and expanded it would have likely died much sooner, most likely either knocked down or re-purposed by the late 1990's. This is especially true as the mall itself sits in an older part of the city near downtown on the east side. The road it is on is also no longer a major route since the highways were relocated around the city.

Day and night shots of JCPenney, now a classy "Mix Bag".  You can also find some "famous brands" if you look really, really hard.  Photos by digitalsky.  First shot shows the open-air mall corridor with detail of overhead canopy. 

Mix Bag, formerly Penney's, does not keep its mall entrance open.  However, the ghost of Penney's remains on the building proving that the logo was never updated.  Photo by digitalsky

Penney's former mall entrance complete with moldy hole in the overhead tiles.  Note the tiles below as well.  This is retro goodness at its finest.  Photo by digitalsky

More detail of the Penney's labelscar and mall entrance.  Photos by digitalsky

The livelihood of Martinsville was similar to cities across the state line in the piedmont region of North Carolina in that furniture manufacturing was its bread and butter. Clearly, furniture manufacturing peaked when the mall opened in 1965 bringing to the city one of the earliest malls in the region. The crown jewel, of course, was the JCPenney store, which at that time was a mass merchant of both soft and hard-lines competing with Sears and Montgomery Ward. The mall also had a Rose's, People's Drugs and Colonial Stores as its original anchor tenants. Leggett and Sears, however, remained downtown.

Inside Mix Bag.  The store still has the same brown carpet it did as JCPenney.

Old sign for the mall somewhere in the middle of the mall.  Photo by digitalsky

 Side view of the former Rose's, which later operated as Watson's Backroom before closing over 20 years ago.  I am waiting for Qbert to start hopping up those stepped tiles, but I think the game is already over.  Photo by digitalsky

For over 20 years, Patrick-Henry Mall thrived. While tiny, the mall was doing well enough in the late 1980's that Sears originally considered opening a store at the mall. A few anchor changes took place during that time as well. Rose's converted to P.H. Rose before closing around 1983. It was later briefly a store called "Eagles" and the last retail store to occupy the place was Watson's Backroom, part of the now-defunct Watson's chain. Watson's would ultimately leave their store in 1990. The Colonial also changed names and hands later becoming Big Star before being replaced by a Bestway in the early 1980's, later closing and no longer operating as a supermarket. Oddest of all was People's Drug. In anticipation of Sears building a store where they were located, they built a new store opposite the mall next to what had been the JCPenney auto center. While the signs were installed, they never actually occupied the space. Peoples Drugs itself would be bought out by Revco in 1993, which was already located off-mall.

Several shots of the small open-air mall itself between Penney's and the east wing.  It is still lush with trees and vegetation making clear shots difficult, but shopping here would be enjoyable if there were any stores.  Too bad Liberty Fair Mall killed it.  Photos by digitalsky

Note the gazebo-style kiosk in the background in this photo.  Looks like the kind of place you would go to get a travel package to West Germany.  Photo by digitalsky.

Former restaurant, which was most likely Bonanza.  Photo by digitalsky

Entrance to former Rose's/Watson's Backroom.  Photo by digitalsky

In 1989, Liberty Fair Mall opened, ending Patrick-Henry's hope for any further dominance in the market. Not only did the new mall eventually steal the prospective Sears from the mall, but also they took original anchor JCPenney immediately. When all was said and done, the mall became effectively a ghost town hosting a few mom and pop tenants and offices, but no major retail since. A call center last occupied the former Rose's, and Family Dollar continues to operate in the original Peoples Drugs location. A few mom-and-pop operations also operate in the mall, but no other chain stores are located there today. JCPenney itself is now operating as a low-key local operation known as "Mix Bag". With exception to one store, the mall has never been remodeled and is essentially derelict although it is maintained and open to the public.

Photos of the center from the front parking lot.  Family Dollar is where People's Drugs was prior.  Photos by digitalsky

Here is the replacement People's Drugs that never opened.  It's hard to figure out what to put in dead store space in a town this economically depressed.  Photo by digitalsky

People's Drugs in center, Big Star to the left and the outer side of the mall on the right.  Is 1 hour parking really necessary?  Photo by digitalsky

Does the future hold promise for the forgotten center? The answer is not likely since the mall is in town with little development around it in a city that is too depressed economically to support it either way. It will also be difficult to attract new stores since the footprint of the mall is very small and landlocked. In all, the only real hope aside from bringing real industry back to the city for reviving the center for retail is if Liberty Fair Mall dies and what is left chooses to repopulate the mall. Liberty Fair Mall actually is dying, too, but it will likely be de-malled before the anchors will be demolished. However, the very recent purchase of Liberty Fair by Hull Storey Gibson suggests a cheap remodel and largely empty mall will be the situation for now  Still, I fantasize about Belk taking over the old JCPenney, a healthy little remodeled mall springing back to life and land purchased to expand the mall more. JCPenney sadly is struggling in the city with their store downgraded to an outlet: the reason why JCPenney likely would not work in their old store. Patrick-Henry would be able to offer far cheaper rent than Liberty Fair and a cozy boutique setting that the current mall cannot offer, but the mall is clearly far from the wealthy suburban setting that could better support it. Does a mall like this in a place like this have anything to offer anymore?

Annotated map of the mall.


  1. The former restaurant was Friday's Garden Deli, a local chain.

  2. The kiosk in the center was for a bank cash machine. Also, to the right of People's Drugs was the local Alcoholic Beverage Control store. And JC Penney relocated to the Liberty Fair Mall, leaving their space empty for 10 years or so before finding a tenant. The "Mix Bag" is only the last of a few different tenants to occupy the space. And the space where the Peoples was suppposed to go was occupied by a car audio business for a time, hence the roll-up doors on the front.

  3. Before the call center closed in 2010(?), the mall actually had built fairly good occupancy... though mostly by non-retail or mom and pop stores.

    For the record, there was originally a (very) junior anchor, the women's clothing store Lazarus (not affiliated with the Columbus-based department store).

    Patrick Henry was quite nice, but we always wanted a "real" mall. Sad that we didn't appreciate what we had back then.