Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Ashley Plaza Mall: Charleston, SC

In South Carolina as in much of the South, things are said to move at a slower pace.  Perhaps it is the humidity, but at least this old saying proved to be very true for Charleston who had to wait until 1972 to get their very first enclosed mall, Ashley Plaza Mall.  Opening on August 10th of that year, shoppers I am sure were frantic to escape the heat in order to check out this place.  The only problem was that this was probably not the mall they had hoped for.  It featured none of the major department stores like Kerrison's or Belk Robinson, nor were there any national ones such as Sears, Montgomery Ward or JCPenney.  This mall was just not like that, and it was just one reason it had a short life.

Anchors of the original Ashley Plaza Mall included local department store Condon's (that's with an "N", thank you), Edward's discount store, J.M. Field's discount store and Pantry Pride supermarket.  Neither J.M. Fields nor Pantry Pride were accessible to the mall corridor, and both actually predated the mall by a couple years as part of an existing strip mall.  In essence, Ashley Plaza was a hybrid of strip mall and enclosed mall.  Edward's and Condon's, however, both had mall entrances.  Not counting the anchors, the mall otherwise had 32 shops and a General Cinema theater flanking the north side.  Thus, removing the hype surrounding its opening, it was basically an undersized mall with mostly local shops that was dated and doomed from the day it opened its doors.

From left to right: JM Fields, Pantry Pride, Revco, mall entrance, Condon's Department Store.  From the Charleston Post-Courier from August 9, 1972.

Skylight construction.  From the Charleston Post-Courier from August 9, 1972.

Finishing touches being made on the enclosed mall.  From the Charleston Post-Courier from August 9, 1972.

It should be fairly obvious by now that none of the mentioned anchors exist in any form today, and aside from Radio Shack and General Cinema not much in the mall had lasting power, either.  It only took five years for changes to start hitting the mall.  In 1977, Edward's would be purchased by Kuhn's Big K.  While Big K would take the spot, the Edward's purchase was detrimental to the company and Wal-Mart passed on the location when they purchased Big K in 1981.  According to Randy Barton on the post about the mall, the old Big K location was then filled with "an unfinished wood furniture store, a mattress store and an imports store".  In 1979, the next change came to the mall with the closing of J.M. Fields and its grocery division Pantry Pride.  Fortunately, Woolco came and picked up the J.M. Field location, opening in March 1980.  Red & White supermarket would also take over the former Pantry Pride space.

Edward's discount store and Condon's department store logos from the opening of the mall.  From the Charleston Post-Courier from August 9, 1972.

One of the mall entrances while still under construction.  How I miss the days when you just had this bold imposing "MALL" over the doors.  From the Charleston Post-Courier from August 9, 1972.

The 80's were absolutely catastrophic for Ashley Plaza Mall.  First, the mall no longer could carry the torch for...well...anything.  Charles Towne Square mall opened fully enclosed in 1976, so air-conditioned comfort for shopping could be found elsewhere.  Next, Citadel Mall opened in 1981 rendering the little mall even more useless bringing the anchors that Charlestonians were deprived of the first round.  By then, the mall was already emptying out coinciding with the closing of Big K/Edward's.  Woolco came next, closing with the chain in 1983.  All hope was not lost, however, as Brendle's catalog showroom took over the former Woolco site a couple years later.  This still, however, came on the heels of the closing of the General Cinema at the mall.  With the mall going downhill fast, the situation was about to get a whole lot worse.  Charleston, as history has shown, is extremely disaster prone.  Two earthquakes leveled the city in the 1800's and the forecast was doomsday as one of the nation's most powerful hurricanes barreled down on the city in 1989 otherwise known as Hurricane Hugo.

Mall directory for the original 1972 mall.  It was never much of a mall.  From the Charleston Post-Courier from August 9, 1972.

Here is a snapshot of the mall's tenants today as Ashley Landing.  Photo by Mike Kalasnik.

According to Randy Barton's commentary, the mall was heavily damaged by the storm with portions of the facade removed and Brendle's completely leveled by the Category 4 storm.  What was a mall gasping for life was suddenly completely dead, and it was one of the first dead malls in the country, lasting a mere 17 years.  However, the mall was not abandoned.  Brendle's was rebuilt, the Red & White grocery store became a new location of then-rapidly expanding Big Lots and the rest of the mall was demalled with Burlington Coat Factory taking over much of the space where the mall was before.  Condon's proved to be the the last original tenant, closing in 1999 not due to poor business, but due to a dispute over the center constructing a new Publix store that they claimed was hurting their business.  However, the logic of that seems dubious, and probably the chain was finding an attractive excuse to why they were going under.  It was the last operating location of the 100 year old chain.

Main entrance of JM Fields/Woolco, now a gym.  Photo by Mike Kalasnik.

Citi Trends operated as Condon's until 1999.  Photo by Mike Kalasnik.

Big Lots is located in the former Pantry Pride/Red & White.  Photo by Mike Kalasnik.

Dollar Tree is on the left side of the center and takes up part of the former JM Fields/Woolco space.  Photo by Mike Kalasnik.

Burlington Coat Factory takes up much of the original mall space with the other portion now used by a church.  Photo by Mike Kalasnik.

After renovations were made, the new center, Ashley Landing, would then become a conventional strip mall...sort of.  Burlington Coat Factory filled in much of the mall, Citi Trends took over Condon's and the Woolco/JM Fields has been subdivided into smaller tenants including Dollar Tree.  Big Lots replaced Pantry Pride/Red & White and what was left eventually became a church.  About the only near original tenant is CVS, which still operates in the old Revco.  Publix, which opened in 1999, sits across from the shopping center itself in the parking lot and is the only newer portion of the center.  From the outside it still appears to be an old mall, and the old mall entrances are still visible deceiving would-be shoppers into thinking a fossilized mall awaits them.  From an aerial shot, you can still make out the corridors of the mall.  The center, while not dead, is definitely catering to a different market from when it opened.  As one of the earliest mall redevelopment projects ever, this may explain why the mall was simply reconfigured in lieu of being torn down.  Today, the center is essentially an urban complex catering to lower-income shoppers, but otherwise the city's oldest mall is only a mall in form not function.