Friday, December 22, 2017

Vernon Park Mall: Kinston, NC

Vernon Park Mall deserves a mention as the mall is today sliding into history as yet another mid-century mall unable to survive the post-2008 American reality.  The history of Vernon Park Mall is hard to come by, but it was pieced together as best as possible to show that this now dead mall was once pretty special.  As one of the oldest malls in the state, Vernon Park opened on March 13, 1969 on the west side of town at the intersection of US 258 and Hardee Road.  According to The Heritage of Lenoir County by the Lenoir County Historical Association, the mall was built by W. Roy Poole on land that was previously the farms of the Temple and Hardee families.  The original mall was a dumbbell shape and otherwise pretty typical for the era except for a very distinct feature: the mall was built with a loft design with upper level offices including a walkway overlooking the main part of the mall.  Coupled with these offices are very high ceilings along the main mall corridor making the mall feel very spacious and bright for malls of that vintage.


When the mall opened, it included two major anchors: Belk Tyler and JCPenney and a Roses five-and-dime store on the back next to JCPenney.  The Belk store was among the oldest mall-based Belk stores in the state joining locations at Southgate Mall in Elizabeth City (also a Belk Tyler), Pennrose Mall in Reidsville, and Quenby Mall in Albemarle.  The mall also had a cafeteria in the front listed as R&W (typo for K&W?) to the right of the front entrance.  On the outlots were a Firestone (originally JCPenney auto center), a theater on the back right corner of the mall and a small strip with Winn-Dixie and Eckerd Drugs that opened in 1969.  Although regional department store Brody Brothers (Brody's) would eventually join the mall, the store initially remained downtown.  In all, the mall was a pretty conventional North Carolina mall for the 70's with both Belk and Rose's native to the state.


The first photo shows the healthiest part of the mall with the office loft upstairs on the left, Hibbett Sports below and the main mall with the west-facing high windows along the main corridor.  The second photo shows the main part of the mall looking north to Belk (Tyler).  Photos taken June 15, 2015.


A view of the main part of the old mall from Belk to the former JCPenney.  This is the only ramped portion of the mall.  Prior to the 1981 expansion (to be discussed) the mall was quite small.  Photo taken June 15, 2015.


Blurry shot of center court.  I'm imagining a large fountain once graced this junction.  The entrance corridor is to the left and 1981 addition to the right.  Photo taken June 15, 2015.


It was unclear when Goody's joined the mall, but it filled up much of the SE side of the old main corridor.  Seeing that it still has the old logo, the store is likely just riding out a lease before it can relocate closer to Wal-Mart.  JCPenney sits forlorn and vacant straight ahead.  Photo taken June 15, 2015.


Dead JCPenney entrance.  A rear entrance corridor is off to the right.  Photo taken June 15, 2015.


JCPenney when it was still open.  Photo by digitalsky taken August 19, 2012.


Rear mall entrance corridor to right of former JCPenney.  On the opposite side of the wall further back was where the former Rose's was located.  Sears was using part of space adjoining the newer part of the mall.  Photo taken June 15, 2015.


Despite the decline of the mall, the mall was still hanging on relatively well until JCPenney closed.  Thus, the mall was in pretty good repair.  However, these photos were taken two years ago and times are more desperate now.  Photo taken June 15, 2015.

The Lenoir County Historical Association noted several other events in the mall's history.  In 1978, the mall received its first expansion adding a west wing including 16 shops.  On November 6, 1980, the mall was purchased by Magna Properties that then commenced a major renovation of the mall. The renovation commenced shortly after when Brody's built onto the west wing, opening on February 26, 1981  Brody's started in Kinston as Brody Brothers and had operated in the city since it was founded in 1928.  By that time, Brody's was a strong regional chain with six total stores operating across Eastern North Carolina in the cities of Greenville (two locations), Goldsboro, Rocky Mount and New Bern in addition to Kinston.  With no other similar competitors, Brody's was the default upscale option.  The expansion also included a reconfiguring of Rose's into a larger store converting it from an inline 5 and 10 into a full discount store.  This expansion was coupled with Rose's giving up its original mall frontage so that the old part of the mall could add more inline stores.


A view from the upstairs office level shows the beginning of the 1981 wing.  It did not have the high ceilings the older part did since it was all on one level.  Photo taken June 15, 2015.


Continuing into the back wing, an unfortunately classic dead mall scene emerges with the skylights providing the brightest light in the mall and Christmas lights inexplicably left in place when it's nearly summer.  Photo taken June 15, 2015.


Sears Hometown sits at the end of a long, dark corridor.  This was previously the only mall entrance for Roses.  Photo taken June 15, 2015.


At least one store open on the right.  On the left is a dead Foot Locker.  Photo taken June 15, 2015.


Inside the store its former use is still engraved on the wooden floor.  When malls leave vacancies like this wide open to view, it is clear that they no longer care about hiding them.  Photo taken June 15, 2015.


The labelscar on the wood-fronted store on the left also reads Foot Locker, so this was either a Ladies or Kids Foot Locker.  Its last use was a US Cellular store (still open in 2012).  Photo taken June 15, 2015.


Second court area.  A mall entrance corridor is to the right to the back parking lot.  To the left is the NC DMV, which may have originally been part of an entrance corridor before it was renovated.  Photo taken June 15, 2015.


Time stands still for would-be shoppers approaching the former Proffitt's/Brody's mall entrance.  To the left is an ad for Reba's TV show from 2001.  The difference is that in 2001 this corridor would be full of shops and shoppers.  Photo taken June 15, 2015.


This screencap from sundries264's video shows what the original Brody's mall entrance looked like.  It does not even resemble above, does it?


Something seems honestly heartbreaking seeing this friendly display showing the mall in its brighter years.  It is like they tried so hard to be friendly, yet nobody showed up to the party.The empty store on the left appears to have been used by Proffitt's as extra space.  Photo taken June 15, 2015.  


A view inside the old Proffitt's/Brody's.  Photo taken June 15, 2015.


Looking back from Proffitt's/Brody's to the main mall.  The back outside entrance corridor is visible to the left in the background.  Photo taken June 15, 2015.



Detail of the back mall entrance.  The doors and windows themselves still look like pure 1981.  First photo taken June 15, 2015.  Second photo taken by digitalsky on August 19, 2012.  


The mall directories themselves were never updated since at least 2006!  Here you can clearly see how Proffitt's expanded into mall space, the odd configuration of Rose's (which was vacant when the directory was printed), Goody's, Belk (which was no longer Belk Tyler by then) and Rex TV & Electronics.  It is unknown when Rex arrived or left the mall.  The stores to the right of Belk include the (former) Winn-Dixie shopping center.  Photo by digitalsky taken August 19, 2012.

The 1960's to 1980's were the most prosperous times for the mall as both tobacco and cotton maintained a healthy local economy.  However, from the 1980's onward, the local economy began to collapse.  Over time, this would take a toll on the mall and region which led to more shoppers making the 30 mile trip to Goldsboro or Greenville for better shopping options.  Nonetheless, the mall managed to weather these these changes for the first 40 years with solid anchors for the time and low vacancy.  This was probably helped by the lack of options in the area since very little development was built around the mall itself.  This meant that while other older malls in small cities were falling to power centers, the mall was effectively insulated from this trend.


Approaching the front entrance with the elevator to the second floor on the left and view of the railing for the second floor in the foreground.  Rex, originally K&W Cafeteria, used to be ahead on the left next to the entrance.  Photo taken June 15, 2015.


Another sad directory looking at the inside of the front entrance where a winding staircase takes patrons to what used to be offices upstairs.  Except for the mall offices, the upstairs is today unoccupied.  Photo taken by digitalsky on August 19, 2012.



Detail of the stairs and hanging, um, something that looks like it was installed in the 1989-1991 period.  Note the disco lights around the edges.  First photo taken by digitalsky on August 19, 2012.  Second photo taken June 15, 2015.



Taking a look around upstairs.  It's not bad so far, but it gets creepier.  Photos taken June 15, 2015.


What once housed multiple dentists offices is today a very dark and spooky hallway.  Photo taken June 15, 2015.


Peeling paint covers the walls entering the north wing offices.  When did they all leave?  Photo taken June 15, 2015.



The stairs from the hallway next to the Belk entrance up to the north wing offices seems extra creepy: especially with its ancient light fixture at the top ending in a dark doorway.  Photos taken June 15, 2015.


However, those stairs gave access to this view of the main mall.  It looks like nothing was ever updated in this area, either.  Photo taken June 15, 2015.


Apparently these offices closed long, long ago.  When was the last time a MasterCard was called this?  Photo taken June 15, 2015.


No, you're not dead, but the mall that is providing the light in the background will soon be.  Photo taken June 15, 2015.


A look down at the (unfortunately completely updated) Belk mall entrance giving little hint to its former probably much more distinctive look it had when you saw the Big "B" and Belk Tyler sprawled across the front.  Photo taken June 15, 2015.

The first big change to the mall came in 1998 when Brody's would sell out the family business transferring ownership to Alcoa, TN-based Proffitt's.  Proffitt's was an unfamiliar chain to Eastern North Carolina, so it is questionable how profitable (no pun intended) it actually was.  Proffitt's would remain in the mall until the 2006 sale of the chain to Belk.  Brody's location at the mall was quite small at a mere 30,000 square feet and Proffitt's appears to have expanded into the mall to provide a larger assortment.  Bigger changes came in 2003 when Rose's closed their mall location with only part of the store reopening as a Sears Hometown in the following year.  In 2006, Proffitt's sale to Belk was the next big blow to the mall.  Since Belk already had a location in the mall, the former Proffitt's would go dark.  The store did, however, reopen between 2005 and 2009 as a mystery store named "Expressions", but the store has since remained vacant.  This began the mall's decline as the 1978 addition no longer had any draw to it.


A little more detail of the 1981 addition shows very purple tables and chairs for a makeshift food court where imaginary diners are eating imaginary Chick-Fil-A sandwiches.  At its peak the food court had about four restaurants.  Photo taken June 15, 2015.



Former Payless Shoes on the right, which is now the pay nothing cobweb source.  Photo taken June 15, 2015.  You can also see the upstairs office wing overlooking the main mall.  It looks as if the office wing overlooking the mall may have had portions blocked off over time.  Photo taken June 15, 2015.


Of special interest is a former tenant space next to what used to be Payless.  The old directory showed part of this as Stacy's and part of this as vacant.  Photo by digitalsky taken August 19, 2012.

In all, it appears the mall has been renovated at least twice.  The first was when the mall was in 1980, and the second came sometime during the 1990's.  The second renovation unfortunately was the one that stripped away many of the mall's vintage elements.  This meant most notably removal of any planters or fountains, updates to exterior entrances of the mall and anchors, and updates to the mall entrances to the three main department stores.  The second renovation also brought an additional junior anchor to the mall, Goody's, which remained at the mall up until 2015 or 2016.  A Rex TV & Appliance also opened in the mall in the former K&W space, but has long since left the mall.








Gone but not forgotten: these images show the inside of the former JCPenney before it closed.  It is clear the store was doomed by the lack of any interior updates.  Photos by digitalsky taken August 19, 2012.


Another spooky stairwell.  This appears to be for the south wing offices just outside of the old JCPenney.

The approach of the mall's 50th anniversary has been a far more tragic one for the mall.  Two gigantic blows hit the mall in close order.  JCPenney would close their store at the mall, an original anchor, in 2014 after 47 years of operation at the mall.  However, the former auto center location remains occupied by Firestone since it is no longer affiliated.  This leaves only one major anchor with Belk, which has since sealed off its entrance to the mall.  Sears Hometown joined the exodus closing their store in mid-to-late 2015.  With three of four anchors going dark at the mall and a general decline of retail surrounding the mall, the hopes of Vernon Park Mall continuing to operate as a retail mall evaporated.  In addition, the upper level office tenants had by and large vacated leaving spooky, dark hallways full of empty offices still open to the public.


A full view of the mall directory with a very early 90's vibe.  Photo by digitalsky taken August 19, 2012.


Canned lights help retain some of the mall's 1970's vibe.  Photo by digitalsky taken August 19, 2012.


Another upper level view with Belk visible in the background.  Photo taken June 15, 2015.

The exodus of stores have caused city leaders to scrambled to find creative solutions for the mall, which is now substantially vacant, although troubles with the mall seem to have been going on since the early 2000's considering the fact that management has failed to update directories or even advertisement banners since that time.  Mall directories still showed Proffitt's as an anchor and ads for the now-defunct WB network, including the Reba TV series were both found in the mall as late as 2015!  There is also a good chance that Belk is looking to exit the mall this year as the store turns 50 this year.  A 50 year lease appears to be the only reason Belk is still operating at the mall, but the unfortunate truth is that when Belk leaves it will most likely leave Lenoir County with no replacement.


JCPenney on the right, Sears Hometown in the former Rose's on the left.  Photo by digitalsky taken August  19, 2012.


The three entrances visible here were all part of the former Roses.  The vacant entrance was the original.  Photo by digitalsky taken August 19, 2012.


Detail of the Roses entrance.  Photo taken June 15, 2015.


While Sears entrance appears to be a later addition, the original smaller Roses was likely accessible from this spot.  Most likely this was an emergency exit previously.  Photo taken June 15, 2015.


Former JCPenney (back side) taken June 15, 2015.


Former JCPenney (left) with prominent labelscar and Goody's with its old logo on the right.  Photo taken June 15, 2015.


Note in the upper photo the suicide door, which here is zeroed in on with greater detail.  Photo by digitalsky taken August 19, 2012.


Office windows visible next to the main entrance.  Photo by digitalsky taken August 19, 2012.

 

Belk Tyler from the back side.  Note the former garden center on the left.  Garden centers were experimental on a few NC stores.  Other garden centers were in Elizabeth City and Greensboro.  Belk Tyler in particular was particularly adventurous with experiments in services like garden centers, auto centers and even gas stations!  Photo taken June 15, 2015.


Belk Tyler garden center detail.  Photo taken June 15, 2015.



No two sides were alike on this former Belk Tyler store.  First photo by digitalsky taken August 19, 2012.  Second photo taken June 15, 2015.



Let us not forget the former Brody's, later Proffitt's.  Note on the last photo on the back of the store that the Proffitt's labelscar is still visible!  Photo taken June 15, 2015.

 While it can be said for some malls that there is some hope left that the mall can be redeveloped in some fashion to support retail, this cannot be said for Vernon Park Mall.  The condition of most nearby shopping centers means that there is no draw to the area at all.  Malls need a strong hinterland of regional shopping centers to draw traffic to the mall itself, and this never materialized.  In fact, the retail around the area is so dead that a nearby Mason's discount store was never replaced with any other store: so much that a Mason's labelscar is still visible on the building.  Mason's went out of business in 1975!!  It is not clear when Winn-Dixie closed, but it probably was closed along with all other Winn-Dixie stores in North Carolina in 2005.  One other Winn-Dixie store was located in another part of town next to a now-vacant Kmart.  Most remaining retail in the city shifted to the junction of US 70 and 258 to the west where Wal-Mart is located, and what is there is sparse.






Here are a few shots in the front of the mall.  If you notice in the third shot, the very 1981 "MALL ENTRANCE" sign over the door is peaking out from an otherwise updated exterior.  Photo taken June 15, 2015.

City leaders share this hopeless view of the mall as their redevelopment plan unveiled this February basically supports converting big portions of the mall into anything but retail.  Plans include a trampoline park, craft brewery, sports complex and even a hotel.  That is definitely a wise decision to move on, but can the mall support these options?  Plans to create entertainment options in malls have long failed to materialize, although they definitely are becoming more popular as chains like SkyZone indoor trampoline park have been opening in dead anchors in recent years.  These very serious plans are looking to create a regional entertainment draw where none exists in the region, and perhaps it might work out well for them.  However, demographics, income, development patterns, and economics no longer line up in any way for the mall.  In fact, the city itself has lost population since 1990 while growth in surrounding Lenoir County has flat lined.  If Belk leaves and a plan to repurpose the mall fails to materialize, the mall will likely be abandoned and eventually demolished leaving what amounts to a vacant lot next to a field.




Winn-Dixie shopping center and former Winn-Dixie.  Dollar General is believed to be the former Eckerd Drugs.  Photo taken June 15, 2015 except the last by digitalsky taken August 19, 2012.



A couple shots from 2012 and 2015 showing the former theater in the back of the mall.  If not for the old marquees, this could be mistaken for an old bank.



Former Mason's discount store with very prominent labelscar is located a short ways south of the mall.  While not on an outlot, it appears to have been built around the same time as the mall.  Its current use is Domestic Fabrics and Blankets Corporation meaning the building is not abandoned.  Photos from 2012 and 2015.

In all, it is a sad end for yet another mall that is on death's door at what should be a happy milestone: its 50th anniversary.  It will not be alone, however, as it will be joining so many other older malls that cannot survive the current caustic retail environment that is resulting in one of the most dreadful years in retail history as many, many malls will close for good this year on the heels of the free fall of the three largest major department stores: Macy's, JCPenney and Sears and downsizing of Belk.


FURTHER INTEREST:

Here are a few historical images of the mall from The Heritage of Lenoir County by the Lenoir County Historical Association:


Interior of the Brody's department store.


Architectural drawing of Belk Tyler


Detail at base of Proffitt's ad from Greenville News from 1998

Apparently, people are just "crazy" about this mall (maybe even literally, judging by some infamous youtube videos), but we will spare you those cringeworthy, profane (if that bothers you) and neurotic tours of the mall by disgruntled local patrons.  Instead, we will provide you this fantastic (and corny!) ad preserved from 1988 and a far more quiet tour taken of the mall in apparently worse shape than in these photos.  In the first clip the Brody's sign is clearly visible, but curiously the mall entrance does not at all match the former Proffitt's entrance.  Perhaps some light can be shed on what happened there.





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