Monday, January 26, 2009

Oak Ridge Mall: Oak Ridge, TN

Back on our out-of-state march, Tennessee is a hotbed of small malls that anywhere else in the country would have been dead and long forgotten. This time, I'm going to do a feature of the "downtown" of Tennessee's nuclear city, Oak Ridge. Indeed, it has not fallen flat on city leaders that a dying mall hardly looks like people's image of downtown much like a lot of the country that fell to the post-WWII tax policies that led to the suburban sprawl of America and the retail behemoths that have dominated the landscape since the 1970's.

Originally opened in 1957, Oak Ridge Mall was known for 30 years as Downtown Shopping Center, a large strip center anchored by The Knox/Proffitt's, JCPenney, Sears, Loveman's (of Chattanooga), Miller's and GC Murphy.  The mergers that occurred in the 1980's that resulted in Loveman's, Miller's and Proffitt's all becoming the same store are why the later mall did not end up with five department store anchors.  Oak Ridge Mall followed the course of quite a few malls in the country that started out as a mere 1950's strip and were enclosed and expanded into a full-scale shopping mall. The only difference was, this one was a strip mall all the way to 1987 instead of the 1970's...not exactly the best timing for such projects as new malls were already proving to find it more difficult to compete in contrast with previous decades. Indeed, Oak Ridge Mall never really took off and was largely vacant aside from the anchors as recent as my March 2005 visit. I had heard a couple years before it was dying, so this is why I came by to visit just to see what this place was all about.

I do not know a whole lot about Oak Ridge Mall other than this, and the fact that it always had Sears as an anchor. The original Sears anchor was abandoned in what was left of the strip in my 2005 visit and did not connect to the rest of the mall. The anchors, however, appeared healthy and successful with a cheery, but very vacant corridor tying them together. In all, the anchors in 2005 were Proffitt's, Sears, JCPenney and a stadium-seating movie theater on an outlot.  Proffitt's was added in 1987 as Hess's while the fourth vacant anchor in the middle of the mall was the original Proffitt's, originally known as The Knox.  They once operated as a double-header Proffitt's, but it's unclear when it closed.  At least one mall corridor was sealed off to the general public on the visit as you will see below, which looked to be the food court.  A combination of the completion of TN 162 creating access to better access to malls in Knoxville and poor management caused the mall to to fail.

In allover layout, the mall was an L-shaped mall with JCPenney on one end (a strip attached to the other-side), Proffitt's (formerly Hess's, now a Belk) on the other, Sears off to the side of Proffitt's and the former The Knox/Proffitt's in the middle. The mall seemed difficult to access on the side that was once the back of the strip mall, and it was sealed off when I visited.

Vacant Hess's/Proffitt's in center court area.

In 2008, the project that was promised to start in late 2005 right after I visited seems to be permanently on hold. (Note 7/24/2016: demolition has now begun on the long-abandoned mall).  The mall itself has since been sealed off to the public with some "physical activity" occuring at the site. While I was hardly bowled over by the place, fanatics of late 80's architecture should be very excited about this view of a once-strip mall, then mall and now...nothing.

Looking down the entire Sears wing.

Something seems VERY ironic about the "" banner.

Proffitt's entrance...note the holes for what was formerly Hess's.

Another view of center court.

This was the original Sears store sitting abandoned on the JCPenney end of the mall on a small strip mall wing.

This appeared to be the entrance to the food court, and the food court area is very visibly sealed off from the rest of the mall.

Rack Room Shoes finally realized the party was over and it was time to leave.


  1. I visited Oak Ridge Mall in 88 or so, just after its conversion to an enclosed mall. The L-shaped design is the original strip center, dating from the late 50s or early 60s, and functioning as Oak Ridge's downtown that never was.

    I believe the Hess's had originally been Miller Bros./Miller's prior to Allied's merger with Federated and the resulting sale to Hess's parent, Crown America.

    Alas, prior to malling, the center was home to one of the last two operating A&P's in Tennessee, the other being in an outparcel at nearby Knoxville's West Town Mall.

  2. I went in this mall years ago (around 2000, I'm guessing) and was really surprised by this mall. The anchor stores seemed very healthy but the inside stores were mostly vacant. I remember walking down the long corridors and seeing all of the abandoned stores that used to be in the mall and always wondered what happened there. Back then, if a mall had anchors, which Oak Ridge did, the inside stores did well. Losing the anchor stores typically came first, which started the exodus of inner stores, but this mall was backwards. I tried researching the mall but never could find much information online. Your post is the first time I've known what year the mall itself was built. I noticed the strange layout while driving around it (and noticed the hard-to-access side of the mall).

    Your post satisfied a lot of curiosity and I hope more people will comment here and give more details of the history.

  3. I always wanted to visit Oak Ridge when I was in grad school at UT, but never did. (He who hesitates is lost...)

    Even when I was in Knoxville (2001-2002) they were talking about what to do with the mall, with the general concept being demalling everything (how ironic)...and nothing happened...and then nothing happened...and still nothing happened.

    Guess that's just another day in the life of Oak Ridge Mall. Thanks for sharing the pictures, JT! You've been busy this week!

  4. I passed by this mall in 2006. Never went in, but it was pretty intriguing to me. A sign outside promised new things, and from online looks it appeared to be fluctuating between deciding to be indoor or outdoor. But not much happened. The new owners gave it a new name of "Oak Ridge City Center", while planning a demalling. The website is still up, having an outdated list of tenants and a past-due redevelopment plan.

  5. One small correction, the now vacant anchor was originally Proffitt's, and was never anything else. There is still a labelscar on the back of the building of the 70's-era Proffitt's logo.

    The Proffitt's pictured (now a Belk) was built as Miller's, and became Hess's in the 80's. When Hess's went into bankruptcy, it's East Tennessee stores were purchased by Proffitt's and Dillard's, with Dillard's taking the two Knoxville stores, and Proffitt's buying the stores in the Tri-Cities, Oak Ridge, Maryville, and Chattanooga.

    Proffitt's turned the former Hess's into its women's and children's store, with the old Proffitt's becoming the men's store and clearance center. As Oak Ridge mall declined, Proffitt's closed the men's store, and moved everything into the nicer (at the time) former Miller's/Hess's.

    Today, the now-Belk is a disaster, not sure how it even stays open. When they replaced the Proffitt's sign, Belk didn't bother to pressure-wash the brick, leaving a Proffitt's outline in mold on each side of the building. Classy.

    The reason Oak Ridge mall died was very simple. Just as the finishing touches were placed on the strip-to-mall conversion, the Pelissippi Parkway was completed, connecting Oak Ridge to west Knoxville, making what used to be a 45 minute trip into about 10 minutes. From the Oak Ridge mall parking lot, you can be at West Town Mall, Knoxville's top shopping area, in less than 15 minutes. Just as it was being completed to fill a need, the need was gone.

  6. West Town Mall is a much better mall than Oak Ridge. When my brother lived at Oak Ridge, he was in walking distance of the mall but if he wanted to hang out, he'd go to the West Town Mall, which had, among other things, a decent food court and an Apple store, which opened that summer.

  7. I used to work at the Hallmark at Oak Ridge Mall (1992-93). It was having trouble renting space even then, but it had a regular community of retirees who socialized or walked there. The whole place was much more fun as a strip mall, which actually doesn't quite describe the prior configuration very accurately. It was more like a plaza-style shopping center. Does anyone else remember the old-fashioned Woolworth's with the soda fountain? It didn't last very long after the space was enclosed.

  8. As the article and/or commentors said, the installment of Pellissippi Parkway made it much easier for Oak Ridgers to drive to West Town Mall where a much greater variety of goods was available. However, it didn't reduce the drive time from 45 minutes to 10 minutes, as a commentor suggests. It was more like a reduction from 25 minutes to 15 minutes. However, both West Town and Pellissippi Parkway were in place when Downtown Mall management decided to convert the Downtown strip stores to a mall. AND, the national trend was already away from malls and back to strip malls when they went in the opposite direction. For those reasons, many wondered if those who bought Downtown and converted it to a mall didn't expect it to fail and use it as some kind of tax write-off. Or else were just really bad managers with a very bad business/marketing analysis and plan

  9. I would agree with the latest comment in regards to the confusion about the Pellissippi Parkway extension. As a lifelong Oak Ridger that graduated from ORHS in 1988, I remember the Downtown Shopping Center days. Rental rates were reasonable, stores were profitable and the center generated good traffic from the surrounding areas even into the 90s after the conversion was complete.

    I remember originally that Crown America initially planned on building an enclosed mall and had actually started doing so in the area close to Jefferson Middle around where the small retail area with Home Depot is today. Meanwhile the original owner of the shopping center, Guilford Glazer, planned on enclosing the center. Crown bought the center from Glazier, abandoned what little had been constructed on their site and started work to demolish the western end of the center for the current movie theater and to enclose most of the rest for the mall.

    I believe there were several factors at play in the Oak Ridge Mall's demise. First, the trend as many have already mentioned was away from the enclosed mall to the open air layout that exists at Turkey Creek today. Second, I don't think Crown American at this point was too concerned with aggressively setting rental rates in order to attract new tenants to replace ones that closed.

    The food court and the anchor stores were undersized so most folks that wanted a variety in terms of food choices or wanted more from one of the anchor stores other than the more basic lines that were carried had to go to West Town anyway. A recipe for failure in my eyes.

    There was hope that once Crown sold the property that there would be some traction toward moving to an open air layout, however the economic downturn along with a restrictive covenant in place from the nearby Walmart hasn't yielded much in results (I think it's more of the former than the latter personally).

    With Sears closing, the current owners obviously felt that the status quo of holding onto the building while waiting for the economy to recover will be more problematic. They indicate that there is interest in the building, and that they believe that the mall will be sold. Time will tell.

  10. My family moved to Oak Ridge in 1987, and moved to Knoxville three years later, though I remember going through the mall when it first became enclosed. Even then, at the age of 12, I knew that mall wasn't going to last. That food court was never fully open. After visiting that city for the first time in over a decade in 2013, it almost looks like the whole place closed down, save for JCPenny and Belk.

    The one thing that killed it...the Wal Mart.

  11. I know this post is old, but I must comment anyway. I moved to Clinton in 1996, but spent a good amount of time in Oak Ridge as a child and teenager. I hadn't been to many malls as a child, so I was really excited to live somewhere that had one. When I was in elementary and middle school, it was a pretty cool place. We had Afterthoughts (which became Icing), and Claire's, where I had my ears pieced when I was 9, and bought ungodly amounts of very 90's accessories, a music store, a nerd-esq store, where I purchased my first Pokémon cards, as well as a good amount of others. I'll never forget the HUGE Surge poster next to the fountain. I drive past the old mall nearly every day, and I often think about everything that I did there. I'm glad I got to experience it before it lost its glory.

  12. I remember Woolworth’s and the soda fountain, back in grades K-2, went there quite a few times back then. Only visited the mall a few times after it opened, I had just moved to Knoxville at that time. Compared to what it had been and to West Town, it was tiny and had no charm. Still a little surprised it failed completely, hopefully the new plan for the area works out better.