Wednesday, June 23, 2010

South Park Mall: Charlotte, NC

Mall builders in Charlotte seemed to have a penchant for naming malls after cardinal directions.  South Park was the first, but it was soon followed by North Park, West Park and Eastland Malls.  South Park is also the city's leading mall offering a high-end shopping experience unmatched elsewhere in the region.  In the South, luxury malls are hard to come by, and even large cities like Nashville have been slow to get one of their own.  Atlanta set the standard with Lenox Square and Phipps Plaza in the 1970's, but Charlotte's own started out as a more conventional center than today.

When South Park opened in 1970, it was a T-shaped mall with Charlotte standards Ivey's and Belk facing each other divided by the a long hallway with a fountain court in the center.  This fountain court is where the longer Sears wing made a junction to form the long part of the T.  The mall was far from conventional, however.  Belk established its flagship store at the mall with more upscale Ivey's also donning their best.  South Park was also the largest mall at that point, eclipsing all of the tiny malls dotting the city.  While those older malls were more community oriented, this was the first mall to truly phase out downtown.  The leading mall, Charlottetown, was no match to the center. What makes all of this strange, however, is the fact that South Park is unlike most any other mall: located nowhere near any interstate or major thoroughfare.  In fact, it is rather hidden, situated at the intersection of two local roads: Tyvola Road (City 4) and Sharon Road.

Four images of South Park's famous center court fountain.  It has been modified three times since it was opened, though I am unable to provide the second version.  The second version took up much more of the court and was actually the most attractive, though the first version was the most elegant.  The first photo of the original fountain comes via Malls of America/Keith Milford.

Early South Park Mall was far from dumpy.  It brought a certain level of elegance that only Charlottetown ever approached.  A huge champagne glass fountain flanked the center court, stylish late-60's decor was found throughout and all of the best stores located there.  Considering the similarities of Charlotte to Atlanta, South Park was essentially an enclosed Lenox Square that came 11 years later.  Like Lenox, it also had some years where it fell briefly out of prominence as well.  The opening of Eastland Mall in 1975 stole some of the mall's thunder, but time proved that South Park was the one with the lasting power.  While Eastland will be closing forever in a week from this post, South Park is the only mall in the state to offer two luxury department stores.

Court area outside of Nordstrom.  This portion of the mall was built after 2003, but architecturally matches the rest of the center.  The escalators connect to the parking deck and is not mall space.

A view of the Nordstrom mall entrance.  This photo looks like a canyon...something malls used to capitalize more on.

Another view of the Nordstrom court.

The morphing of South Park into North Carolina's top mall came slowly.  The first big change came in the late 1980's with a full scale renovation in 1986.  While the hourglass fountain was replaced, the surrounding mall received a more elegant treatment than its original minimalist design offered, though much of that has again been stripped away.  Along with this, the mall also gained a new anchor: Thalhimer's of Richmond, VA.  Thalhimer's formed a new wing off the north side of the Sears wing bringing the anchor count to four.  Four years later, Ivey's was converted to Dillard's.  This was the first original anchor to leave when that occurred.  Thalhimer's opening was the first time the chain opened in Charlotte, but it would prove to be short-lived as Hecht's took over that spot in 1992. 

The mall's skylights are done in a style I have never seen before, but they look like this throughout the entire mall.  It is not that I don't like it, because I do.  It's just that there is too much of it.  The best way I can describe it is like being on the lower level of a double-deck viaduct.  This is along the newer Belk wing...not the original.  Belk has two entrances.

Belk mall entrance on the newer wing, which comes off of the Nordstrom wing.  These courts maintain a late 60's/early 70's feel to them.

This court area is found at the junction of the Nordstrom wing and the long T part of the mall that used to end in Sears.

The 90's would prove to be a relatively stagnant period of growth for the mall.  Eastland was still going strong, and the mall would face increased competition with Carolina Place Mall drawing south side customers.  However, Charlotte was also seeing a period of boom with significant growth, which helped to increase the wealth and prominence of the area.  Since 1990, the city has nearly doubled in population.  While this has led to continued expansion of retail across the city, this also led to major changes to the mall itself starting in 2002.  These changes have resulted in a mall significantly different from the original mall, and they have also turned South Park into a major destination for shoppers in the Carolinas.

Along the base of the T (old Sears wing) headed toward the center "fountain" court.

More detail along the same area.

Dillard's mall entrance, which forms the north wing from fountain court.  This opened as Ivey's originally, and is original to the mall despite the fact that there is no resemblance to the original store.

The first change to occur was the closure of Sears.  It is not clear why Sears left the mall, but they closed their store there by the end of 2002.  After it closed, the store was demolished and replaced with a small outdoor wing.  In this wing, a Galyan's (now Dick's) Sporting Goods as well as Joseph-Beth Bookstore flanked a new outdoor courtyard on the west end of the mall.  About the same time, the first major expansion since the 80's also commenced as the mall was expanded to include a new Nordstrom.  This new store coupled with a new wing and new parking deck upscaled the mall significantly.  On top of this work, the mall was again renovated...this time, in the typical Simon fashion which has resulted in a mall that is really too basic to be as upscale as it is.  Simon similarly did this with Lenox in Atlanta.

The mall extends briefly east of fountain court, and an open air wing was added just outside featuring trendy restaurants.  While very nice, it was hot out here.  Smokers took advantage of the spot.

Here is the original Belk mall entrance, which I believe was done this way in the 1986 renovation.  As Belk's flagship, elegance was paramount.

Macy's forms the northwest wing catty-corner to the Nordstrom wing.  This wing is the least elegant.  The store here opened as Thalhimer's in 1986 later operating as Hecht's from then to 2006.  Rich's considered once opening in Charlotte, possibly at this mall, so Macy's fits.

The next change to come to South Park would place the mall on par with Atlanta's finest.  This was when construction began on a new Neiman Marcus store.  Completed in late 2006, this addition converted the Queen City's first major mall into not only the most upscale, but also the state's largest mall, though that was actually achieved when Nordstrom was added.  A free-standing huge two-level Crate & Barrel (not pictured) was also built across from the mall on an outlot during this time.  The unfortunate part of this process was that the owners were apparently ashamed of having any 1970's elements remaining at the mall.  This meant that the distinctly designed Dillard's, which opened as Ivey's, was gutted and replaced with a conventional Dillard's.  Belk likewise renovated its appearance to modernize its flagship.  It also appears that the Macy's (then Hecht's) was re-faced to modernize the appearance.  In fact, shoppers that visited the mall 20 years ago would recognize very little.

The food court was very nice.  It is situated in front of where Sears mall entrance used to be.  It is now an entrance to a second outdoor portion of the mall.

I am unsure if this is outside of Macy's or if this is part of the old Sears wing.

Dick's Sporting Goods outside of the food court, which opened in 2003 as Galyan's Sporting Goods.  Galyan's was sold to Dick's in 2005.

South Park Mall had a tragedy in 2007 when a woman drove into one of the new parking deck supports.  The collision caused part of the parking deck to collapse destroying two cars and killing the driver.  Issues were made about the construction of the deck especially after a major collapse occured at a similar designed deck in Atlanta in 2009.  The deck has since been repaired.

In the same fountain as the last photo with Dick's, I am looking back at the mall entrance.  Eight years ago, I would be standing inside Sears.  California Pizza Kitchen, one of the many restaurants attached to the mall, is on the left.

Joseph-Beth Bookstore is situated to the left of Dick's.  I have never heard of this store it local?

In so many ways, Charlotte reminded me of Atlanta in my childhood: about where it was in the late 1980's.  It has big buildings in the core, a big city attitude but is still small enough to be bearable size and trafficwise.  This is definitely the appeal of it, and is probably why the area has attracted enough wealth to create a mall like South Park.  Still, I am a bit disappointed about the way South Park looks.  I think despite what it has to offer, it could be far more elegant like Phipps Plaza.

Neiman Marcus is absolutely unparalleled in their elegant modernist design they used here.  This is possibly one of the most beautiful department stores I have ever seen.  Too bad Dillard's ripped off their original facade, because it would have fit in well with this store.

Note the original Dillard's, which opened here as Ivey's.  It is distinct, and while outlandish was elegant for the 70's.  Photo is by cantnot via LiveMalls.

Dillard's today.  Aside from the very unusual (for 2006) mansard roof, this is a boring Dillard's clone.

In terms of upgrading the mall, I tend to think two areas need attention: adding a second level to part of the mall and upgrading the court areas.  I think posh courts with elegant touches, flowers and distinct skylights in front of Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom with escalators climbing to a second level mall entrance would make access easier and improve the appearance of both.  Likewise, I believe part of the original mall should become two levels with subdued but unique skylights connecting Dillard's and Belk complete with a reconfiguring of the signature fountain so that it shoots to the new second level.  Perhaps multi-colored glass in the skylights in the main court would make it really stand out.  Maybe the skylights along each part of the mall could be a different color.  It seems to me that the mall needs these changes to make it more distinctive, because no part of the mall really has any focal points or presence.  I also think that these improvements should look entirely different from the rest of the mall much in the way Mall of Georgia has different themes for different parts of the mall.  How could this be done to represent the culture of Charlotte and North Carolina?

I wonder how this store originally looked, because clearly this Macy's store looks newer than 1986.

Nordstrom from the parking deck.  Sadly, I somehow forgot to get pics of the Belk from the outside.  South Park was actually not my priority in this trip, but I did have to see it.  What I liked about it, though, was that it was like Lenox without the level of pretension.

Overall, the South outside of Florida and Washington DC lacks truly quality malls.  South Park is one of only five malls offering true upscale shopping anywhere in the South.  The only others are in Atlanta, Birmingham and (soon) Nashville.  It is truly impressive how much South Park has improved and expanded over the years, and this is even more true considering that no other mall this successful has been so far removed from major highways.  It was pretty obvious when I visited that shoppers arrived from miles around to shop at stores unavailable elsewhere.  Nevertheless, I think that this mall could stand out more.  Between the generic remodels of the original anchors and the simple design on the inside, without Neiman Marcus the mall looks very basic.  Still, malls like this prove when a city's progress has reached a certain level, and this mall is an effective symbol on Charlotte's progress toward becoming a major city.

MORE: Much, MUCH more on South Park can be found on Steven Swain's Live Malls blog.


  1. Sears closed b/c it wasn't doing enough business.

    The Hecht's was white brick and boring before.

    There was also a strip center in the parking lot with a Morrison's Cafeteria, Harris Teeter and movie theater; that was demolished around 2000 or so.

  2. Great post. I really like the pictures and appreciated your opinions on the design.

  3. Hey J.T.

    Just a few corrections if you don't mind:

    The pic you're not sure about is the wing leading to the old Sears. Also, The food court is actually brand new I think and is off the Macy's wing. I think before the Nordstrom addition/renovation, the food court was actually in that center court where the Nordstrom and Macy's wings sprout out from the original "T".

    All that being said, I love SouthPark. As a matter of fact, I jokingly described it as being Lenox and Perimeter's "lovechild". Basically, it's like a mall with Lenox's high-end stores, but Perimeter's more down-to-earth atmosphere.

    And you're so right about the Lenox "attitude", especially at our Neiman Marcus. If you show up with a t-shirt (that isn't Ed Hardy) and jeans (that aren't True Religion), they stare you down like you're some bum off the street.

  4. Nice post. One correction to the first comment---Morrison's was inside the mall and was down a little side hallway from Sears. Sears did close due to a lack of business, but there was also intense pressure at the same time from the mall for them to leave regardless.

  5. Joseph-Beth is an independent bookstore based in Lexington, KY. It's flagship store is located in a former "secondary" mall (Mall at Lexington Green) which was built next to Fayette Mall. The interior portion of Lexington Green, which was a huge atrium with a Ruby Tuesdays and Morrisons Cafeteria, was almost completely vacant by the late 90s. Joseph-Beth, which had successfully operated in smaller locations at the mall, took the ENTIRE atrium over, creating a visually striking, two level bookstore.
    Subsequently Joseph-Beth opened locations in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Charlotte, and bought Davis-Kidd in Nashville.

  6. Also, the owners of Joseph-Beth are I think the brother/sister-in-laws of the original owners of Borders Books. There has always been a "gentleman's" agreement between the two groups that they not compete with each other in Lexington. That is why you will never see a Borders there!

  7. N-M at Lenox is a funny store, and you really can't take its pretensions seriously. I used to use it as shortcut to the mall because it's adjacent parking didn't fill as quickly as other lots. They have gigantic signs announcing the famous designer labels like Chanel. This is the kind of merchandise that people "in the know" should recognize w/o a sign but obviously don't. It makes the place seem like a fancy version of the now gone Value City, which probably sold N-M castoffs. Other N-M stores like the ones in DC sell slightly less showy merchandise, without the tacky layout.

  8. Oops, correct- the Morrison's was in the mall. I hate being wrong about malls but I was.

  9. lol yeah I've never had enough expendable $$ to see the point of paying those prices but more power to folks who get into that sorta thing....Southpark is a nice mall, haven't been to it in a few years....will be sure to have to dress in my preppy best when I go :-p

  10. Tyvola Road is Fairview Road by the time it passes the mall. Sears and the enormous Eckerd's next to it were among the stores pushed out of the mall in the early 2000's when it began its 'upscaling' project.
    The strip mall with Harris-Teeter and a movie theater was behind the Sears pick-up entrance.
    Another unique feature of the mall is the underground (actually under mall) parking deck. It's the ideal place to park on a hot Charlotte day and you can either access Belk's or Macy's lower level entrances or pop up in the middle of the mall.
    The original escalators from the mall level to the underground parking (NOT the one near Nordstrom's) were where the original food court was located.

  11. I think those escalators in the original food court as described are still there (and in the photos up there IIRC).

  12. Thank you for this article and pictures. After visiting the mall for the first time in probably 10 years I was so disappointed with the way that it looked. I grew up in the 90's going to Southpark mall and no part of the inside was recognizable to me. I love the big open feel of the middle "wing" of the mall where the Gap, Jessica McClintock, Bebe, etc. used to be. And the old food court area with the Limited, Limited too, and Atlanta Bread company. I am so sad. I feel like a part of my childhood is just gone. I enjoyed looking at your pictures!

  13. Not complaining, but I wish you would have taken a picture of the Directory. Your descriptions are great, but I enjoy having a visual of the mall floor plan.

    How about a fan of the site posting one for us?

  14. The escalators coming up from the undermall parking originally brought you to the front of a very large Woolworth Store that had a very large Harvest House Restaurant. In 1970, this was a new style, much large store for Woolworth and the Harvest House was not a simple lunch counter. On any day you could see John Belk and other department store executives having lunch there. I believe the last time I was in SouthPark, there was a Champs store in its place.

    Thanks for the picture of the original water feature. I was five when we moved to Charlotte and I haven't thought of that fountain in years.

  15. Mall retail was much different back then. I remember that same Woolworth in the '80s had stacks of GI surplus M1 Garand .30-06 rifles for sale in the aisles, in barrels. Pick one out of the barrel and take it to checkout. $350 apiece back then seemed expensive.

  16. I remember going to the mall in the early-mid 1980s as a young teenager. When you came up the escalator in the middle, there was the Woolworth's/Harvest House on one side. On the other side, a small Chick-fil-a - no food court back then. There was a Record Bar where we could browse the LPs. Sears had a video arcade where a lot of kids would hang out on a Saturday. The 2nd story windowed original Belk entrance was a restaurant or cafeteria that overlooked the mall.

    1. Belk had Arthur's Restaurant on the 3rd floor. Are they still there?

  17. I loved Arthur's chicken salad you remember when orange Julius was in there briefly..also I got my first ear piercing from the jewel box for $5..the memories.l loved that mall. When it opened I was a sophomore at Independence High.

  18. They are going to put a Bloomingdale's . It could replace Macy's.

  19. The Woolworth's was considered one of the chain's new 'A' Stores with a much different and larger sporting goods selection--especially of firearms. There was what seemed (at age five when I moved to Charlotte) a large Buster Brown children's clothing and shoe department within the store and my sister and I were sometimes made to take part in fashion shows. True of the Harvest House, it was big with booths, tables and a traditional counter--probably sat over 100. And my father remembers working with John Belk and the other mostly male managers of the stores as part of the South Park Merchants Association--even hiring a very young Jim and Tammy Bakker to perform their then puppet show in the in the front of the store where the escalators came up and below as a décor shop, very small like Kirkland's that always smelled of cinnamon or potpourri.

    I was angered and a little hurt when I moved back to Charlotte in 1988 and some years later was walking through the mall and lingered over the photographs of the Malls opening. On opening day, I stood near with my mother,sister and father for the ribbon cutting and loved the old original fountain where the opening was staged. It was still there when I last visited. In this large display of photographs marking the opening of the mall there was no mention of the Woolworth Store, not one photograph. It was an anchor store, most malls courted Woolworth to move into the malls--hence the new larger store design with the larger Harvest House Restaurant. There was no food court, just Chick-fil-a and a lunch counter in Eckerd Drug Store down the hall on the way to Sears. My father remembers that Woolworth executive offices were angered over the escalators because the original agreement was that they were to exit ascending customers to the front of the Woolworth Store. Belk's had a cafeteria upstairs that the locals referred to as the Harry and Bryant waiting room--mostly older patrons, nicely dressed, native Charlotteans enjoying an slice of egg custard pie!

  20. The Sears was still there in the early part of 2003 because I used to work there during that time. The mall was in the process of undergoing a huge was kind of the like the calm before the storm...

    1. This person is correct. The Sears store closed at the end of June 2003.

  21. Amazing what you stumble upon on the internet, but a few comments. Southpark was the busiest shopping district in the United States during Black Friday last year, it's also one of the most profitable malls in the world, bringing in $700-800 per square foot. As of this post it is currently undergoing another renovation, but until significant transportation improvements take place in the area, the already packed mall (go on a Saturday, shoulder to shoulder) probably couldn't handle the traffic of a second level.

  22. I made be late to the party but I just found this blog and its awesome. By the way Dillard's just expanded from the original facade and filled in on the side with the entrance to the parking deck. If you look at the mall on google maps, it shows the original facade outline on two sides and where its been filled in on the other side.