Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Tri-City Mall: Forest City, NC

Forest City was quietly concealing a real surprise and rarity with Tri-City Mall.  This small open-air mall is highly unusual to find today, especially in the South, and it held enough retro aspects to make it a fascinating stop on the way to Charlotte.  Situated on the old route of US 74 (now US 74A), the mall once capitalized on travelers headed between Charlotte and Asheville.  Today, the mall is a local matter that keeps just enough business to survive largely due to its anchors.  About the only thing that kept it from being an amazing museum piece of retail architecture was the atrocious stucco remodeling that was placed on the sign canopies.  Otherwise, it is a tiny mall that appeared to open around 1970 with some real charm.

The original Tri-City Mall held three major anchors and at least one junior anchor.  Belk looks to have opened at the mall and inside looks like it has been renovated very little from when it first opened.  Rose's is even more dated with brown carpet and a threadbare appearance inside that was not enough to scare away the largely blue collar shoppers.  JCPenney was the third anchor, which joined in along the back of the mall.  It was an awkwardly laid out store, and it looks to have been closed awhile: most likely with the huge round of closings that took place in 2000 when the company was restructuring.  Apparently a Sears hard line store once operated in the mall as well, and Moore's Department Store also held a junior anchor position in the mall.  At least one of those junior anchors was likely a five-and-dime such as Woolworth's or McCrory's previously.  Most of the original inline tenants were unclear, however, with Merle Norman (closed) being the only recognizable one.

The two photos above are along the front entrance wing.  The trees and seating areas show how appealing an open-air mall can be.  The photo above shows the former JCPenney entrance in the background.  The lead photo shows part of the main mall walking toward Rose's.

Rose's mall entrance.  This store is original, too.

The actual amount of stores in the mall itself is very small, which is probably why it has otherwise failed as a retail destination.  It is not clear what caused the mall to fade, however, though I am sure Wal-Mart next door did not help.  I am assuming that either its industrial sector retracted or that the closing of JCPenney was a major blow to the mall.  This was made worse when Moore's sold out to Stage Stores in 2006 with the mall location not reopening under the Peeble's banner.  Today, very little actually operates in the mall with "Cafe at the Mall" being the only real draw to the mall aside from the anchors and the furniture liquidation store that now occupies the old JCPenney.  In reality, the mall would actually be much worse off if it wasn't for how few shop spaces actually do occupy the mall.

Looking out the side of Rose's to the rear outside mall entrance.  Note the crazy door!

Detail of planter in front of Rose's with overhead canopies makes this almost feel like a 90's-style enclosed mall.

The brickwork, however, is a dead giveaway that this place is far older than that.

Lots of things are quirky about the mall design wise.  One of those is the fact that the mall entrance actually features a door despite the fact you are outside on both sides.  Second, it appears the mall may not have actually been covered at all originally with rather cheap looking metal awnings covering the walkways angled up toward an imaginary skylight.  Perhaps there were more boxy covers over the walkways in the past, but this is uncertain.  Third, finding a mall there was tricky enough.  From the road, it looks like a regular strip mall built on the cheap.  Instead of a mall entrance, the name of the furniture liquidation store is posted where "JCPenney" used to be.  The only thing that suggests that this is actually a mall is the dominant Belk store on the southeast end and the name on the street.  It seems this place is not shown much love.  

The main feature in center court, however, is....the sun!  It looked nice here, but it was considerably hot and humid that day with big storms on the way.

Here I am walking along the Belk wing.  The table and chairs are for Cafe at the Mall restaurant.

Looking back from Belk with Cafe at the Mall somewhere on the right.

Outside the mall, the early 1970's are even more poignant.  Next door to the mall is a building that looks somewhat like an old IHOP capturing the Bavarian theme so popular in the early 70's.  That building today is Fireside Books & Gifts.  Next to that is a theater that is firmly trapped in the era yet still shows first run movies.  It was ironic to see "Karate Kid" on the outside since the theater also likely hosted the first one in 1984, and it probably looked no different.  The mall itself does not seem to be very well maintained either with the sign on US 74A showing substantial mildew and deterioration.  In fact, the mall would most likely have been closed had it actually been an enclosed mall but with low overhead combined with two anchors that appear to be going nowhere the mall is resilient.

Belk mall entrance, which looks quite attractive upon approach.

Closer inspection, however, reveals this is very old-school with narrow doors and octagon-shaped brown tiles.  It is apparent that in the 70's that overweight and disabled people weren't considered in the design of this entrance, but it still looks cool.

Belk once expanded into the mall creating a home store in the tenant right next to it on the right side.  I am assuming this was originally the Sears hard lines store or an old five-and-dime.

Here is how I believe the mall was laid out around 1995.  Please correct me if I am wrong on any of this.

It seems to me, though, that a renovation to a more classic look and expansion could possibly bring back the spark Tri-City lost to Cleveland Mall in Shelby.  I am not talking about enclosing the existing mall, either.  First, the mall entrance as well should be much more obvious.  If there is a mall there, people should know how to get into it.  The old part of the mall could also be renovated to incorporate a classic 1960's look with some post-modern trappings hopefully with a less bland look.  It is ironic I say this, though, since the original mall probably just had the dark aluminum siding outside, which was so typical in the day and probably looked a bit creepy by 1990.

From these two angles, the old JCPenney looks closed but it does in fact have a tenant.  They just failed to indicate that from within the mall.

Empty storefronts abound in the mall.  Though it is hard to tell here, this was formerly a Merle Norman.

Former Moore's complete with labelscar.  I wonder when this closed exactly.

As for an expansion, I would first expand the mall through the old JCPenney.  This expansion of the mall would be enclosed unlike the main mall offering a reprieve from the elements and variety.  Probably the best potential for expansion, though, would be to demolish the old Ryan's Steakhouse on the southeast side, expanding the mall through Belk and adding a new anchor: possibly another JCPenney, Kohl's, Peeble's or non-traditional tenant such as Lowe's or Best Buy.  In the mall itself, put in a Books-A-Million either in the old Moore's or in the new part.  All of this is fantasy, of course, but I always wonder if a few interesting changes could bring back the life to malls like this that most likely died primarily because they were too small and too awkwardly laid out in the first place.

It is possible to get shelter from the rain in parts of the mall...provided it is not a severe storm then you're out of luck.  You're still better off here than a lifestyle center.

A look back along the front entrance wing to the main entrance.

There is that front door, which is a bit dirty from weather.  One of the doors appears to either be open or removed from this angle, and this may very well be original.

Rose's mall entrance from a different angle showing the west court area.

What the future holds for Tri-City Mall is anybody's guess.  It looks to have been somewhat derelict for quite some time, but its open-air configuration makes it far easier to keep as is.  It probably would have died years ago, but Belk for some reason maintains two stores in the area including this mall.  The rest of the mall is fairly cheap to maintain as well with no roof or climate control.  With Rose's also doing a decent business, there is probably a minimal demand to fill the spaces in the rest of the mall, and even the old JCPenney managed to find new life after closing.  I do wish some imagination could go into this place, however, but the horrible economy combined with the generally more blue collar populace observed in the area means that the mall will probably remain this way for awhile.   Of course, that will be the case as long Belk or Rose's does not decide to call it quits.  Whatever happens, I was glad to find this gem among the many tiny, peculiar small town malls that dot the Piedmont of North Carolina.

 Casper's Costume Closet looks to have taken over the back side of the former Belk Home store.

Here is the furniture store in the old JCPenney combined with the rear mall entrance.  Would you know a mall entrance was there on the left if I did not tell you?

Rose's from the front of the mall.

Overview of front of the mall from Rose's.

Belk renovated away its classic arches suggesting they are still committed to this store.

Main mall entrance and former B.C. Moore's beside it.  Note the mall entrance says "Furniture" so you expect to walk in and find Montgomery Flea Market, not a mall.  It is, though, a mini mall.  Hey hey.

1984 or 2010?  You decide.  This is the Cinema 4 theater beside the mall.

More of the "retro theater".  I wish someone would have parked a 1978 Buick Regal there for added effect.

You have to love that "Cinema 4" sign.  I suspect the whole mall used to have that dark siding as well.

I would absolutely LOVE to know what this was originally right next to the Theater.  It looks sort of like an old IHOP, but today it is Fireside Books & Gifts.

This sign is atrocious in every way.  Mildew and lichens are actually growing on it.  I bet if you replaced "Specialty" with "Empty" the first word would still be fully legible.


  1. I was reading along on this just hoping you'd taken a pic of the Bavarian IHOP, and sure enough you did! This is one of my favourites that you've profiled, mainly since it still has alot of its character. And b/c I'm a sucker for Roses.

    1. The store you suggested to be an old IHOP actually opened as a Pizza restaurant. It was quite nice in the beginning. Young people enjoyed eating pizza and then walking over to the "rocking chair' cinema.

  2. The closest thing to this I've seen is the outlet center at Lebanon, TN that's built like an outdoor mall with rain protection.

  3. That Fireside Books could've been a Wienerschnitzel at one time, but I doubt it.

  4. I remember the building where Fireside books was a Godfathers pizza (or a pizza place similar to Godfathers) & then a movie rental place & later an arcade.

    Lowes used to be one of the outer buildings (the white building close to Belk's) at the mall, it is the building behind the old steakhouse, which was not a Ryan's Steakhouse it was Quincy's. Lowes is now located on Hwy 74 across from Wal-Mart. The old steakhouse is now a Cafeteria.

    JCPenny was not an anchor store for the mall, it was added many years later & was not there very long. The original 3rd anchor store was Harris Teeter, it was demolished to build the JCPenny store. Harris Teeter built a new building past the Quincy's Steakhouse & behind the BB&T.

    Other stores in that mall have included Shoe Show, a Hallmark store, the DMV, AV Wrays, a Music store, Shelly's Jewelry, Maurices, a Wallpaper store, Hair Plus, Eckard Drugs, a bookstore & a few different dollar stores. The Christian Bookstore that is behind the mall used to be inside the mall. The mall has also had several different restaurants inside, including Little Moo, China, Nana's & Eckard's had a cafe.

    The doors & windows & ceiling were added many years after the mall was open, it truly used to be an open air mall. At one time there was a fountain in the middle of the mall.

    1. The original jewelry store was The Jewel Box, I got my class ring there in 1977.

    2. I am so glad people do remember the old places use to love to go to them all shopping!

    3. Connie Abrams owned the Christian Book Store. My Mother worked there with her there for Several years. It was and still could be a Great Place. It still could be updated and Life brought back. Jobs and a great place to shop. WalMart doesn't have to be the Only Place to shop. In fact...I wish there were some different choices. How about "Ross"? Some different places to go at night. Nice Places. Such a shame to see this go down.

  5. This Place is run down Because they need to rebuild these places!!! Ive been in Roses 15 million times already!!! I think its haunted or somthing! I went to harris tetter when it was in bissness! Went to belk 1 time but didnt find anything! How abandond it is!!! But i still go to roses! Love that store! Went to the cinima once! Roses is the only one I go to! Never went to the furniture store and it moved! Roses is the only one I like!!! there great prices!!!

  6. The mall is gaining some new businesses now, the bridal shop Joy's Bridal has moved into the Moore's place and Music City Records that was downtown Forest City has moved in also. Close to Rose's the exercise place, Curve's has opened now. At the end near Belk's is Caspers Closet which has taken all the space that Belk's Juniors had as they sell the uniforms for the charter schools in the county. There is also a dance studio that has been here since I can remember, Little Broadway Studio owned by Crystal Meeks. In the old tag office is Designs By Mandy that offers alterations and custom sewing. Which I am honored to say, has been a dream of mine since I can remember. I am excited to be in the Tri-City Mall and it is busier than people believe. The Mall is a growing part of our small community, and a staple for our county.

  7. Village Inn Pizza... I'm nearly 100% sure of that.

    1. You're right. There was one at that sh itty mall in Statesville too.

    2. Yes. The bookstore used to be Village Inn Pizza. I used to go there all the time with my grandmother. The cinema only had one theater originally in the 70's. A second was added next to the original and then in the eighties two smaller ones to make four total theaters. It's the only theater in the county so no competition. Also not much business so no money to make improvements. I remember when the J.C. Penny was the grocery store. There was something there between the time the grocery store closed and Penny's came along. The Eckerd Drug at one time did have a café. I worked there in the summers when I was home from college. Moores department store was originally on Main Street in Rutherfordton. That was actually my first job in high school. Wal-Mart had an original location down the highway further but when they super-sized they built the new store next to the mall. In the 70's and 80's, when I was growing up, this was the only place to go unless you shopped at the really old places on the Main streets downtown from the 50's. It was really all we had. There used to be a clothing store just outside of Roses. My friends and I shopped there all the time because before we had Goodys and Wal-Mart there just wasn't anywhere to buy cute clothes except Belk. The record store was called Music City Records and it moved to Main Street in Forest City. I do remember the A.V. Rays,the Sears store, the DMV, the Shoe Show, and the Hallmark store. I also remember when the Quincys was there as well as the Lowe's Home Improvement. I had completely forgotten about the fountain. I used to love it as a child. You brought back so many memories.

    3. It was actually called Papa's Pizza Parlor

    4. Yes! Was trying to remember the name of the pizza place - used to eat there a lot...

    5. Yes! Village Inn Pizza! Great places to eat when I was in high school over 30 years ago.

    6. Harris Teeter used to be up there, too, beside Quincy's Steakhouse. They were separate from the mall, over on the Belk side. I think Harris Teeter is an Ollie's now and I can't recall what Quincy's became. It became a few different things.

  8. I remember Nana's, Hallmark, Harris Teeter, the Chinese place by the front entrance,Belks, the dance store and several others.Fireside books has been in business since the early was a pizza place and a video store before that.The movie could smoke in there until the mid 1990s,if that tells you anything, and the mall has been run down since my family moved to town in 1986.We usually went to larger cities like Charlotte or Asheville to shop for school clothes.

  9. Hickory Farms had a store in the mall late 80's or early 90's

  10. Belk is still committed to Tri-City Mall, because they own their rent. They've renovated it several times over the years.

    The glass doors were added at the same time the stucco renovation was done. The doors were added to reduce vandalism at night when the mall was closed. In the 1980s, teenagers would "cruise the mall"...a 100 cars or so, just driving around the mall in circles. This was when gas was cheap and before Al Gore invented the internet.

    I worked at one of the stores in the mall for a few years in the early 1990s. At that time, most of the spaces were rented except for the old Eckerd Drugs on the front of the mall. This was a sore spot for us, as we felt it was bad for business to have a big space on the front side of the mall that was empty. The roof in the old Eckerd building leaked terribly. the owners would not fix it up without a tenant and no tenant would rent it in the current condition. They did allow us to store some overflow stock in there, though, which was nice, since we had virtually no stock room space.

    Once the Christian Bookstore moved out of the mall (into a much larger space for less rent than the mall was charging), they finally fixed up the Eckerd Drug space and took in the Christian Bookstore space so that Moore's could move in.

    The furniture store that was there when you made these photos in 2010 has now relocated up the road into an old Wal-mart building. Roses and Belk are still there.

  11. The mall opened August, 1971. I remember this because my mother and I went there on my 18th birthday, August 25. If this wasn't the actual grand opening date, it was during the grand opening.

  12. China Restaurant was there at the front of the middle section from the late 80s to the early 00s. My in-laws owned it and I worked there after I married. Of the couple who owned it, the wife passed away in January 2013, and the husband lives with our family in Raleigh now. But as a native Rutherford County girl, I wish you could have seen this mall in the 80s.

    1. I compare every Chinese to that place and have never found any to compare.

  13. I think that eventually the lack of upkeep on the Mall proper will ultimately cause its demise. The owners seem to do absolutely nothing about the parking lots or the inside.

  14. The fireside books used to be a pizza place when I was a teenager in the 70's.

  15. The triangle building was Village Pizza, then Papa's Pizza Parlor, then Home Video, then Fireside Books. I have photos of this mall from when it was first built (interior and exterior photos).

    1. I would love to see the original mall photos. If you ever get this shoot me an email

  16. Then remove the highest and lowest consumption points. Of the remaining consumption numbers, forest city

  17. The Hallmark store was the first store to the right coming from Belks into the mall. There was a music store on the same side farther down where we bought vinyl and later cassettes. On the opposite side with JC Penney, there was once a flavored popcorn store (Popcorn Plus, maybe?).

    That Belks was the only place we had to buy decent back-to-school clothes, suits, and wedding presents. They had a gift wrap counter (you could always tell at baby showers etc who had bought nice gifts from Belks by the silver or white gift wrap), and the salesmen in the men's department would actually take measurements.

    The Carmike Cinema 4 did indeed show Karate Kid in its first run. I was there! Saturday matinees (Little Mermaid!) were a favorite activity with my girl friends, and Friday nights in middle school we met up with our crushes there and held hands while the high school kids cruised around the loop. The theater sold Astropop suckers, which I don't think they even make anymore.

    Grew up there in the 80's to mid 90's, but these things made it feel like the 50's or 60's.

  18. The " Mall " is a exzample of what the locals call " Small town friendly"

  19. I used to go here all the time as a teenager in the 70s. It was THE HAPPENING place. I haven't lived there since '75; so sad to see and hear about it's dilapidated state. It was a very vibrant and fun place to hang out back in it's heyday. I spent many weekends in the Pizza Village parking lot, "hanging out" with friends. And the movie theater was where I saw all those classic early 70s films - Love Story, Billy Jack, Walking Tall. Man, the memories...

  20. The Sears store was just a catalog store. My grandmother retired from there many years ago.

  21. Looking from Belk's inner entrance, to the left was A.V. Wray's.
    I worked there as assistant Manager from about '82-'84.
    to the right was Hallmark, then a shoe store, Frazier's Shoe, a guy who's first name was Craig was the manager. Then, further past Frazier's going away from Belk was The Junction, a clothing store, mostly for women if I remember correctly. The Junction was where The Cafe at the Mall went later. At the front entrance to the left was originally "Little Moo" a dairy queen type restaurant. My best friend worked there and the manager was Liz. To the right of the entrance was an Eckerd's Drug store with a fountain along the front of the building. Looking from Rose's inner entrance toward Belk, to the left was a women's clothing store "Sidney's" The woman who would become my wife worked there when we met.
    Harris-Teeter was in the mall. The major anchors were Belk, Roses, Harris-Teeter and Eckerd's.
    The A-Frame restaurant was Village Pizza, then Papa's Pizza.