Friday, July 14, 2017

Laurel Mall: Connellsville (Dunbar Township), PA

Filed under the most common name for malls is what was for many years a dead mall found between Uniontown and Connellsville, PA that refuses to let go.  In fact, it has found some rather unique ways to survive.  It is important to note that this Laurel Mall should not be confused with another Laurel Mall located in Hazleton.  Neither extraordinarily large nor unique, this mall somehow did not get the memo that small 1970's malls that never got updated were supposed to be closed and demolished decades ago.  Of course, for those of us that actually appreciate that, it's a real time capsule that has weathered, both figuratively and literally, many harsh Pennsylvania winters to remain in pretty good condition for its age.

Built in 1971, Laurel Mall was constructed on the heels of aggressive expansion by Montgomery Ward and McKeesport-based G.C. Murphy's.  Murphy's was found across the Eastern U.S. with a concentration of stores in the Mid-Atlantic.  Starting in 1970, they were aggressively expanding their Murphy's Mart discount store format, and this was one of their larger locations (and third to be constructed) in Western Pennsylvania.  Most anchored a mall.  It was clear that both stores felt that a mall would help boost their competitive presence in the market, thus a simple T-shaped 300,000 square ft. mall was constructed tying the two stores together.  Also included in the mall was a four screen theater and the only satellite location of Uniontown-based Metzler's department store, which had a junior anchor in the center of the mall.

A photo of the mall corridor from Pechin's taken June 5, 2013.  The flea market had not yet taken off yet, so detail of the mall was more visible.  Does anybody know what the store to the left originally was?  The panels just past the store suggest that Towne Mall in New Castle had the same store.  The lead photo shows center court looking toward the Wards wing with the former Metzler's department store on the left.

Zoomed in shot of the same scene.  Unfortunately, this was as close as I could get to a "before" pic of the Murphy's/Ames mall entrance.  Photo taken June 5, 2013.

Returning on May 27, 2017 I was finally able to explore the interior of the mall.  This if the front entrance corridor with the former Metzler's mall entrance and center court in the background.

Former Wards mall wing.  The glass at the end was the former mall entrance, now Pechin's Superfoods.  Photo taken May 27, 2017.

Closing in on the former Wards mall entrance.  It was nothing fancy for sure.  Photo taken May 27, 2017.

Wards mall entrance in detail with mystery junior anchor tenant on the right.  Note the theater marquees on the left.  Photo taken May 27, 2017.

Blurry shot, but here are the theater marquees now sadly void of any movies since the theater closed in 2014.  Photo taken May 27, 2017.

Laurel Mall was the first mall to be constructed in the Uniontown-Connellsville area, but it would not be for long.  A year later, Uniontown Mall, a Crown American property, opened in Uniontown.  The malls initially complemented each other given that its competing mall was constructed with a similar anchor lineup: Sears (general merchandise) and GeeBee (a discount store owned by Crown American).  Laurel Mall stood out in that was constructed in a beautiful scene with the backdrop of the Allegheny Plateau rising up a short ways southeast of the mall.  Fronting US 119, it also benefited from full visibility along a major highway halfway between the two cities making it a seemingly prime location for retail development.  The funny thing is that aside from the mall and businesses on the outlot such as Burger King, not much else was ever built near the mall.  This was a sign that success would be limited, and the mall struggled immensely over the past couple decades with only one or two stores operating in the mall in 2008.

The back southeast entrance wing leading to the theaters.  As you can see, nothing was ever done to update these theaters.  These extra doors allowed the theaters to stay open long past mall hours.  Photo taken May 27, 2017.

A view of the theaters and back door.  If I'd known it was closed, I would have gotten more detail of the theater foyer.  Photo taken May 27, 2017.

Walking back to the mall from the theaters.  No, nothing is wrong with the camera.  There is an odd greenish light along this hallway.  Photo taken May 27, 2017.

The mystery store next to Wards (on left).  Photo taken May 27, 2017.

Strolling down the Wards wing back to center court.  Just past the change in the ceiling height is the beginning of the stonework for the Metzler's mall entrance.  Photo taken May 27, 2017.

Another view of center court looking to the Murphy's wing.  It is difficult to photograph due to the people and stand in the middle.  Because of all the temporary structures here, it was difficult to tell if center court ever had a planter or fountains.  Photo taken May 27, 2017.

One thing that used to be a rule in the retail industry was that a mall's success hinged on having the right anchors, which Laurel Mall never had.  It did not help that Uniontown Mall proved to have more muscle and was able to attract the right anchors.  Crown American owned Hess's giving them a guaranteed mid-market anchor (later Bon-Ton), and JCPenney later passed over Laurel Mall for its competitor.  Laurel Mall desperately needed to be expanded and have better anchors to survive, but the construction of an extension of the Pennsylvania turnpike close to Uniontown Mall also gave them a competitive advantage.

Sorry about the blurriness, but I was trying to capture this fake stone.  If I had more time, I would have been diving through all the records that were in this store.  Photo taken May 27, 2017.

In contrast to the Wards wing of the mall, the Murphy's wing is mostly unused.  With Dollar Tree coming, this may be on purpose.  Note that the structure on this end is not as in good of condition suggesting that they plan to close off this part.  Also note the brick wall at the end where the Murphy's/Ames mall entrance used to be.  Photo taken May 27, 2017.

Dollar Tree will eventually be opening on the other side of this (with outside access).  This was originally Thrift Drug, a division of JCPenney and later Eckerd.  Thrift Drug was folded into Eckerd when JCPenney bought Eckerd in 1997.  Eckerd appears to have closed at the mall when the chain was sold to Rite Aid.  Photo taken May 27, 2017.

The Thrift Drugs labelscar was rather obvious here.  It was Pittsburgh-based, so it was a logical tenant in this mall.  Photo taken May 27, 2017.

A look back into the main mall with Metzler's visible on the left.  The store on the right was most likely a Fashion Bug originally.  I believe it was later Dollar General.  Photo taken May 27, 2017.

Despite its vintage charm, not much can be said about its design.  Inside, it is very basic with terrazzo floors, lots of brown and it appears the mall only had maybe one fountain or planter in center court, since covered up.  It is a bland and unremarkable design by 1970's standards inside and out, and its charm only comes from the fact that it is such a well-preserved specimen for its time.  It was built by a small developer (Laurel Development of Johnstown) meaning that a large budget for architecture was probably not available.  In reality, the mall was about the anchors, not the mall itself, and this remains true today.

Hallway to restrooms and former mall offices.  Photo taken May 27, 2017.

This back hallway/entrance next to Rural King was walled off, but with the door wide open, exploration was a necessity!  Photo taken May 27, 2017.

The back entrance doors have clearly not been used in quite some time.  Photo taken May 27, 2017.

The outside of the back entrance is certainly still stuck in 1971.  Photo taken May 27, 2017.

Detail along the closed off back entrance wing next to Rural King looking back into the main mall.  What were those windows for?  It looks like a department store or display, but nothing of note is on the other side of the wall.  The paneling on the right looks to have been part of the Murphy's Mart entrance at some point.  Photos taken May 27, 2017.

Laurel Mall was losing this game.  Having a discount store, a struggling second-tier general merchandise department store and a small local department store might have worked in the 1970's, but an anchor line-up like that by the 1990's was damning.  Metzler's closed first in the late 1980's and was converted for awhile into a flea market.  While Murphy's Mart was a very popular chain, it found itself not immune to the sociopathic retail environment in the 80's and was seized by Ames in a hostile takeover in 1985.  Ames was far less popular and was itself struggling by the late 1990's.  It would go under in 2002 leaving the Laurel Mall store dark.  Montgomery Ward itself went under with the chain in 2001.  The only original anchor tenant still operating at the mall by this time were the theaters, and they always had outside access from the back of the mall.  At this point, most malls like this would have been redeveloped into a strip center, but apparently nobody was interested in dropping millions into renovating the property like that.  Big box stores were instead choosing to locate in the shadow of Uniontown Mall.

Interior wall decorations for the departments of Metzler's was a BIG surprise.  This was left over from the 1970's and never updated after the store closed.  Photo taken May 27, 2017.

More pictures of Metzler's.  Look at this decor!  You never see anything this detailed in a department store anymore.  Photo taken May 27, 2017.

Not sure what this department was, but I'm guessing sportswear or something outdoors.  Photo taken May 27, 2017.

I'm guessing this was the intimates department.  Photo taken May 27, 2017.

It got more impressive on the south wall of the store.  I WANT this wallpaper in my future house!  Photo taken May 27, 2017.

I'm guessing this was the men's department.  Photo taken May 27, 2017.

What department would call for this marble?  Photo taken May 27, 2017.

What do you do when a mall loses its anchors and yet the property cannot be redeveloped?  You have two choices: abandon the property or get creative.  Fortunately, the mall was bought by Gator Laurel Partners of Miami, FL who were willing to get creative.  In 2008, they reopened the interior mall for a flea market leasing space to small vendors.  It also helped that the former Montgomery Ward never sat vacant for long.  It became a Shop 'N Save in 2001, which was later replaced in 2005 by Pechin Superfoods.  Pechin is a really unique store that is a hybrid of a grocery store and hardware store.  It kept traffic coming to the mall while the rest of the mall struggled.  It is not clear if the flea market did not initially survive, but in 2013 a grand reopening was held for the flea market, which is open Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Laurel Mall entrance.  Note the overhead signs that appeared to advertise Murphy's Mart in the mall.  If you look close you can make out the Murphy's "M".  It is not clear if they were re-used for Ames.  Photo taken May 27, 2017.

Front of Pechin's/Ward's.  Photo taken May 27, 2017.

Former Montgomery Ward sign replaced with an advertisement for the flea market.  Sign was later removed.  Photo from July 5, 2013.

Back of mall looking at the northeast mall entrance and the then-abandoned Murphy's/Ames.  Photo taken July 5, 2013.

Front of the closed Murphy's/Ames with mall space just to the right formerly used by Eckerd Drugs, originally Thrift Drugs.  Photo taken July 5, 2013.

Overview of mall from Murphy's to Wards taken July 5, 2013.  Empty parking lots made it a lot easier to photograph than the 2017 visit.

Since 2013, the mall has seen a gradual renaissance.  The expansion of the flea market has proven that it is successful.  Even the old Metzler's has again been reopened as part of the flea market revealing its spectacular wall fixtures left over from the 1970's for each department.  Its latest anchor to reopen is Rural King, a very popular hybrid big box store selling farm equipment, clothing, firearms and many other products that cater to a rural clientele.  Rural King took over the long-vacant Ames space in 2014.  A Dollar Tree is also opening in the former Eckerd/Thrift Drugs space.  Key Bank also maintains a location near the front entrance.  Inversely, the mall's theater, long in decline, closed at the end of 2014 and was gutted for asbestos removal, but the theater has little use in a mall in its current format.  How could a dead mall like this find new life?

Former Murphy's/Ames on June 5, 2013.  The Ames sign had been removed by then.

Fast forward to May 27, 2017 and Rural King has taken over the old Murphy's Mart with no modifications to the exterior awning other than paint.

The theaters in 2013 and 2017.  It was still open in 2013 while in 2014 it is abandoned with the parking lot noticeably worse.

Metzler's with the back of the Cinema IV to the left.  Photo taken May 27, 2017.

Metzler's exterior entrance up close.  Photo taken May 27, 2017.

Despite the fact that Laurel Mall is again a flurry of activity, it is questionable how much longer the mall corridors will be retained as part of the development.  While the indoor flea market has expanded, both anchors have shut off all access to the mall making it unappealing to any actual retail stores that might want to locate in the mall.  Rural King bricked up their mall entrance, and Pechin Superfoods keeps a wall of glass over the former Montgomery Ward mall entrance.  In addition, the departure of the theater eliminates the need to keep a back mall entrance and wing open to the public.  Flea Markets in old malls are almost always a temporary use as a way to bring income into an old mall, and portions of the building are not in the best repair.  The air is musty inside, and these small vendors likely pay very little to open up booths in the mall.  The success of attracting two large anchor tenants is also likely helping to improve cash flow meaning that the resources are there to begin gutting portions of the mall into larger tenants.  The mall itself also looks very old and sleazy: an industry negative that can only be made right with full scale redevelopment.  Since malls are out of fashion, there likely will be little resistance to any efforts to de-mall the property.

Close-up detail of Laurel Mall main entrance.  Photo taken July 5, 2013.

The back of what was the Ward's Auto Center.  Photo taken May 27, 2017.

A relic of Montgomery Ward remains on the backside of Pechin's (truck entrance).  Photo taken May 27, 2017.

A view of the mall shortly after opening in 1971 from Pleasant Family Shopping shows Murphy's Mart on the left and a nameless mall entrance on a snowy afternoon.

View of the front of Laurel Mall from US 119.  Rural King (Murphy's Mart) is on the left and the edge of Pechin Superfoods (Montgomery Ward) is on the right.  Photo taken May 27, 2017.

View of the front of Laurel Mall from US 119 with focus on Rural King.  Photo taken May 27, 2017.

View of the front of Laurel Mall from US 119 with focus on Pechin's Superfoods.  Photo taken May 27, 2017.

Laurel Mall has proven to be the trick candle of the fickle mall industry.  A mall that should have been long closed and demolished a decade ago has proven to have remarkable resilience while its lone competitor is beginning to figuratively collapse under its own weight.  It might be said that the current owners of this mall are ahead of their time in attracting non-traditional anchors and pushing antiques (which are very trendy these days) over false hopes for once stable mall tenants like JCPenney, Foot Locker and Bath & Body Works.  Uniontown Mall looks to be in trouble as it already lost Sears and is teetering on disaster with Bon-Ton in danger of going out of business.  Laurel Mall, however, is resting on its laurels with two unique concept stores and a small interior mall that has once again found a way to fill its now broken parking lot with eager shoppers.  It will be interesting to see in the years to come what happens when a mall with every reason to let go refuses to die.

Due to the lack of a directory or lease plan, this overlay was created showing the mall and its anchor history.  Another junior anchor appeared to be located next to Wards in the mall, but it is unknown what that store was.

Location of Laurel Mall on Google Maps