Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Plymouth Meeting Mall: Plymouth Meeting, PA

One of the earliest and most overlooked enclosed malls in the Philadelphia market is Plymouth Meeting Mall, a spacious two-level mall opened by the Rouse Company in 1966 that, like many other malls in the region, is overshadowed by the mighty King of Prussia.  Originally anchored by Strawbridge & Clothier and Lit Brothers, the mall was designed by famed mall architect Victor Gruen, and it is shown in a circulated postcard with its signature fountain in front of Strawbridge's that remains to this day.  It was also once a dominant player in the market before multiple expansions of King of Prussia Mall began hurting business.  Because of that, this classy mall has unfortunately been affected by the highly competitive and overbuilt retail environment across the Keystone state that has taken no prisoners.

Plymouth Meeting Mall was one of several Rouse-built malls in the Philadelphia market including Exton Square Mall located 23 miles to the west, The Gallery at Market East in Center City and three malls on the New Jersey side.  Rouse, formerly headquartered in Columbia, MD, was very active in the Mid-Atlantic region and was famous for building some of the largest and first enclosed malls.  The mall has been a laboratory for innovation for a traditional enclosed mall, but today its biggest challenge will be reinventing itself since the market dealt it a crushing blow with the loss of its oldest and most prominent anchor tenant.  Despite being a two level mall that has lasted over 50 years, it was never a true regional mall.  It never had anchors like Sears or JCPenney and it never expanded beyond two anchors.  In most other cities, this mall would have failed by the 1990's due to these factors alone.

Plymouth Meeting Mall's signature fountain dates to the opening of the mall and appears to have been installed by Strawbridge's.  Strawbridge's tended to finance grand fountains as a means of showcasing their stores. Views are from the bottom and top floors with Strawbridge's behind me on the photo.

Plymouth Meeting Mall's signature fountain in the early days of the mall.  Postcard from "Malls of America".  Much has changed, but amazingly the fountain survived!

Another view of the fountain and mall.

View of fountain facing Strawbridge's.  If you look carefully you can see the labelscar.

The "STR" of Strawbridge & Clothier is quite visible in this image from the second level mall entrance.

As a dumbell-shaped mall, the design of the mall is pretty consistent throughout with a few minor discrepancies and alternating skylight styles.  However, with such a wide court and abundant natural light, the mall feels quite spaceous.  The carousel was most likely added in a 1990's renovation.  Carousels were a short-lived fad in malls that were likely put there to fill the void left behind by fountains.  Nowadays, even the carousels are being removed from most malls that had them.

In many ways, the early mall embraced elements of utopianism embraced by both its developer James Rouse and Victor Gruen.  A few years after this mall was constructed, Rouse would construct an entire city in Maryland with an enclosed mall as its downtown.  In some ways, this mall attempted to include some elements of Victor Gruen's original vision of having malls as the center of fully functioning urban villages.  Plymouth Meeting itself was developed as a rough example of the optimistic and often-cited "live, work, play" type of environment with not just a mall, but also an office tower (Pearson Professional Center), medical center, and even a church among its tenants!  Obviously the "live" part did not evolve, but at the time it was built single family houses were far more affordable, and malls as primarily retail centers represented by nearby suburban development at the time.  This vision continued for years after as the mall was innovative in cutting edge retail trends.  Perhaps the "live" part may soon be on the table as the "play" part seems to be winding down.

A side corridor leading to an outside entrance.  Domed skylights were popular in the 60's and 70's, and Rouse Malls tended to have them along entrance wings.

This directory shows that what appears to be a straightforward mall has a catch: a whole office wing featuring a tower and even a church!

One of the mall entrances between the office building and Boscov's

Detail of an entrance atrium from the inside next to the "Church in the Mall"

A look inside the lobby of the office building, which holds on to many more Rouse elements than the mall itself.

This has to be the only case in the entire U.S. where a church was actually built into a mall from the beginning.  Many churches meet in malls, but not as a planned part of the infrastructure.

Despite only having two department store anchors, the mall has no original anchors today.  Lit Brothers went under in 1976 to be replaced by Hess's in 1979.  The Hess's location was apparently the largest branch store in the chain, but it was also the only location in the Philadelphia market.  Hess's was doing marginally throughout the 1980's, suffering from extreme over expansion due to owners Crown American bringing it into many unfamiliar markets.  After many years of decline and selling off chunks in numerous markets, the chain's problems caught up to it and the location was closed in 1993.  After three more years of vacancy, Boscov's arrived and filled the void, and it still operates there to this day.  Strawbridge's, however, operated continuously at the mall until 2006 when it was converted to Macy's.  After poor sales likely due to its proximity to the nearby more popular King of Prussia store, Macy's closed at the mall in 2017 leaving the mall with a major vacancy that will be difficult to fill.

The variety of mall entrances in the mall is intriguing.  Here, the church is on the left and the 9 story office building is on the right.

Detail of the office building.  Plans show that this mid-century facade will be removed and replaced with an updated faced featuring way more glass.

Boscov's mall entrance.  Boscov's opened as Lit Brothers and was later Hess's before becoming Boscov's.

The Boscov's juniors to the left of the entrance would suggest that this used to be a Bamberger's, but that was never the case.  However, Hess's was also aggressive at expanding store space.

A couple shots of the Boscov's on the outside.  The store is original to Lit Brother's except for the white paint and restructuring of the main entrance.

One interesting footnote in the mall's history is that Swedish Furniture chain IKEA opened their first U.S. store on an outlot of the mall.  The chain is ubiquitous as a destination for its cheap furnishings, but it has very few locations across the U.S. making it a destination store.  Ultimately, IKEA would relocate one exit down I-476 with the former tenant demolished and replaced with the present lifestyle center portion.  This new retail center brought in many typical tenants of lifestyle centers (Chico's, etc.) with its centerpiece a Whole Foods Market.  Legoland Discovery Center, another non-traditional tenant, also began construction in 2016 and should be opening this year.

This post would not be complete without interior photos of the old Strawbridge's/Macy's.  It appears the last interior model was done around 1979-1980, and it shows.  However, the design is so warm and inviting compared to the typical sterile look seen in most modern Macy's.  Unfortunately, this lack of updating was for a reason.  The store closed in 2017.

Parquet flooring...a design feature popular in the 70's

Funky goodness here with the wood and floor patterns.

Seeing an actual contrast between the merchandise and the store makes you want to actually buy something here, doesn't it?  Unfortunately, customers chose King of Prussia instead.

Impressive court with fancy skylights, chandeliers, and a mix of stairs and escalators...very similar to their Neshaminy store, but still just as awesome.  RIP, great old store.

So here we have another mall at a crossroads.  As was said on an earlier post, malls in Philadelphia are extremely overbuilt.  Due to the aggressive growth of Strawbridge's and Wanamaker's in the 70's and 80's, Macy's ended up inheriting a ton of locations in the market: many that are no more than 10-15 miles apart.  The process of right-sizing this resulted in Macy's being closed at the mall.  Furthermore, Plymouth Meeting is in an unfortunate position of living in the shadow of the largest mall in the USA.  King of Prussia Mall is not your average competitor.  A mall with under a million square feet and one operational department store is not going to be able to effectively compete with one of over 3 million square feet!  Not only that, but Macy's clearly had no interest in its store at Plymouth Meeting Mall.  It appears the last time any renovations were done was in the late 70's or early 80's.  So what does the mall do now?

Strawbridge's personified the mid-century look on their suburban stores.  A mix of brutalism and "confidence" embodied by a very prosperous time.  In the first pic, you see the mall's office tower on the right.

Macy's takeover of Strawbridge's did not strip the store of all its elements.  The Strawbridge's "Seal of Confidence" (appropriate for a mid-century store) can still be found on nearly all of their former store locations.  If this isn't Philly-pride, I don't know what is.

The sun sets on this former Strawbridge's both literally and figuratively.  Unlike when this mall was built, people are not feeling as much confidence.

In all honesty, Plymouth Meeting Mall has unfortunately become redundant.  Even before Macy's closed, the mall saw a drop in sales per square feet and an uptick in vacancies.  These have undoubtedly accelerated with Macy's closure.  With no options for replacement stores, there is little the mall can do to stop this.  Furthermore, Boscov's may be looking at relocating themselves from their current store although it is unclear if they would just close or where they might move.  Thus, its future as a traditional enclosed retail mall is unlikely.  Pretty much what you can expect for the future of Plymouth Meeting is mixed use.  It is a beautiful, spacious and inviting mall that would be perfect for a college campus, medical center, corporate headquarters, entertainment complex, housing (condos/apartments) or some other non-retail use where lots of space is needed.  It is also in a very upscale part of the Philadelphia metro area meaning that it is in-demand real estate.  This means some sort of redevelopment is likely.  At the very least, substantial renovations for reuse are likely on the now-closed Macy's.  Parts of the mall may be demolished, parts of the mall may be carved up for offices and parts of it used for entertainment.  Offices may be less likely, however, since an office tower already flanks the mall and is definitely there to stay.  However it is carved up, there is still "confidence" that this mall will continue to evolve: hopefully into something that both Victor Gruen and James Rouse originally intended.


  1. Note about Hess's- although it was their largest chain location, it was smaller than most of their competing department stores. The Lit Brothers building was far too large for Hess's business model. Hess's tended to build smaller, one story buildings from scratch, so moving into a large, existing 2-story building meant distributing traditionally smaller square footage across two floors. About a third of the building was cut off (length-wise, strangely enough) and the excised space created 8 new store fronts in the mall by pushing the Hess's entrance close to the building's centrally located escalators. It was a wild, Disco-era store like no other. The mannequins with glass eyes and permanent hair were creepy as hell. When Boscov's decided to reveal their true name to locals by moving from their unwieldy Ports of the World store location in an abandoned Sears store a few miles away and into the mall under their corporate name, the Hess's was too small for a full service Boscov's location. Boscov's managed to undo the previous changes in footprint and restore this location to Lit Brother's original size.

  2. Strawbridge and Clothier made a huge push in 1984 to update their 1960's locations in quick succession and Plymouth Meeting was part of the project. The spartan, mid-century decor was softened with new carpeting and a lot of wood elements and the newly ubiquitous mauve retail furniture and fixtures. The first floor was slightly downsized (you can see the walled off section in those arches by bedding/tabletop photo listed). The top floor also got a major reconfiguration around that time as the large, aqua Tiki Room- inspired restaurant was converted to retail floor space and the optical and hair dresser space was walled off from use. Hecht's swapped out some furniture and put their trademark carpeting in during the 1990's but that was about it for keeping this location "fresh". Macy's finished walling off the water fountains that were retired by Hecht's as well as the public seating space beneath the escalators when they took over the building. That was a real loss to the building. Those fountains created "white noise" that created a very serene experience.