Staunton Mall opened originally as Staunton Plaza, an open-air mall anchored on one end by Montgomery Ward, the other by JCPenney, and Woolworth's (now Peebles) on the back side in the center. The 68,000 square ft. Montgomery Ward was the first to open in September 1968 with the rest of the mall opening the following April. Wards previous location was at 110 Beverly St. in downtown where city hall currently stands. Safeway also opened a store on the front of the mall facing the parking lot and People's Drug took over another junior anchor spot between the main entrance and JCPenney with two entrances into the mall. JCPenney's arrival was timely and ironic since in January of the same year a tremendous fire had completely destroyed the downtown store located at 113 W. Beverly St that likely was about to close anyway. It was in all a lower-end mall with a very basic design, and these blue collar anchor stores meant that the mall would struggle to position itself over the long term.
The first photo shows center court of Staunton Mall, which once featured a fountain in front of what is now Peebles on the right. The second photo shows the current Peebles from the front entrance corridor. Photo from July 23, 2013.
Architectural drawing from the Staunton News-Leader shows the original design for the enclosed mall with the Woolworth sign in the background and a raised fountain with a statue of "Thinking Man". The fountain was unfortunately removed within a decade.
1969 view of the mall looking toward Woolworth when it was still open-air from the Staunton News-Leader. Peoples Drugs is on the right. It had two mall entrances, the other near JCPenney.
Another view of center count looking south toward JCPenney.
JCPenney mall entrance. When it was open-air, shoppers were greeted with the famous "Funky P".
This appears to have originally been the location of Jo-Ann Fabrics judging by the outside entrance.
Skylight detail over center court in front of Peebles.
Detail of the original front entrance corridor looking away from Peebles. Enclosing it seemed to narrow it a lot.
A look at the mall from Peebles to JCPenney, and it looks to be doing a bit better. Maurice's is on the left and Bath & Body Works is on the right.
Potted plants outside of JCPenney clearly replacing what was originally trees down in those grates.
However, past Peebles heading to where Wards was, the mall begins to look a lot more dire.
Wards original mall entrance is on the right with the mall wrapping around to the left. Just like I'm turning this corner, I wish this mall could turn a corner back to viable. People must have really hated Staunton Mall for it to be this dead.
Another view of the original Wards mall entrance with a greenhouse front vacant store next to it. It is unclear what it was, but originally it was the location of the ABC (state-run liquor) store.
The mall's (mostly vacant) food court and theaters. The theaters should under new ownership be reopened by 2018.
In 1986, Staunton Mall not only was fully enclosed, but it was also given a huge addition. It is of note that the design of the mall looks in some ways much older than 1986, and this was likely due to the fact that construction was a complicated process that took place slowly meaning that many of the architectural details may have been designed earlier with some slight modifications done to give it a more updated appearance later on. Since Montgomery Ward was somewhat offset on the north side, the new wing was built so that it wrapped around the store to extend to a new Leggett store that opened in February 1987. However, this same modification destroyed Montgomery Ward's direct access to the front parking lot that it enjoyed for nearly two decades. In addition, the auto center had to relocate north of the mall. Dollar Tree has operated since 2002 in that location. However, this also resulted in Wards ultimately gaining two mall entrances while the mall gained significantly more space than its former configuration. A new off-ramp and a larger enclosed mall added about 20 years of life to the mall, but changes in the industry have been a challenge with smaller markets being hit the hardest.
This 2013 view shows a bit more greenery than the 2015 view below in the new part of the mall.
On the left is the second Wards mall entrance from the new part. This used to be the original front outside entrance prior to 1986. The court area in front of Wards is significantly larger than in the old part. An outside entrance is to the right out of view.
Before the mall was enclosed and expanded, this is what the same area looked like. Picture from Staunton News-Leader from 1968.
1986 construction showing the entrance above transformed into the court below. Photo from Staunton News-Leader.
A couple shots taken two years apart leaving Belk. Photos from July 27, 2013 and June 20, 2015.
One more view of the Wards court.
A view of the same court looking toward Belk (former Leggett) in 2015 and 2013. The former Wards entrance is to the right. Vegetation helped.
Belk mall entrance, originally Leggett. It was the last original anchor to open at the mall, opening in 1987. Can anyone identify the store to the left?
The mall directory from 2015. MAJK was the Wards, and both mall entrances are clearly visible. Staunton Health & Ftiness is where Safeway, Sears Surplus, and Goody's previously were. Peebles is the old Woolworth and later Stone & Thomas. Despite how it looks, Wards was NOT downsized for the mall's expansion.
Directory of the mall when it opened. Image from the Staunton News-Leader from 1969.
Colonial was one of several owners, and they took ownership of the mall in 1998. This directory dates to 1998 after Stone & Thomas was sold off to Peebles. Their ownership marked the beginning of the mall's decline, but the closure of Wards in 2001 with no viable replacement did not help.
Wards court looking to the outside entrance. Not a lot is going on in this part of the mall.
The black terraced facade in front of Belk, originally Leggett, is the epitome of post-modern. I am guessing this choice of design was literally a subtle hint that the store is a "shopping Mecca"
Photo of the store as Leggett taken from "Belk, A Century of Retail Leadership" by Howard E. Covington, Jr.
A Belk sign is being installed in place of the Leggett sign on the store front. 1997 photo from Staunton News-Leader.
Leggett as it looked when it was still downtown. 1985 photo from Staunton News-Leader.
View of the main entrance taken in 2015 and 2013. You'd think some reference to it actually being a mall would be around the Peebles sign. JCPenney is on the right in both pics.
This appears to be the former location of what was originally Safeway, then Sears Surplus, Goody's, Gold's Gym, and Staunton Health & Fitness. This pic from 2013 appears to have been taken between the time that Gold's Gym left and Staunton Health & Fitness arrived.
How it all looked when Safeway was still there. Photo from Staunton News-Leader from 1969.
JCPenney with an unlikely capture of a rainbow behind the store. The rainbow visible in this photo was ironic since this was precisely the day that the U.S. supreme court passed gay marriage into law. Photo from June 20, 2015.
This store also once sported the beloved "Funky P". 1969 images from Staunton News-Leader.
Despite the high part in the front, the majority of the store is a simple one-level store. The small upper level is most likely used for storage or offices if it even actually exists. This view is from the back side of the store.
The Woolworth store on the outside was obviously never anything fancy, and no succession of owners through Stone & Thomas or Peebles led to a cent spent in upgrading the exterior. Apparently this store has never had very high margins thus was never worth the cost of making fancier. Plus, most people never see the outside of the store since it is on the back of the mall.
At first glance, you'd wonder why Wards could look so plain as an anchor, but the fact is that when the mall covered up its front entrance, it too would not see any exterior modifications. With two mall entrances geared to the front of the mall in a chain that was already on the downswing by the time the mall was enclosed, why bother?
The primary issue with Staunton Mall appears to be more that chain stores do not see any value in locating in a 70% vacant mall that has not seen any substantial renovated in over 30 years: a situation that will be extremely difficult to fix. One thing that definitely hurt the mall was the construction of Waynesboro Town Center closer to I-64. While just a regular strip, it is more centrally located and has stores that should have opened in the mall such as Target, Kohl's, Ross and Hibbett Sports. Undoubtedly, if the mall was turned into a strip, it would probably be far more successful. Perhaps Publix or Wegman's should be brought in to anchor the new strip to create a bigger regional draw.
The shell that Wards is today was once a cause for real excitement. It was replacing a downtown store with a modern, larger store with plenty of free parking!
The kind of thing that would have caused more of a stir today. A Montgomery Wards auto center was under construction, something went wrong, and they tore it completely down! The auto center was ultimately rebuilt, the building was later demolished again: most likely in 1986 when the mall was expanded. Photos from Staunton News-Leader, 1968.
A couple shots inside Wards. While not quite as fabulous as Dixie Square, it was certainly a cause for celebration. The inside of the store still has the same lights, but the flooring was covered with wood for Steve & Barry's University Sportswear. 1968 photos from Staunton News-Leader.
Grand opening flyer for the mall. Note that interstate access from I-81 is not shown here with travelers told to take Rt. 644/Frontier Drive from the interstate. Today, getting to the mall is less complicated to reach via VA 262. 1969 image from Staunton News-Leader.
A list of the mall's original tenants. Of special note is Bell Clothes that appears to be the same store still operating today in the downtown mall in Winchester. 1969 image from Staunton News-Leader.
Architectural drawing vs. aerial image of Staunton Plaza. Note the Penney's and Wards auto centers. Red Lobster currently occupies the old JCPenney auto center and the Wards auto center was demolished in 1986 with the expansion of the mall. 1969 image from Staunton News-Leader.
Grand opening at Staunton Plaza coupled with the iconic Peoples Drugs sign in the background. 1969 image from Staunton News-Leader.
In all, it is just another case of a mall that has reached the end of its lifespan and needs to be rethought. Like an old interstate bridge that took a beating from years of traffic, the mall is no longer serving the needs of the surrounding region and just needs to be rebuilt. The need is obviously still there for a regional shopping center, and anything they do to seriously update it will likely be successful. With enough creativity they might even save the mall just by shrinking the footprint back to the original mall, taking the roof back off, and rethinking the 1986 addition between the old Wards and Belk. Perhaps with better visibility, a junior anchor would be more interested in the old Wards space. Where the 1986 addition currently is, a new strip/lifestyle portion could be constructed with a myriad of options, including the forementioned Publix or Wegman's. If it were my mall, I'd basically turn the old part of the mall into a beautiful open-air courtyard with plant, fountains, and covered walkways with a distinctively Colonial aesthetic somewhat like The Shoppes at Main & Maple in Purcellville. Belk would also be remodeled with a Colonial motif as compared to the current rather ugly store. Peebles could also move within the center or trade spaces such as taking over the current T.J. Maxx across the way with T.J. Maxx moving into the mall. The new mall would be best if it could also be shaped like a cross by cutting through the existing Peebles to provide easy access to the courtyard without having to cut an actual street through it. Shopping centers such as Bridge Street Town Center in Huntsville and the numerous open-air outlet malls show that an actual open-air mall is definitely not a dead concept.
Peoples Drug was once as common as Wal-Mart in Virginia, so these ads are likely to be quite nostalgic for those who long for the days when regional drug stores were the norm. Ads are from the Staunton News-Leader from 1969 and 1988.
Reconstruction of the mall underway. 1986 photo from Staunton News-Leader.
If those doesn't make you want to enter those doors, you're probably not a retail geek. 1987 photo from Staunton-News Leader.
These directories from 1988 definitely indicate that the mall has always had trouble attracting national stores although it was clearly at its peak at this point. However, many local shops were replaced by chains such as Matthews Hallmark replacing Duet Cards & Gifts. This is probably the root of why the mall is struggling today. Original tenants that were still in the mall by then include Boyd's Hairdressers and Peoples Drug. Piece Goods replaced Jo-Ann Fabrics and Country Cookin' (still semi-common in Virginia) replaced Kenney's Family Restaurant. (Staunton News-Leader)
1996 ad for the mall from Staunton-News Leader. With Leggett's, JCPenney, Montgomery Ward, and Stone & Thomas, it probably DID feel like it just keeps getting better.
Last but not least was this ad for Stone & Thomas, a Wheeling, WV based department store that opened their very last location at the mall in 1997. It was one of six locations sold to Peebles instead of Elder-Beerman in the following year.
Overall Staunton Mall is at a crossroads...will it sputter into full dead mall territory or find a way to revive? Unlike other troubled malls, it should not be in the shape it currently is in. The market is there, and the reopening of the closed theater proves that it can survive. For that reason, there is still time to save it. However, for that to work the mall portion does not need to be as big as it currently is. Perhaps if nothing else, a real investment might take place that could update the mall just enough to attract tenants as-is. Maybe even an outlet mall might not be out of the question. There are still many stores that do not have locations in the market, and they might consider locating there if the property was made more attractive. If they do so, the best efforts should involve attracting junior anchors typically found in power centers such as Best Buy, T.J. Maxx, Home Goods, Bed Bath & Beyond, Dicks Sporting Goods, Field & Stream, etc. Creatively configuring them into the mall space would help create a badly needed hybrid of mall and power center. While there are many malls these days that have no hope of being revived, perhaps Staunton Mall can get the third chance that it deserves.