Color Footage of America’s First Shopping Mall Opening in 1956: The Birth of a Beloved and Reviled Institution

What do we do with all the dead malls? Any­one with an eye on the years-long spate of unam­bigu­ous head­lines — “The Death of the Amer­i­can Mall,” “The Eco­nom­ics (and Nos­tal­gia) of Dead Malls,” “Amer­i­ca’s Shop­ping Malls Are Dying A Slow, Ugly Death” — knows that the ques­tion has begun to vex Amer­i­can cities, and more so Amer­i­can sub­urbs. But just twen­ty years ago (which I remem­ber as the time of my own if not mall-cen­tric then often mall-ori­ent­ed ado­les­cence), nobody could have fore­seen the end of the large, enclosed shop­ping mall as an Amer­i­can insti­tu­tion — nobody except Dou­glas Cou­p­land.

“On August 11 1992 I was in Bloom­ing­ton, Min­neso­ta, close to Min­neapo­lis,” remem­bers the Gen­er­a­tion X author in a recent Finan­cial Times col­umn. “I was on a book tour and it was the grand open­ing day of Mall of Amer­i­ca, the biggest mall in the US.” He took the stage to give a live radio inter­view and the host said, “I guess you must think this whole mall is kind of hokey and trashy.” No such thing, replied Cou­p­land: “I feel like I’m in anoth­er era that we thought had van­ished, but it real­ly hasn’t, not yet. I think we might one day look back on pho­tos of today and think to our­selves, ‘You know, those peo­ple were liv­ing in gold­en times and they didn’t even know it.’”

Gold­en times or not, they now look unques­tion­ably like the high water­mark of the era when “malls used to be cool.” Cou­p­land describes the shop­ping mall as “the inter­net shop­ping of 1968,” but they go back a bit far­ther: 1956, to be pre­cise, the year the South­dale Cen­ter, the very first enclosed, depart­ment store-anchored mall of the form that would spread across Amer­i­ca and else­where over the next forty years, opened in Edi­na, Min­neso­ta. You can see vin­tage col­or footage of the South­dale Cen­ter in all its mid­cen­tu­ry glo­ry — its auto show­room, its play­ground, its full-ser­vice Red Owl gro­cery, its umbrel­la-tabled cafés under a vast atri­um, and out­side, of course, its even vaster park­ing lot — at the top of the post.

“You have no idea what an inno­va­tion this was in the 1950s,” says writer and mid­cen­tu­ry Min­neso­ta enthu­si­ast James Lileks. “There wasn’t any place where you could sit ‘out­side’ in your shirt-sleeves in Jan­u­ary.” I used that quote when I wrote a piece for the Guardian on the South­dale Cen­ter, an insti­tu­tion eas­i­ly impor­tant enough for their His­to­ry of Cities in 50 Build­ings (as well as PBS’ tele­vi­sion series Ten Build­ings that Changed Amer­i­ca), whether you love them or hate them. The Aus­tri­an archi­tect Vic­tor Gru­en, who came to Amer­i­ca in flight from the Nazis, hat­ed them, but he also cre­at­ed them; or rather, he envi­sioned the oases of rich Vien­nese urban­i­ty for his new coun­try that would, cor­rupt­ed by Amer­i­can real­i­ty, quick­ly become short­hand for “con­sumerist” sub­ur­ban life at its bland­est.

Mal­colm Glad­well tells that sto­ry in full in his New York­er pro­file of Gru­en and the cre­ation he dis­owned: “He revis­it­ed one of his old shop­ping cen­ters, and saw all the sprawl­ing devel­op­ment around it, and pro­nounced him­self in ‘severe emo­tion­al shock.’ Malls, he said, had been dis­fig­ured by ‘the ugli­ness and dis­com­fort of the land-wast­ing seas of park­ing’ around them.” Giv­en Gru­en’s final pro­nounce­ment on the mat­ter — “I refuse to pay alimo­ny for those bas­tard devel­op­ments” — one imag­ines he would applaud the shop­ping mal­l’s present day devo­lu­tion.

“Where is the gra­cious Muzak’ed trance of yore?” asks Cou­p­land as he sur­veys Amer­i­ca’s blight­ed mallscape today. “Where is the civil­i­ty? The calm cov­ered with ply­wood sheet­ing and graf­fi­ti, and filled with dead trop­i­cal plants and shop­ping carts miss­ing wheels, they’ve basi­cal­ly entered the realm of back­drops for sci­ence fic­tion nov­els and movies and I’m OK with that. Change hap­pens.” Change, in the form of thor­ough remod­el­ing and mod­ern­iza­tion, has also hap­pened to the South­dale Cen­ter, but the mall that start­ed it all remains in busi­ness today, all rumors of its own immi­nent demise seem­ing­ly exag­ger­at­ed.

via Kot­tke

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Atten­tion K‑Mart Shop­pers: Hear 90 Hours of Back­ground Music & Ads from the Retail Giant’s 1980s and 90s Hey­day

Ten Build­ings that Changed Amer­i­ca: Watch the Debut Episode from the New PBS Series

Watch Stew­art Brand’s 6‑Part Series How Build­ings Learn, With Music by Bri­an Eno

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Meredith L. Clausen says:

    This was not Amer­i­ca’s first. See my arti­cle, “North­gate Shop­ping Cen­ter: Par­a­digm from the Provinces,” JSAH (Jour­nal of the Soci­ety of Archi­tec­tur­al His­to­ri­ans), XLIII, May 1984, 144–161, if you’re inter­est­ed. (Gru­en picked up the idea from Gra­ham, as he read­i­ly admit­ted.)

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