New England shopping malls not too long ago were monster-sized, congested and commonplace. But in the early days, they were not a sure bet to succeed.
When America emerged from World War II, it wasn’t readily apparent how radically the country was about to change. It was clear that prewar America wasn’t going to return, but what would the new future look like?
Now we know. Following the war’s upheaval, everything from religion and politics to gender roles and labor expectations to business and leisure trends went through the tumbler and came out forever changed.
One of the most dramatic changes was the way Americans shopped. Today’s consumer culture was born from the postwar transition to an era of low unemployment and rising wages. Those who had the foresight to predict what was coming enjoyed tremendous success over the following decades.
Four New England shopping malls served as guideposts to the transitions shoppers would soon encounter.
1947: Ridgeway Center, Stamford, Conn.
Alfons Bach understood what was about to happen to American consumerism. Bach emigrated from Germany well before the war and wound up in Connecticut in 1947. Perhaps because of his German roots he had no nostalgic fondness for the old ways of New England. That allowed him to shape the future around the tastes of the generation coming of age in the ‘40s and ‘50s.
Bach had become a giant in the industrial design field. His work was sought after by companies making all sorts of products. Rugs, pianos, toasters, desk accessories, tube-steel furniture and countless other items all bore his brand.
But he had bigger ideas. He saw how rapidly the automobile was changing the culture. And shopping, he believed, was bound to change. With cars that needed parking, it made less and less sense to travel to congested cities to shop. Suburban consumers, he believed, would respond to convenient new shopping malls with clean uncluttered design. Parking and access were essential. The trappings of a city were not.
Bach took this vision to Lerner Shops, a chain of women’s clothing stores. He suggested they should join with him in building a modern shopping center that would satisfy the emerging tastes. The Lerners, however, did not see the wisdom in what he said. So Bach struck out in his own in 1947 and began work on the Ridgeway Center in Stamford, Conn., on 15 acres of land he acquired.
Prototype for Shopping Malls
Originally opened in 1947 with 110,000 square feet of space, the motor age merchandising mecca’s tenants included W. & J. Sloane, Pennsylvania Drug, Deena’s, The Lurie Company, Chizzini, a Slenderella figure salon and a liquor store.
It grew rapidly. In 1951, Bach added a three-level Sears, an office tower, and a cinema — essentially a prototype of today’s New England shopping malls. By 1958 he added a Saks 34th Street boutique-type store.
Though Bach sold the property and moved on to other ventures, the mall remains in operation today.
1951: Shoppers’ World, Framingham, Mass.
In the late 1940s, the outward migration of city dwellers from Boston was pronounced. New roads and reliable cars created a steady push westward, southward and northward from the center city. Framingham, on Route 9, was in a perfect position to take advantage of the free-traveling Bay Staters.
Enter Huston Rawls, with his plans for a shopping destination unlike all other shopping malls.
With 44 stores and parking for an astounding 6,000 cars, Shoppers’ World was the destination for virtually any product a consumer could think of. Rawls promised Framingham town fathers, apparently with a straight face, that the new mall’s tenants would not compete with other, existing stores.
Rawls was a marketer, not a designer, and that proved a problem in the end. But he knew what people liked. He lured Jordan Marsh to his property, the first time the venerable department store left Boston. Rawls put the store under a giant clear-span dome, said to be the third largest in the world. In 1951, Boston’s downtown looked old and dangerous, but in Framingham Rawls’ design team spread on the modern Populuxe style in abundance. The shopping center had a space-age look.
Rawls also plucked at New Englander sensibilities by building the whole thing around an enormous town green.
Unique Among Shopping Malls
His marketing chops were obvious, as he featured the likes of the Lone Ranger, Rin Tin Tin and Rex Trailer to draw crowds. On the day of the grand opening, to be sure shoppers didn’t have to choose between attending and staying home to watch the World Series the same day, Rawls hired “ask me” girls to patrol the shopping center with radios. Anyone who wanted to know the score could just ask them.
The New England weather, however, did not cooperate with his plans. Rain and snow plagued Shoppers’ World throughout its life. Poor construction that didn’t stand up was another problem. Rawls was not able to bring a second major tenant to the facility.
Still, his vision lasted for 43 years. Shoppers’ World was torn down in 1994.
1967: Midland Mall, Warwick, R.I.
There was little left to chance when a subsidiary of Sears opened the Midland Mall in Warwick, R.I. By 1967, shopping malls were not a new idea. The Midland was an up-to-date mall that benefited from the collective lessons learned from earlier shopping malls. It hummed from the start.
But its builders knew that innovation was key to success. Shoppers wanted the latest and greatest. To add a new wrinkle to the experience, Midland was built on two floors with an open courtyard – the first such mall in New England. Unlike Shoppers’ World, which was also on two floors, it was fully enclosed. The retailers had learned the importance of keeping that New England weather at bay.
Adding to the contemporary two-story look, the developers also eschewed escalators in favor of “speedramps.” Like a moving walkway on a slant, the speedramp was designed to accomplish two things. It looked sleeker and more modern than escalators. It also tried to ease the fears of people who were intimidated by escalators while drawing in curious customers to see these innovative people movers.
The developers also locked in two key anchor stores: Cherry & Webb and downtown Providence’s Shepherd Company took the key spaces in the mall, and its 450,000 square feet of space filled rapidly. The mall survived through 2011.
1969: Nashua Mall, Nashua, N.H.
With competition growing in southern New England, the mall movement set its sights on northern New England in the ‘70s. New competitive angles were needed.
New Hampshire’s status as a no-sales-tax state naturally appealed to builders of shopping malls looking for a new hook to lure consumers. Less than five miles over the New Hampshire border, the developers built the first mall in Nashua: the Nashua Mall, convenient for shoppers who wanted to slip across the border for some tax-free shopping.
Today, of course, five miles would seem ridiculous. The newer Pheasant Lane Mall is so close to the border that parts of its parking lot are actually in Massachusetts. But in 1969, the concept hadn’t been brought to its logical conclusion yet.
With 220,000 square feet of space, the mall was one of the many Woolco malls that featured a Woolco Discount Mart at one end and an Almy’s at the other.
Woolco was a shooting star in American retailing. Owned by Woolworths, the stores were to be a big brother to the smaller five-and-dime sized Woolworths, but offering discounted pricing on a large scale. They launched in 1962 with Red Grille restaurant tucked inside most, an update to the Woolworth lunch counter. in 1962. They were crushed by the 1970s economy, which snuffed out all the company’s U.S. stores in 1982.
In 1969, however, the marketers knew how to bring in the customers in New Hampshire. No celebrities or ultra-modern styling. Instead, the shopping mall featured indoor tropical palm trees and the promise of 72-degree temperatures all year round. It finally gave way to more modern retail concepts, such as outlet shopping malls. The Nashua Mall closed in 2003.
For more information about early shopping malls, visit here.
This story about shopping malls was updated in 2022.