In 1947, New England’s first shopping mall broke ground in Stamford, Conn. No one knew for sure whether it would even survive. Few had any idea of the love that New Englanders would shower on the easy parking, bustling crowds and seductive merchandise of their shopping meccas.
Following the upheaval of World War II, everything from religion and politics to gender roles and work went through the tumbler and came out forever changed. Low unemployment, rising wages and the flight to the suburbs combined to create the world’s greatest consumer culture.
Rhode Island, by the way, can claim the oldest, but not the first, shopping mall in the United States – the Westminster Arcade, built in 1828. But what we’re focusing on here is the post-World War II suburban shopping mall, the kind that requires an automobile to get to.
Millions and millions of cars made it to New England’s shopping malls. You met your friends there and did your Christmas shopping there. You got your retail therapy at the mall. Generations would grow up unable to resist the lure of popcorn-scented corridors, stylishly clad mannequins and the sound of Muzak.
Alas, the glory days of the shopping mall have ended. Just as few people predicted their popularity, few could envision the disappearance of anchor stores like Alexander's, Montgomery Ward, Woolworth's and The Bon-Ton. Who knew Macy’s would gobble up Jordan Marsh and Filene’s?
Today, hundreds of dead malls litter the American landscape, replaced by Amazon warehouses and harried package deliverers. Perhaps someday they’ll return. In the meantime, here is a look at the first shopping mall in each New England state. Some have even managed to survive.
Alfons Bach understood the future of American consumerism. Bach emigrated from Germany well before World War II and wound up in Connecticut. Perhaps because of his German roots he had no nostalgia 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. Shoppers needed parking, he thought, but not the trappings of the city.
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 his hometown of Stamford, Conn., on 15 acres of land he acquired.
Originally opened in 1947 with 110,000 square feet of space, the ‘motor age merchandising mecca’ had such tenants as 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. The mall went through several renovations and remains in operation today.
Pine Tree Shopping Center
As you would expect, Maine got its first shopping mall in its biggest city, Portland. The Pine Tree Shopping Center opened in 1959 featuring a Zayre, one of the first 14 stores opened by the Massachusetts retail chain.
The Pine Tree Shopping Center started out with 12 stores, including W.T. Grant, Wooldworth’s, Child World, Rexall and Columbia Market grocery store. All are now gone.
Maine’s first shopping mall attracted families, who brought their kids after work because the stores opened late.
The Pine Tree Shopping Center grew to 20 stores. Then, like so many shopping malls, it lost its anchor tenants and started to look tired. A developer came in, revitalized some of the stores and demolished others to make way for big box outlets.
In the late 1940s, Bostonians left for the suburbs in droves. 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 had 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 knew what people liked. He lured Jordan Marsh to leave Boston for the first time. He put the store under a giant clear-span dome. His design team created the rest of the mall in the modern Populuxe style, making Boston’s downtown seem old and dangerous in contrast.
Rawls also plucked at New Englander sensibilities by building the whole thing around an enormous town green.
And his marketing chops were obvious, as he featured the Lone Ranger, Rin Tin Tin and Rex Trailer to draw crowds. When the grand opening conflicted with the 1951 World Series, 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, and another mall of the same name has taken its place.
New Hampshire's status as a no-sales-tax state naturally appealed to developers looking for a way to lure consumers. Less than five miles over the New Hampshire border, they built the state’s first shopping mall in 1969 in Nashua. The Nashua Mall offered convenience for Massachusetts shoppers who wanted to make a quick trip for some tax-free shopping.
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.
Woolworths envisioned Woolco as a big brother to the smaller five-and-dime stores, 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. But by 1982, recession 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 Nashua 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.
When Sears opened Rhode Island’s first shopping mall in 1967, it left little to chance. The modern Midland Mall in Warwick benefited from the collective lessons learned from earlier shopping malls. It hummed from the start.
Victor Gruen, master mall builder, knew the key to success: innovation. Shoppers wanted the latest and greatest. So he built Midland on two floors with an open courtyard – the first such mall in New England. Unlike Shoppers' World, 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 looked sleeker and more modern than escalators. It also tried to ease the fears of people 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. It had a Docktor Pet Center, Orange Julius, Spencer Gifts, Thom McAn Shoes, Flagg Brothers Shoes and the Midland Cafeteria. The mall survived through 2011.
Ethan Allen Shopping Plaza
Ethan Allen, who rode the speculative real estate boom of the late 18th century, would probably have built Vermont’s first shopping mall had he lived into the 1950s. However, a Vermont real estate developer named Tony Pomerleau built Vermont's first shopping mall in 1951 and named it after the Green Mountain Boy.
The Ethan Allen Shopping Plaza was a simple strip mall in Burlington’s North End, a row of stores with a row of stores with a supermarket in the middle and a lot of parking in front. The mall featured the Ethan Allen Bake Shop, Plouffe's Pharmacy, Ben Franklin, Carvel Ice Cream, a bowling alley and a movie theater.
Pomerleau went on to build about 20 more shopping malls before he died at 100 in 2018. Today, a real estate investment firm has the property on the block.
For more information about early shopping malls, visit here.