The rise and fall of a suburban shopping mall
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The rise and fall of a suburban shopping mall

Tuesday would have been the Randhurst Mall’s 60th birthday, and ought to be celebrated by art historians who revere the Basilica of Saint-Denis. For just as the 12th century French church pioneered the Gothic style, the Mount Prospect shopping center put the capstone on 20th century suburban design.

Victor Gruen, Randhurst’s architect, often proclaimed the American shopping center the modern equivalent of Europe’s medieval cathedral.

Obviously, self-interest underlay that verdict. Nonetheless, Randhurst was awe-inspiring.

Covering a million square feet, air-conditioned, roofed and sporting a giant dome, it enabled consumers to mark life’s rhythms, rain or shine. At its 1962 opening, Maurice L. Rothschild took an ad in the Tribune touting the back-to-school shopping opportunities of the Loop merchant’s new suburban branch.

Pictured was a youngster in a T-shirt and briefs. “The start of a boy’s BUSY SCHOOL DAY,” the text proclaimed. For $3 each, older students could return to college in “Fraternity Row Ivy Shirts.”

Carson Pirie Scott, one of the mall’s original three anchors, posed a rhetorical question in its Tribune announcement of the mall’s opening: “Where else can you admire palm trees in January, have your hair done in plush pink surroundings while sipping complementary coffee, and dine ‘in-the-round’ of an elevated restaurant in the center of a covered mall?”

Malls were hardly new by 1962. Planned shopping centers go back as far as Lake Forest’s Market Square, which opened in 1916. But until they were enclosed, shopping centers couldn’t double as year-round walking paths for the elderly, hangouts for teenagers, performance spaces for buskers and galleries for sculptors.

That awaited Gruen’s vision.

Being Jewish, he fled his Austrian homeland ahead of the Nazis, arriving in America in 1938. He took with him poignant memories of Vienna’s charming little shops, each slightly different than the next. In the United States, he did face lifts for cookie-cutter stores. His signature was bold, even brash, design.

Stores are “machines for selling,” he said. It was a riff on a house being “a machine for living in,” a maxim of the modernist architect, Le Corbusier. Gruen would have heard it as a student in the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, where the curriculum was based on the socialist ideal of artists leading the way to a better world.

As World War II ended, Gruen saw America’s cities spilling out, helter-skelter, into the countryside. In a lecture, he hauntingly painted a word picture of roads “flanked by the greatest collection of vulgarity, billboards, motels, gas stations, shanties, car lots, miscellaneous industrial equipment, hot dog stands, wayside stores — ever collected by mankind.”

In a 1952 article in Progressive Architecture, Gruen and a partner proposed a solution for exurban blight. As suburbia lacked a center of gravity, one would have to be grafted on to it.

“From the time that bartering was done under a tree, the market has been a meeting place,” Gruen noted.” People could mingle leisurely, discuss business, exchange gossip.”

As he envisioned it, a regional shopping center would provide suburban America with a focal point akin to ancient Greece’s agora and Colonial America’s town square.

M. Jeffrey Hardwick, author of “Mall Maker,” noted that Gruen’s specifications were remarkably detailed — he called for 10-foot parking spaces, for example — given that he had yet to build a mall.

Indeed despite the kudos of Jane Jacobs and other critics of America’s desecrated skyline, Gruen would design four malls that weren’t built. But in a traveling exhibition, “Shopping Centers of the Future,” Gruen challenged captains of industry with the moral imperative that his professors had laid on him.

“Only you as a farsighted citizen,” Gruen wrote, “can see to it that the formless growth of the uncontrolled commercial slum is replaced by the integration of the shopping center.”

Then, beginning with his 1952 Northland Mall outside Detroit, commissions for malls steadily came his way.

“The Randhurst Shopping Center represented the height of Gruen’s retailing dreams in suburbia,” Hardwick wrote.

Mount Prospect’s mayor felt the same way. “It is our wish,” he said, setting the cornerstone, “that Randhurst Shopping Center will fulfill all of the dreams of those who have been converting the farmlands of yesterday into the merchandising realities of many tomorrows.”

The mayor’s synopsis was enacted during the mall’s groundbreaking on a vacated farm, 25 miles northwest of Chicago. “As about 200 officials and onlookers stood by, the small barn was torched by a giant-size match,” the Tribune reported on Nov. 20, 1960. “A puff of black smoke curled high into the air, visible for miles around.”

The site was the embodiment of Gruen’s thesis that a store is a machine for selling. Visiting the mall on the eve of its opening, a Tribune reporter noticed the stores lacked loading docks. Instead their goods arrived via a half-mile tunnel underneath the mall.

“Now trucks are delivering merchandise to (subterranean) shipping rooms where conveyor belts transport it to marking and tagging rooms,” wrote the reporter who was impressed by the “industrial engineering” embedded in Gruen’s design.

Finally merchandise was brought to the shops overhead. They formed an isosceles triangle, with a department store at each point: Carson’s, The Fair and Wieboldt’s.

Malls being generally rectangular, Gruen’s geometry sparked curiosity.

The first Sunday after its gala opening the mall was closed, but “2,000 persons jammed the grounds of the mammoth center and surrounding highways,” according to the Mount Prospect Police Department.

The day after Thanksgiving, 100,000 people began their Christmas shopping at Randhurst. It had also fulfilled Gruen’s vision of a shopping center as not just a place where cash registers ring. It hosted a square dance, an art fair, an auto show, and benefits for the Infant Welfare Society and nearby Holy Family Hospital.

But in one way, Randhurst didn’t fulfill Gruen’s dream. He thought a shopping center would contain suburban sprawl. It would have a magnetic power to keep development focused in its orbit, just as cities once did. Instead a mall begat more malls, as was already apparent when Randhurst opened.

“More than 100 outlying centers of varying size, some still in construction or planning stages, dot the Chicago area,” the Tribune wrote alongside a map on Dec. 17, 1962. As one suburb’s tax revenue increased thanks to its mall, its neighbors thought they had to have one too.

Gruen eventually regretted his own architecture. He laid out his regret in “Is Progress a Crime?” a science fiction dystopian novel where in one scene he looked down from a space ship on myriad “clip-joint” shopping centers where people buy what they don’t need.

Having retiring to his Austrian homeland, he feared that his Frankenstein monster followed him: A mall was built near his beloved Old Vienna.

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“I am often called the father of the shopping mall,” he said; “I would like to take this opportunity to disclaim paternity once and for all. I refuse to pay alimony to those bastard developments. They destroyed our cities.”

Many of Gruen’s bricks-and-mortar offspring fell on hard times. Randhurst’s customer base was sapped by nearby Woodfield Mall. J.C. Penney and Montgomery Ward’s closed their anchor stores in 2001. Vandals set it on fire 2003.

The mall finally closed in 2008, and was replaced by an outdoor shopping center, Randhurst Village.

The Daily Herald wrote Randhurst’s obituary:

“Tomorrows came and went, cornfields gave way to merchandising, executives passed away, and the old mall of the future was torn down to make way for a new mall of the future.”

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