Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Plymouth Meeting Mall: Plymouth Meeting, PA

One of the earliest and most overlooked enclosed malls in the Philadelphia market is Plymouth Meeting Mall, a spacious two-level mall opened by the Rouse Company in 1966 that, like many other malls in the region, is overshadowed by the mighty King of Prussia.  Originally anchored by Strawbridge & Clothier and Lit Brothers, the mall was designed by famed mall architect Victor Gruen, and it is shown in a circulated postcard with its signature fountain in front of Strawbridge's that remains to this day.  It was also once a dominant player in the market before multiple expansions of King of Prussia Mall began hurting business.  Because of that, this classy mall has unfortunately been affected by the highly competitive and overbuilt retail environment across the Keystone state that has taken no prisoners.


Plymouth Meeting Mall was one of several Rouse-built malls in the Philadelphia market including Exton Square Mall located 23 miles to the west, The Gallery at Market East in Center City and three malls on the New Jersey side.  Rouse, formerly headquartered in Columbia, MD, was very active in the Mid-Atlantic region and was famous for building some of the largest and first enclosed malls.  The mall has been a laboratory for innovation for a traditional enclosed mall, but today its biggest challenge will be reinventing itself since the market dealt it a crushing blow with the loss of its oldest and most prominent anchor tenant.  Despite being a two level mall that has lasted over 50 years, it was never a true regional mall.  It never had anchors like Sears or JCPenney and it never expanded beyond two anchors.  In most other cities, this mall would have failed by the 1990's due to these factors alone.


Plymouth Meeting Mall's signature fountain dates to the opening of the mall and appears to have been installed by Strawbridge's.  Strawbridge's tended to finance grand fountains as a means of showcasing their stores. Views are from the bottom and top floors with Strawbridge's behind me on the photo.


Plymouth Meeting Mall's signature fountain in the early days of the mall.  Postcard from "Malls of America".  Much has changed, but amazingly the fountain survived!


Another view of the fountain and mall.


View of fountain facing Strawbridge's.  If you look carefully you can see the labelscar.



The "STR" of Strawbridge & Clothier is quite visible in this image from the second level mall entrance.



As a dumbell-shaped mall, the design of the mall is pretty consistent throughout with a few minor discrepancies and alternating skylight styles.  However, with such a wide court and abundant natural light, the mall feels quite spaceous.  The carousel was most likely added in a 1990's renovation.  Carousels were a short-lived fad in malls that were likely put there to fill the void left behind by fountains.  Nowadays, even the carousels are being removed from most malls that had them.

In many ways, the early mall embraced elements of utopianism embraced by both its developer James Rouse and Victor Gruen.  A few years after this mall was constructed, Rouse would construct an entire city in Maryland with an enclosed mall as its downtown.  In some ways, this mall attempted to include some elements of Victor Gruen's original vision of having malls as the center of fully functioning urban villages.  Plymouth Meeting itself was developed as a rough example of the optimistic and often-cited "live, work, play" type of environment with not just a mall, but also an office tower (Pearson Professional Center), medical center, and even a church among its tenants!  Obviously the "live" part did not evolve, but at the time it was built single family houses were far more affordable, and malls as primarily retail centers represented by nearby suburban development at the time.  This vision continued for years after as the mall was innovative in cutting edge retail trends.  Perhaps the "live" part may soon be on the table as the "play" part seems to be winding down.


A side corridor leading to an outside entrance.  Domed skylights were popular in the 60's and 70's, and Rouse Malls tended to have them along entrance wings.


This directory shows that what appears to be a straightforward mall has a catch: a whole office wing featuring a tower and even a church!


One of the mall entrances between the office building and Boscov's




Detail of an entrance atrium from the inside next to the "Church in the Mall"


A look inside the lobby of the office building, which holds on to many more Rouse elements than the mall itself.


This has to be the only case in the entire U.S. where a church was actually built into a mall from the beginning.  Many churches meet in malls, but not as a planned part of the infrastructure.

Despite only having two department store anchors, the mall has no original anchors today.  Lit Brothers went under in 1976 to be replaced by Hess's in 1979.  The Hess's location was apparently the largest branch store in the chain, but it was also the only location in the Philadelphia market.  Hess's was doing marginally throughout the 1980's, suffering from extreme over expansion due to owners Crown American bringing it into many unfamiliar markets.  After many years of decline and selling off chunks in numerous markets, the chain's problems caught up to it and the location was closed in 1993.  After three more years of vacancy, Boscov's arrived and filled the void, and it still operates there to this day.  Strawbridge's, however, operated continuously at the mall until 2006 when it was converted to Macy's.  After poor sales likely due to its proximity to the nearby more popular King of Prussia store, Macy's closed at the mall in 2017 leaving the mall with a major vacancy that will be difficult to fill.


The variety of mall entrances in the mall is intriguing.  Here, the church is on the left and the 9 story office building is on the right.


Detail of the office building.  Plans show that this mid-century facade will be removed and replaced with an updated faced featuring way more glass.



Boscov's mall entrance.  Boscov's opened as Lit Brothers and was later Hess's before becoming Boscov's.


The Boscov's juniors to the left of the entrance would suggest that this used to be a Bamberger's, but that was never the case.  However, Hess's was also aggressive at expanding store space.



A couple shots of the Boscov's on the outside.  The store is original to Lit Brother's except for the white paint and restructuring of the main entrance.





One interesting footnote in the mall's history is that Swedish Furniture chain IKEA opened their first U.S. store on an outlot of the mall.  The chain is ubiquitous as a destination for its cheap furnishings, but it has very few locations across the U.S. making it a destination store.  Ultimately, IKEA would relocate one exit down I-476 with the former tenant demolished and replaced with the present lifestyle center portion.  This new retail center brought in many typical tenants of lifestyle centers (Chico's, etc.) with its centerpiece a Whole Foods Market.  Legoland Discovery Center, another non-traditional tenant, also began construction in 2016 and should be opening this year.


This post would not be complete without interior photos of the old Strawbridge's/Macy's.  It appears the last interior model was done around 1979-1980, and it shows.  However, the design is so warm and inviting compared to the typical sterile look seen in most modern Macy's.  Unfortunately, this lack of updating was for a reason.  The store closed in 2017.


Parquet flooring...a design feature popular in the 70's



Funky goodness here with the wood and floor patterns.


Seeing an actual contrast between the merchandise and the store makes you want to actually buy something here, doesn't it?  Unfortunately, customers chose King of Prussia instead.




Impressive court with fancy skylights, chandeliers, and a mix of stairs and escalators...very similar to their Neshaminy store, but still just as awesome.  RIP, great old store.

So here we have another mall at a crossroads.  As was said on an earlier post, malls in Philadelphia are extremely overbuilt.  Due to the aggressive growth of Strawbridge's and Wanamaker's in the 70's and 80's, Macy's ended up inheriting a ton of locations in the market: many that are no more than 10-15 miles apart.  The process of right-sizing this resulted in Macy's being closed at the mall.  Furthermore, Plymouth Meeting is in an unfortunate position of living in the shadow of the largest mall in the USA.  King of Prussia Mall is not your average competitor.  A mall with under a million square feet and one operational department store is not going to be able to effectively compete with one of over 3 million square feet!  Not only that, but Macy's clearly had no interest in its store at Plymouth Meeting Mall.  It appears the last time any renovations were done was in the late 70's or early 80's.  So what does the mall do now?



Strawbridge's personified the mid-century look on their suburban stores.  A mix of brutalism and "confidence" embodied by a very prosperous time.  In the first pic, you see the mall's office tower on the right.


Macy's takeover of Strawbridge's did not strip the store of all its elements.  The Strawbridge's "Seal of Confidence" (appropriate for a mid-century store) can still be found on nearly all of their former store locations.  If this isn't Philly-pride, I don't know what is.



The sun sets on this former Strawbridge's both literally and figuratively.  Unlike when this mall was built, people are not feeling as much confidence.

In all honesty, Plymouth Meeting Mall has unfortunately become redundant.  Even before Macy's closed, the mall saw a drop in sales per square feet and an uptick in vacancies.  These have undoubtedly accelerated with Macy's closure.  With no options for replacement stores, there is little the mall can do to stop this.  Furthermore, Boscov's may be looking at relocating themselves from their current store although it is unclear if they would just close or where they might move.  Thus, its future as a traditional enclosed retail mall is unlikely.  Pretty much what you can expect for the future of Plymouth Meeting is mixed use.  It is a beautiful, spacious and inviting mall that would be perfect for a college campus, medical center, corporate headquarters, entertainment complex, housing (condos/apartments) or some other non-retail use where lots of space is needed.  It is also in a very upscale part of the Philadelphia metro area meaning that it is in-demand real estate.  This means some sort of redevelopment is likely.  At the very least, substantial renovations for reuse are likely on the now-closed Macy's.  Parts of the mall may be demolished, parts of the mall may be carved up for offices and parts of it used for entertainment.  Offices may be less likely, however, since an office tower already flanks the mall and is definitely there to stay.  However it is carved up, there is still "confidence" that this mall will continue to evolve: hopefully into something that both Victor Gruen and James Rouse originally intended.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Exton Square Mall: Exton/West Whiteland Township, PA

Exton Square Mall is one of very few malls of its design in the country.  Located in the Exton community of West Whiteland Township, this signature Rouse Company mall was built in 1973 with a design shared by one other historically-significant mall: Northland Mall in Southfield, Michigan.  Like Northland, Exton was designed as a square-shaped mall with one anchor department store in the center: Philadelphia-based Strawbridge & Clothier.  This means that the "square" in the name is for once an accurate description!  With the mall wrapping around the store, shoppers hoping to drop some cash at Strawbridge's had to enter the mall to reach the store from any one of the four mall entrances.  This early design was nearly identical to how Victor Gruen designed Northland Center with Detroit-based Hudson's at the center.


A risky plan, Exton Square was, in fact, a successful mall.  While a perfect square vertically, it is not consistent horizontally.  The northern half of the mall is on only one level while the southern half is on two levels.  Originally, two prominent fountains were placed in front of the north and south entrances to Strawbridge's with Rouse's signature style of having a square terraced tub with a jet streaming high in the center of the fountain.  Today, one fountain is found on the southern mall entrance to Macy's but nowhere else.  While more subdued, the vaulted ceilings, attractive staircases, and distinctive iron railing found in the mall still provide a very inviting and upscale atmosphere although it likely pales in comparison to how the mall originally looked.


The one remaining fountain in Exton Square rests on the lower level in front of the south entrance to Macy's (former Strawbridge's).  Most likely Strawbridge's itself paid for the fountain initially.  Macy's has four mall entrances with the north entrance on a single-story side of the mall.




A few more angles of the fountain with the lead and last photo looking away from Macy's to the front entrance.


Attractive staircase in the court in front of Macy's south entrance.


A view of Sears court on the one-level portion of the mall.  Spacious skylights in Rouse's signature style coupled with the wood trim creates a very inviting and warm atmosphere, but this would certainly be enhanced by some greenery, a conversation pit, and fountain here.  Malls want to lease every inch of space, but more often than not it is just empty space like this.


On the one level portion, this spaceship-like overhang divides the more brightly lit court areas.  The one level portion runs from the north of the west Macy's entrance to the north of the east Macy's entrance with Sears and the Food Court on the northwest and northeast prongs. 


Court in front of Macy's.  Where I stand was once a fountain with a jet shooting up about 10-15' in front of the Strawbridge's north entrance.

Unfortunately, the continued expansion of nearby King of Prussia has continued to threaten the viability of the mall.  In the past, the mall undertook a concerted effort to counter it.  As part of that competition, plans began to expand the mall beginning in the early 90's.  Prior to the mid-90's, the mall had never been updated and was looking old.  As a result, an expansion and renovation was commenced adding a significant amount of space to the mall.  This new space came from expanding the mall along the corners of the square.  Three of those were built for new anchors added in the northwest, southwest and southeast corners of the mall anchored by, respectively, Sears, Boscov's and JCPenney.  Sears and Boscov's opened in 1999 and JCPenney opened in 2000.  The northeast corner was expanded into a beautiful new lodge-style food court as well.  This update transitioned the mall from a community-oriented mall into a regional mall able to effectively compete against other malls in the region for at least a decade longer.



Views of the north entrance to Macy's (former Strawbridge's)


Postcard image of how this mall entrance originally looked in 1973.  It is possible this was the south entrance as well, but it seems to (mostly) match the north entrance with the ceiling dropped.



The food court addition is one of the most attractive portions of the mall.



Macy's (Strawbridge's) east entrance with a bit more mall detail.  An entrance wing shown in the next photo is on the left.


East entrance wing with partial view of the lower level.


The greenery on the upper level of the east side of the mall is a nice touch.  For perspective, this is looking north with the Macy's east entrance on the left and the food court straight ahead.

An interesting feature that previously was located on the mall property was the Zook House.  The Zook House was a historic home built in 1750 that, due to being on the national historical register, was retained on the southwest corner of the original mall.  When the mall underwent expansion, the house would have to be moved in order to allow construction to go forward.  At the time, the house was being used as offices for the mall.  Thus, in 1998 the house was moved from its former location where Boscov's is now to its current location closer to U.S. 30 Business on the edge of the ring road.


Considering the Zook House is much older than the mall itself, a photo of it was obligatory!


This photo was taken to show detail of the railing on the upper level.  A little more effort was put in to give it a distinctive look.  I'll give it a B+.  A's are not given to malls that won't use color.


Macy's mall entrance looking blank next to the "STRAWBRIDGE & CLOTHIER" that once sprawled across the front.


Looking south from the Macy's west entrance on the left.  It's pretty much the mirror image of the east entrance.


A view from the Macy's west entrance looking to the west entrance wing.


One look at the bottom floor.  Most pics were taken on the top floor.


The skylight detail next to the Macy's mall entrance is quite attractive.  The lower ceiling section at the end of the skylights is where the mall transitions to one level.


Now headed south to Boscov's, which is on the diagonal wing to the right.

In 2003, the Rouse company sold the mall along with many others to Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust (PREIT) for just over a half-billion dollars after 30 years of ownership.  In 2006, the mall's original anchor Strawbridge's was converted to Macy's as part of the sale of its parent May Department Stores to Federated Department Stores.  Things stopped looking up for the mall when in 2014, the mall lost its first anchor with JCPenney closing its store at the mall after only 14 years of operation.  The loss of JCPenney was likely partly due to the popularity of similarly-marketed Boscov's stealing customers from the then-struggling company within the same mall.  Currently JCPenney has its lower level now leased to a bowling alley and entertainment center.  In addition, filming began in the mall in 2016 for the sequel to the 1995 film Mallrats entitled MallBrats that was originally intended to be filmed at now-demolished Granite Run Mall.



Boscov's was captured on both levels here.  This was an original build added in 1999 although it seems like a Bamberger's should have been here forcing the Zook House to be moved.



Former JCPenney mall entrance captured in 2017 and 2015.  The 2015 photo is on the lower level and is now the entrance to the entertainment complex.  The upper level is permanently closed although it appears that Round 1 is using both levels.


Sears was also added in 1999 with an unremarkable 1990's clone store that only got this distinctive of an entrance to blend in with the mall's architecture.


A look at the north court of Strawbridge's with Strawbridge's off to the left.  If only I could have seen this in the 80's.

Exton Square is a curious mall in how it continues to remain successful while being so close to dominant King of Prussia Mall a mere 14 miles to the east.  However, it is starting to show the effects.  In the past few years many stores have begin to close, and the lack of maintenance in the former Strawbridge's suggests that the store is on the short list of closings.  The Macy's was in such rough shape that buckling floor tiles were held in place with duct tape!  In addition, Sears looks to be departing the mall very soon: another difficult to fill vacancy leaving the mall.  In all, the future looks nebulous with the perfect storm of the retail apocalypse coupled with the mall's proximity to King of Prussia.


Sears looks like a closed movie theater, and their featured products are now equivalent to dollar theater castoffs.


Round 1 is more like round 2 for this space after JCPenney decided to stop competing with Boscov's.  However, it looks more and more like round 3 for the mall might be costly for the mall.


Not the best pic, but I do really love Exton's distinct sign that really highlights the angular elements.


Outside of the food court.  Photo from January 17, 2015.


JCPenney after losing round 1, which is now Round 1 (round 2).  Hopefully the mall won't lose this round.  Photo from January 17, 2015 shortly after the JCPenney left the mall.


Boscov's, gaudy as always, in its southwest facing entrance.  Photo from January 17, 2015.

Despite Exton starting to succumb to industry factors, it has nothing to do with the surrounding area.  It is actually an upscale area with incomes adequate to support it.  In fact, the Kmart that flanks an outlot just west of the mall will be closed and converted to Whole Foods.  Nonetheless, some features of the mall do remain vintage.  This is especially true of the former Strawbridge's, now Macy's, which has not seen any significant update since it opened in 1973.  Overall, the future of Exton Square pretty much rests on Macy's.  Will Macy's continue to be willing to operate so many stores in the Philadelphia market?  It avoided the list of 68 store closings in 2017, but two other malls in the market were not so lucky.  In addition, Sears as an anchor will likely need to be replaced or demolished in the near future.  Most likely the outcome will be that Boscov's takes over the Macy's spot with at least part of the mall ultimately demolished within the next decade.



The mall's "center court" is actually the center of Macy's, which has not been updated at all from when it was Strawbridge's.  That's fortunate for us since it is still a stunning store (although in need of a little TLC).


Note the duct tape on the joints in the floor tiles.  The flooring is in pretty rough shape, but I'll pass on replacing it if it's going to be those off-white shiny squares that Macy's insists on using.  It's stuff like this that leads me to believe it's a doomed store.



Macy's mutilated this part of the store with their white paint, but you can tell by the trim this was a classy dark wood area of the store.  Note the parquet flooring past this department.


Duct, duct, not a goose but too old for the pond.



Skylight details above the center court of Macy's/Strawbridge's showing that modernism could still look glamorous.

Exton is a very interesting mall for its time, and has had a solid 44 year run, but it is a second tier mall at a time when even the top door malls are fighting to survive.  The question is not if Exton will remain a retail center, it is how much longer it will remain a mall.  It is not in much different shape than Granite Run Mall that recently demolished the interior mall leaving only Boscov's and Sears, so it is likely where the mall is headed: an open-air center anchored by Boscov's and maybe Macy's.  Perhaps the new retail center will be designed more on the theme of the local history and fit in more with the Zook House and Pennsylvania Dutch architecture.  It will be interesting to see what becomes of Exton Square in the next decade as the retail apocalypse continues to reshape the once powerful mall industry and is taking no prisoners.


Last, but not least, a mall directory from 2015.  You get the idea now, right?