The Mall of My Youth

Enclosed malls are becoming obsolete, but Old Orchard was something else
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Posted September 12, 2017

One of those countless articles on the death of the American shopping mall invited readers to take a nostalgic trip into the past and remember the malls of their younger lives. Saturday afternoons in oppressive, joyless, sunlight-deprived canyons and corridors.

However, the mall of my younger life was not an endless cavern of covered hallways, too-bright lighting, tile flooring and dozens of similar stores standing side by side at military attention.

The mall of my youth was Old Orchard, in Skokie, Ill., outside of Chicago. It was an open, sunlit garden of fountains, greenery, park benches and statuary. The architectural firm described the concept as “a genre of rambling, cleverly landscaped, village-like outdoor malls.”

The paved walkways led us around, amid the benches and fountains, to the storefronts, if that was what we wanted.

Of course it was what we wanted, because Old Orchard was essentially a commercial retail venue. It had all the major fashion names of the 1960s, the ones Chicago consumers were familiar with from Michigan Avenue and The Loop – most notably the newest, nicest suburban Marshall Field store at the time of its 1956 opening, and a three-level, 57,000-square-foot Saks Fifth Avenue store.

It housed the likes of Bonwit Teller and I. Magnin, shoe stores, men’s and ladies’ fashion stores (as I grew older, I haunted the Baskin’s men’s store every time I came home from college), a furrier, jewelers, a large Kroch’s & Brentano’s bookstore and a Kresge’s dime store. Suburban ladies no longer had to go downtown.

There was a Kroger supermarket there in the beginning, a bakery and several restaurants. There was also a large commercial office building.

But the stores were not lined up, side by side by side. They were arranged in a quirky architecture assemblage, so it became interesting to walk from store to store. Old Orchard was a one-of-a-kind – almost. There was a similar venue on the South Side, called Oakbrook Terrace, which also had a Field’s, a Saks, a Lord & Taylor and even a Neiman Marcus. The two centers had the same Chicago-based architect (Richard Bennett) and developer (Philip Klutznick). But Chicago being what it was, North was North and South was South. The two centers could have been on different planets as far as Chicago’s consumers were concerned.

Klutznick, the developer, was an interesting man who, among other things, built the residential units in Oak Ridge, Tenn., for workers on the Manhattan Project, and was Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of Commerce.

The outdoor setting was magical. But let’s face it, this was still Chicago. And the weather was perverse and undependable, except in winter, when it was entirely dependable: cold, windy, icy, snowy. (Though, even in winter, the stores and the landscaping at Christmas were a wonderland.)

Enclosed malls began to make sense, and Chicago eventually had as many of those as any other large urban area. Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg is now the area’s largest.

But Old Orchard survived, and still does. (It’s a Westfield property, now. Oakbrook is run by General Growth Properties.)

I was last in Old Orchard about 20 years ago. Macy’s had just unveiled Jack Hruska’s new concept for Bloomingdale’s. It was at night, but it still felt enchanting amid the outdoor lighting. The fountains, the benches, the plantings, all were still there.

And I guess they still are. Marshall Field’s isn’t, of course; it’s a Macy’s now, for which Chicago is still unforgiving and resentful.

Retailing has changed. Amazon.com was just named VMSD’s Peter Glen/Retailer of the Year. People shop on their laptops and smartphones. There’s much less rationale for the mall.

As malls fell out of favor, they were attacked for their sameness. But not the mall I grew up with. That wasn’t an obligatory shopping experience. It was like going to the park – a park with stores.

As a journalist, writer, editor and commentator, Steve Kaufman has been watching the store design industry for 20-plus years. He has seen the business cycle through retailtainment, minimalism, category killers, big boxes, pop-ups, custom stores, global roll-outs, international sourcing, interactive kiosks, the emergence of China, the various definitions of “branding” and Amazon.com. He has reported on the rise of brand concept shops, the demise of brand concept shops and the resurgence of brand concept shops. He has been an eyewitness to the reality that nothing stays the same, except the retailer-shopper relationship.