The Oglethorpe Mall opened in April 1969 in Savannah, Georgia on the newly expanded Abercorn Expressway. The basic design of the mall was a dumbbell mall, a long corridor with an anchor at each end. At the north end there was a Belk store and at the South end there was a Sears store. Belk had a store already on the Eastside of town and Sears had a store downtown. Subsequently the downtown Sears store closed but the Eastside Belk stayed open until 1998. The interior of the mall was very 1970s. The new Sears store was four times larger than the original Savannah store at 160,000 square feet. It was comprised of a long modern building of yellow brick and white stucco. The Sears store until this day has not remodelled its contemporary 60s exterior. Mall plans allow for the store to grow by as much as 40,000 square feet. Belk was lower key with white-washed brick and tall arches over the main entrances. The architects struggled to come up with an original design for the store until one evening at a bar, one of them sketched the design to be used on a napkin. This Belk store featured 80,000 square feet on one level.
Oglethorpe Mall originally consisted of low suspended ceilings, terrazzo floors, fluorescent lighting, almost no natural light, planters with ferns and narrow corridors. National stores like Revco, McRory’s 5 and 10, Butler’s Shoes, Foot Locker, Gap and local shops had a presence in the malls original corridor by the 70s. At that time, as well, the mall was expanding a little at a time. 25,000 square feet was added here and 50,000 square feet there but mainly growing out towards White Bluff Road. In 1977 the Belk store decided to add a second floor. Belk had always technically had a second floor but it was for regional offices and computers at only 20,000 square feet. The new 80,000 square foot second floor made the total square footage 160,000 square feet. Quickly the Southside was growing with new homes, colleges, apartments and stores. By the early 90s the Southside had been maxed out. In the early 80s however the area was growing steadily. Stores surrounding the mall drove traffic towards the area from the suburban Island communities and downtown (which was extremely dilapidated by this time). Wal-Mart and Kroger were the initial neighbours in the early 70s. With the growth of the neighbouring shopping centres Oglethorpe Mall continued to expand. In 1981 developers broke ground on a 220,000 square foot addition of the mall featuring JC Penney and Levy’s Department Stores. The expansion opened in 1982 with much delight.
The Levy’s department store seemed to be unstable as it has changed hands repeatedly over the last 25 years. First in 1986 Levy’s was acquired by Federated Stores, Jordan Marsh chain, which was a New England company. In 1988 Jordan Marsh at Oglethorpe Mall was consolidated into Maas Brothers, a Tampa, Florida chain. The Maas Brothers nameplate remained for several years.
However, a new problem arose in the late 80s that was much larger than keeping a stable department store; it was a new mall that threatened Oglethorpe’s life. In fact the new mall would be built on the far Southside of Savannah near the Forest River, about 4 miles from Oglethorpe Mall. At 900,000 square feet, larger than Oglethorpe Mall at the time, the mall had three new anchors and another Belk store. The Savannah Mall, as it would be called, would encompass two floors, a carousel and a food court. Decidedly the new mall would be “upscale.” This mall opened in 1990 but after several years it became a less of a threat to Oglethorpe Mall. Oglethorpe Mall did not hesitate to die. In fact the mall completed a renovation in 1990. New features of the mall included a 1500 space parking deck and a completely “rejuvenated” interior and exterior design. The anchors all remodeled and new tenants like Suncoast Video, Chick Fil-A and Stein Mart opened. The only loss at this time was of the mall cinema that had existed since day one. More modern megaplex chains like Regal and Carmike drove it out of business.
The interior of the mall changed dramatically. The mall essentially was “gutted”. (Attached is a remodelling photo of centre court in the late 80s) Skylights were installed and contradictory to the original design the renovated mall depended heavily on natural light. At night only can lights and track lighting illuminated the corridors. The 80s interior design culture demanded pastels and Oglethorpe Mall delivered with shades of peach coloured walls and blue and pink off-set colours. The mall tied into a coastal theme with palm trees and fountains and tabby coated columns. Tabby is a plaster like composite of shells and stucco used in Coastal Georgia.. The ceilings were also taller and more open. The floor was stripped of the seemingly hideous terrazzo and an award winning tile pattern was laid down. The only different part of the mall was an area of the mall known as the promenade built in 1985. This section was very modern. The goal of this part of the mall was to invite more upscale shoppers to the mall. In the 80s and even the early 90s it actually had stores like Laura Ashley and upscale local restaurants.
Then in 1991 it was announced Maas Brothers would close as the chain would be shuttered by recovering Federated Department Stores. Federated had emerged has a new company in the early 90s after surviving a hostel takeover by Robert Campeau in 1988. This situation resulted in the loss of many of the nations more notable department stores. Federated would not leave the mall though, they planned to construct a new 135,000 square foot Rich’s Store. The plan transpired and in September 1992 the new, very contrasting department store opened to the public. This new store only placed a damper on Savannah Mall. As a recession set in the early 90s many people simply did not shop as much. Many stores closed there doors. Then in the late 90s many new modernizations occurred including a new Barnes and Noble store in the former Promenade, a new Gap/Gap Kids and Disk Jockey store opened. A food court also was announced which opened in 2002. The food court includes 11 vendors, a lounge, security, family restrooms, nursing stations and traditional restrooms. There is also a string of shops on the back wall.
To the date the mall has become more affluent with stores like The Sharper Image and Aldo. The anchors are still the same except for Rich’s which became Macy’s in 2005. The Oglethorpe Mall is considered by most of the shoppers of Savannah to be the leading shopping destination.