Much has been written about Southdale Center, the metro-Minneapolis mall that started the trend in America toward large, regional, enclosed shopping centers. Although there were suburban shopping plazas -and even a few shopping malls- when Southdale opened in October of 1956, these were all open-air affairs. Southdale Center Mall was the first in the nation to be fully enclosed and climate-controlled.
It was also the first to feature decorative works of art in its interior spaces, as well as the first to be anchored by more than one large, full-service, department store. Moreover, Southdale Center Mall was also revolutionary in its “introvert” design. Where previous shopping centers faced out, toward their parking lot or lots, most stores in Southdale faced in…with their entrances and signage on the inside of the mall. The unified “mall” aesthetic of the exterior was not compromised by the sight of several individual storefronts and signs.
The center was envisaged by Austrian-born architect Victor Gruen, who had one major retail project under his belt when he designed Southdale. The gigantic Northland Center in suburban Detroit had put forward new ideas, but Southdale Center was even more innovative in concept. Modeled in the idea of a European city center or galleria, the mall was, at the same time, unique. It was a suburban center, a congregating and socializing place fitted to America’s emerging car culture. It was to be a new era, reworked, town center of the future. Gruen’s plans for the mall to be the nucleus of subsequent development, which was to include homes, schools and parks, did not come to pass as planned. Nonetheless, Southdale Mallwas a model for the mega-malled America of the 1960′s and 70′s. This was not what Victor Gruen had had in mind.
The original 20 million dollar, 800,000 square foot, center was built by the Dayton Corporation of Minnesota. Situated in the southwestern Minneapolis suburb of Edina, at the intersection of West 66th Street and France Avenue South, it was centered around a dramatic three story, one hundred foot wide, “garden court”, which had tropical landscaping, statues, a fountain and bird aviary. There were two retail levels, and a subterranean “truck road”, which was connected with tenant stores via elevators, stairs and hallways; all of this not in sight of mall shoppers. The split-level parking area, and how it was interconnected with the two retail levels of the mall, was innovative in design. Its lots were named for animals, such as “Alligator”, “Rooster”, and the like. This was done to make it easier for shoppers to remember how to get back to their cars, parked somewhere in the 5,200 spaces provided.
The main anchor at the 1956 Southdale Center grand opening was the Dayton’s department store. The tenant list of fifty-eight also included Donaldson’s and J.B Hudson stores, a Woolworth 5 and 10, Red Owl supermarket, and Walgreen’s pharmacy, as well as a bank, hardware store, seven restaurants and cafes, eleven apparel shoppes, five shoe stores and a US post office. In addition, there were two outparcel service stations in the retail mix.
Southdale Center was an instant success story, but by the early 1970′s, some renovation and expansion were in order. The first project was undertaken then, with a new northeast wing and J.C. Penney added. Fearing competition from the super-regional Mall Of America, which was being built only four miles away, another expansion at Southdale Center Mall was started. This was a major project, and included demolition of the old Dayton’s anchor, construction of new stores in its space and building a much larger Dayton’s to the northwest. The “garden court” was doubled in size and a multi-level parking garage added, as well. These improvements were completed in the early 1990′s.
The most recent remodel of the mall was done in 2001-2002. A new sixteen screen multiplex cinema was added to the southeast, along with more stores and restaurants. A fourth level of shoppes was constructed over those stores which had been built in place of the old Dayton’s. Two more parking garages were also added. These additions have increased the leasable square footage at Southdale to over 1.2 million, with 148 stores currently on the shopping center’s directory.
So, the mall that started it all does not even remotely resemble the mid-century mod shopping center it evolved from. The Dayton’s store morphed into Marshall Fields…..and is now Macy’s. Southdale Center Mall became fifty years old in October of 2006.