In Praise of Victor Gruen

In the 1970s, family outings often meant going to the local discount department store. Mom and Dad headed for the clearance racks in the clothing and shoe sections. My brother went in search of a new model airplane kit. My sister and I gawked at the Mattel toys we were adding to our Christmas wish list.

And then one day, we all discovered the unique wonders of that 20th-century mecca of American consumerism: the indoor shopping mall.

On a Saturday morning, usually once a month, we piled into the car and headed to the Eastern Hills Mall, located in a nearby suburb about twenty minutes away. We entered through Woolworth’s and proceeded to the main concourse. After walking around together for about ten minutes, we split up. Dad slipped away to Waldenbooks, where he could browse for hours. Mom preferred department stores like J.C. Penney’s. My brother usually wandered off on his own in search of a hobby store, while my sister and I took turns hanging with Mom or Dad. By dinnertime, we all reunited outside Harvest House Cafeteria, a buffet-style restaurant that was part of a chain owned by Woolworth’s.

The buffet line in Harvest House was nothing like the cafeteria line at school. There were no middle-aged ladies in hairnets pushing a plate of wax beans toward me. In fact, I was oblivious to any adults who might be working behind the line. I fixated instead on the fancy glass dishes of red Jello and chocolate pudding, each topped off with glorious ribbons of whipped cream. I was bedazzled by the large metal pans of Salisbury steak, mashed potatoes, and thick brown gravy. The buffet line was also my introduction to what felt like a very adult vegetable dish: salad made with iceberg lettuce, orange tomato wedges, thin round slices of purple onions, and crunchy croutons, all drizzled in Italian dressing.

I inevitably piled too much food onto too many plates. It then took a bit of strength and a lot of concentration to bring the tray over to the table without spilling anything. Setting the tray down and then sliding over the smooth expanse of the fire-engine-red banquette resulted in fart sounds, sending my siblings and me into fits of laughter. Dad greeted me with a bemused smile, leaned over, and whispered reassuringly: “Whatever you can’t eat, I’ll take care of it.” True to his word, he gobbled up the leftovers on my tray after I’d reached my limit. Mom just sighed, though I was never quite sure if it was because my eyes were once again bigger than my stomach, or Dad was putting on a few too many pounds.

Over the next few years, the mall experience changed. Instead of the whole family going together, we might venture out in pairs. I remember helping my brother search for a gift one Christmas Eve, the two of us navigating our way through the crowds of fellow last-minute shoppers. Later, in my mid-twenties, whether it was a consequence of getting older or becoming a bit of a big-city snob after living in Chicago for a few years, I saw my childhood consumer paradise as impersonal and tacky. If hell indeed existed, it must be a gigantic indoor mall with no exits.

In 1956, the first indoor shopping mall, Southdale Center, opened just southwest of Minneapolis in Edina, Minnesota. Designed by Austrian-born architect, Victor Gruen, Southdale was a two-level, climate-controlled structure with a covered, skylit courtyard surrounded by stores. The new shopping center garnered rave reviews and attracted eager consumers. Yet the execution of Gruen’s vision was incomplete.

Distressed by the phenomenon of suburban sprawl in his adopted country, he had conceived of a pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use community reminiscent of his native Europe. In addition to the shopping center, he envisioned apartments, schools, daycare facilities, medical centers, and parks. He wanted spaces that would combat the isolation he associated with American suburbs. Instead, Southdale’s success paved the way for more shopping malls to be built throughout the United States.

Interestingly, the mall of my youth, Eastern Hills, which first opened in 1971, is undergoing a renovation. The current owners plan to transform the 100-acre property into Western New York’s first “town center.” I wonder what Victor Gruen would say.

For more history, check out A Viennese Architect Pioneered the American Shopping Mall. Then He Became Its №1 Critic and The strange, surprisingly radical roots of the shopping mall.

The Southdale Shopping Center, the world’s first indoor mall.
Photo credit: Bobak Ha’Eri — Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7009965


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