08 Mar Shoppers World and the Regional Shopping Center in Greater Boston
Regional shopping centers have made a decisive imprint on America’s landscape.
Their developers sought to profit from the post-World War decentralization of American cities, fueled by population increased, demand for new housing, growing automobile use, and greater discretionary income.
Regional shopping centers differed from earlier planned shopping centers in size, design, location, trading area, and goods sold. They were massive complexes of integrated shopping, service, and entertainment facilities, often promoted as community centers catering to the auto-borne consumer. Planning for a large-scale commercial development with a regional focus, though commonplace today, had few precedents in the immediate postwar years.
Shoppers World in Framingham, Massachusetts is one of the first regional shopping centers in the nation. Working in the postwar era of decentralization, with new development often removed from established town centers, the planners of Shoppers World sought to create an entirely new, “recentralized” retail business center. They successfully sold their idea by packaging retail and service functions with a community gathering place, and cultural and entertainment offerings such as movies and art displays. An open-air, landscaped pedestrian mall akin to a town common serves as the focal point of the complex. The result is a modern reinterpretation of the historic town center.
Changing middle-class life styles during the postwar years compelled retailers and shopping center developers alike to rethink the marketing of retail stores. Increasingly, branches of downtown department and specialty stores appeared in what had come to be known even before the war as one-stop shopping centers. These planned centers were middle-income in character and distinguished by considerable shopping by husbands and wives.1 Recognizing that the target customers would have a car full of children, operators marketed Shoppers World as the one-stop shopping center where one could take the family and spend the day. Free family-oriented activities – dog shows, fashion shows, square dancing, band concerts, children’s shows, and fireworks displays – served the dual purpose of promoting the center and providing its stores with a collective identity. To further keep pace with changing shopping habits Shoppers World was open three nights per week. Monumental in both its scale and its aspirations, Shoppers World was a significant departure from earlier planned commercial development and an important harbinger of trends in retail planning and construction.
Planning a Regional Shopping Center in the Boston Suburbs
With its stagnant central business district and potential for suburban growth after World War II, greater Boston appeared to be a favorable location for one of the nation’s first regional shopping centers. In 1946 Boston-based merchandising executive Huston Rawls established a real estate trust to develop a national chain of regional shopping centers, beginning with the Boston metropolitan area.2 Investors reportedly raised a large part of their capital by “unloading downtown business properties of doubtful future,” the income from which generated only a fraction of the anticipated six percent annual return from a regional shopping center. By 1948, the trust became known as Suburban Centers Trust, a holding company for various subsidiaries which would develop and manage the regional centers in the national chain.
Rawls asked Kenneth Welch of Grand Rapids, Michigan, a market analyst, architect, and city planner, to assemble the staff for the shopping center project. Welch enlisted New York architect Morris Ketchum, Jr. and his firm, Ketchum, Gina & Sharp, who were well known as architects of department stores and small shops. Other members of the development team included the Cambridge, Massachusetts firm of Anderson & Beckwith as associate architects; Frederick Adams, director of the city planning program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as head of the site planning group; and the Boston firm of Arthur & Sidney Shurcliff as landscape architects.
The developers targeted suburban Beverly on Boston’s North Shore as the location for the first regional center in the national chain. Market analysis indicated the projected shopping center would attract 50 thousand potential customers (sixteen percent of the total number of shoppers) and generate $15 million a year in sales (six percent of the total shopping dollars spent) from twenty-one surrounding communities.3 The selected site was located eighteen miles from Boston where three state highways intersected at North Beverly: Route 1A (Dodge Street), Route 97 (Cabot Street), and the high-speed Route 128 beltway then under construction around Boston. Dubbed North Shore Shopping Center, the $6 million project debuted in architectural and business publications in June and July 1947.
Plans for the North Shore center continued to be discussed through the early 1950s but were never realized. A portion of the proposed development area reportedly lacked clear title, a situation Suburban Centers Trust wanted resolved in land court before construction began.4 Another factor that may have delayed construction was slower than anticipated progress on the continuation of Route 128 beyond Route 1A in North Beverly. The Route 128 extension to Gloucester would have been the center’s primary access route from points east. A Boston supermarket chain developed a smaller shopping center on the proposed North Shore site in 1961.5
Within a year of introducing the North Shore center, Suburban Centers Trust launched a second project in Boston’s western suburbs: a similarly designed, $7 million regional shopping center to be known as Middlesex Center and later Shoppers World.6 In the town of Framingham the developers selected a 200-acre site bordered by two state highways, Route 9 (Worcester Road) and Route 30 (Cochituate Road). The finished center would be strategically located on a direct line between the state’s two largest cities, Boston, nineteen miles to the east, and Worcester, twenty-one miles to the west. Over 117,000 families resided within a twenty-nine-minute drive, the initial measure for determining the center’s trading area.7
Construction of Shoppers World quickly became the focus of the company’s activity in Massachusetts. By the early 1950s, Suburban Centers Trust had announced plans for development of at least five more regional centers, located in DeWitt, New York (near Syracuse); Hawthorne, in New York’s Westchester County; Paramus, New Jersey; Princeton, New Jersey; and the Washington, D. C. area. Shoppers World appears to have been the only center in the chain to break ground.
Shoppers World opened to considerable fanfare on 4 October 1951. Billed by its promoters as the largest retail shopping center in the world, Shoppers World was only the second regional shopping center in the nation to be organized around a pedestrian mall.8 The 25 thousand people who attended the opening ceremony and an estimated additional 25 to 50 thousand who walked through the center on opening day saw, in the words of one awed Boston Globe reporter, “either the most convenient arrangement devised up to now to buy and carry away merchandise, or an enormous, spreading monument to democratic free enterprise.”9 Today, Shoppers World remains significant not just in New England but nationally as a little-altered example of an early, and heavily promoted, regional shopping center layout, precursor to the all-weather, fully enclosed shopping center introduced outside Minneapolis in 1956.
Organization and Layout of Shoppers World
For Shoppers World, supervising architects Ketchum, Gina & Sharp modified their earlier (1947) design for the proposed North Shore Center. Both designs emphasized function, catering to the convenience and enjoyment of the shopper while providing the retail tenant with up-to-date, attractive facilities. Major features of both schemes include a rectangular, open-air, landscaped pedestrian mall defined on the two long sides by rows of plate glass storefronts; a circular, domed department store anchoring the mall; and a system of covered ramps and walkways which serve not only to connect the department store with smaller stores fronting the mall, but to funnel shoppers from the surrounding multi-acre parking lot into the center. The overall effect of the complex is inward-looking: with the exception of the department store fronting the highway, most stores are accessible only from within the center. While the pedestrian mall was intended to be enclosed by stores on all four sides, Shoppers World maintained a U-shaped layout until the 1 960s, when construction of additional stores closed the gap at the northern end of the center.
One significant difference between the North Shore and Shoppers World schemes is the two-tier, rather than single-story, arrangement of stores at Shoppers World, a layout described in Architectural Forum as a “double-decked Main Street.”10 Further research is needed to document the source for the two-tier shopping space, which was intended to “save steps” and may be unique among the nation’s early regional centers. In greater Boston, nearly twenty-five years passed before construction of another center of stacked stores, and by that time enclosed malls-not open-air shopping centers were preferred by developers and shoppers alike.
By creating a two-tier shopping space around a pedestrian mall, the architects and planners of Shoppers World reconstituted the traditional Main Street shopping experience. Architect Morris Ketchum, Jr. was an advocate of pedestrian-only shopping spaces. His firm’s 1946 redevelopment plan for the central business district of Rye, New York called for creation of a “window shoppers paradise,” achieved by closing the main shopping street to all motor traffic, routing deliveries and other vehicular activity toward surrounding parking lots, roofing over the old sidewalks with covered walkways, and replacing the asphalt street cover with grass and trees.11 The Rye plan, though unexecuted, has been cited as the most significant mall model for Northgate Regional Shopping Center, the nation’s first regional shopping center with pedestrian mall, which opened in 1950 outside Seattle.12 The major features of Ketchum’s Rye proposal were realized in the construction of Shoppers World.
From Route 9, the most readily identified feature of Shoppers World is its circular domed department store, occupied by Jordan Marsh Company since the shopping center opened in October 1951. The signing of Jordan Marsh as anchor tenant was a coup for Suburban Centers Trust, as previously no one had succeeded in persuading the Boston deportment store to open a suburban branch.13 Prominently located and intriguingly designed, Jordon Marsh’s circular “machine for selling” not only drew customers from the highway but generated pedestrian traffic for the shop-lined mall beyond. For shoppers who entered the center directly from side or rear parking lots, the dome acted as a magnet that pulled them post the rows of storefronts on their way toward the department store. Shoppers World’s developers promoted this dome of reinforced concrete, which is roughly 50 feet high and 225 feet in diameter, as the largest unsupported dome in the United States and the largest of arched beam construction in the world.14 Beyond its novelty, the design of the four-level department store was also efficient. The clear span of the dome, supported by a tension ring, allowed for soles areas uncluttered by columns on the main floor and mezzanine.
Precise sources for the low-profile dome have not been definitively established.15 In press coverage prior to opening day, architect George Ely, director of store planning for Jordan Marsh Company, described the store’s ceiling as a flying saucer.16 The architects of Shoppers World succeeded in tapping an eye-catching, futuristic look to herald the shopping center. This look was particularly timely considering the public interest in flying saucers generated by the first widely publicized sighting in the United States in 1947, and a subsequent flurry of reported sightings on the East Coast through the early 1950s.17 One of the more unfortunate alterations mode to Shoppers World involves the infilling of some curved windows on the Jordan Marsh store to create more space for dressing and storage rooms at the periphery of the main soles floor. Despite alterations, the flying saucer Jordan Marsh store remains the most readily recognized commercial design in Boston’s western suburbs.
A November 1951 article in Architectural Record suggested that Shoppers World might become a milestone in the evolution of the shopping center building type.18 Perhaps Shoppers World’s greatest contribution to shopping center design in this country-and arguably its most significant feature today-is not the circular, domed deportment store, but the storelined, open-air pedestrian mall, 100 feet wide and 675 feet long. The storelined pedestrian mall was a hallmark of many regional shopping centers in the immediate postwar years. Northgate Shopping Center outside Seattle, the nation’s first such regional center which opened eighteen months before Shoppers World, incorporated one level of stores framing a narrow (48-foot wide) open-air mall. Converted to a covered walkway in the late 1960s, the pedestrian mall at Northgate was enclosed completely in the late 1970s,19 leaving Shoppers World as the oldest and best-preserved example of the open-air regional shopping center in the notion.
Shoppers World and its contemporaries were designed at a time when all-weather shopping meant strolling outdoors under covered walkways. The open-air pedestrian mall concept was short-lived, its fate sealed in 1956 when Southdale Shopping Center, the nation’s first fully enclosed, climate-controlled center, opened near Minneapolis. Designed by Victor Gruen, Southdale emerged as the model for a new generation of shopping centers, the enclosed shopping mall.20
Growth of the Regional Shopping Center in Greater Boston
Developing one of the first regional shopping centers in the nation had to have been a challenge. An even greater challenge was launching something on the scale of a regional center in a region where planned shopping centers were still a new idea. Three planned centers in greater Boston are known to predate Shoppers World, and all are of neighborhood scale.21 Hancock Village Shopping Center in the West Roxbury section of Boston, Medford Shopping Center in Medford, and Chestnut Hill Shopping Center on the Newton/Brookline line all opened between 1948 and early 1950. All three centers have been substantially remodeled.
The Shoppers World concept had been roughed out by its developers in 1947, before the construction of these three planned shopping centers. Encountering little precedent in the Boston area for a planned shopping center, much less one of regional scale, the developers of Shoppers World had no mechanism for gauging the potential success of their project. This lack of precedent prompted these and other developers of early regional shopping centers to contrast their projects with downtown shopping districts, which had different dynamics in matters of property ownership, management, vehicular and pedestrian circulation, and customer draw. Shoppers World, like other early regional centers, was presented as superior to downtown shopping districts. But in breaking new ground its developers were forced to rely heavily on market studies and population projections rather than on a proven formula for what worked, or didn’t work, in a new commercial development of this scale.
The operators of Shoppers World filed for bankruptcy reorganization only two years after the October 1951 opening. Many of the center’s forty-odd stores reportedly were turning a profit, but center operators could not meet their mortgage bond payments. This was attributed to miscalculations of operating costs, unplanned expenses (such as installation of storm windows in the walkways to cut heating costs during the winter), and, perhaps most important, the failure to attract a second major department store to the opposite end of the mall from Jordan Marsh.22 Shoppers World’s location, almost twenty miles from Boston at what was then the fringe of the metropolitan area, was probably a factor in the problem of signing on a second anchor store. In addition, population projections in the Shoppers World trading area may have been overly optimistic: as late as the mid-1950s, the center’s trading area lacked the dense suburban population enjoyed by other planned centers in the Boston metropolitan area. William Filene’s Sons Co., the Boston department store that Suburban Centers Trust wanted for the second major anchor at Shoppers World,23 was instead an anchor at the nearby Natick Mall, which opened fifteen years later. By that time, the Route 9 /Route 30 commercial area had emerged as a major retail location west of Boston, due in part to improved highway access via a new Massachusetts Turnpike exit (1956) and the completion of numerous residential subdivisions in surrounding communities.
After the bankruptcy filing in 1953, Allied Stores Corp. of New York, then owners of Jordan Marsh Co., took over the operation of Shoppers World (and in later years added new buildings at the northern end of the center). In 1955, Allied announced plans to accomplish what Suburban Centers Trust failed to do: establish a nationwide chain of regional shopping centers, ten in all, with new centers to be constructed in Paramus, New Jersey; Levittown, Pennsylvania; Long Island, New York; Minneapolis; Cincinnati; Houston; and Boston’s North Shore.24 The Minneapolis project was the previously mentioned Southdale (1956). In the Boston area, Allied built Northshore Shopping Center (now Northshore Mall), which opened in 1958 on Route 128 in Peabody, fourteen miles north of the city. Huston Rowls and his new consulting firm, Notional Planning and Research Corp., were on the Northshore development team, having separated from the Shoppers World project in 1953.25 Architects for Northshore were John Graham and Company, the same firm that designed Northgate in Seattle.
A brief overview of regional shopping center development in greater Boston illustrates how far in front the developers of Shoppers World were in introducing the regional concept to the metropolitan area. Between 1948-the beginning of planned shopping center development in greater Boston- and 1963, seventy planned centers opened in the metropolitan area. Of these, three were regionals: Shoppers World, Northshore Shopping Center, and South Shore Plaza (1961) south of Boston. All three were open-air complexes organized around pedestrian malls. At Shoppers World, Ketchum, Gina & Sharp employed two-story buildings surrounding a wide, town-common-like central mall. For Northshore, John Graham repeated his Northgate formula of one-story buildings organized around a narrow, street-like central mall. South Shore Plaza, designed by Victor Gruen, featured one-story buildings defining a doglegged pedestrian mall rather than the central, rectangular mall of the center’s earlier counterparts. Both Northshore Shopping Center and South Shore Plaza were completely enclosed and substantially expanded by the late 1970s, leaving Shoppers World as the best preserved of the early regional shopping centers in Massachusetts.
A subsequent era of regional shopping center construction in greater Boston-the early 1960s to late 1970s-featured the introduction and proliferation of the enclosed center or mall. Several of Boston’s best-known suburban malls were built during this period, on the heels of the semi-enclosed regional mall that opened in 1965 at the base of the new Prudential Insurance Company tower in downtown Boston. Westgate Mall in Brockton, built in 1963, is believed to be the first fully enclosed regional center in the Boston area. Construction of Natick Mall in 1966 signaled the emergence of the Route 9 area of Framingham and Natick as a major regional retail location west of Boston. Northwest of the city on the Route 128 beltway, Burlington Mall opened in 1968. All of these regional centers were one-story as originally built. The first two-story enclosed regional center in greater Boston was The Mall at Chestnut Hill (1974), located on Route 9 on the Newton/Brookline line west of Boston. The Chestnut Hill mall pion incorporates two tiers of stores framing a central mall, a precedent established by Shoppers World almost twenty-three years earlier. With the exception of Chestnut Hill Mall, all of these malls have been either substantially remodeled or entirely redeveloped since the late 1970s.
The Future of Shoppers World
Shoppers World will soon meet a similar fate. After more than a decade of redevelopment proposals, Shoppers World is currently scheduled for demolition in September 1994, to be replaced with a so-called “power center” consisting mostly of large discount retailers. The power center is expected to have stores in a rectangular arrangement with two facing rows of buildings and a cluster of stores at either end. Parking will be located at the center of, rather than surrounding, the complex.
The open-air pedestrian mall, a feature that mode Shoppers World unique when the center opened in 1951 and still distinguishes the complex from other regional centers today, is perceived as a quaint relic deemed impractical in on era of enclosed malls, and frequently cited as one reason for demolition of the center. Redevelopment schemes presented to date have attempted to maintain the open-air feeling of the existing center, though the potential loss of an important community gathering place is of some local concern. Recent efforts to save and relocate the Jordan Marsh dome or the Shoppers World neon sign on Route 9, highlight perhaps the most unfortunate consequence of the center’s demolition, that the distinctive sense of place created by the existing center, a feeling locking in so many malls in the Boston area and elsewhere, will be lost. The center’s owners have indicated a willingness to extend the Shoppers World name to the new power center. Whether the power center proves to be a milestone in the history of shopping center development, time will tell. Certainly, Shoppers World, as a prototype for regional shopping centers constructed in greater Boston and as an early example of the postwar regional center nationally, occupies on important role in shopping center history.
About the Author: SCA member Kathleen Kelly Broomer is an architectural historian and preservation consultant in Natick, Massachusetts. The author wishes to emphasize that the views expressed in this article are her’s alone, formed through independent research, and do not reflect any position of the Massachusetts Historical Commission, where she is currently on staff. The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Arthur Krim, Richard Longstreth, Richard Broomer, and Wim de Wit, who reviewed drafts of this article and provided invaluable suggestions.
Did you enjoy this article? Join the SCA and get full access to all the content on this site. This article originally appeared in the SCA Journal, Fall-Winter 1994-1995, Vol. 13, No. 1. The SCA Journal is a semi-annual publication and a member benefit of the Society for Commercial Archeology.
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