Monday, January 19, 2015

Requiem for a Dead Mall - 7 Years After University Fell.

Back in the fall of 2007, the fate of University Mall was sealed, though most folks didn't have the full concept of Park Avenue that was to come.  At that point in time, I was a relatively unknown new blogger still trying to figure out what stories I would tell.  This one seemed important to me.

And later, I realized I wouldn't be able to tell it for a few years.

With the destruction last week of the UA Cinema 150, a new interest in historical places around Little Rock has been kicked up.  The Remember in Little Rock Facebook group is buzzing (and if you're interested in sharing tales of the city, that's definitely the place to do it) and people are sharing their stories of different places they recall.

JC Penney's, viewed from the south.  The old Doctor's
Hospital was behind me.
For me, University Mall is one of those places that sticks out in my memory.  When I was a young child, I rode the Christmas Train within its central section.  Restrooms were down a long ramp.  While Park Plaza on the north side of Markham was an all-outdoor multi-layered shopping center with a waterfall, University was a real mall, with
South entrance.  Osco Drug was inside to the left.
businesses that could only be accessed from its wide halls.  I ate at Franke's, got treats at The Nut Hut and cringed when Montgomery Ward renamed its stereo and TV section "Electric Avenue" after the equally embarassing 1980s song.  At that point, there was still a salon below the main level of Monkey
South entrance with sign.
Wards where one could pick up catalog orders or get one's hair did.  The ladies' restroom had an exterior room with couches.  It was painted pink all over.

As I grew older, changes came.  Everything's A Dollar moved in, introducing the idea of the dollar store to my generation.  I bought my very first CD at Capital Records, where I'd been going for years for cassette tapes.  There was a pink zircon ring in the window at Zales that I coveted for a couple of years.

Southeast corner.  That would have been the east entrance
for Montgomery Ward to the left, and of course the old
MM Cohn to the right.
When I was in junior high school, Park Plaza went under its transfiguration and became the three level menagerie of shops and stalls.  My friend Jerry and I once clambered through its subterranean halls and chambers, long before a post-9/11 world closed such fun places for teenagers to explore. University Mall had to catch up and compete, and its developers did so
There was a fence around portions of the parking lot by this
time, but only on the east side. The entrance to the mall's
parking lot was still open.  You can see the Baker Building,
now gone and replaced with Chipotle, in the background to
the right.
by adding a second level of stores between its anchors, creating an elevated food court and covering all with a "circus tent" that many of us referred to later as "old goat teats."  I mentioned we were teenagers, right?

I worked there two summers, right after I graduated high school and the one summer I came home, running the carousel in the food
Looking south from the east entrance. The building in sight is
the former Montgomery Ward auto department, which was
used by the city for some time as an auto shop.
court.  Back then I could get a parmesan garlic roll and a giant meatball from Sbarro for $1.05 for lunch.  My engagement ring was purchased at Montgomery Ward, and when I returned to Little Rock for good I went to its final sales before the doors closed.

I think after Wards died off, the mall never really recovered.  Osco Drug
This exterior stairwell was emergency access for the
underground floor of Montgomery Ward - which consisted of
a beauty parlor, catalog pick-up desk and warehouse.
went out, and Franke's moved out to the Market Street Shopping Center.  MM Cohn shrank down, abandoned its second story and eventually went out of business.

By the time it finally closed in October 2007, there were hardly any tenants left to evict.  But I wanted one more visit.  So one December day, I went over to the site to see if I could shoot some photos.  I sought a security guard to let me in, but didn't find one right away.

A view through the east entrance doors. The hallway took you to the main
concourse of the building, while the elevator to the right went to management
offices downstairs.  The double doors were access to MM Cohn's.

Another view down the hall. I apologize, but these images
were taken on a 2002 model Fuji digital camera with
limited resolution.  Also, I was a crap photographer at the time.

The east entrance.

The dual level parking deck still stands today and is all that is left of
University Mall.

As you can see, it remains relatively unchanged.

The north entrance to JC Penney's. 

The north entrance to the mall.  The overhead walkway
connected to the parking deck.

I had parked over by the south JC Penney's entrance and had walked halfway
around by this point.  All doors were locked. I was hoping someone would be at
this security desk, but no such luck.  I kept walking around and taking photos.

The view into the first floor from the north entrance. I could hear a high-
pitched whine.  Eventually, I'd find what was causing it.

JC Penney's was the last of the anchors to close.  This is the view from the
north entrance to the store.
This was a view into JC Penney's from the west. I was still looking for a security
guard.  I figured there had to be one, since every light in the mall was still on.
But I hadn't seen one, and every door of the mall had been locked.


Every one, except this one. I figured I'd go in, find that guard and see if that
person would escort me around to get some final photos. I repeatedly called
"hello?" as I went through.

The high pitched whine I'd been hearing turned out to be the fire alarm, which
emanated from the dressing rooms on the south side of the upper floor at
JC Penney's. There wasn't much left inside, except some storage materials
and artwork.

I could remember being inside this store as a very small girl, when there had
been some sort of water leak overhead and big vinyl bags hung through the
latticework of the suspended ceiling.  I thought I saw someone towards the
center of the store...

It turned out to be an army of mannequin bodies, in the shadows. It creeped me
out, and I didn't venture closer. This photo has been lightened to show those
weird dummies.

The big metal grate that separated the store from the mall was open - as were
most of the gates along the interior.  I hollered again, and heard nothing. I
noticed the neon from the Food Court sign was still on.

At one point in time, the end of the upper level went straight into MM Cohn's.
It was covered long ago.  

The spaces along the concourse were still open and equipped, apparently ready
for someone else to move in.

This was to the north of the JC Penney's entrance.

In its final days, government offices had temporarily located into the mall.

When the mall came down, this elevator shaft continued to
stand.  I don't know if it was incorporated elsewhere, but
you can see what that looked like at Wikipedia.

The food court.  In the summers of 1991 and 1992, I worked here at the
carousel.  It was moved to McCain Mall in 1993, where it stood outside the
entrance to that mall's JC Penney's.  I believe that's the entrance to the
movie theater there today.

I thought it odd to see all these living plants still in their boxes. Or maybe they
were really good fakes.

The glass elevator.

Second floor view east from the center.

Looking north to the food court.  To the right of the entrance at the back, there
was an arcade in which I had once spent many, many hours. To its right
was where a restaurant, maybe Chick-Fil-A, sat, and then McDonald's to
the right of that.

Looking west towards the entrance of JC Penney's.

The first human-like thing I spotted was a dummy left on a bench on the first
floor, outside the former entrance to Montgomery Ward.



The entrance to MM Cohn.

Another dummy, this one apparently a Christmas elf,
hung on the railing outside what used to be Everything's
A Dollar.

The former Everything's A Dollar location space.

A doorway open on the second level lead into MM Cohn's.  This upper story had
been closed for years.

It was in really good shape. Sad another tenant never came in.  Weird thing was,
I could hear something mechanical here.

From this vestibule on the north side of the building, you could see Park Plaza
a block away, and Summit House beyond it.

The noise I was hearing came from the boxed-in enclosure seen here on the left.

One of the plywood sheets to the enclosure had fallen down.  Inside, I was
surprised to see the lights on... 

but more surprised to see the escalator within was still working. As in, it
was still in motion, running endlessly to the plywood-enclosed bottom. A
suspended ceiling had been installed around it, and someone entering the building
in the few years prior probably wouldn't have noticed there was supposed to be an
escalator there.

And this is where my story could have ended... permanently.  I walked into a dressing area,
where there was a door open to a stairwell.  Having already walked through the upper level,
still calling out to see if I could find a security guard, it was time to go downstairs.  I walked
down to the first level and found the door locked.  I walked back up and found the door had
shut behind me, and I was locked in.

There was no cell phone signal.

Fortunately for me, the door knob had come loose over the years, and I managed to loosen the
screws in the plate enough to slide it around and jiggle the knob open. It still scares me to think
I might have become a permanent fixture.

I decided I was about done at that point, so I went back into the mall to make one
more attempt to find the security guard.  


After the scare in the MM Cohn's stairwell, I decided walking down the escalator
in the mall was a better choice.  It wasn't in motion.

I took a few more shots before descending.

The Sbarro had been on the left.

A look up at the "circus tent" supports.

Walking down the escalator.

A view to the east.

A view to the south.  The Nut Hut had hugged the wall on the left, and to the
far left you see the former Montgomery Ward entrance.

My last shot.  Franke's had been on the right past Zale's to the far right.

I turned and walked north to the guard station... where, surprisingly, I found a
guard. We talked for a bit, but by this point it was getting late in the
afternoon, and he wasn't interested in walking through the facility with me.
He gave me a phone number to call the next day to set up a tour. When I called
the next morning, I found it was a disconnected number.

My last walk through University Mall took place December 11th, 2007.
Demolition began 10 days later.
I don't know if these photos were the last taken within, but they are certainly
some of the last.  I had many memories here. 

8 comments:

  1. Thank you for sharing the photos. It was so sad to see University Mall shrivel up and die. I worked at JC Penney's while in high school and early in my college career. I spent many happy hours at "the" Mall as it was called back in the day because it was the only true mall in the LR/NLR area before McCain Mall was built even though the shopping center on JFK and McCain was referred to as North Park Mall.

    I still usually refer to it as "the Mall." It was a sad place to visit at the end. It died a slow lingering death. I will quit babbling and thank you again for the photos.

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  2. Interesting story, good photos. Stairwell scared me! Why did you have to wait to tell the story?
    Karen

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  3. At the time, I was trying very hard to get permission from the property owner. The disconnected phone number was no help. I did some calling around, left a lot of voicemail messages and waited. I was very concerned that someone might be worried about other urban explorers going in. No one ever returned my messages, and I had other assignments that came up (I took a series of travel writing assignments that sent me out of state immediately after this visit) and it just left my mind. Seems seven years is enough time to wait for a phone call to be returned! The concern about urban explorers is moot, since Park Avenue's been open a couple of years now.

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  4. I was a kid in the 80s, and me and my friends preferred Park Plaza because of the better arcade machines, movie theater, and proximity to the Heights. We would walk back and forth all summer. There was also a Dactyl Nightmare machine out in the food court. Look it up for those unfamiliar. It was a week's worth of allowance to play for just a couple of minutes, but it was worth it. There was also a virtual roller coaster ride, but I've never bothered to look up the name of it. Then there's the Dippin Dots, of course. I was fooled by the "ice cream of the future" bit. I bought into that completely. We learned you could ask for a sample and abused the heck out of it. I don't think I've ever paid for it.

    I haven't been in Park Plaza in a few years, but I remember it having a Chick-fil-A and Burger King and that was amazing. I know this is a foodie website where some people will disagree with that, but being a kid, nothing was better. I have some serious nostalgia for the Whopper with cheese.

    Changing gears, my fondest memory of University was just how alien it was. It was only two floors if I recall (the pictures confirm those suspicions), the food court was on the top floor, and entering from the J.C. Penny side was just...mysterious. I was too young to remember where the mall began. We always entered Park Plaza on the Dillard's side and I can see those steps so vividly. There's a set that goes up into a shoe store, and a set that goes down into clothes/short walk to the Clinique counter. The last time I went in there it was exactly the same.

    Me and my friends were big into Dungeons and Dragons and we would try to get into places we weren't allowed. We had this rule that if you saw an adult not to let them speak because they were a wizard and would cast a spell. If you said, "I can't find the bathroom," nine times out of ten you could get away with being caught in the employee area. We never did anything illegal, but I've been in places in Little Rock that you just can't get into as an adult and especially, as Kat pointed out, post 9/11. Being a kid is amazing. We talk about those times like we were Goonies on an adventure.

    Great write-up as usual. You've become THE Arkansas historian in my opinion. Keep it up.

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  5. Great article! And I loved all the pictures. We always went to University Mall when we first moved down here to central Arkansas. Lots of good memories there. Thank you.

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  6. No discussion of University Mall is complete without a mention of Mr. Rufus Whitmore, who worked at Franke's for 60 years or more, including at the mall location for many years. I recall coming to Little Rock on Razorback game days in the late '60s and early '70s and going to the mall. While the wives shopped, the men camped out in front of the TVs in Montgomery Ward and Penney's watching football games. Ward's would place recliners and easy chairs from their furniture department in front of the TVs on those days.

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  7. Mall Deaths are sometimes interesting. We had a mall in Albuquerque NM that went belly up but all the older folks would use it as a place to walk around for fitness purposes, that went on for years. I think it was finally demolished and turned into an outdoor plaza mall thing. I came here because my Dad and my grandparents are from Arkansas but way out from Little Rock (Woodruff, Jackson & Clay Counties). Interesting photo history & commentary. Thanks for posting this.

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  8. Thanks for the memories! We use to go shopping there once or twice a year, until Park Plaza opened up. It awed us with its magnificent look and size. It wasn't til I was older that I realized University Mall was still a great place to get what you needed. I'm sad that it had to come down to make way for "new". But such is life I guess.

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Be kind.