Shop 'Til It Drops: Take a Virtual Tour of a Dead Mall

Prange Way
Prange Way

First U.S. manufacturing collapsed, under pressure from low-wage labor overseas, leaving the American landscape dotted with hallowed-out plants and gutted factories. Now, assailed by a variety of adverse factors, from Internet shopping to economic downturn, the retail sector has been suffering too, bequeathing to the country an increasing number of abandoned -- some say dead -- malls.

DailyFinance has partnered with retail history blog Labelscar to bring you an inside look at one of these shuttered shopping centers. Our featured dead mall is -- or was -- called Northwest Plaza. "Located in the solidly middle class north county suburbs of St. Louis," Labelscar writes, "Northwest Plaza opened in 1963 as an open-air shopping center very close to the airport, along the busy Lindbergh Blvd. (US 67) and also very close to the intersection of I-70 and I-270. It immediately became the largest shopping center in the St. Louis area."

And not only there -- according to The Riverfront Times, a St. Louis weekly, Northwest Plaza "was the largest shopping center in the world" when it opened, boasting "five anchor department stores and 185 smaller shops, restaurants and boutiques." Anchors included Famous-Barr -- later Macy's (M) -- J.C. Penney (JCP), and Sears (SHLD). One of "the area's biggest employers," the plaza drew "kids from all over St. Louis County" to gather at its main fountain.

But by the mid-1980s, Labelscar says, when Northwest Plaza, fashions in retail architecture had left the 20-year-old, open-air mall behind: Enclosed malls were now the order of the day. With other, more popular shopping centers springing up around it, Northwest Plaza was sold in 1984 to Paramount Group, which enclosed and expanded it 1989.

Post-renovation, the total area of Northwest Plaza was 1.8 million square feet. New additions included Kids R Us and a nine-screen cinema, described at the time by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as a "futuristic" three-level entertainment complex "where customers can see showtimes and theater seating information on lighted signs flanking the computerized ticket booth."

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The mid-1990s saw something of a slump for Northwest Plaza, as occupancy dropped to 86%. By 1997, however, "an untraditional approach to leasing" -- including the opening of a 24,000 square-foot OfficeMax (OMX), the chain's first mall location -- had turned things around, filling the plaza to 96% occupancy. That year, the mall was sold again, this time for $111 million, to Westfield America, the largest retail landlord in the St. Louis metropolitan area.

At first, the mall flourished under Westfield, which filled it with new retailers. But "Northwest Plaza's fortunes changed dramatically for the worse beginning around 2002," said Labelscar: "The slowdown of the economy, ever-increasing competition, and failed renovation efforts sent the mall into a downward spiral." Today, after an agonizing decline -- at one point there was a sign at the food court entrance apologizing for the mall's sorry state -- including another change of ownership and a foreclosure, Northwest Plaza stands empty, a hulking shell of its vibrant former self. Its future remains uncertain, though demolition seems likely.

Click through the gallery below for a glimpse inside the eerily empty Northwest Plaza, and head over to Labelscar for much more on dead malls and the history of retail in America.


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