The History of Cincinnati's Shopping Malls

June 14, 2018 7 Comments

Beechmont Mall logo image

“We grew up in the hallowed halls of, half a million shopping malls...” - Todd Snyder, “My Generation (Part 2)”

For the post-World War II generations the local shopping mall was an important place not only in terms of commerce but as a social center.

The idea of an indoor shopping center goes back to the 1890s and the opening of The Arcade in downtown Cleveland. Nestled between two office buildings, this five-story structure is still in operation today and is filled with various types of merchants and everyone's favorite meeting place, the food court. Another early indoor shopping center, Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza, opened in 1922. It remains a viable destination today and features offices and upscale apartments in addition to its many shops.

The first modern mall, Southdale Center, was built in Edina, Minnesota in 1956. “It's the most important mall ever built,” St. Olaf College history professor James Farrell told Marketplace Money in a 2006 radio story on the center’s 50th anniversary. “Every mall (built) after …1956 was just a variation on the theme of Southdale.”

Cincinnati Malls

While many shopping plazas had sprung up in the area after World War II, the first enclosed mall in Cincinnati was Kenwood Mall, now Kenwood Square. This is not to be confused with the Kenwood Towne Center across Montgomery Road, which today is commonly referred to as the Kenwood Mall.

Developed by Carl and Robert Linder, the original Kenwood Mall opened in 1966. Small in comparison to other Midwestern malls, it had only one anchor, Shillito’s, and 40 stores. It’s big claim to fame was a 40-foot fountain that actually used glycerin as opposed to water to create a unique waterfall effect. A few months later, the Western Woods Mall opened next to the Western Hills Plaza. It too was anchored by a Shillito’s.

Often confused with its neighbor, the Western Hills Plaza, Western Woods Mall enjoyed moderate success through the ‘70s and 80s before the wrecking ball caught up with it in the late 90s. The inline mall was replaced by Home Depot, while the original Shillito’s eventually became a Dillard’s. The structure that was once the Thriftway supermarket is today a candle and gift shop.

Originally an open-air plaza that opened in 1960, the next mall to come online in the area was Tri-County Mall which was enclosed in 1968. A year later, the Beechmont Mall opened in Anderson Township, followed in 1972 by Northgate Mall in Colerain Township, and Florence Mall in 1976.

Beechmont was originally anchored by Shillito's and Mabley & Carew. The latter was an Elder Beerman for a time before that store was completely razed and replaced by a Parisian department store in the mid-90s. In the mid-70s, a north wing was added anchored by Gold Circle, which later became a K-Mart.

Beechmont Mall bustled for years but eventually succumbed to increased shopping opportunities in nearby Eastgate as well retailers’ resistance to the mall’s high rent.  It was redeveloped into an outdoor shopping center with the old Shillito's, now Macy's, the only remaining structure from the mall's 1969 opening.

In 1974, in the farmlands of Clermont County, ground was broken in 1974 for yet another enclosed shopping center, the Eastgate Mall which opened in 1980. In 1975, the same developers also built Towne Mall in Middletown.

Eastgate Mall gained a neighbor across State Route 32 in the mid-80s with the opening of Bigg’s Place, now Jungle Jim’s Eastgate. Originally, Bigg’s Place not only housed that hypermarket but a mini-mall along its entire storefront. It featured, among other things, a Record Town record store. Think about that. In the early ‘90s, there were 4 record stores in Eastgate, 3 of them in Eastgate Mall (Camelot, Tape World, and Musicland).

In 1978, the fictitious Pinedale Mall makes an appearance in WKRP in Cincinnati, as Les Nessman reports on the station's disastrous turkey giveaway. It's unclear whether Pinedale is supposed to be stand-in for a real area mall or was just made up entirely for the episode. 


The mall boom wasn’t a success for everyone, though, as developers of the Crestview Mall discovered. That center opened in 1979 and was anchored by McAplin’s. Unfortunately, the mall had trouble filling inline spaces and was a ghost mall by the 1990s with only a handful of stores open for business. At about the same time Beechmont began its makeover, Crestview was also redeveloped into an outdoor shopping center.

Across the river, things were going a little better, especially in Kenwood. Starting in 1986, the Kenwood Plaza, opened in 1956, was totally reconfigured into an enclosed mall and renamed Kenwood Towne Center. For a time it was one of the priciest malls in America in terms of the cost to lease space. It’s still one of the city’s most vibrant shopping destinations having received another makeover in 2005.

A few years after Kenwood Towne Center debuted, the Kenwood Mall was turned inside out, being redeveloped into a four-sided outdoor plaza which still stands today.

It was around this time a second mall boom took place in the area. With Kenwood Towne Center sorted, a new mall appeared along I-275 on the border of Forest Park and Fairfield named the Forest Fair Mall. An ambitious project, it’s 1.5 million square feet would make it the second largest mall in Ohio after the now demolished Randall Park Mall in Cleveland.

However, the concept never really took off. Despite the fanfare of its full opening in 1989, the mall had trouble filling its inline spaces and has struggled ever since, changing its name to Cincinnati Mills, Cincinnati Mall, and finally Forest Fair Village all while changing hands numerous times.

Its proximity to the already established Northgate Mall, two exits away, and Tri-County Mall, one exit away, was probably the biggest contributing factor to its struggles. Indeed, Tri-County Mall added a second level in the 90s, though that didn’t really seem to boost that mall’s fortunes.

An attempt to place mall downtown in the Carew Tower at first was a smash. Developers hoped to pull people out of the suburbs and back into downtown, and for a while, they did just that. Tower Place Mall opened in 1991 and thrived for several years but gradually declined after the turn of the century. The last shop in the complex closed in 2013.

Today, the so-called outdoor lifestyle centers like The Green in Dayton, Easton in Columbus, and Liberty Center in Liberty Township are preferred by shoppers and developers, as are simple strip malls. Consider in the 20 odd years after Kenwood and Western Woods Malls opened in 1966, eight more malls were opened in Greater Cincinnati. Since 1988, not one. Indeed, we lost 3 along the way with the Kenwoods being a wash.

In any case, the Golden Age of the shopping mall has long passed, and we will likely never again see the mall building boom of the late 20th century. Tastes have changed, and the concept is no longer seen as unique or special. However, most of the area’s surviving malls are relatively healthy, given the state of the economy, the continuing challenges from other types of shopping destinations, and the Internet.




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MWW
MWW

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Also worth mentioning are the Union Terminal mall and the “Plummet Mall” hoax. Fun site, thanks!

Sharon Hite
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June 15, 2018

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