Photo by Ron Jasin

November 28, 2012

You ain’t a beauty, but hey you’re alright

A look back at Mid-City Mall’s 50 years in the Highlands

Any self-respecting list detailing The Crucially Important Events of 1962 will include: the formation of The Rolling Stones, the opening session of Vatican II, the first appearance of Spiderman, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the births of Evander Holyfield and Jodie Foster. If you look somewhat further down the list you’ll also find an entry for the grand opening of Kentucky’s second indoor “Mall-Type Shopping Center.”

Fifty years ago, Louisville’s own Mid-City Mall opened for business, and LEO Weekly figured — to borrow from Donald Rumsfeld — you celebrate the golden jubilee of the conveniently located urban shopping center you have, not the one you want. Mid-City Mall is the one we have, and it’s been at this city’s crossroads for a half-century now.

In 1959, a group of investors interested in building a shopping center purchased a tree-lined, 10-acre facility on Bardstown Road in the Highlands where The German Protestant Orphans Home had been taking care of displaced kids since the turn of the century. The orphans were relocated to a facility on Goldsmith Lane that has since become Brooklawn Child and Family Services, and the stately brick building was leveled.

The little precedent that existed in the late ’50s for shopping mall construction rarely included the type of urban infilling proposed by the Mid-City Mall project; new shopping centers were, generally, being constructed in newly or recently developed suburban areas, not in the middle of established residential neighborhoods. With a proposed site 2 miles from downtown Louisville and with customers effectively built-in, the project seemed promising.

To say Mid-City Mall was on its back foot before it got started, though, would be an understatement. By the time ground was finally broken in 1962, a new corporation had taken over the original investment group to salvage the already floundering project, several investors withdrew, a new president (who was later charged with tax fraud) had been hired, the original architectural and contracting firms were both fired and replaced, original architectural drawings were scrapped, and loans for the initial purchase of the property in the amount of $500,000 came due before 1 cubic foot of concrete had been poured.

Originally the project had a proposed price tag of $7 million. The final construction costs were pared down to about half that, leaving what Grady Clay of The Courier-Journal reported to be a few “architectural casualties” from the first set of drawings. Initially, Mid-City Mall was to be “…an impressive, somewhat Moorish-looking five-story department store with a pool in front and arcaded malls flanked by stores all around … a fifth-floor penthouse ‘with a view into Cherokee and Tyler Parks and a grove of mature trees.’” To Clay’s suggestion that the building that emerged was a somewhat diminished, “comparatively pedestrian looking one story affair,” one of Mid-City’s owners responded, “The beauty’s on the inside now.”

Inside was 198,000 square feet of retail spaces and, beautiful or not, Mid-City Mall opened on Oct. 10, 1962, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony presided over by local dignitaries and expectant shoppers. As promised in several multi-page ads announcing the opening, and more than a few supportive articles from the local press, neighborhood residents were now living within walking distance of a single location where they could find: a department store, five-and-dime, two grocery stores, jewelry shop, bakery, bowling alley, cocktail lounge with a piano bar, beauty salon, druggist, barber shop, café, florist, candy shop, shoe store, book store and card shop. Not a bad start, all things considered.

Of the original businesses that opened that day, one has remained in operation for the past 50 years. The Jewel Box was originally a kiosk in the concourse of the mall selling watches, rings, necklaces and other jewelry. At night the jewels were locked in a safe and the cart was covered with a tarp. In 1981, Les Miller bought the business, which he runs with his family; it’s now located in a storefront in the middle of the mall. Miller says he personally favors the craftsmanship of turn-of-the-century, Art Nouveau and Deco pieces to that of contemporary jewelry. “It was true workmanship … It took a steady hand to cut diamonds by hand back then. These days a computer figures out how they should be cut and tells you how long to grind a stone, when to turn it, at what angle … Open up one of these $2,000 watches sometime, too; you’ll find $50 Japanese movements inside. It’s all about the brand nowadays.” As Miller says this, I remember coming into his store as a kid to ogle the once-popular Swatch brand wristwatches, which I coveted and needed very badly. Miller fetches an antique, 14-carat gold, Swiss pocket watch. He winds it and opens the back, exposing a microscopic, labyrinthine pile-up of gears and springs that whir and tick inaudibly, perfectly, as we speak.

The Jewel Box keeps busy selling estate jewelry, replacing batteries, fixing watchbands and broken clasps, and gets by well enough. Miller agrees that the presence of Baxter Avenue Theatres, which opened in 1996, brings in some foot traffic but explains that business is not what it used to be at Mid-City. “There’s just not much retail here anymore,” he says, gesturing over his shoulder out into the concourse of the mall. His assessment is perfectly accurate.

City Café’s Mid-City Mall location closed permanently last week, leaving ValuMarket, Family Dollar, the Nearly New Shop and Mid-City Nails as the only retail facilities whose entrances open into the mall concourse. The rest of the mall’s current interior tenants are non-retail and service-based businesses: fitness center, doctor’s office, Jazzercise studio, dance studio, dental office, tax service, law office, a library branch, and The Academy of St. Andrews — a school for students with autism — which opened its Mid-City campus in August.

While there is a distinctly different mix of businesses than those the original owners sought to attract in 1962, Mid-City — as it appears today — reflects the weird cross-section of commerce, service, entertainment and need that has, for decades, made the mall seem as much a community center and village green as a shopping center.

In the mid 1970s, the mall’s neglected conditions became a point of serious contention, and several neighborhood organizations banded together in a boycott. By some accounts, the boycott, in addition to poor management, hastened the foreclosure of Mid-City, which was placed in receivership in 1977. In September of that year, the property was purchased by its current owners, and while an initial remodeling job addressed some of the issues that concerned tenants and neighbors alike, Mid-City Mall never quite shook the low-rent image that led to its ubiquitous if predictable nickname “Skid-City.”

Folks visited the mall all the same, though, with customers coming from surrounding neighborhoods, as well as the far reaches of the city, from the South End to downtown, because of Mid-City Mall’s central location. It seems like it wasn’t until the ’80s that Mid-City got comfortable in its own skin. Bill Hall, one of many elderly patrons over the years to regularly visit the mall to chitchat and people-watch, summed up the prevailing feeling of Louisvillians regarding the mall when he told a C-J reporter in 1986 that, while Mid-City maybe wasn’t the fanciest place, “What’s the use of going anywhere else? It’s right here.”

My grandmother, Eva Manning, was also in daily attendance at Mid-City. She and her friends would sit on the little triangular chairs at Ehrmann’s Bakery, smoking and kibbutzing for hours; if one of them didn’t show up in a timely fashion, they’d use the bakery’s phone to call and make sure everything was OK. I recall, quite fondly, sitting up on one of the stools that squeaked as it spun around, looking at the brass fixtures and ornately carved dark veneer curving up and around a huge beveled mirror that successfully made the room feel twice as long as it actually was. I’d get a scoop of caramel ice cream or a Coke float while Grandmother smoked cigarettes and drank black coffee. She had it absolutely made in 1994 when the Louisville Free Public Library combined the Shelby Park and Highland branches and relocated them to the mall, right next door to the bakery. Everything she needed was in one place, within walking distance of her home.

The library’s relocation solidified the mall’s position as a place serving purposes above and beyond the commercial and came on the heels of Mid-City’s substantial $500,000 renovation that included a new edifice and new interior design. Two years later, Baxter Avenue Theatres opened and has seemingly thrived in the location ever since.

Still, the recession has been relentless for retail, as is evidenced by the vacancies in the mall. There’s a dark empty window where the bakery used to be, and sometimes the place feels like a ghost town.

Mid-City Mall has been and remains a lot of things to this city, depending on who you ask: a de-facto community center, an undeniably convenient gathering place for an incredibly diverse cross-section of Louisvillians, an eyesore, a parking lot, an unlikely landmark, a home base. Any way you slice it, though — like life in America, without Spiderman or the Stones — it’s difficult to imagine now, 50 years on, what the Highlands neighborhood or Louisville as a whole would be like without it. 

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