On September 30, northwest suburban Chicago’s historic Randhurst Mall, a fondly remembered part of my childhood, closed its doors for the last time. Soon the bulldozers will roll, tearing down the famous triangular center core of the mall, leaving only the (still open and operating) anchor stores standing. The mall is scheduled to reopen as Randhurst Village, an open air “lifestyle center”, in Spring 2010.
Although Randhurst’s day in the sun was brief – having opened in 1962, it was completely and permanently overshadowed less than ten years later with the 1971 opening of the gargantuan Woodfield Mall just 9 miles away in nearby Schaumburg, it was very influential early on. Randhurst was groundbreaking in a number of ways that are underappreciated today – in its location strategy, its ownership structure and most of all, its outstanding architectural design.
The idea for Randhurst was originally conceived by Carson, Pirie, Scott & Co., a downtown-Chicago based full-line department store with a rich 100-plus year history. With the tremendous growth of the suburbs, Carsons became acutely aware of the growing opportunities there, coupled with the hard fact that a large percentage of these new suburbanites would not be inclined to drive into the Loop to shop. Also in play was the competition factor – there was a definite need to maintain parity with their arch-rival (and State Street neighbor) Marshall Field & Company, who had recently opened their north suburban Old Orchard location and were underway with plans for Oakbrook Center in the western suburbs. Although Carsons had a couple of satellite stores to augment their State Street flagship – the very successful Edens Plaza location, opened in 1956 and another in west suburban Hillside that same year, the vast northwest suburbs, where no major shopping existed, beckoned.
(A decent sized strip mall, Mt. Prospect Plaza, would open in 1961, just down the street from Randhurst at the corner of Rand and Central roads. It contained a Goldblatt’s store, among others, and was also the site of the "Scanda House" restaurant, a fantastic smorgasbord place. Our family celebrated many special occasions there.)
In August 1958, Carsons announced its purchase of an 80-acre plot (an additional 28 acres would be added before construction started) at the intersection of Rand Road and Illinois Route 83 (Elmhurst Road) in the northwest suburb of Mount Prospect, where commissioned studies showed a population of 300,000 within a 25-minute drive and another 100,000 expected by 1965.
By early 1959, two more Chicago retail stalwarts had thrown in their lot on the new project – Wieboldt Stores Inc., and Montgomery Ward & Company. Wieboldt’s, another Chicago department store chain, had been in business for nearly 80 years at the time and had grown to 10 stores, including successful locations in suburban Evanston and River Forest. Of recent note was their very successful Harlem-Irving Plaza store, opened in 1957, which no doubt whetted the company’s appetite for more suburban expansion. Montgomery Ward, founded in Chicago in 1872, had long since become an American institution, but ironically had a negligible store presence in Chicago at the time. In a bizarre move, Montgomery Ward had frozen all store development in the mid-1940’s, and wouldn’t open a new retail unit until 1958! It’s an amazing story that I hope to discuss in more detail here someday. In 1957, Ward bought out The Fair, a small chain of department stores whose flagship was yet another fixture of State Street. In the 50’s, The Fair, which also had an Oak Park location, had added locations at Evergreen Plaza and at Old Orchard. Ward’s Randhurst store would open under The Fair nameplate.
In an unusual business arrangement for the time, the three retailers formed a joint venture, much the way competing railroads used to join together to build a “union station” in a given city. The new entity was named Randhurst Corporation, the name derived from site address at Rand and Elmhurst roads. Harold Spurway, a Carson, Pirie, Scott & Co. vice president, was put in charge of the new company. Randhurst Center (later termed Randhurst Mall) would be anchored by Carsons, Wieboldt’s and The Fair, and would house some 80-odd stores and seven restaurants, totaling over 1.2 million square feet. Downtown Chicago shopping was coming to the northwest suburbs!
To design Randhurst, the corporation hired the renowned architectural firm Victor Gruen Associates . The Austrian-born Gruen was based in New York City and had already made an impressive mark in the area of shopping center architecture, having previously designed Detroit’s Northland Mall for the J. L. Hudson Company, which opened in 1954, and the Southdale Shopping Center in the Minneapolis area which opened two years afterward. Gruen had a well-developed sense of the shopping mall as a transformative societal force, eventually writing a couple of books on the subject. Gruen’s ideal was an enclosed space, with optimum traffic patterns between stores.
Because of the three-anchor setup, a triangular plan for the mall became the obvious direction. A 1962 Architectural Forum article, which aptly dubbed Randhurst a “big pinwheel on the prairie”, gives some fascinating insight into Gruen’s design process for the layout – “The intensive use of galleria space evolved directly from the problem of tying together three large stores of about equal size. Gruen at first conceived a simple triangular pattern, but this left too much space in the central court. On the other hand, had the central court area been too greatly reduced, the passages reaching from the core to the large stores would have become too long, narrow and generally unattractive. Also, a straight triangle would not have drawn shoppers so effectively as does the pinwheel”. And so, Randhurst’s design was set – a (very) large pinwheel, with a 160 foot diameter domed galleria in the center.
A multi-level central court featured a sunken “bazaar level” and a mezzanine level in the center of the galleria. The bazaar level featured “Wieboldt’s Hobby Shop”, an annex of sorts to their main store, among others. There was also a second level around the perimeter of the galleria composed of office space, which many years later would be converted to retail space. Sculptures and stylized benches were an integral part of the package, and beneath it all was a basement service level.
An unconventional mall called for an unconventional groundbreaking, which was held in November 1960. Instead of the standard lineup of executives, shovels in hand to turn over a bit of dirt, a 60-year old barn on the property was ceremonially burned down. The $20 million project was underway. On August 16, 1962, Randhurst opened its doors to throngs of excited crowds. In addition to the three anchor stores, there were a number of other notables, including a Jewel Food Store, the outside entrance of which can be seen in photo number three above, and the inside entrance in pictured below. The inside entrance was particularly attractive, with its mosaic tile surround, oval welcome sign and translucent panels featuring the store logo. In 1970, the Jewel store was relocated to a free-standing unit at the edge of the Randhurst property. There was also an S.S. Kresge store, which I remember particularly well.
In short order, the mall would prove to be a smashing success, and many stores were added to the initial lineup in the first couple of years – Baskin, Maurice L. Rothschild and Lane Bryant, to name just a few. A year after the mall opened, in August 1963, Montgomery Ward changed the name of its Randhurst store from The Fair to (of course) Montgomery Ward, capitalizing on the store’s success to promote its main banner. The store’s merchandise offering was expanded by 40 percent and a restaurant was added as well, possibly to counter Carsons' popular Tartan Tray. Within a couple of years the remaining Fair stores would also assume the Wards name. In 1966, the Wieboldt’s store was expanded from 190,000 to 225,000 square feet, making it Randhurst’s largest store. (Wards had 154,000 and Carsons 200,000 square feet).
This was the Randhurst my family discovered when we moved to Mount Prospect in early 1966. It was a magical place to my young eyes – the galleria dimly lit as if to make the storefronts shine even brighter. The Le Petit Café, a particular favorite. The polished cement floors, with seams in the Randhurst triangular logo pattern. The great concave moon-like surface of the dome (composed of sprayed-on concrete) and the funky contour of the support columns. The majestic fountain in front of Montgomery Ward, the color coded lockers inside the main mall entrances (orange, blue and yellow, I believe), the cement benches and the many plants. Most important were the cement animal-shaped sculptures. Whether or not they were meant to be played on, they most certainly were - so much so that they had a patina by the time of my earliest memories in the late 60’s. Truly charming features were the parking lot reminder signs – Apple Lot, Grape Lot, Orange Lot, etc. , with modernist pictures of the corresponding fruit. Randhurst had personality.
Another fixture of my elementary school days was the Randhurst Cinema, a single-screen theatre which opened on a Randhurst outparcel in June 1965, premiering with John Wayne’s “In Harm’s Way”. It was developed and operated by General Cinema Corporation, a Boston area company who was then in the midst of a ferocious expansion drive to build theatres in shopping centers everywhere. Randhurst was the second of many theatres GCC would open in the Chicago area. Interestingly, the first was in Mount Prospect as well (they also owned a drive-in located on Route 66, which they would eventually sell to concentrate on shopping center theatres). Among the earliest movies I saw there were “The Battle of Britain” and “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” (the Peter O’Toole version). Of course, I saw a ton of Disney flicks there as well, including “Napoleon and Samantha” and “Herbie Rides Again”. I checked the most recent AFI Top 100 list, and unfortunately these two didn’t make it. Oh well, maybe next time around.
We continued to shop regularly at Randhurst until 1971, when two things happened. One, we moved a bit further away (we would return to the Mt. Prospect area less than two years later). Secondly, our hearts were stolen by a new mall – Woodfield – and things would never be the same. The largest mall in the world at the time of its opening, Woodfield had it all – Sears, JCPenney, Marshall Field’s, scads of other stores, and for me – Musicland and the Orange Bowl restaurant. It was all over but the shouting. Unfortunately for Randhurst, too many people felt the same way, although a loyal, local core of shoppers continued to hang in there. After Woodfield opened, Randhurst became a once-in-a-while stop, and by 1976 or so we barely darkened the door, despite the addition of some nice stores, including an Americana store, and the great Kroch’s & Brentano’s, Chicago’s bookstore of repute before the advent of Barnes and Noble.
In mid-1981, Randhurst Corporation sold out to Columbia, Maryland-based developer Rouse Company. Among many other projects, Rouse was involved in the early redevelopment of the near-abandoned Navy Pier to the shopping funland it is today. Although their plans for Randhurst were more modest, they still felt the need to update Randhurst’s appearance, and a number of renovation projects were initiated. The dome’s space-age cement fascia was stripped away to reveal bar joists and corrugated decking. The funky contoured columns were given a (boring) cylindrical refacing, and brass lighting sconces were attached. The mall’s lighting level was cranked up, and the main floor was resurfaced in a white and rose striped terrazzo, admittedly a very nice touch. Eventually, the fountain and sculptures were gone, the Gruen-trademark cement benches replaced with off-the-shelf wooden types. Additional stores were crammed everywhere, including the second level, and a food court was placed atop the center galleria mezzanine. It all served to give Randhurst a more generic appearance, in my opinion.
I’ve been to Randhurst twice in the last quarter century. In 1987, I moved away from the Chicago area to Atlanta to begin my career. One Saturday afternoon shortly before I moved, my Dad took me to Randhurst to buy me a briefcase as a going away present. It seemed like a special moment even at the time, and of course I look back on it with fondness. (My dad is still alive and well.) I remember marveling at how much Randhurst had changed since the remodeling. The second time was just about a year ago. I was on a business trip to Chicago that took me to the northwest suburbs, and I had recently read about the upcoming changes to Randhurst. Besides the obvious changes – Wieboldt’s and Wards were long gone, Carsons was now located in the old Wieboldt’s store, the revolving door of other anchors, etc., I was sad to see the mall looking somewhat emptyish, and the stores that were left didn’t seem to be doing that well. As much as I hate to see history torn down, I certainly see the logic behind the lifestyle center conversion, and I wish the new incarnation of Randhurst all the best. I’m grateful for photographs and memories, though.
There are some excellent Randhurst articles to be found on the following websites, which chronicle Randhurst’s more recent history in much more detail. Labelscar has a great article and photos, which are fun to contrast with those I’ve included here. The Mall Hall of Fame has another great article on Randhurst, part of a series on Victor Gruen’s historic malls (the site also showcases other mall pioneers as well). Stores Forever is a site by John Gallo, who seems to have been at all the right places at the right times, and fortunately for us, he brought his camera along. Check out his two recent posts on Randhurst, including great 1982 views of the anchor store facades, which were largely unchanged from their original appearance at the time.
These photos are all circa 1962, Randhurst’s maiden year. The first photo, showing the classic Randhurst sign is a publicity shot from the sign company. The exteriors and galleria shots (in the sixth photo, check out the whale sculpture and the ladies in Randhurst logo hats in the foreground) are by famed architectural photographer Balthazar Korab and appeared in the November 1962 issue of Architectural Forum, the section and plan views are from the same magazine, and the individual store façade shots below are from Chain Store Age. (Corned Beef Center, where ya been?) Last is a grand opening ad with a listing of the initial lineup of stores.