The photos above were taken in the fall of 1968, two years after the grand opening of the Dixie Square Mall, located in Harvey, Illinois, a far south suburb of Chicago, on the Dixie Highway (Illinois Route 1) between 151st and 154th streets. Dixie Square, often referred to in its early years as “Dixie Square Shopping Center”, and later on occasionally as “Dixie Mall”, is undoubtedly the most famous “dead mall” of all time. The subject of a new book, a film project, countless websites and more devotees than blackstrap molasses, Dixie Square has become a most unlikely icon of American pop culture.
Why all of this notoriety, one would reasonably ask? There are a number of reasons – first, there’s the simple fact that it was a new, enclosed mall with major anchors (Penneys and Wards), built during an era when many localities were seeing …well, their first new, enclosed malls with major anchors. Secondly, for a medium-sized mall, Dixie Square had some very appealing, high-concept design features. Third, the mall was only open for twelve short years, an extremely brief lifespan. Fourth, amazingly, substantial portions of Dixie Square still stand, more than 30 years after the mall’s closure – a fascinating, albeit dangerous, modern-day ruin.
But the most significant reason, far and away, was the 3 minutes and 30 seconds of celluloid immortality the mall gained in its most celebrated role, a year after it had ceased its primary function. Dixie Square was the site of the famous indoor car chase scene (plus some preliminary hijinks in the mall’s parking lot) in the 1980 film classic The Blues Brothers.
As mentioned, there are some great websites, filled with the fine work of (very brave) modern-day photographic explorers that are dedicated to preserving the history of Dixie Square Mall, so I won’t attempt to go into comprehensive detail here. Instead, I’ll try to touch on some of the major points of Dixie Square’s storied history.
On March 26, 1964 the Blue Island Sun-Standard announced the pending approval by the city of Harvey of a petition to annex the 58 acre site of the rundown Dixie Hi Golf Course for development as a shopping center. On October 12th of that year the annexation was formally approved, and the development group, led by Meyer C. Weiner, broke ground soon afterward.
Architects Hornbach and Steenwyk of Grand Rapids, Michigan were engaged to design the “L-shaped” center, which would feature some 60 stores, including two anchors - Montgomery Ward and Penneys (each with an unattached Auto Center), with a Jewel Food Store, a Walgreens drug store and Illinois’ largest Woolworth’s rounding out the major tenants. The latter two stores would each feature a restaurant, Walgreen’s “Grill Room” and Woolworth’s Harvest House.
The first portion of Dixie Square to operate was the Montgomery Ward store, which opened to the public on October 21, 1965, preceding the rest of the mall by nearly a year. The single-story Wards unit would be Dixie Square’s largest store at 182,000 square feet, including the 20-bay auto center.
On August 31, 1966, with 24 of the planned 60 stores already open and another 12 ready to launch, a dedication ceremony was held, featuring singer Mel Torme and a number of local celebrities. Among these celebrities was WCFL’s “Trooper 36-24-36”, the Top 40 station’s on-air traffic reporter Jane Roberts, a beautiful blonde who frequently made public appearances on the station’s behalf in white short-shorts and the station’s call letters “prominently displayed” on her outfit. (That’d go over well today, eh?) During this time, Jane Roberts was also a regular on WCFL’s legendary “Chickenman” radio segments, a send-up of the wildly popular Batman TV show.
On November 10-12, 1966, Dixie Square’s “official” grand opening was held, hailing the completion of the mall and especially that of its eagerly awaited second anchor, the impressive 2-story, 144,000 square foot Penneys store. Like the dedication ceremony, this too was a grand affair, featuring country music comedians Homer and Jethro, accordionist Art Van Damme (visions of a “Dixie Square Polka” are dancing in my head), and WGN-TV’s "Ringmaster Ned" Locke of the Bozo’s Circus show, a beloved ( and today, fondly remembered) figure of Chicago television, among others.
The real star, though, was the mall itself. Featuring a 60-foot tall tower sign which “(could) be seen from the Illinois Tollway and the Calumet Expressway” outside, sculpture-laden fountains and “ultra-real” tropical foliage (read: artificial) indoors. A truly stunning feature was the “Wonderfalls” display in the mall’s atrium. Engineered and built by Navan, Inc., a division of military aircraft and aerospace manufacturer North American Aviation, the Wonderfalls were tantalizingly described in a Dixie Square grand opening ad in the South End Reporter: “'Flowing' columns emerging magically from the ceiling and dropping 25 feet to disappear mysteriously in a planting of rocks, flowers and trees”…"From a distance, the columns appear to be marble; closer inspection reveals that the columns are composed of liquid falling as droplets in precise paths. Dixie Square’s flowing columns are produced with a special spaceage liquid descending stretched strands of Nylon. The liquid is much heavier than water so that it clings to the strands in droplet shapes as it descends. More than a quarter million droplets are in motion in the five columns at any given moment”.
Through the balance of the sixties, Dixie Square Mall was very successful, drawing large crowds and hosting a wide variety of community events including contests of all sorts, celebrity appearances, Christmas choir programs, Santa appearances (arriving by helicopter, no less!) and all of the wonderful ballyhoo associated with malls of that era.
In 1970, another major anchor was added to Dixie Square. Jewel Companies, Inc., decided to double their investment, so to speak, in Dixie Square with the addition of a Turn-Style discount department store at the rear of the mall. As mentioned, a Jewel Food Store was already in place.
For the city of Harvey, however, things were changing. In 1970, the city was at the approximate midpoint of a huge demographic shift which led to racial tension, described in detail in this Encyclopedia of Chicago article. As the article mentions, Harvey’s “rates of crime, unemployment and poverty were among the suburbs' highest”, and compounding its problems, the city had “lost its industrial and commercial base”. These were hardly ideal conditions for a thriving mall (or much of anything else, for that matter), and Dixie Square’s fortunes would fall precipitously over the next few years.
To make matters worse, the Dixie Square property was the site of a number of sad incidents, including assaults, murder, and the accidental death of a well-known stuntman as he neared completion of a pole-sitting event in the mall’s parking lot. The cumulative effect of these tragic events did much to tarnish Dixie Square’s image.
Despite these setbacks, efforts were made to keep Dixie Square viable. As late as the fall of 1974, such high-profile celebrities as the Harlem Globetrotters (arguably at the peak of their popularity at the time) were booked to entertain mall customers for Dixie Square’s 8th anniversary. Some decorative upgrades were also implemented around this time, including the installation of a huge, funky architectural tent canopy at the mall’s entrance, which is clearly visible in the Blues Brothers sequence. The canopy was designed by a Wisconsin firm called Chrysalis East (a great 70’s name if there ever was one), who provided the massive fabric structures for both permanent installations and special events, including Chicagofest, a series of concerts that were held at Navy Pier in the late 70’s and early 80’s and featured scores of major musical acts ranging from Muddy Waters to Pablo Cruise to Alice Cooper. Coincidentally, the Blues Brothers played there a couple of times (’79 and ’80, I think. Sure wish I’d seen them.), and Sinatra played there in 1982 (Really wish I’d seen him. I did see Cheap Trick, though. How’s that for varied musical taste?).
These efforts did little to slow Dixie Square’s downward slide, and by the mid-70’s vacancies starred to appear, with increasing frequency as time passed. The beginning of the end came on August 30, 1976 when Montgomery Ward announced the closing of its Dixie Square store, effective October 4th. The Southtown Economist quoted the Wards district manager as follows: “Over the past several years we have invested heavily in the nearby Evergreen Park, Munster and Matteson stores, all within a five-mile radius of the Harvey store”. It would become a familiar mantra as other chains began to pull out of Dixie Square in droves. In early 1977, the Karoll’s Men’s Store, pictured above, closed and moved to nearby Homewood. Polk Bros. had already closed – steering their customers to (a good bit further away) Burbank.
One of the strangest aspects of Dixie Square’s demise had to do with the Turn-Style store. With its discount pricing approach, one could have easily expected the Dixie Square Turn-Style to do strong business in light of the area’s declining median income. Problem was, the store was located in the back of the mall with no sight line from Dixie Highway. Out of sight, apparently it was out of customers’ minds as well, as the intriguing advertisement below (from 1972, when the store was a mere two years old) tried to address. When Jewel decided to shutter the Turn-Style operation in 1978, most of the stores went to the May Company for conversion to Venture stores. Sadly but understandably, May passed on the Dixie Square location.
In January 1978, the other shoe dropped when the Penneys store (known of course as JCPenney by this time) closed, its customers referred to the year and a half old Orland Square Mall Penneys. A full year later, closeout merchandise from area JCPenney stores was hauled into the Dixie Square location for one final blowout sale, nicknamed all-too-appropriately “Dixie’s Last Gasp”. The final holdouts were Jewel and Walgreens, both of whom pulled out in mid-1979. Dixie Square Mall passed into history, likely to soon to be forgotten.
Until Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi and director John Landis came along. Aykroyd and Belushi, two members of the original Saturday Night Live cast (and ardent Blues fans), had developed the concept for “The Blues Brothers” through a series of skits on the show starting in 1976. What appeared at the start to be mostly a comedy effort quickly gained a measure of musical credibility as the pair assembled a crack group of legendary session players, including guitarist Steve Cropper, saxophonist “Blue” Lou Marini, bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn and other top-flight musicians. And Belushi and Aykroyd turned out to be decent singers as well, or were at least a good fit for the songs they picked. Of course, humor was still a huge part of the equation, with the funky sunglasses, the “fercocter” suits (That description is from the movie, and I have no idea if it’s vulgar or not. Or even if it’s spelled correctly.), and the crazy stage moves. By the time their record album Briefcase Full of Blues came out in 1978, they were a national sensation. The movie project was announced soon afterward.
The script (written by Aykroyd and Landis) called for an indoor chase scene, and since the story was set in Chicago, and much of the actual shooting took place there, Dixie Square’s availability came at the perfect time. Of course, the planters, benches and much of the rest of the décor were gone, replaced with trellises, carts and other items that would easily break away when hit by the cars. The Jewel Food Store was restocked, at least in front of the camera’s eye, and the mall’s store signs were all relit. A number of retailers showed up in the “fictional Dixie Square” that weren’t part of the actual mall, including an Oldsmobile dealership. It’s my understanding that the Dixie Square Penneys store sported the 1960’s logo (a true classic and one of my all time favorites) throughout its entire existence, and that the signs were pulled down after the store closed. For the purposes of the filming, the company supplied the new (and still current) “JCPenney” logo signage, presumably to maximize promotional value. Most notably, since Walgreens didn’t want to be associated with the film (Guess it didn’t fit their concept of a “drive-thru” pharmacy! Ok, I’ll go back to my room.), the space was taken by a willing Toys “R” Us.
Living in the Chicago area and being in high school at the time, the excitement I saw surrounding the film was palpable. On several occasions, the local news covered the filming as it progressed around town, with such news flashes as “Film crew damages homeowner’s sidewalk!” and other vitally important stories. It all served to build interest, and we awaited the movie’s Summer 1980 release with bated breath.
We weren’t disappointed. It had a great story, musical legends including Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, James Brown, John Lee Hooker and Cab Calloway, a hilarious role from Carrie Fisher (after the very serious Princess Leia) and great comedic actors including John Candy, but topped of course by Belushi and Aykroyd. For those of us from Chicago, it held a special charm with so many local icons forming the backdrop of the movie – Wrigley Field, the CTA, Lower Wacker Drive, the Civic (Daley)Center, and on and on. Oh, and a great chase scene filmed inside some mall I’d never heard of...at least not yet.
“The Blues Brothers” stands as a true modern classic, shown frequently on cable TV and available on DVD. In 1998, it spawned a (not exactly classic) sequel. Many dreams and schemes for the redevelopment of Dixie Square Mall have been floated over the years, some as recently as 2007. But it still sits there, awaiting its own sequel - that elusive combination of civic vision and corporate investment to return to Harvey what it once had – a safe, up-to-date shopping center.
In the meantime, of course, the legend of Dixie Square Mall continues to grow.
A very special thanks goes to Dan Steenwyk, Paul McVay and Michael Brown for making these photos available. All of the photos are © 1966 by Steenwyk Architects, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
Top to bottom, the photos can be described as follows: An angled view of the Penneys and Walgreens stores at the main entrance to the mall, a square-on view of the Penneys entrance, an interior view looking towards Penneys’ inside entrance, the wonderful Wonderfalls, a close-up of the mall entrance between the Penneys and Walgreens, a close-up of another mall entrance, (the Wards store is to the right, and the Baskin-Robbins sign can be seen peeking out of the left edge), the Wards inside entrance with some impressive metalwork (on the impressive fountains), and the Wards Auto Center against the chilly fall evening sky.
Below are some early newspaper ads, including one that puzzled me at first. The December 1965 “Sidewalk Superintendents Wanted” ad is probably not a solicitation for supervisory help as I thought at first glance, but instead a nudge to the curious to come out and watch the mall’s construction progress, hopefully spreading the exciting word afterward. In today’s environment of litigation and OSHA standards this would be a definite no-no today. The second ad is for the October 1965 Montgomery Ward grand opening, the third from November 1966’s official Dixie Square Mall grand opening, and the last, the somewhat desperate Turn-Style ad referenced above.
Some additional notes: A couple folks have informed me that the interior scene where the cars crash into the Jewel Food Store was actually filmed inside the Penneys store, mocked up to look like an interior entrance for Jewel. Apparently this particular Jewel did not have a major inside entrance from the mall. I would guess the film crew pulled down the outside "JEWEL" signage and reinstalled it inside for filming. Also, for an up-to-the-minute (or at least up to this past January 11) look at Dixie Square, Jon Revelle has kindly sent along links to some excellent new photos and a great video (complete with soundtrack - and snow!).