Monday, July 19, 2010

Wards in Huntington Beach, 1966

The circa 1965 artist’s rendering above shows the Montgomery Ward store that opened the following year at Huntington Center, an indoor shopping mall located in Huntington Beach, California, at the intersection of Edinger Avenue and Beach Boulevard, near the San Diego Freeway. Huntington Beach, located in Orange County, is officially nicknamed “Surf City USA”, a nod to its 8.5 mile long beachfront on the Pacific Coast.

Now I’ve never been handy with a surfboard (by virtue of the fact that you actually have to stand up on the things), and every time I’ve set foot in Pacific waters they’ve been freezing, but I do like to explore old stores. And to the best of my knowledge, unless something’s changed recently, this baby still exists! Abandoned, boarded up and likely falling apart, but still standing.

Things were very bright in the early 1960’s, though, when shopping centers were popping up all over the country, and as mentioned with ridiculous frequency on this site, nowhere was the action more…uh, active than in Southern California. All the conditions were right for phenomenal growth – exploding population, youth-dominated culture, growing middle-class affluence (with thousands of aerospace and defense-worker families in the area) – and that’s exactly what took place.

By the mid-sixties, Montgomery Ward had designated SoCal as the centerpiece of its expansion strategy. In a speech before the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce in May 1966, at which point new Wards stores had recently opened in Covina, Ventura and Fullerton, and would be soon forthcoming in Huntington Beach, Norwalk and Rosemead, Wards president Ed Donnell declared the company’s intention to make the greater L.A. area its “largest metropolitan district”. Going forward, one out of five new Wards stores would be opened there. At the time there were 7 full-line retail stores and 12 catalog stores in the area, while the company’s largest district, Chicago, had 12 full-line stores and 27 catalog outlets.

I have to think that beyond the obvious appeal of the dynamic Southern California market, there was another possible reason behind this. Prior to his tenure at Wards, Donnell was Sears, Roebuck and Co.’s Los Angeles district manager, part of that company’s “Far West” territory. The Sears stores in SoCal were in a class by themselves – much larger average size, often very striking architecturally, and a strong first place in sales. As a result, that region was by far the most important in power and influence within Sears. To go head-to-head with his former company in their best area would have been an extremely hard thing to resist. (A great read for those interested in retail history is “The Big Store” by Donald Katz, a history of Sears that emphasizes the 70’s-mid 80’s. The book’s opening story, about the demotion of a Sears executive from the hallowed West Coast top spot to the same but far less prestigious job in Chicago, is told in a riveting fashion. Seriously, who needs James Patterson when you can read this stuff?)

In April 1964, two months after the Beatles’ three consecutive appearances on the Ed Sullivan show, the Long Beach Press-Telegram announced plans for a new shopping center in Huntington Beach, to be anchored by The Broadway, a well-known local department store chain, J.C. Penney and Montgomery Ward. Initially slated to open in the fall of 1965, only The Broadway’s store ended up being ready at that time. The rest of the center would open a year later. Huntington Center’s official grand opening festivities kicked off on November 16, 1966, at which time the Beatles were all growing moustaches and had begun work on their Sgt. Pepper album. (Ok, I’ll can the Beatles references from here out.)

Beatles. (Sorry!) Early press reports had mentioned the Wards unit would be Huntington Center’s largest store, but as it turned out, the Penneys store surpassed it slightly, with The Broadway coming in a not-too-distant third in the square footage sweepstakes. All three anchors had freestanding auto centers. Some of the other notable tenants at Huntington Center included women’s specialty shops such as Lerner Shops and Mode O’Day, men’s retailers Harris and Frank and Bond Clothes, the legendary See’s Candies (I literally cannot pass one of their stores without buying something), local mainstay Thrifty Drugs and Food Fair, a major player in the supermarket world up and down the East Coast but still a relative newcomer to California.

And so it continued for the next 30 years or so. A new wing was added in 1986, including a fourth anchor, Mervyn’s. But time and the myriad changes in retail would eventually take their toll on the mall and of course, on Wards itself. In 1992, J.C. Penney left for the greener pastures of nearby Westminster Mall, taking over the J.W. Robinson space left vacant by the Robinsons-May Company merger. A 1996 merger brought about the closure of The Broadway, when parent Broadway Stores (formerly Carter Hawley Hale) was bought out by Federated Department Stores, who would convert the Fashion Island Broadway store in nearby Newport Beach to a Bloomingdale’s.

In early 2001, Montgomery Ward, the last original anchor at Huntington Center, closed down when the chain itself ceased operations. In 2004, a massive redeveloping of the mall took place, in which most of the enclosed mall was torn down. In its place rose a new, upscale open-air “lifestyle center” now known as Bella Terra Mall. The one original structure to be reused was The Broadway store, now a Kohl’s with a three-toned paint job over the store’s funky 60’s textured walls.

The Wards store, now detached from the mall, sits to the side, abandoned and unloved - except by fans of old retail, that is. This website has some great photos taken in 2006. Since then, the signage has been removed but the labelscars are still visible, and of course the unique bas-relief “MW” logos still exist.

See it while you can – on the way to the beach, of course!

Pictured below, just for fun, is the Wards store in Ventura, another attractive store which featured the same architectural style (including the simple, elegant pendant lighting) as the Huntington Beach location. This store opened at the Buenaventura Shopping Center six months before the HB store, on March 2, 1966.

Chris Jepsen of the great O.C. History Roundup website informs us that plans are afoot to build a Costco on the Wards side of the former Huntington Center. So if you want to see it, you'd best "carpe the diem, seize the carp", or something like that!


  1. Those are some excellent examples of good sixties architecture. I hope some will remain until they become fashionable again.

  2. Seriously, who needs James Patterson when you can read this stuff?)

    I concur wholeheartedly, Dave! Besides Patterson tends to bore me. Anything retail related is easily more exciting.

    I almost cried when I saw a ecent photo of the Ward's. The current condition is pretty deplorable on an otherwise perfect example of 60s architecture. It's also amazing how the logo has styed on for so long.

  3. I grew up in Huntington Beach during the early 70's to the late 80's. Huntington Center was our main mall although Westminster Mall was fairly close as well. I still remember the fun of going to Huntington Center with my family or just hanging out with friends there. In the pictures that show the now open air but former mall entrance, you can see what looks like boarded up windows. Well, those windows were part of the Wards Cafeteria and it was a lot of fun as a kid to go up there and get a window seat and look down over the mall from such a high vantage point. Years later I ended up working there and I have a lot of good memories as I met a lot of special people while employed by Monkey Wards. I am glad in a way that the building is still there because when I go to HB, I always cruise by to get a memory rush...But it is odd that the building is still there...It looks very odd to see that old store amidst the nice new stores of Bella Terra...Still, if I had my way, it would be Huntington Center once again...

  4. The Ventura Wards store was actually across Main Street from Buenaventura Fashion Center. Do you suppose you can post an article on the Montgomery Ward in Pleasant Hill, CA? It opened in 1962, and I lived in Concord form 1973 to 1975, and I remember at the vacuums department, they had a beach ball floating in mid-air from a vacuum hose. Any other Wards have that same display?

    1. This wards had a seal with a nozzel blowing out the nose i remember as a kid tring to knock it down then placing it back on the stream of air it was late 60's early 70's

    2. I remember the same display in the vacuum department of Wards in Serramonte, just south of San Francisco, which opened in 1968.

  5. I was at Bella Terra last week. The store has been painted a sand color like the rest of the mall, but still stands, vacant.

    Looking inside, it seems to be in decent shape still, considering its been abandoned for almost 10 years. The Electric Avenue signs are still on one entry, and one can walk right up to the store, as its not fenced in.

    On a side note:
    JCPenney became a Burlington Coat Factory and the exterior was not remodeled on three sides in the Bella Terra renovation. You can see the old store and some faint labelscars from the parking structure in the back. The inside never been in.

    The Broadway was vacant for years, before the remodel. This became a 2 level Kohls store when Bella Terra opened. It still has hints of an old Broadway, even the original escalators exist. The third level was closed off to the public.

  6. Thanks for another great post!

    Losing Huntington Center (bit by bit) was a great loss to our community. It really was an excellent little mall in its day. But after a decade or so of "circling the drain," it was obvious the place needed a major overhaul.

    Unfortunately, Bella Terra is one of the least functional retail designs I've ever seen. (And that's saying something.) Most of the stores cannot be accessed from the parking garage without walking for blocks and blocks. But they DID leave one small parking lot right in the MIDDLE of the stores -- So walking from one shop to another requires dodging heavy traffic.

    Luckily, the cars move very slowly, because the traffic flow is awful. It takes surprisingly few vehicles to gum things up to an extent that other malls only experience during the holiday season.

    The retail mix is also a big step down from Huntington Center (not counting those final years).

    But it's all okay because Bella Terra has a faux-"Tuscan" facade. And what could be more appropriate in this well-known hub of Italian culture known as Huntington Beach?

  7. Dave your site is not Golden but Platinum, Class all the way. truly you deserve an award or something from the internet review siteor something you, Groceteria and Labelscar are the among the CREAM of the CROP.

    now at the task at Hand. I just saw Bella Terra's website. boy nothing says homogenous like a center like that. comparing the mix of stores with the old Huntington Beach center. and there's no comparison. As one who sparcely ever got to see the glory that were the old open air malls. this waas a gem. I'd never shop at Bella Terra. sure it's nice looking but its cookie cutter.

    PS I concur with Didi Patterson IMO is like the Stephanie Meyer for grown ups big on style lacks substance. retail History on the other end whether it's supermarkets department stores, specialty stores or restaurants is always a good read. gets me hooked. Keep up the good work Dave!

  8. In response to Randy, I do recall the beach ball thing with the vacuum display. I saw it in the Wards at Mission Valley Center, presently a Target store.

  9. Steve – Sharp indeed – and more interesting than the typical Wards stores of the day.

    David – We can only hope this style will become fashionable again. (Very) generally speaking, the retail store architecture of the last ten years or so has made the transition from boring to gaudy. The simple elegance of these stores is rarely seen today.

    Didi – Some of this stuff is stranger than fiction, for sure.

    It really is surprising how this store has survived empty for the past ten years. Just 20 more needed to catch up with Dixie Square’s current record!

    Anonymous – Thanks for sharing those memories and for that great bit of information on the location of the Wards cafeteria. The fact that you worked there makes it all the more interesting. Not having seen it in person, I’m sure I would still prefer the original version over Bella Terra as well. Glad that the Wards store is still there for you to relive your memories!

    Randy – Thanks for that clarification on Buenaventura. I don’t have much information on the Pleasant Hill Wards store, but I do have a (not great) photo of it from near the time it opened. Shoot me your email address (mine’s in the “profile” section) and I’ll be glad to email you the scan. Anyone else interested in it, please do the same.

    The vacuum cleaner display reminds me of a hilarious scene in an early 60’s Jerry Lewis movie called “Who’s Minding The Store”, where a Hoover vacuum being demonstrated by Jerry goes out of control. Funny stuff!

    Jeff - The exterior (other than the mall facing part) really does seem to be in good shape, even the lighting, amazingly, and it’s good to hear than the inside still looks pretty good. Makes you hope that someone like a 99 Cents Only or similar chain that does minimal remodeling would take it over so it could be seen again!

    Thanks for the details on the ex-JCP store. As far as The Broadway (now Kohl’s) goes, that’s one I’d love to see as well. The Broadway has piqued my interest recently, and I very much want to do some posts on that company one of these days.

    Anonymous – Thanks very much!

    As you well know I’m sure, that happens even with the best or most famous malls when the sales trends continue to fall off.

    Very informative description of Bella Terra, it helps me understand why Huntington Center is so missed. That too seems to be a trend – throwing together over-the-top design elements into a mall redesign, resulting in a real hodgepodge. As mentioned, the elegance and simplicity of years past is lacking.

    And Huntington Beach is a regular “Little Italy”, isn’t it! ;)

    Roy – Those are very kind words – I greatly appreciate it!

    The classic open air malls of the past were really a sight to see. If you ever get to the Chicago area, you should check out Oakbrook Center in the west suburbs, which still maintains a good deal of its 1962 classic ambience, despite many expansions over the years. It’s one of the malls I grew up with, and I remain grateful that they’ve never tried to enclose it. In my opinion, it’s a model of what an open air mall should be.

    No offense intended to Patterson – I read recently that he is now the top-selling author these days, a fact reinforced by the eight titles of his I saw at one of the tiny St. Louis airport bookstores recently. And he writes thrillers. Retail history is thrilling, right? :) Thanks again!

    David – Mission Valley Center was one sharp-looking mall in the day, thanks. Good place to buy a vacuum!

  10. Yet another very interesting post!

    I'm going to be in the area next week, so I'll be sure to go check out the HB Montgomery Wards ruin.

    Here in my hometown of Modesto CA, the old MW building on McHenry Avenue is now a Burlington Coat place...Oh well.

  11. JCPenney at Huntington Center moved to nearby Westminster Mall in the former Robinson's which was closed due to their merger with May Co. The original May Co. carried the appareal merchandise, while their home merchandise was moved to the former Buffums, with furniture, mattresses, and rugs on the upper level, and all other home merchanside on the lower.

  12. I hear Costco is coming to the Wards side of Bella Terra soon. So if you want to take photos of the old Monkey Wards building, do it soon.

    Personally, I miss the Broadway, Bob's Big Boy, Jr. (back when Bob's was at their peak), and Bob's Lemonade Stand (no relation), more than I do Wards. But any reminder of the old Huntington Center is a welcome one.

    And just to clear something up,... Huntington Center was never an open air mall. It was always enclosed.

  13. Here are a couple of links to Houston area Montgomery Ward commercials you might be interested in, circa 1967 .. the first one features store architecture:

  14. Walter – Thanks, much appreciated!

    When you mention McHenry Avenue in Modesto, I think of the classic Lucky supermarket that once stood there. I don’t know this for a fact, but it seems like Burlington Coat Factory leads the pack when it comes to locating stores in classic old retail properties, with Big Lots and TJMaxx not far behind.

    Looks like your timing for a visit to the old HB Wards is good, based on what Chris says above.

    Randy – Thanks for the additional details on Westminster Mall. Lots of consolidation there, as in most malls!

    Trader Chris – Thanks for that word to the wise - I’d sure love to get out there before that happens, but who knows? I’ll make a note on the post.

    It would have been great to see a Bob’s Big Boy in operation (or the other Bob’s, for that matter), and as I said, The Broadway looks like it was a class act all the way.

    Thanks also for that clarification about the fact that Huntington Center was enclosed. I must’ve have gotten a bit adrift on the comment thread there – not an infrequent occurrence!

    Danny – Those are absolutely fantastic commercials!! Two of the stores mentioned are pictured on an earlier Wards post here

    The painful thing is, they’re just a sampling of what existed years ago, 99% of which has probably been lost to time. And the video is in incredible shape for its age, all things considered. They remind me of the commercials (for stores, car dealers, etc.) that were produced at WGN studios in Chicago back in the late 60’s, long before the station became a national cable presence. Really great, must-see memories, Thanks!

  15. Dave, I'm glad there's at least one other person out there who appreciates 1960's local TV. Despite the primitive equipment and production techniques (they say a normal home video camera provides better resolution than those huge studio cameras), they more than make up for it with creativity. You would never see commercials like that today because everything now is so slick and overproduced!

    Here's a little secret: If you still have Windows XP or before, its pretty easy to download these videos by going to this folder on your computer (you will also need to download an flv player):

    C:\Users\[User Name]\AppData\Local\
    Microsoft\Windows\Temporary Internet Files

    There are many more examples of other 1960's commercials on that Channel 39 YouTube page.

  16. I love your blog. Especially when you post about New Jersey stores.:)

    I have an award for you here:

  17. No No No, I'm not knocking Patterson as an author. I repect his success, saying that I think he's overrated IMHO, but still a quality aythor. I prefer Tom Clancy myself. looking at that Wards. I miss the chain. I only visited one Wards in my life. At least the name still lives on as a catalog company.

  18. I love local store commercials from the '60s and '70s. They were full of fluffy razzamatazz too, just like today's ones, but still, somehow more direct -- and more charming.

    Dave, I don't know if you've already done an entry on this, but I was watching the episode of "The Brady Bunch" where they got cast for a detergent commercial. The episode was called "And Now A Word From Our Sponsor." Anyway, you get great, detailed exterior shots of the supermarket they shot on location there. It was a Mayfair supermarket, from what I understand. You can see comments about it on part 1 of the episode on YouTube. Very interesting ... would love to see an entry about it, if you can. You know, sorta like what you did for the supermarket featured in "The Disorderly Orderly."

  19. Going to Huntington Center was one of my very first memories. My father was a buyer for J.C.Penney and was transfered from NYC to OC. I can't remember what store he was working on it was either "The City" or HC.

    We did not shop at "Monkey Wards" but I do remember the store.

    I also remember going to Bobs Big Boy Jr.

    When I was a teen/collage age I spent a lot of time at HC.

  20. Danny – I agree, and thanks again for the links, and for the technical tip! I’ve looked through a few of the other Channel 39 commercials, and the car dealer ones are very much like the ones I remember. Fun stuff!

    NJ Memories – Thanks for the award! Looking forward to posting some more New Jersey stuff soon. Your state is definitely a retro-shopping wonderland!

    Roy – I would love to be able to write a bestseller like either one of those guys! ;)

    Nightdragon – More direct and charming – I couldn’t agree more!

    Mayfair is definitely on the list. I‘ve recently gotten some very nice pictures of some of their stores. I vaguely remember the Brady Bunch episode you’re referring to. I’ll have to track down a DVD copy of it. Paul Duca, another regular commenter to the site, recently wrote to tell me about another Mayfair supermarket prominently featured in the Walter Matthau film “Guide for the Married Man”. Sounds like Mayfair was a star of both the small and the big screen!

    Catnip – I would imagine if your father worked for Penneys you probably wouldn’t have shopped at Wards. I’ve mentioned this is one mall I’d love to have seen, but then again I seem to say that about most of them! Thanks for sharing those memories.

  21. Dave, any idea on the artist of this painting? I just found a similar painting of El Centro Shopping Center in McAllen/Pharr, Texas. The initials QA are in the bottom left corner.

    Great blog!

  22. Sarah and Aaron – You know, the gifted artists who made these renderings rarely ever signed their work and almost never seem to be credited in publications, unfortunately. I’m afraid I don’t know who painted this, or who “Q.A.” might have been. It’s really too bad, because so many of these paintings (or watercolors as is sometimes the case) are really well done. This is a fine rendering, and I have seen many other good ones, but even the shoddier ones have a certain charm!

    Very glad that you like the blog – and thanks for commenting!

  23. I remember buying hamsters at this wards in the 70s.Kelly e.