August 1965 was a hot, tumultuous month for the New York metropolitan area. For one thing, the city was in the midst of a historic water shortage, so severe it was officially declared a disaster by the federal government on August 18. The New York World’s Fair, the last of its kind, was in the midst of its second and final season. Save for a few trademark structures, the Fair would be completely dismantled just a few months later – Disney’s popular “It’s a Small World” exhibit, for example, originally commissioned for the Fair by Pepsi-Cola, was packed up for shipment to its permanent home at Disneyland.
Further along the cultural front, two of the most famous concerts in pop music history took place then and there. On August 15, The Beatles played to a deafening, sold-out crowd of 55,000 people at Shea Stadium, unwittingly inaugurating the ‘stadium rock’ era. The show was filmed, with the boys later overdubbing vocals and guitar in places because of crowd noise, for broadcast on the BBC and later on ABC Television here in the states. On August 28, Bob Dylan played to a crowd of 14,000 at Forest Hills Tennis Stadium. After a seven-song acoustic set, Dylan left the stage and reappeared with a four piece electric band (The Hawks, later known as The Band) - a delight to half the audience present and a heresy to the other half, who signaled their disapproval of Dylan’s startling new sound with jeers and catcalls. History, as it usually does, sided with the delighted. Five bucks and an early ticket order would have gotten you into either show.
And those who lived “on the island” participated in it all. Commuters who worked in the city paid 10 cents a glass for normally free water in restaurants. Families spent one more weekend at the Fair, trying to take it all in before it closed for good. Thousands of local “youngsters” (Ed Sullivan’s term for anyone under the age of 31) attended those soon-to-be-legendary concerts. Of course, there were everyday pursuits as well – boating, little league games, family picnics…and lots of shopping.
If you lived in Nassau County (The non-New York City portion of Long Island is split into two counties, Nassau and Suffolk. Nassau County is closest to the city.), you certainly had your choices where shopping was concerned. Within a ten-mile radius were three of the largest malls in the country – Green Acres Shopping Center in Valley Stream, Mid-Island Plaza in Hicksville, and the biggest (at the time) in the entire country, Roosevelt Field Shopping Center, located 2 ½ miles from Garden City and 5 miles from Hempstead. The photos above, from original slides I recently purchased, depict Roosevelt Field as it appeared in August 1965, some nine years after it originally opened.
Roosevelt Field was named for the airfield that once occupied its site. “Roosevelt” in this case was President Theodore Roosevelt’s son Quentin, an aviation hero of World War I who was shot down over French skies in 1918. In 1927, Roosevelt Field was the launching point of Charles A. Lindbergh’s history-making flight across the Atlantic to Paris’ Le Bourget Field, an event that was wildly celebrated on both sides of the pond. More than a few Americans at the time, especially younger ones, considered “Lucky Lindy’s” flight the most significant national event of their lifetimes. Roosevelt Field would remain an airport until 1951.
In 1950, the Roosevelt Field property came under the ownership of Webb & Knapp, a prominent New York City-based developer. Webb & Knapp was controlled by William Zeckendorf Sr., a colorful, larger-than-life figure who stood out in a city known for colorful, larger-than-life figures. “…the outstanding phenomenon of present-day real estate operations”, the Wall Street Journal extolled Zeckendorf in 1956 - “(he) parlayed Webb & Knapp from a tiny consulting firm, $12,000 in the red, to a publicly-held realty empire with assets of $193.4 million”. Columnist Tyson Freeman quotes from a 1954 Fortune magazine article about Zeckendorf – “...a gifted man. He has a mind of unusual caliber in intuition, rough calculating ability, and resourcefulness; and an imagination that can take fire without appreciable loss of discipline.”
Zeckendorf spearheaded the effort to assemble the land for the UN headquarters along the East River in New York, where slaughterhouses stood, believe it or not, until the mid-1940’s. He designed an automated parking garage, a sort of storage-and-retrieval system for cars, a novel idea for a city where parking places have always commanded high premiums. He bought the Chrysler Building. And he saw the potential for something special in a soon-to-be-defunct airfield his firm bought, a 323-acre chunk of industrial land “in the heart of Nassau County”, if only there were better access to the property.
Better access, as it turned out, was coming. Not long after Webb & Knapp’s purchase of the Roosevelt Field property, plans were announced to extend the Meadowbrook State Parkway to form a connection between two high-traffic area thoroughfares, Northern State Parkway and Southern State Parkway. This new four-lane highway, which would border the property on the east side, would be complete by mid-1956. Zeckendorf made his move, starting out by convincing America’s most prestigious department store firm to take the plunge along with him. A November 10, 1953 Wall Street Journal article announced that “R.H. Macy & Co. and Webb & Knapp jointly announced plans for a $55 million center at ROOSEVELT FIELD, LONG ISLAND N.Y.”, “scheduled to open September 1, 1955”. The actual completion took over a year longer to accomplish.
The shopping center would be the world’s largest – (a massive) “1,387,000 square feet of retail selling space” according to a July 16, 1956 Time magazine article. It would contain Macy’s largest branch store, indeed “the largest branch operation of any department store in the New York area”, as the Journal put it in April 1955, “compris(ing) 300,000 square feet on three floors, plus a 20,000-square-foot outdoor shop”. The Roosevelt Field Macy’s store would be designed by Chicago-based architectural powerhouse Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. Roosevelt Field would be the company’s fifth location in the Greater New York City area, joining their venerable circa-1902 Herald Square flagship -“The Largest Store in the World”, and suburban branches Parkchester (Bronx, 1941), Jamaica (Queens, 1947), Flatbush (Brooklyn, 1948) and White Plains (Westchester County, 1949). A sixth metro area location would open in May 1957, eight months after Roosevelt Field’s debut , at Garden State Plaza in Paramus, New Jersey, albeit under Macy’s New Jersey nameplate, Bamberger’s.
Responsible for Roosevelt Field Shopping Center’s overall design was Webb & Knapp’s director of architecture, I.M. Pei, who came to the U.S. as a student from China in 1934 and was recruited by Zeckendorf in 1948. In 1955 Pei established his own firm, I.M. Pei and Associates, and would go on to design such landmark facilities as the National Gallery of Art’s East Building in Washington , D.C. and the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, two examples among many in one of modern architecture’s most important bodies of work. As such, it’s easy to think of Roosevelt Field as a relatively minor item in Pei’s portfolio.
In the mid-50’s retail world however, it wasn’t minor. A 1957 Architectural Record article, “Suburban Shopping Can Be Fun!” (Exclamation point added by me.), hailed the center’s design as having “interesting variety within a skillfully organized, dominant architectural pattern”, and “an assuring, human scale everywhere – not easy in the world’s largest center; there is visual intrigue and delight – changing, colorful but always under control; and there is an ordered, easy-to-learn traffic flow for pedestrian and driver. In short – it’s fun to shop here.”
I.M. Pei, in the same article, described his design thusly: “The site plan is essentially a free-flowing ring road surrounding a central building group. The stores form a compact cluster, minimizing walking distances and heightening cumulative drawing power. The relatively narrow malls encourage cross-shopping, double the presentation of merchandise, and heighten the impression of activity. The shopper’s route leads him through streets (Dave’s note: “streets” actually means sidewalks here. With fountains and benches, that is.) of different widths and varying architectural treatments, affording a variety of experiences. Trees, flowers, music, fountains, gay awnings, and bold use of graphic art combine to make the retail atmosphere”. There was a strong unifying theme throughout as well – “a modular system of dark-brown steel frames, rough-faced off-white brick and glass”. And at the opposite end of the center from Macy’s – a skating rink!
On April 26, 1955, The New York Times reported the groundbreaking and official start of construction for Roosevelt Field. As the 16-month construction period rolled on, the rest of the shopping center’s tenant lineup fell into place. Women’s Wear Daily columnist Samuel Feinberg reported that there would be two 37,000 square foot variety stores, Woolworth and Kresge, two 30,000 supermarkets, Food Fair and Grand Union, a number of specialty stores including Hartfields and Oppenheim Collins, men’s stores Wallach’s, Howard and Ripley, and 10 (count ‘em!) shoe stores – “Regal, Father & Son, Buster Brown, Flagg, Florsheim, Thom McAn, Kitty Kelly, Baker and Chandler”. There would also be a 15,000 square foot Walgreens and a Horn & Hardart restaurant. And according to The New York Times, the center would also feature “Tepee Town, sellers of Western, Indian and copper items, including clothing, relics and rugs”. On August 22, 1956, Roosevelt Field Shopping Center opened for business to an adoring throng.
Gigantic as it was, Roosevelt Field was but one of three large regional shopping centers to open in Nassau County that year. Two months later, in October 1956, the other two opened. First was Mid-Island Shopping Plaza (known today as Broadway Mall), located in Hicksville near the Wantagh State Parkway and boasting just under a million square feet. The major draw at Mid-Island was its huge branch store of Queens-based Gertz, a unit of Allied Stores. There was also a J.C. Penney store, Newberry’s and Kresge variety stores, Food Fair and First National supermarkets, a Walgreens and many of same shoe stores and specialty shops as could be found at Roosevelt Field. In 1964, a large “Class A” Sears store opened across the street from Mid-Island Plaza. Within a few years, Hicksville became Sears, Roebuck & Company’s highest volume location in the entire chain. Third in the “Nassau triumvirate” was Valley Stream’s Green Acres Mall, itself built on a former airport site. Here Gimbels was the main tenant, with Penney, Newberry, Woolworth, Walgreen and more of yet again the same names rounding things out. Both shopping centers, like Roosevelt Field, were originally open-air facilities that were later enclosed. And like Roosevelt Field they still exist, with a different “starring cast” of course.
And there were other competitors as well. E.J. Korvette, the great “promotional department store”, was just across the way at Carle Place. S. Klein was “On the Square” (as they always were) a few miles away in West Hempstead. Moving up the retail scale, Lord & Taylor was in Manhasset. Stern’s was in Great Neck in the former John Wanamaker location. Abraham & Straus, B. Altman, Peck & Peck, Best & Co. and W. & J. Sloane were just some of the other (now long gone) big names that were nearby. Despite all this, Roosevelt Field did reasonably well.
It soon became obvious that some tweaks would be needed, however, the first major one concerning Roosevelt Field’s two supermarkets. Less than a year after the center opened, as Women’s Wear Daily columnist Feinberg put it, “it was clear to supermarkets and landlord alike that the two together weren’t rolling up more sales than one should have been doing”. In 1958 Food Fair was allowed to break its lease, turning its location (the more desirable of the two) over to Grand Union, whose former space would be subdivided “into non-food stores”. This action was part of a larger agreement between the two competitors in which Grand Union also agreed to change the name of 25 unrelated “Food Fair” supermarkets they owned in the Washington D.C. area to the Grand Union name, releasing the naming rights to Food Fair, who previously had to operate their own D.C. area stores under a different name –“Food Lane” in this case. (Are you confused yet?) Food Fair also took over a Grand Union location in Richmond, Virginia as part of the same agreement.
A much more serious problem was a consequence of the shopping center’s layout. The original I.M. Pei-designed site plan called for two major department stores, one each at the north and south ends, to create a draw at both ends of the center, maximizing the flow of shoppers through the mall areas where the smaller stores resided. As it was, Macy’s was the only anchor, “drawing a swarm of shoppers to the southern end (of the center)”, while “a number of stores in the northern end have been forced to close”, a Wall Street Journal article later put it. Eventually, the problem resulted in a startling 30% vacancy rate. Something had to be done.
From the start, developer William Zeckendorf “hoped that someday Gimbels would join Macy’s” at Roosevelt Field, a January 1963 Chain Store Age article stated. He had other irons in the fire in the event a Gimbels deal didn’t materialize, however. He approached Ohrbach’s, a New York institution since its early 1920’s founding. Ohrbach’s specialized in mid-priced apparel and had stores in the greater New York/New Jersey area along with a handful of stores in Los Angeles. According to the Chain Store Age article, Zeckendorf and Orbach’s were “just about agreed on a 150,000 square foot store within Roosevelt Field” and had received the requisite blessing from Macy’s when the agreement fell through over “technical hitches”. Ohrbach’s would later open a store in neighboring Westbury.
Another company Zeckendorf reached out to was Alexander’s, a fast-growing New York-based discounter with an upscale “promotional department store” image along the lines of Korvette. In this case, Alexander’s was offered a tract of land nearby due to a clause in the Macy’s agreement that barred discounters (er, I mean promotional department stores) from operating within the center itself. Things progressed to the point where a preliminary lease document was signed and a press release issued – on October 30, 1961, the Wall Street Journal reported that an $8 million, three-story Alexander’s would open on a 27-acre site “across Meadowbrook Parkway from the main shopping center”. Then the deal “blew up”, in the words of Chain Store Age. Alexander’s would indeed come to Roosevelt Field, but not until fully ten years later.
As it turned out, Zeckendorf would finally get his prize. Gimbels agreed to build at Roosevelt Field, setting the stage for a hoped-for duplication of the “profitable battleground like Manhattan’s Herald Square…(where) Macy’s and Gimbles’ (sp) main stores face each other across a street to which they have drawn armies of elbowing shoppers of decades – and a number of surrounding stores have prospered from the heavy traffic”, as another 1961 Journal article put it. This arrangement had already proven out well at Garden State Plaza (again, with Macy’s operating under their Bamberger’s nameplate) in Bergen County, New Jersey. Concerns that the new Gimbels unit was too close to their existing stores at Green Acres (Valley Stream) or Great Bay Shore Shopping Center (Islip, Suffolk County) were allayed by the fact that Roosevelt Field had the best access and widest trading area in the entire region.
While Macy’s approved of Gimbels’ presence at Roosevelt Field, they also had the contractual right (which they exercised) to limit the size of Gimbels’ store to roughly 75 percent of their own square footage, a restriction that would also apply to future expansions. After well over a year of negotiations, impasses, parking lot “reshufflings” and other complications, an agreement was reached and construction was started. Designing the Gimbels store would be a team of three firms including L.A.-based Welton Becket and Associates (designers of the Capitol Records tower, the Beverly Hilton hotel and a host of very cool retail facilities), which added yet another marquee name to Roosevelt Field’s architectural pedigree.
On August 20, 1962, the Roosevelt Field Gimbels store opened with a ceremonial ribbon cutting attended by company chairman Bernard Gimbel, Webb & Knapp’s Zeckendorf and Nassau County executive Eugene H. Nickerson, among others. With 250,000 square feet, three stories and a stylish exterior of “white ceramic glazed brick”, the new store provided a most attractive bookend opposite Macy’s. Equally important, it helped to improve the center’s finances and occupancy rate in short order. Whether the two anchor stores killed each other with kindness à la “Miracle on 34th Street” – (“No madam, we don’t have that, but I believe Gimbels can help you!”) is a matter of conjecture.
The following decade brought about many changes. After teetering for a few years, William Zeckendorf Sr.’s empire, Webb & Knapp, was forced to sell its interest in Roosevelt Field, one of many holdings dumped in an (unsuccessful) attempt to stave off the firm’s devastating collapse in early 1965. In early 1967, the center announced a plan “to enclose its more than 100 stores under one roof with ‘controlled weather’ within” said the Wall Street Journal on March 10th. At the same time, the article went on to state that J.C. Penney would construct a new store there. As it turned out, the Penney opening was five years away, in 1972, on the site of the former skating rink.
The long-awaited Alexander’s store had opened slightly earlier (in 1971) within the mall itself, a reflection of how lease policies have moved towards a “the more the merrier” stance. Also, 1971 saw Roosevelt Field lose its “largest mall” status to Chicago’s new Woodfield Mall, my favorite place in the world at the time. Recent years have seen usual tilt-a-whirl where store names are concerned – Alexander’s became an Abraham & Straus which became a Bloomingdale’s. Gimbels became a Stern’s and is now split between Dick’s Sporting Goods (under the name Galyan’s before their merger), Bloomingdale’s Furniture Gallery and a fitness center. Nordstrom built on in 1997. JCPenney is still there, nearing its 40th anniversary at Roosevelt Field. And Macy’s, the center’s first tenant way back in the beginning? Still there. (Did you have to ask?)
Let’s go back to that August 1965 day, when the sun still shone on Roosevelt Field’s walkways, as seen in the pictures above. These are clearly amateur slides, but they provide an interesting look at a classic shopping center that was no longer quite so new. (To see Roosevelt Field in its pristine 1957 state as photographed by the legendary Ezra Stoller, click here and search "roosevelt field".) Despite the chips in the fountains’ concrete and the oxidation of the “dark-brown steel frames” and strip lighting fixtures, the place retained a degree of charm, in my opinion.
A few points of interest stand out. The first photo, for example, depicts Roosevelt Field’s flagship Macy’s store. Interestingly, though the store was only nine years old, its signage had already been replaced. The original signage featured the (to my mind, very good-looking) upper/lower case typeface that was common on their California division stores and in their print advertising. At some prior to the taking of this photo, the signage was changed to the all-caps style that many other New York division stores used. Next, a couple of pictures show the Howard men’s clothing store and an unidentified lamp store next door. Note the blue “kiosk” to the right in the second photo. In the shopping center’s earlier days, this surface was typically filled with promotional posters done in a European style.
The fourth photo, showing the Marine Corps Recruiting Center at the edge of the Roosevelt Field parking lot, is especially poignant in the context of the year it was taken, 1965, the first year of major escalation of the Vietnam War. In March of 1965, 3,500 Marines arrived in Vietnam – the first U.S. combat troops to be deployed there. By the end of 1965, more than ten times that amount were there. Most eventually came back home, but far too many didn’t. Something to reflect back on for the 4th of July.
On a (much) lighter note, the fifth photo depicts one of Roosevelt Field’s many fountains in front of the Woolworth, Thom McAn, Buckner’s Bridal and Formal Salon and Ripley’s men’s store. The Buckner store replaced Stevens, a women’s apparel shop that was previously in that space. Then, a close-up of what the 1957 Architectural Record article called a “squatty mushroom” fountain (The fountain in the previous photo was called a “high jets” fountain. Both types featured “amber, blue and green underwater lights...“for nighttime use”. This photographer dug fountains, no?)
The next three views look toward the sleek, grooved storefront (which unfortunately just peeks out in these photos) of the still fairly new Gimbels store. Note the ladies in their bright summer dresses. There are bicycles in the background, a reminder of a time long ago when a parent’s chief concerns could be summed up in two phrases – “Don’t spend all your money!” and “Don’t be late for dinner!” The red neon of the Walgreens sign can be seen to the upper left of the bicycles.
The last photo shows a yellow sign pointing to the “Continental Court” off to the left. This area featured a fountain with granite bench seating and “music from hidden sources”. What type of music do you suppose they played – The Beatles? No, it was a good ten years before Top 40 rock songs would typically be heard at your local mall. Dylan? Hardly. Muzak versions of those artists? No, it was “restful classical music”. Whatever they played, in that setting, would have been music to my ears.
Plan view of Roosevelt Field after the opening of Gimbels, from Chain Store Age magazine, January 1963.