Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Reflections on Dixie Square Mall

There was a time when you could when you could walk around the Dixie Square Mall without placing yourself in the path of bulldozers or wrecking balls. And there was a time when you could explore the place and even take pictures without fear of the floor falling out from under or on top of you, or being attacked by wild dogs or persons with bad intent. And yes, there was actually a time when you could shop there without having to dodge film crews, Illinois State Police cars, or two guys in dark suits and sunglasses behind the dashboard of a retired Mount Prospect police cruiser.

That time was long ago, of course. These photos are from that time.

So it’s finally coming down, according to news reports from every corner. (I received seven Google News Alerts about it in one day last week.) Demolition officially started last week and is expected to last into the summer. What’s interesting to me have been the reminiscences lacing these news reports, especially those of the various civic officials involved, several of which acknowledged Dixie Square’s unique role in pop culture history. The Governor of Illinois, for example, reappeared at the site and told of his experiences shopping there in his younger years. “Although we will always remember the Dixie Mall as the location for one of the most iconic scenes in ‘The Blues Brothers’ movie, it is time for this now vacant building to be torn down to make way for more economic development for the Harvey community”, he said. Then, from a local state representative, came a strong dose of reality – "For me, I will never talk about the movie again," he said. “It left nothing here”. What do you say in response to that?

I’ll say this. I truly hope the Dixie Square property is put to good use – for a new shopping center, or maybe a park or some light industry – just something of value, at least, to the 30,000 people for whom Harvey, Illinois is home. Because even a crumbling monument to a movie would be preferable to a soul-crushing vacant lot.

The wonderful photos above were taken in 1968, at the same time as those featured on our Dixie Square history post. They showcase the mall two years after its opening, in the exciting early years, before a myriad of problems set in. The notion that the mall would close down just ten years later would have seemed the height of absurdity then.

And once again, they are shown here by the courtesy of Dan Steenwyk, president of Steenwyk Architects, successor to his father’s architectural practice (the designers of Dixie Square Mall) in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I had the pleasure of speaking with Dan last week when I called him to relay a permission request from the CBS-owned TV station in Chicago, whose executive producer saw the Dixie Square photos here and asked to use them in a news report on the start of demolition of the mall. (That’s WBBM or “Channel 2”, as most locals know it. They even have the “dream team”, Bill and Walter, back on the air there, just like they were when I was ten!) Dan was kind enough to send me these additional photos, taken at the same time, to present here. All photos in this post are ©1968 Steenwyk Architects, All Rights Reserved.

The photos themselves need very little explanation. I’m so pleased to be able to show a full-facade view of the Montgomery Ward store this time around. The following two photos show daytime views of the Penneys facade from opposing angles (On the first Penneys photo, note the reflection in the window of a portion of the orange “JEWEL” store lettering, and its antique-blue mansard roof. Yes indeed.), followed by a great close-up of the interior Penneys entrance. Those shoppers seem a bit worn out from all the excitement, eh? Last is a nighttime view of the main mall entrance on the Wards end. It’s a bit blurry, but the Wards interior entrance is visible inside.

Below, two original pencil renderings, photographed as they were - pinned to the walls of the Hornbach, Steenwyk and Thrall offices. There’s an elevation view of the Montgomery Ward store followed a perspective view of the Penneys unit. Simply superb.

And lastly, a detail from a Northern Illinois Gas advertisement (“Even huge shopping centers like Dixie Square heat and cool with gas”), featuring a pen-and-ink drawing of the mall.
Looks like someone needed to borrow a push pin!


  1. Before looking at these pictures, it never occurred to me how little exterior glass modern malls seem to have, compared to my youth.

  2. I first read about Dixie Square Mall years ago, on I was utterly fascinated with a mall that closed decades before, but was still standing at the time--over a quarter century later. The fact that it was a dead mall was not what interested me; Springfield, MO had TWO dead or dying malls (South Oaks Center, basically a failure from opening day, and North Town Mall, open for about 30 years but languishing for 3/4 or more of that time). No, it was the fact that it was still there, with little change in all those years. Kind of a sad, wrecked time capsule. Clearly to you, Dave, and a lot of others, the mall has a lot of memories. I'm sorry that a part of your past is now gone. Like you, I hope that the community of Harvey gets something besides derelict land to replace the old mall.

  3. Derek – Great to hear from you, it’s been a long time!

    You make a great point – except for the store entrances, the amount of glass on modern malls is virtually nil. The Montgomery Ward store has glass all the way across, just like supermarkets and discount stores did at the time. When you consider the cost of keeping the glass clean and the effect on heating and cooling costs, combined with the extra display space taken up, it’s no wonder the trend has been towards much less glass. The Penneys store has the traditional display-type windows, and scrapping them in newer malls has eliminated the cost of keeping them maintained and decorated.

    Of course if it were up to me I’d say bring the glass back, but that’s true of a lot of things! ;)

    Mike – Thanks very much for the nice thoughts, but I have to tell you that my experience with Dixie Square was probably a lot like yours – through the Blues Brothers movie and the fascination with the “ghost mall” coverage on the web over the last seven or eight years. I never went there while it was open!

    I do have a real affinity for Chicago area malls that opened prior to 1980 or so, and our family did shop at many of them. Many of Dixie Square’s tenants also had locations at other area malls we frequented. And many of the local celebrities who appeared at Dixie Square in its better days I was very familiar with, of course, so between these pictures, showing the mall in its pristine state, and that familiarity, the visual image in my head of the place is pretty vivid.

    It’s still amazing to me how long it has stood vacant, and the time to do something constructive with that property is long overdue.

    Thanks again!

  4. This is a sad day, indeed. Though I know Dixie's demolition is for the best, it's still depressing. It feels like I'm saying goodbye to an old friend. I first discovered the mall in 2009, when doing an online search for abandoned Toys R Us stores. As soon as I saw the pictures of that rainbow striped wallpaper inside Dixie Square, I was hooked. I didn't realize until later that this was part of a movie set, and Dixie Square didn't even have a toy store!

    DSM has been a huge influence on my life over the past few years. I've spent countless hours researching its history, and posted many of my findings on my Flickr page.

    As interested as I have been in the death of this mall, I think it's important to remember its "living years" as well. That's what I enjoy so much about Pleasant Family Shopping. Your posts really bring the past to life!

  5. It's amazing how the governor blames the reason the Dixie Square Mall is still standing on the Blue Brothers movie and not on Harvey's laundry list of problems. That's just willful ignorance.

    It's a shame to see it go, but it's become too dangerous for anyone but the nearby cops to enjoy exploring - not because of the building, either. I hope Harvey can build something in its place, but living near a Harvey-like city doesn't give me much hope. I wonder what movie the governor will blame the empty lot on?

  6. Reading this post reminds me that I still have yet to watch the Blues Brothers dvd I bought at Walmart (Irony!) a couple of years back. I have not seen this movie since I was a child. With newly acquired surround sound at my home, I guess I have to give it a gander. Thanks for reminding me, Dave.

  7. Rebecca – I’m blown away by what you’ve put together there – fantastic! Dixie Square is a very absorbing subject, and as I’ve told others, it’s hard to believe the place is finally coming down after twenty years of standstill followed by ten more of fits and starts.

    Thanks so much for your kind words about this site “bringing the past to life”. They’re greatly appreciated!

    Mela – I agree – there is a laundry list of problems there, and the movie isn’t one of them. In a way it’s amazing that Dixie Square couldn’t have been repurposed somehow, when the structure was still in good shape. I certainly don’t recall anything like a “dead mall” back then! If the DSM property remains vacant 12-18 months after demolition is complete, which is entirely possible, the blame game will be interesting (and sad) to watch. Really hoping things turn out well there.

    Didi – “The Blues Brothers” in surround sound would be cool! I haven’t seen the movie in years. A rewatch is long overdue.

  8. As of mid-May its gone! Nothing left to do but truck away numerous piles of scrap metal, continue crushing large pieces of concrete, dig up the old foundations, floor slabs and asphalt, and fill any resulting holes with the aforementioned crushed concrete. The buildings are all gone! Its really odd to drive by and have a clear view across the entire property; for the first time, the new Jackson Senior Living Homes can be seen from Dixie Highway.

    Anyway, one thing that stands out (to me at least) about Dixie Square Mall is the enormity of the period it stood empty and abandoned. So if it closed in 1978-79 - that's one year before Bannister Mall in Kansas City and the huge Mall of Memphis opened. Both those malls enjoyed a longer period of success than Dixie Square ever did, then they flatered, closed and were eventually torn down - all within the period in which Dixie Square has stood empty and deteriorating! That is a VERY long time! Had the mall been built anywhere else, it would have been torn down and replaced a long ago.

  9. I have lived in Chicago-land all my life, have seen the blues brothers many times and never knew much about the mall until one sunny early October afternoon in 2009.I finally got the urge to research it after all the stories my father told me about it still standing and whatnot. a week later, I picked up one of my buddies and hightailed it over to Dixie square.
    we were treated to a day I will always remember. It was probably one of the coolest urban explores I ever did. me and my buddy were packing some protection just in case we met some unsavory characters and then we made the rounds. the place was magnificent, it was in sort a time capsule of late 60's early 70's styling. we went into the main entrance of JCPenny first. it was very dark and the inside spanned what seemed like forever, and right in the center was the famous escalators.they were in horrible condition, they looked as if you stepped on them they would cut you in to pieces. they were very jagged and rusty. by that time the second floor had collapsed in and there was a huge gaping hole in the second floor, so we stayed on the ground floor. we then made it out to the mall entrance for B and C block.unless you knew what stores were there it is pretty much a row of slots with allot of garbage on the, we made it to the main area where the wonderfalls were and where A and D block was. sadly by this time the original demo crew tore down the Woolworth department store, the central energy plant and wards so we never got to explore those, but we had allot more mall to go through that was still left so we went down D block to the turnstyle. we looked in the turnstyle store and it was huge to day the least. it was just like a big open gym and in the center was a small second floor that housed the break room and access to the roof. then we headed to A block and burt's shoes. there was a large hole in the back of burt's shoes that lead to the night club "citylife". this was probably the best part of the whole place. there was the bar and the main lounge area, but the area that I have not seen documented is what I think is the disco on the second floor. "citylife" still had allot of wall decor left like the dark wood paneling and stonework and a little bit of shag carpeting on the stairs leading to the disco. this part was fascinating because the layout of the building was different. the disco had a lower level but it was flooded I think It may have been an arcade because there was some words on the wall that said arcade this way. so I went up the stairs to the disco and once I got to the top step it was a big drop to the lower level. the entire second floor had caved in and only a small section was still left at the base of the top stair. even the lower level floor had collapsed to expose the frame for the floor. I went back down and found the small hallway to the employee side of the bar counter and bathrooms and surprisingly the bathrooms were still pretty much intact.

    1. Edit: the part where it says Burt's shoes it should be hardy shoes. there was a Burt's shoes in Dixie square but it was in slot C8 and hardy's was in C22 right next to wards.

  10. then we headed outside for the outside tour. the building did not look very bad on the outside for it's state of disrepair, we headed around the back and took a look at the loading docks for the turnstyle building and I spied a sign for the list of original stores for that block. I thought that was pretty cool. then we headed down to the JCPenny loading docks and made our way back inside to the stairwell and public restrooms. these restrooms were completely decimated with rubble all over and one toilet in the far corner of the room. as I said, we did not head upstairs that stairwell was super dark and a little creepy. had I been alone and had it been a little warmer I would have gone all the way to the roof to the 3rd level machine room on the roof but my bud was getting tired so we pressed on. we then headed out to the other side of JCP and saw murals painted on the boards that were on the display windows, and then made our way back to where we started. the final place we saw was the jewel supermarket. we looked inside and it was dark but they still had the frozen food cases there. this was another building that had a big middle section that caved in. we did not stay long in there because we started getting headaches from the overwhelming mold smell. we headed back towards the police station and took one last glance at the awesome ruin we had just toured and headed back home. I had always intended to go back to get some snaps but never got the chance. I was deeply saddened when it was torn down. I just thank GOD I was able to visit it at least once before they leveled it.I will always remember that day and the adventure we had exploring the most famous dead mall in america, I thank the people and fellow urban explorers who documented their times through the mall because now that's all we have left, is the pictures and memories made at the Great Dixie Square Mall.

  11. I Grew up in harvey, and I actually played a 9hole round of Golf at the dixie high golf course that was soon to be the mall. in 1967, I decided to go to the mall with my school candy, and got strong armed robbed there. a daughter of a friend of my parents from the american legion was raped. Not sure if it was there, but we could see then that the town was going down by early 1969, wemoved to Park Forest. I am sad to hear that that shiopping center has also been torn down. well, that's life I guess

  12. my parents wrote a letter for the time capsule that they put into Wards. I wonder if they saved it?