Showing posts with label Wieboldts. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Wieboldts. Show all posts

Monday, December 24, 2012

It's Christmastiiiiime in Ford City!

It was the one indoor marching band event of my high school career. Early one Saturday morning each December, we’d pile into the buses for the 20 minute drive south, passing through towns such as Argo (Always brought to mind a box of corn starch. Still does.) and Summit to Ford City Mall for their annual indoor Christmas parade. There we’d join with other school bands, animal acts, clowns and assorted dignitaries marching the halls of the shopping center, while sound bounced off the terrazzo floor and storefronts.

We used these cheesy (on this site, that word always carries the best connotation) little songbooks called “Christmas Favorites” or something like that, which the school had probably owned since the 1950’s. I can still picture the red, green and white cover and yellowed pages. Our go-to song was that deeply meaningful Yuletide carol “Up on the Housetop.” The crowds, mostly families with young kids or older folks, always seemed to have a good time. So did we, although those memories tend to grow fonder with passing time (and with forgetting the “getting up early” part).    

These incredibly great photos come to us courtesy of Rick Drew. Rick’s Dad worked in mall management at Ford City during the mall’s early years. I would date these photos, based on the styles and store names to approximately 1968-70, some ten years before I assaulted the corridors there with my trumpet playing.

I’d love to tell the story of Ford City, one of Chicago’s most historically important malls, in full here someday, but only have time for a few brief notes at the moment. Ford City Shopping Center, opened on August 12, 1965, was “Chicago’s first all-weather, enclosed shopping center.”

The structure itself was originally built during World War II as a bomber engine plant. In the late forties, portions were used for the Tucker Car Corporation – an American dream that should have come true, and a story movingly told in one of my all-time favorite films, Tucker: The Man and his Dream. Later on it became an aircraft motor plant again, operated by Ford Motor Company, hence the name. For a few years in the early 60’s, before the mall development project, it sat vacant.

Initially, there were 82 stores, several locally-owned, with national chains F.W. Woolworth, Lerner Shops, Bond Clothes, ThomMcAn shoes, Wurlitzer pianos and organs and SupeRx Drugs (the yellow “s” at the left edge of the first photo) along with a National Tea Company food store. A General Cinema twin theatre opened soon afterward. The two anchors, at opposite ends of the center in classic “barbell” fashion, were Penneys and Chicago-based Wieboldt’s.

At 178,000 square feet, the Penneys store was the company’s largest single-floor unit at the time. Interestingly, as late as 1975, this Penneys store continued to outsell those at newer, much larger area malls, including the behemoth Yorktown Center (1968) and Woodfield Mall (1971). A year after Ford City opened, another Penneys opened 15 miles to the south at Harvey’s fabled Dixie Square Mall.  
The Wieboldt’s store initially had a restaurant and a supermarket, an interesting feature of many of their locations in the early 60’s, including Randhurst. What really strikes me about this store was that the signage, interior and exterior, was red instead of Wieboldt’s signature green, used virtually everywhere else. When I saw these pictures it was a shock, like seeing a blue Coca-Cola can or purple arches above a McDonald’s sign. So wrong, yet looking at these photos…so right. (These posts always have a way of turning melodramatic at some point, don’t they?).

In any event, they sure knew how to decorate the place for Christmas. Hope you’re having a great one!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Randhurst is 50!

Today marks another in a series of retail golden anniversaries in a year already full of them. While less renowned than the others we’ve talked about here in recent months, it’s the one closest to my heart. Fifty years ago today, Randhurst Center, the “pinwheel on the prairie” to cite one nickname from its early days, opened in Mount Prospect, Illinois, about 20 miles northwest of Chicago.

I’ve written about Randhurst several times on this site in the last few years, and there’s not much I can add to that. We started with a historical overview of Randhurst on the eve of its massive redevelopment, looked at the wondrous Randhurst Christmas seasons from the 1960’s, and introduced the Randhurst book - a comprehensive, entertaining and copiously illustrated history of the mall from then to now.  As mentioned, I contributed some research and had the honor of writing the foreword to the book. It was a great experience and I learned many things, not the least of which was how to spell “foreword”.
But just look at these photos. Taken right at the time of Randhurst’s opening, they are among the relatively few formal publicity photos (many snapshots and slides exist) of the shopping center ever made.

Of course they show the place in its pristine state, but setting that aside, many of us would still find it hard not to compare the classic Randhurst (and the other great malls of the past) with what we frequently see today. Take the anchor stores’ inside entrances, for example – contrast today’s “one style fits all” signage on whitish or rustish or grayish marble tile backgrounds with the exquisite variety of old. The prominent columns and filigreed second-level openings of Wieboldt’s. The handsome brick and globe lights of The Fair, which remained through much of the Montgomery Ward era.  Carson Pirie Scott’s (not pictured here, unfortunately, but viewable on earlier posts) stunning blue tile with antique gold signage.

Then there are the kiosks – no tacky stands, no pushy salespeople hawking vitamin supplements or cell phone covers (granted, there wasn’t a 60’s equivalent for those), or toy airplanes flying into your face.  Instead they were quaint, low key and beautifully designed, reflecting architect Victor Gruen’s European sensibilities. 
Even the amusements for children are vastly different. Where today outdoor playground or Little Tikes equipment and rubberized floors are the norm, once upon a time we played on cement-sculpted animals. On polished granite bases. On top of a cement floor. Yes, friends, the insurance industry would love that today. 

And now, at Randhurst and a number of other malls across the country, the mall “core” itself is disappearing. Outdoor walkways and parking spaces have replaced the seating coves and fountains of the past. One thing that really strikes me about “lifestyle centers” is the acoustical difference. The echoes, the dull rumble of even a small crowd at the good ol’ mall, is disappearing. Now they sound like…parking lots. (For those of you who tend to stay a step ahead of me, I’ll spare you the expected Joni Mitchell paraphrases.)

But forget all of that for now, this is a milestone worth celebrating! And in light of that I’m going to do something completely new here. Yes, friends, we’re having a contest! In observance of the 50th anniversary of Randhurst and the somewhat less important 5th anniversary of Pleasant Family Shopping, I will be giving away, by random drawing, 5 copies of Randhurst: Suburban Chicago’s Grandest Shopping Center, written by Greg Peerbolte of the Mount Prospect Historical Society and published by The History Press. The book contains a free foreword by me, and was voted one of the Ten Best Books Ever*. 
What do you have to do? Well, it’s simple! Just leave a (hopefully tasteful as always) comment on this post, with a way for me to identify you on the winners’ list. “A way to identify” means something other than Anonymous (one of my most loyal commenters), and can be your real name, an assumed name, you Army serial number, checking account number and pin, whatever you’re comfortable with!

On Saturday, August 25th, each name will be written on an appropriate piece of paper, placed into an enclosure of some sort, and five names will be drawn at random. I will publish the winners’ names (or whatever you use) on the site that evening, and winners will need to contact me with their address info. It’s that easy! Don’t delay - enter today!  
NOTE: No purchase necessary, but of course we always appreciate such things. This offer is void where prohibited, taxed or generally frowned upon. One entry per person, please. Odds of winning are somewhere between 100,000,000 and 10 to 1. Many will enter (I hope), only five will win. This contest is not open to employees of the Mount Prospect Historical Society or their families (like I’m gonna know) or employee (singular) of Pleasant Family Shopping and my family (except my Uncle Louie, who wouldn’t read the #@&$ thing if I paid him, so I’m okay there). E Pluribus Unum, Annuit cœptis, Quid - Me Vexari? and all other conditions apply.  Thankyouverymuch, you’re a beautiful audience.

* on the subject of Mount Prospect area shopping malls.   

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas at Randhurst, Early 1960's

Randhurst. In its early years it was an appealing sight, regardless of the time of year. At Christmastime that appeal was magnified in many ways. A glittering new shopping center it was, the world’s largest…where we lucky Northwest Suburbanites got fresh new gift ideas from sparkling new stores…where we found gifts galore from token to treasure…all under one roof, in 72-degree comfort.

When November rolled around, though, things took on a new air of excitement. Each Christmas purchase we made there, for example, was affixed with the gleaming “Randhurst Seal” - an evergreen-shaped foil sticker-thingy sporting the center’s winsome triangular logo, to glisten on our gifts as a symbol of our good taste and thoughtfulness.

And there were special events in abundance. What with school choir performances, ice skating shows (on temporary portable rinks), celebrity appearances, and a homestand by Jolly Old St. Nick himself, a trip to Randhurst became a must on everyone’s Christmas list in our corner of the world. Topping it off were the decorations – Christmas trees big and small, beautiful lights, animated displays and poinsettias in profusion, all of which combined to produce a magical effect.

Realizing that this holiday magic was by no means limited to Randhurst or the other ‘historically significant’ malls, of course. To be sure, “attention to detail” was the watchword for many of the early enclosed shopping centers, partly from a desire to compete favorably with the pomp and circumstance of the downtown department stores and their classic display windows. The victory of the suburban “branch stores” over their downtown flagships wasn’t yet complete, but by the mid-60’s the music had started playing and the end credits were about to roll.

As nice as many modern-day retail Christmas displays and events are today, and some are fantastic, there’s just something about the Christmas shopping experience of decades past that stands out. No doubt a major reason for this is our tendency to view this time of year through “nostalgia glasses”, to make endless comparisons with Christmas past. It’s an ingrained part of the American holiday experience. (One thing I know for certain – that department store gift boxes used to be a lot nicer than the flimsy things given out today. Don’t need my nostalgia glasses to see that.)

I suspect at least some of it may be due of the passing of an era – in this case, the era of the great display houses. For decades, the retail holiday decor business was dominated by a handful of firms whose origins dated back to the early years of the 20th century. These companies combined a theatrical flair with old-world craftsmanship to create charming and memorable scenes that became a vital part of a store’s image, year in and year out.

Most prominent among these firms was the Bliss Display Corporation of New York City. Founded by Lord & Taylor display designer James Albert Bliss in 1929, the Bliss company built elaborate displays for most of the key New York department stores – Macy’s (including this 1959 stunner), Gimbels, Abraham & Straus, Lord & Taylor and Bloomingdale’s, along with Philadelphia’s legendary John Wanamaker stores. Bliss’ reach extended well beyond the eastern seaboard, including work for St. Louis-based Stix, Baer and Fuller (I guess New Yorkers would consider St. Louis “the sticks”, right? Ok, I’ll stop that now.), among many others. A fascinating profile of the Bliss company and some of the other major display makers can be found in the book “Holidays on Display” by William L. Bird, Jr., a perennial coffee-table book at our house at Christmastime.

But Chicago had its own Duke of Display. The Silvestri Art Manufacturing Company was founded in 1901 by George Silvestri in 1901 and operated by his son, George Jr., during the exciting years of the 1950’s and 60’s. Silvestri’s plant was located at 1147 West Ohio Street, just blocks away from the best restaurant that ever existed - the late, great Como Inn. (As voted by me, that is. Whenever our family ate out for a special occasion and the choice was mine to make, that’s where we went.) The Silvestri company made a wide range of decorations, including “the white reindeer tethered to State st. lampposts”, as the Chicago Tribune put in one of a near-annual series of articles on the “fascinating” firm, the lighted trees and wreaths at O’Hare Airport ($15,420 worth in 1966 alone), and scores of elaborate, animated holiday window sets for such Chicago luminaries (pun not intended, but I’ll take it) as Marshall Field & Company, Wieboldts, Goldblatts and Carson Pirie Scott, including several years’ worth of jaw-dropping faux-European storefronts for the latter.

Silvestri had an interesting sideline that profoundly influenced Christmas decorating in general, both commercially and at home. In the mid-1950’s, they introduced the Italian miniature Christmas light to the American public, importing them and selling them in department and discount stores under the Silvestri name. Prior to that time, most indoor or outdoor lights available were the big honkin’ “C-7 style” GE or Noma lights. (Don’t misunderstand me. I still love ‘em.) The new lights, jewel-like and much smaller, proved to be such big sellers that the Italian government bestowed a special award upon Mr. Silvestri in 1957. Until the advent of LED lighting (Maybe my eyes will get used to those things one of these days.), they were what most of us thought of as Christmas lights, though more than a few folks still call them “Italian lights” (made in China for eons now, of course) and packaging still often refers to them as “mini lights”.

I’m not sure if the Randhurst decorations pictured above were Silvestri products, but because of their extensive work for Carson Pirie Scott, it’s a strong possibility. Carsons, of course, was “first among equals” in the Randhurst Corporation partnership, with the lesser among equals being Wieboldts (another Silvestri customer, as mentioned) and The Fair/Montgomery Ward. It’s safe to assume they had lots of influence in the matter.

The photos above were taken at Randhurst between 1962 (its first Christmas season) and 1965, and appear here courtesy of the Mount Prospect Historical Society. Greg Peerbolte, the society’s executive director, wrote a great book about Randhurst that was published this past spring (and is selling very well, I’m told) and can be ordered directly from the society. If you’re interested in shopping center history (and who isn’t, I beg?) or grew up in the area and want to reminisce, you’ll enjoy it thoroughly.

The scenes give a nice feel for the festivities, including the throngs lined up to meet Santa in front of Kresge’s (dig the Aztec-sun background and the space-age outfits of his teenybopper “helpers”). And yes, the impeccably dressed man in the suit, tie and pocket square is none other than actor Cesar Romero, in between his role in the movie “Ocean’s 11” (the Sinatra original, not the Clooney remake with 400 sequels) and his iconic role as The Joker in the 1966-68 Batman TV series. In the early 1960’s, Romero was the traveling “Ambassador of Fashion” for Petrocelli’s, a line of men’s suits.

There’s an indoor skating show, starring two ladies trying to defy nature and become twins, a fairly scary skating hippopotamus (I hesitated to include this photo for fear of a “New Zoo Revue” flashback. I may delete it yet.), and an angelically-robed children’s choir in front of The Fair’s interior entrance. (Check out the backwards “n’s” on the ‘Open Tonight’ banner in back. Cute.)

Several general views follow, depicting various areas of Randhurst bedecked in Christmas finery. At least one year (1963), they featured a set of 11 “traditional” downtown store-style display windows, constructed as free-standing dioramas, one of which is pictured above in photo number 12. Lastly, the landmark Randhurst water tower is converted to a special “holiday hot-air balloon”, years before The 5th Dimension made such things fashionable.

Below, two Christmas-related ads from the early days – a newspaper ad from 1962 (the source for my hyperbolic first paragraphs – I’d love to find one of those Randhurst “Christmas seals”!) and an interesting trade ad from a late 1963 issue of Display World, offering that year’s Christmas dioramas for sale after completion of the holiday run. It was commonplace in those days for big-name department stores or shopping centers to sell their used Christmas displays to smaller-market counterparts as every year something new was needed and the displays were far too costly to toss. The old “direct from Broadway” concept, although in this case it was “direct from Mount Prospect”.

Here’s hoping your Christmas shopping is almost done!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Randhurst Story - Available Now!

I’m honored to be the first to let you know about a wonderful new book that tells the story of one of the most important malls ever built. Randhurst : Suburban Chicago’s Grandest Shopping Center is available now!

Ah, Randhurst – monumental in its day, it was influential in so many respects, including its triangular “three-anchor” design, cooperative ownership, and a host of charming architectural features, all executed with a stunning level of quality and attention to detail. It was arguably the greatest single achievement of famed architect Victor Gruen, the widely acclaimed “father of the shopping mall”. And for those of us who shopped there regularly in our youth, Randhurst was the triangular, domed site of a wealth of cherished “growing-up” memories. The triangle and the dome are gone now, but this book provides a great way to relive those memories, or to experience the classic Randhurst, vicariously, for the first time.

The book’s author is Greg Peerbolte, executive director of the Mount Prospect Historical Society. In contrast to the somewhat stuffy image (deserved or undeserved) often associated with local historians, Peerbolte espouses a new approach, one that recognizes the growing interest in the “recent” past, with emphasis on the architectural and consumer culture trends of the late 20th century. Trends that, for northwest suburban Chicagoans, Randhurst played a big part in shaping. At the same time, he has actively pursued the Historical Society’s traditional aims – they recently relocated an endangered 115-year old schoolhouse to a new site, for example, and next month they are sponsoring a Revolutionary War re-enactment. It’s a great balance of distant and recent history that other local historical entities would do well to emulate.

Well over a year in the making, the book is the result of countless hours of research, interviews and writing. In putting together the book, Peerbolte drew from a wide variety of sources, including mountains of vintage newspaper clippings, trade press articles (Randhurst was a bonafide media sensation in the day) and other documents. Most significant was the Historical Society’s own magnificent Randhurst Archive, a priceless collection of original photographs, slides, architectural renderings and plans donated by the Rouse Corporation, former owner of the mall, in 1995-96.

Regarding the book itself, it’s all here, in entertaining detail – starting with Randhurst’s beginnings as a gleam in the eye of Carson Pirie Scott, the legendary State Street retailer eager to plant its flag in the northwest suburbs, the alliance with a “team of rivals” (Wieboldt’s and Montgomery Ward, under its “The Fair” banner) and the engagement of the legendary Mr. Gruen to design it all. The ceremonial barn burning (a typical “groundbreaking” wouldn’t do here, no sir!), the months of construction, the ecstatic grand opening. The glory years of the 1960’s, with celebrity appearances aplenty – Robert F. (“Bob”) Kennedy, Cesar Romero in his “pre-Joker” years, among others.

Then to the challenges of the 1970’s – most significantly the opening of Woodfield Mall, the largest in the world at the time, just nine miles away. In-depth coverage is given to the early 1980’s remodeling, wherein Randhurst was extensively modernized, a huge food court (that 80’s contribution to human civilization) installed, and many of the Gruen-era features removed. With the revitalization of Randhurst came a new round of celebrity appearances – a “Conan” era Arnold Schwarzenegger and Oprah Winfrey, then host of the local morning TV show “A.M. Chicago”, at the very brink of unprecedented national fame. After that, the highs and lows of the last 20 years, including the series of events that have brought Randhurst to where it is now – ready to embark on a new phase of its history as an outdoor “lifestyle center”, a story to be continued.

Some fascinating asides supplement the main storyline, including a brief overview of the “pre-Randhurst” Mount Prospect, an intriguing profile of the idiosyncratic, visionary Victor Gruen, and a look at the long-gone Randhurst Ice Arena, where no less than Gordie Howe once played. It was later converted to a Child World toy store, replete with castle turrets. And there are two great appendices – first, “Where Are They Now – a Guide to Selected Shopping Centers of Chicagoland” – capsule histories of the 18 most important area malls, from the turn of the century Market Square to Park Forest Plaza, Evergreen Plaza, Old Orchard, Oakbrook Center, Golf Mill, Ford City, Woodfield and others, including our beloved Dixie Square Mall. The second appendix contains seven complete listings of Randhurst tenants, taken directly from seven different mall directories ranging in date from 1962 to 2000 and printed in full.

Oh, and I wrote the foreword!

Here are the details - Randhurst : Suburban Chicago’s Grandest Shopping Center, written by Gregory T. Peerbolte and published by The History Press, 192 pages, 6” by 9”, illustrated with over 80 black-and-white photos, many from the original files of Victor Gruen Associates. All author’s proceeds to benefit the Mount Prospect Historical Society. Available now for purchase directly from the Society at this link.

The photos at the top of the page, dating from 1962 to 1965, are from original slides in the MPHS collection and appear here by their kind permission. Shown are aerial and ground-level exterior views, interior views of the three anchor store entrances (and their respective fountain courts), general interior scenes, including shots from automotive and boat shows and a late 1962 "police show" (Randhurst was the area's premier exhibition hall at the time), restaurants - the Corned Beef Center, the Apple Basket and the Le Petit Cafe (!), the center galleria (with the shopping center's "upscale" restaurant, The Tree Top), and a few of the sculptures (created by leading artists and played on at least 37 times by yours truly). The last photo is certainly poignant in its own way - an exterior view of Wieboldts, later occupied by Carson Pirie Scott. It is the only portion of the original Randhurst structure still standing today.