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.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Before You Travel, Ask Us!

Before we move on, I wanted to put up a quick postscript to our look at the history of gas stations. A couple of folks brought up the important point that virtually all of the major petroleum brands gave away free travel maps to customers. I had intended to touch on this on the earlier post, but felt my original idea for it was a bit too cute, and as it was the post ended up bring pretty darn long. The subject certainly deserves a mention, though, so here goes.

Personally, the main thing I remember about the “era of gas station maps” is its end. I recall milling around in a Standard station for what seemed like hours one evening while my Dad’s car was being worked on and noticing a cheesy-looking plastic vending machine, which contained Standard road maps for sale at 50 cents each. This would have been just after the onset of the original oil crisis, around 1974, and I clearly remember thinking “These things used to be free - people aren’t gonna pay for ‘em!” in the northwest suburban Chicago accent in my head. As it turned out, I was right. Not long afterward, gas station-branded maps disappeared altogether.

Jump forward to 1989 or so. I’m on a visit to see my grandparents in Rhode Island - not a month-long excursion like the visits my brother and I enjoyed as kids, but a few days, solo, on my own dime. I was working by then and the trips were much less frequent, about every year and a half or so, when I could spare the time and a few hundred bucks for airfare. One afternoon as my grandfather and I were searching through an old file cabinet (for what I don’t remember), we came upon a couple of stacks of old gas station maps, probably 30 in all. He was the type who saved everything. “Can I have these?” I asked. He said sure, not even bothering to ask why I would want them. My love for things of the past was established, ad nauseam, with the family by then.

And a wonderful find it was, the maps being from many of the major gas chains of the 50’s and 60’s – Esso, Gulf, Standard Oil(s) of Indiana and Kentucky, Sinclair, Phillips 66, Atlantic, Sunoco and more, all with full color covers and great period graphics, most with company credit card ads on the back. There was also a plastic folder from the Humble Touring Service, containing two maps – “Eastern United States” and “Illinois” - and a charming little “Happy Motoring Touring Guide” booklet. The maps were professionally marked up by the Humble Touring staff to show the optimum route from their home in Cedartown, Georgia (My grandfather, a textile industry executive, was exiled to the South along with most of the industry in the 50’s and 60’s. They moved back to Rhode Island upon his retirement.) to Mount Prospect, Illinois - their first trip to visit my folks and me in our new home there in early 1966.

For weeks after I brought the maps home, they sat out in my living room, giving me frequent occasion to reflect on our country’s roadside culture and the many changes that had taken place in the years since they were issued. I still have them.

Three companies produced most of the maps for the various oil firms throughout much of the 20th century - Rand McNally, a Chicago-based firm that began as a printer of train tickets and would later branch out into several different publishing realms, The H.M. Goushá Company, founded by a Rand McNally alumnus and based for most of its existence in San Jose, and General Drafting Corporation of Convent Station, New Jersey, exclusive mapmaker for industry behemoth Standard Oil of New Jersey (Esso and Enco, later Exxon) and some of their client firms, including the pre-Chevron Standard Oil of Kentucky. In the post World War II era, as more and more Americans pursued their “dream vacations” on the highways each year, these three firms did tremendous business producing maps for your friendly corner gas station.

Rand McNally led the pack in promoting giveaway maps as an effective marketing tool for the oil companies. Authors John Jakle and Keith Sculle in their book The Gas Station in America cite a 1924 Rand McNally ad in the National Petroleum News – “Put Your Sign Post in His Pocket”, the copy read, a nod to the fact that most map covers featured a rendering of the oil firm’s station sign on the cover, so “customers would carry (it) everywhere they traveled and be reminded and be constantly reminded of where to buy”.

In a related vein was another great marketing tool, one that provided a very valuable service for motorists in those heady years – the oil company “touring service”, or “travel bureau” as some were called. These were central offices maintained by the oil company to provide customized trip routing for their customers, with some companies providing the service for free and others for a nominal membership fee. Customers would send in a postcard with their point of departure, their destination, the planned dates of their trip, and preference for the “fastest” or “scenic” route. (In later years this information was sometimes phoned in, but long distance rates were prohibitive for many in those days.) Within a few weeks, sooner if the trip was close at hand, a package would arrive in the mail containing maps with the routes hand-marked, frequently accompanied by with travel brochures or other useful information. Some firms, Conoco’s “Touraide” service for example, produced special comb-bound booklets with the required map sections on pages – a welcome substitute for unwieldy foldout maps, especially while driving.

Prominent among these was Standard Oil of New Jersey’s touring service, which originally went by the Esso name, changing to Humble in the 1960’s, then Exxon in its final years. The service was actually operated by General Drafting Company, but touring service staffers “ still acted as if we were public relations employees of the oil company” according to Don Shorock, a 10-year seasonal employee at the service’s New York City offices. On his website, Cartophile, he recounts the experience of working at the Humble Touring Service in detail, a fly-on-the-wall look that I found every bit as fascinating as those Hostess Cake and Oreo factory tours that Mister Rogers took us TV-besotted kids along for in the 70’s. I’d like to think it was Mr. Shorock who mapped out my grandparents’ trip back in ’66. They arrived safely, and I still have pictures of their visit to prove it!

The 1973-74 oil crisis brought the curtain down on the era of free gas station maps and touring services, soon to be followed by the demise of other niceties, such as the widespread availability of full service pumping and automotive repair service. Maps, of course, are still available at many gas stations today, albeit under the publisher’s names rather than those of the oil companies, and at prices well above 50 cents.

The advent of software technology has relegated the entire concept of published road maps to the quaint reaches of the past, of course. With online tools such as MapQuest, the basic function of the “touring service” can be performed in seconds instead of weeks, no postage required. A GPS unit can guide one to their destination without the need to fumble around with an 18 by 28-inch sheet of paper.

Still, I can’t help but wish someone would come out with a GPS that could be spread out over the hood of a car – or a kitchen table.

The circa-1964 photo above depicts a Friendly Sunoco Man helping out a Weekend Admiral with directions, presumably to the nearest recreational body of water. I had one of those Thurston Howell III boating caps as a kid, and would love to pick up another one someday. On second thought, forget the cap – I’ll take the Evinrude “Sweet 16” boat instead!