Confessions of a Mall Rat

I just have to share this photo I recently found online:

Florence Mall, Kentucky, sometime in the late 1970's.

Ah, the memories. I was born around the time this mall opened, and practically grew up in it. I can still smell the greasy Karamel Korn and soft pretzels from the food court, and I can still hear the analog electric organs that used to be sold from a piano shop not far from where the photo above was taken. Just imagine: This is what shaped my architectural sensibilities for the first decade of my life.

Florence Mall’s primary claim to fame is the red and white water tower looming over I-75, adjacent to the mall’s parking lot. It was originally painted to say “FLORENCE MALL”, but legend has it that the Commonwealth of Kentucky didn’t appreciate public property being used to advertise a private business. So, rather than spend considerable funds to repaint the entire water tower, the city of Florence simply modified the “M” into a “Y” and added an apostrophe. The rest is history.

After my family moved to North Carolina in 1984, we’d take periodic road trips back home to Cincinnati. After driving up I-75 all day through Tennessee and Kentucky, the “FLORENCE Y’ALL” water tower was our official sign that we had finally entered the Greater Cincinnati area and were getting close to home.

However, the delights waiting inside the mall was far more interesting to me as a child. Up near the food court was a Murray Brothers store that had all sorts of coffee, tea, and candy. Kay Bee Toys had an impressive store on the lower level, and of course there was the obligatory Spencer Gifts. Scattered throughout the mall were these giant granite sculptures of various animals for kids to play on, including an alligator and a pair of hippos. I usually played on the escalators, though, and I remember being fascinated at how you could stand on the upper level and look down and see the lower level shops. John Portman, eat your heart out.

The only thing Florence Mall was missing was some sort of a water fountain in the central court. For that, you had to go to either Eastgate Mall or Northgate Mall on the Ohio side of the river. Each of those malls had impressive water features, and more often than not, my brother and I would end up soaking wet at some point during the shopping trip. In retrospect, maybe that’s why we usually shopped at Florence Mall.

As I grew up and moved around a few more times, other malls would come into my life: Regency Square and The Avenues in Jacksonville, Woodfield Mall in the Chicago suburbs, King of Prussia outside of Philly. I still wear the leather jacket I bought at Cherry Hill Mall in South Jersey. Even on subsequent visits to Cincinnati, I find myself at fashionable Kenwood Towne Center more often than dowdy old Florence Mall. In fact, it’s probably been at least 20 years since the last time I was inside Florence Mall.

At some point, Florence Mall was renovated and now looks like just another exercise in 1990’s postmodern suburban schlock. This is hardly surprising, as shopping centers are always having to re-invent themselves in order to keep up with current fashion. Kenwood Towne Center was formerly an outdoor strip mall, but literally turned itself inside-out (or outside-in, more accurately) in order to take the crown from Florence and become Cincinnati’s shopping mall of choice.

In looking at the photo above, though, I can’t help but imagine the retro appeal Florence Mall would have today if they had left the original 70’s decor intact. The hipster crowd would certainly be beating down their doors. Maybe in a couple more decades, historical preservationists will succeed in declaring Florence Mall a landmark, and restore it to its former earth-toned glory. Can they bring back Pogue’s and Shillito’s while they’re at it?

I’ve always had this weird fascination with suburban shopping malls, maybe because of my formative years spent at Florence Mall. As a liberal city person currently living in Manhattan, I’m supposed to look down my nose upon the mall and everything it stands for. But as much as I loathe their bland homogeneity and negative impact on urban centers and formerly-productive farmland, I still have a hard time resisting the urge to explore some mall I’ve never been in before. I guess you could consider it one of my guilty pleasures.

Maybe one of these days I’ll write a coffee table book that explores the development of the typical 1970’s indoor mall, including diagrams about how the malls changed and grew (or withered and died) over the years. Then I’d follow it with a survey of maybe a hundred or so malls from all over America, with a brief history and some past/present photos and plans.

I wonder how many people who grew up in the 80’s would see that book in Borders, flip through it, and say, “Hey, me and my friends used to hang out in that mall!”

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