Southdale Center

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Winning Nomination

As the first enclosed shopping area in history, this marketing development has changed the face of retailing not only in Minnesota, but throughout the world. Faced with the fact that Minnesota had only thirty or so days of "ideal shopping weather," architects conceived the idea of an enclosed shopping area. By 1982, papers reported that Southdale's sales had topped that of all of downtown Minneapolis. In the mid-1990s there were over 25,000 enclosed malls in the United States alone.

Southdale Mall and those that followed illustrate the impact of suburbanization, the increasing reliance on the automobile, the decline of downtown retail and a cultural shift.
~Steve Trimble, St. Paul, MN

Runner-up Nominations

It made the suburbs grow and without it we would have no Mall of America, which would be a huge loss to the state.
~Andrew Bornhoft, minneapolis, MN

I add my vote for Southdale Mall, the world's first indoor shopping mall that will celebrate 50 years October 2006. The Edina Historical Society receives research requests from people all over the country about Southdale, which changed the face of retail forever. Not only has it changed business, but it has affected public space and planning, teen culture, pop culture and more.
~Marci Matson, Edina, MN

Southdale, as the first enclosed, weather-controlled mall, has changed the way people shop worldwide. In most locales, the mall has replaced downtown as the major place to shop.
~Hugh Gitlin, St. Paul, MN

For better or worse, the opening of the nation's first enclosed shopping mall in Edina had a profound impact on the way Minnesotans shopped and spent their leisure hours. Shopping as a recreational activity could be conducted in the comfort of a controlled climate, away from the extremes and unpredictability of Minnesota weather. The sculptures, the plants, the fishpond all contributed to the atmosphere. My mother has told me how she made a special trip from our house in West St. Paul to visit Southdale soon after it opened, bringing along her mother who was visiting from Arkansas. It must have been quite an attraction!
~Meg Ubel, St.Paul, MN



A retail revolution

Donald Dayton, head of Minneapolis-based Dayton's department stores, once commissioned a study that reinforced what most Minnesotans have experienced firsthand: the state has only 126 "ideal shopping weather" days each year. Rather than give up and relocate to more temperate climes, Dayton took action and teamed up with designer Victor Gruen to create a comfortable, convenient setting for Minnesota shoppers. In 1952, Dayton and Gruen unveiled their plans for Southdale, the nation's first enclosed, weatherproofed mall.

Gruen's aspirations went far beyond retail bliss. A Jewish Viennese citizen who had escaped his homeland during the Nazi takeover, Gruen hoped to create a new kind of American community inspired by the best of European urban life. The Dayton Corporation bought 500 acres of land in Edina, and Gruen drew up plans that placed the mall at the core of a new development of apartment buildings, houses, schools, a medical center, a park, and a lake. Gruen's vision was, as one writer later described, "the Minneapolis downtown you would get if you started over and corrected all the mistakes that were made the first time around."

Southdale Center was built at a cost of $20 million and had 800,000 square feet; it opened with 72 stores and 2 anchors, Dayton's and Donaldson's. 75,000 people attended the gala opening on October 8, 1956. Another 188,000 visited the complex the following weekend, most taking advantage of the mall's 5,000 free parking spaces (organized into lots identified by clever animal symbols--an innovation, like the mall itself, that would inspire countless imitators). What did visitors see? Gruen's interpretation of the best of European cities: "streets," cafes, two department stores, and many smaller boutiques surrounding a "town square" with a garden court spotlighted by an enormous skylight. A fishpond, mature trees, and a twenty-one-foot cage filled with brightly colored birds. In short, a prototype for the malls that would fuel suburban growth throughout the country.

What of the rest of Gruen's vision? The medical center opened in 1965; eventually, the Corporation sold the remaining land for housing. With his dreams only partially realized, Gruen eventually came to detest shopping malls, decrying the suburban sprawl often associated with them. Love them or hate them, though, there's no denying their impact on American life. Southdale changed more than shopping habits; it led to the transformation of the American landscape.

From Southdale's 1956 press release: "Southdale shopping center could be called in psychological terms 'an introvert center.' On the outside it presents a quiet and dignified appearance, inviting the shopper to enter through one of ten huge all-glass entrances into the interior. . . . Here he finds himself in an atmosphere of unparalleled liveliness, colorfulness, and beauty. Between shopping activities there is an opportunity for rest in the sidewalk café and on the many rest benches. Here is a chance to amble and promenade, to window shop, to chat with friends, and a large array of features arouses interest and invites contemplation. Trees, tropical plants, flowers, a bird cage, sculptures, and other work of important artists, a pond, a fountain, a juice bar, a cigar and newsstand are some of them."

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