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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