October 5, 1951

Shoppers' World Launches Mall Era

PRIMARY SOURCE: Newspaper, 1951
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On this day in 1951, Shoppers' World in Framingham opened for business. The first suburban shopping mall in the Northeast, and only the second in the country, the complex was a revolutionary design. Anchored by a branch of Boston's Jordan Marsh Department Store — housed under a futuristic "space age" dome — the mall was a sign of things to come. Over the next decades, retailers would concentrate their investment in auto-friendly malls in the suburbs rather than downtown shopping areas. With its large middle class and new housing developments, Framingham was an ideal location for this new style of shopping. Eventually the original Shoppers' World design would become dated, and in 1994, over the protests of preservationists, the landmark was demolished.

Shoppers' World was the first suburban center in the region to be anchored by a branch of a major downtown department store.

Centralized shopping districts are nothing new; they have their roots in ancient market squares, bazaars, and seaport commercial districts. But until the mid-twentieth century, shopping was largely accomplished on foot. The modern shopping center is a product of an automobile-oriented world. When affordable cars became available in the 1920s, retailers began moving out of congested downtowns and into clusters of shops, usually a grocery store, pharmacy, and hardware store, concentrated on trolley lines or along streets with convenient parking.

As more Americans moved to the suburbs, so did large companies such as Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward. In the 1930s and 1940s, the retailers built big, freestanding stores with onsite parking and evening shopping hours. The success of these suburban branch stores convinced developers that the future of shopping lay in the suburbs where a prosperous and growing middle-class was embracing consumer culture.

Unlike later malls, Shoppers' World was not an enclosed, climate-controlled structure, but the architect sought to create "quiet zones" where people could enjoy shopping away from the noise and bustle of automobile traffic.

The nation's first two shopping malls opened in the early 1950s: the first was Northgate near Seattle, Washington, followed one year later by Framingham's Shoppers' World. Unlike earlier shopping centers, the new ones faced inward, with parking along the exterior. No longer oriented to the road, Northgate and Shoppers' World were destinations in and of themselves. By 1960 there were over 7,000 of these mall-like shopping centers in the U.S.

The design of Shoppers' World, with two levels of stores facing each other across a pedestrian walkway, became the prototype. Unlike later malls, Shoppers' World was not an enclosed, climate-controlled structure, but the architect sought to create "quiet zones" where people could enjoy shopping away from the noise and bustle of automobile traffic. A two-story complex with 44 stores surrounded by 6,000 parking spaces, Shoppers' World was the first suburban center in the region to be anchored by a branch of a major downtown department store — a huge Jordan Marsh, whose "Spaceship Design" dome announced its modernity.

Situated along the already well-established commercial "Golden Mile" on Route 9 west of Wellesley, Shoppers World became even more accessible when the Massachusetts Turnpike completed an exit/entrance practically at the mall's doorstep.

An overnight success, Shoppers' World opened the door to the modern suburban shopping experience. The developers of the complex had sited the mall well. Situated along the already well-established commercial "Golden Mile" on Route 9 west of Wellesley, Shoppers World became even more accessible when the Massachusetts Turnpike completed an exit/entrance practically at the mall's doorstep.

Framingham had demographic as well as geographic advantages. Home to a growing number of middle-class families, the town was an ideal laboratory for new goods and services. As one reporter wrote, "If soap didn't appeal to Framingham, the reasoning went, it wouldn't wash in America either." Framingham was considered such a barometer of national demographic trends, a group of medical researchers chose it for a major longitudinal study of the effect of lifestyle on heart disease. The Framingham Heart Study was initiated in 1948 and continues today.

"If soap didn't appeal to Framingham, the reasoning went, it wouldn't wash in America either."

Interestingly, some of the nation's most successful mall architects were European immigrants, who desired to bring control and order to America's ugly suburban sprawl. Viennese-born Victor Gruen designed the nation's first fully enclosed, multi-tiered shopping complex near Minneapolis in 1956. Its skylit central garden court with fishponds, trees, balconies, hanging plants, and cafe tables became the model for the next generation of malls.

In time, as the newer malls design became the norm, the design of Shoppers' World came to seem dated. By the early 1990s, it had lost customers to newer centers, including the nearby Natick Mall. In 1994 the owners of Shoppers' World announced plans to demolish it and replace it with an upscale big-box strip mall. Some locals protested, and a campaign was launched to preserve the Jordan Marsh dome as an historically significant structure. The effort failed, and the original Shoppers' World survives today only as a 3-D model on display at the Framingham History Center.

Location

This Mass Moment occurred in the Greater Boston region of Massachusetts.

Sources

Boston Globe March 20, 1994; July 20, 1997; May 1, 2003.

Mall Maker: Victor Gruen, Architect of an American Dream, by M. Jeffrey Hardwick (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003).

"A Brief History of Shopping Centers," by Malachy Kavanagh, The Impact of Shopping Centers, June 2000, International Council of Shopping Centers website.

"Annals of Commerce: The Terrazzo Jungle," by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker, March 15, 2004.

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