First Two-Story, Fully Enclosed Shopping Mall Opens Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Southdale Mall, a two-story, fully enclosed, climate-controlled shopping center, served as the model for thousands of malls opened in the United States, introducing an era in which people combined shopping and social activities.

Summary of Event

Southdale Mall in Edina, Minnesota, opened its doors on October 8, 1956, revolutionizing the way retailers, consumers, and real estate developers viewed the shopping experience. The significance of this event to business and commerce in the United States is threefold. Southdale Mall was the first two-story, fully enclosed, climate-controlled shopping center. It represented a substantial expansion and enhancement on the concept of a planned shopping district, and in it, for the first time, two competing department stores, Donaldson’s and Dayton’s, operated under one roof. Shopping malls Architecture;shopping malls Southdale Mall (Minnesota) [kw]First Two-Story, Fully Enclosed Shopping Mall Opens (Oct. 8, 1956)[First Two Story, Fully Enclosed Shopping Mall Opens] [kw]Shopping Mall Opens, First Two-Story, Fully Enclosed (Oct. 8, 1956) Shopping malls Architecture;shopping malls Southdale Mall (Minnesota) [g]North America;Oct. 8, 1956: First Two-Story, Fully Enclosed Shopping Mall Opens[05270] [g]United States;Oct. 8, 1956: First Two-Story, Fully Enclosed Shopping Mall Opens[05270] [c]Trade and commerce;Oct. 8, 1956: First Two-Story, Fully Enclosed Shopping Mall Opens[05270] [c]Architecture;Oct. 8, 1956: First Two-Story, Fully Enclosed Shopping Mall Opens[05270] [c]Urban planning;Oct. 8, 1956: First Two-Story, Fully Enclosed Shopping Mall Opens[05270] [c]Business and labor;Oct. 8, 1956: First Two-Story, Fully Enclosed Shopping Mall Opens[05270] Gruen, Victor Dayton, Bruce Dayton, Donald

American planned shopping districts can be traced to four notable early renditions—Roland Park in Baltimore, Maryland (1907), Market Square in Lake Forest, Illinois (1916), Country Club Plaza near Kansas City, Missouri (1922), and Highland Park Shopping Center in Dallas, Texas (1931). All, like their counterparts following World War II, were constructed as parts of developing residential communities. At the same time, each differed in several regards from post-World War II malls. First, early shopping centers were considered by developers to be an ancillary service component of the overall residential community. Malls constructed after World War II were viewed as an extremely profitable segment of a suburban development, increasing the market value for the surrounding housing. They were designed around primary services for home buyers and with the intention of generating substantial profits for the real estate developer.

Second, stores within the early centers were, for the most part, not in direct competition. The synergistic value of competition would be realized only when Southdale Mall was envisioned. Third, these initial shopping districts were occupied by small stores, with department stores restricted to downtown areas. Future developments would contain many small stores; however, the dominant players would be large department stores. Fourth, early centers were built before widespread automobile ownership became common. As a result, parking facilities and roads for through traffic were not well planned. Post-World War II shopping centers were designed with acute awareness of the automobile, demands for parking, and the important need to separate vehicle and pedestrian traffic.

Following World War II, economic and social conditions combined to provide the catalyst for a mass migration of people to the suburbs. United States;postwar economy Suburbs postwar migration to (United States) Returning servicepeople seeded an economic boom that provided virtually everyone with the opportunity to participate in the American Dream. Automobiles, which had not been readily available during the war years, were now affordable. Gasoline to operate vehicles was plentiful. Housing construction, at a virtual standstill during the war, exploded in response to an extreme shortage and substantial demand.

Real estate developers concentrated housing tracts in areas around large cities where land was readily available and inexpensive. Government programs, such as those connected with the Veterans Administration and the G.I. Bill (1946), offered attractive terms consisting of a minimal down payment and low interest rates, making home ownership and life in the suburbs possible. From a social perspective, many people wanted to escape the congestion of cities and provide better environments for their blossoming families. Suburban America and a new middle class thereby took shape, with modern shopping centers destined to be an integral component of this significant social change.

Consumer goods that had been hard to acquire during the war years were suddenly available, affordable, and desirable. The vast majority of retailers, however, were located in downtown areas even though customers were moving to the suburbs. In response to this situation, merchants slowly relocated to or opened new outlets in the suburbs. Supermarkets and small retailers were the first to make the move, establishing stores along the main arteries between cities and suburbs. Roads soon became congested, unable to accommodate the considerable demands placed on them by through traffic, parked cars, pedestrians, and delivery trucks.

Although some stores provided parking lots, they often were located behind stores, presenting a new obstacle to customers, who were forced to enter through small entrances primarily intended for deliveries and garbage removal. Early suburban strip centers lacked appeal, were not convenient because they had no large department stores, and often became eyesores to the surrounding community. A new type of shopping environment was mandated.

In 1950, substantial changes began to appear in shopping districts, and the modern mall concept took form. Northgate shopping center was constructed in Seattle, Washington, patterned after a typical downtown main street with two long strips of stores and a central pedestrian mall. The first shopping district of this type, it further distinguished itself by leasing space to a “full-line” department store. The significance of this arrangement is paramount: For many years, most future shopping developments other than small strip malls would be designed with at least one large department store, which became known as the anchor or magnet store.

The most profound and long-lasting advances in shopping centers were initiated by Victor Gruen in the mid-1950’s. He believed that a shopping center had to become an integral part of the surrounding community in order to succeed. The center needed to possess two primary characteristics. First, it must provide a superior shopping experience by offering a full range of goods and services, excellent access roads to the center, convenient parking near entrances, and pedestrian-only areas. Second, it needed to emulate the downtown district by becoming the focal point for cultural, recreational, and civic activities for the local community.

Gruen integrated many of these ideas into the design of Northland shopping center in Detroit, Michigan, which was opened in 1954. His grandest development, Southdale Mall in Edina, Minnesota, made its debut on October 8, 1956. Creating Southdale Mall presented two significant challenges. First, it was the first shopping mall to have two competing department stores, Donaldson’s Donaldson’s department store[Donaldsons department store] and Dayton’s Dayton’s department store[Daytons department store] , located under one roof. Extreme care was required to ensure that each store would have equal access to the mall’s customers. Second, the climate in Minnesota consists of extremes—cold in the winter, hot and humid in the summer. Gruen believed that a design with open pedestrian areas would not succeed in Minnesota’s harsh climate. To overcome this obstacle, he designed Southdale Mall to be the first two-story, fully enclosed, climate-controlled mall in the United States.

The climate-controlled design of Southdale Mall did much more than protect visitors from the weather—it provided an escape to a fantasy world for the mall’s guests. Bruce Dayton and Victor Gruen combined their talents to create this illusion. The mall was designed with a large center court as the primary entry point for customers. It was housed beneath a roof more evidenced by skylights than by roofing. The skylights allowed large amounts of natural sunlight to illuminate the center court, bathing mall visitors in warm sunbeams as they sat or walked among the trees and plants. This natural sunlight was available virtually every day of the year, regardless of the weather outside. In addition to soothing the customers, it provided sustenance for the massive amounts of greenery. This was crucial, as it would have been prohibitively expensive to maintain this illusion through an ongoing program of plant replacement.

To further enhance its appearance as a paradise, the central court contained a pond filled with goldfish and a two-story cage replete with live, exotic birds. Throughout the garden court could be found generous displays of paintings and sculptures. A second-floor walkway surrounded and overlooked the garden court, affording a panoramic view. Community events such as concerts, auto shows, and craft fairs were scheduled and held in the courtyard.

The revolutionary design, interior decor, and use of this facility, at that time the largest indoor facility in the local community, caused the patrons to see the mall as an important focal point and to envision their shopping experience in a new light. People came to the center to shop, walk, eat, socialize, relax, and generally enjoy the jubilant atmosphere. Shopping became a recreational activity for a growing number of people. Future malls would need to consider and model into their designs these community and entertainment aspects.

Many critics of Gruen believed that two department stores in the same enclosed shopping center would ruin each other with competition. Precisely the opposite occurred. The two stores, Donaldson’s and Dayton’s, were stronger as a team, drawing more people to the mall and increasing business for all occupants of the center as well as for themselves. Smaller stores were induced to locate in the mall between the two major stores because of the drawing power of these giants. This concept of locating near and benefiting from other stores would become known as mall synergy. Southdale Mall was the first successful application of this concept. Side-by-side competition became a basic ingredient in the success formula for developing a shopping center. In future developments, department stores would insist that their competition be located within a proposed mall before they would agree to lease space.

Southdale Mall’s design helped keep construction costs down in several ways. First, Southdale was an introvert mall, the first of its kind. The primary entrances to the mall were from side streets or alleys leading to the central court rather than through individual store entrances. As a result, each store did not need to erect expensive double-door entrances. Second, all the storefronts faced inward toward the climate-controlled central court; therefore, less expensive materials such as plaster and wood could be used rather than the more expensive weather resistant brick and cement found in other malls. Third, the multilevel building used about half the land needed for a single-story mall. These construction savings offset some of the added expenses for roofing and climatizing the public areas. Savings in terms of construction costs and the lower initial cost for land helped make this building design the norm for shopping centers that were constructed after Southdale Mall.

For real estate developers, this mall provided a textbook lesson in land control and profitability. The Dayton Company acquired 462 acres of land for this project, 84 acres of which were employed in building Southdale Mall. The remaining land was subsequently developed with businesses that complemented the mall’s ability to draw and satisfy customers. The Dayton Company was able to control the look of the surrounding developments, making the area complementary and of equal quality to that of the mall. Further, such land and developmental control ensured that access roads would remain available and that substantial profits could be generated from the sale of developed land or from store leasing agreements with shared profit provisions. Following this successful example, future real estate developers commonly acquired vast amounts of land adjoining their shopping centers to enable themselves to reap huge profits while protecting their investment in the mall from external deterioration.

In order to convince customers to return to the downtown areas, merchants and urban planners began using many of the same principles successfully applied in developing suburban shopping centers. Traffic was redirected around downtown shopping districts. Parking ramps were constructed to accommodate the vehicles of customers, and stores offered to pay for parking. Underground tunnels and overhead bridges were built to connect parking facilities, stores, and businesses, enabling customers to cross streets safely in a climate-controlled environment. Downtown areas were beautified by creating landscaped courts, eliminating obsolete buildings, utilizing scenic riverfronts, and restoring historic buildings, thereby appealing to the shopper’s desire for a unique and pleasant environment. In addition, many downtown areas, to distinguish themselves from suburban shopping centers, began to focus on affluent shoppers, filling the districts with specialty shops, restaurants, and entertainment facilities. These were primarily aimed at two groups: downtown workers on lunch break or shopping after work and people traveling into town for a short stay.


Many concepts first utilized in the development of Southdale Mall became the foundation for the vast majority of shopping centers all over the world. Two of these centers are worthy of special mention—the Edmonton Mall in Canada (1985) and the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota (1992). These two megamalls have taken the concept of entertainment while shopping to its highest peak, including amusement parks and skating rinks within their confines. Southdale was the first of a long lineage, introducing a concept that forever changed the retailing environment in the United States and throughout the world. During the 1990’s and into the early twenty-first century, the emergence of the outlet mall could also be seen, where discounted items or slightly flawed products were offered along with regular merchandise. Such malls often adopted a “strip-mall” approach, with stores having entries to the outside, enclosing or surrounded by parking lots. Shopping malls Architecture;shopping malls Southdale Mall (Minnesota)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gruen, Victor. Centers for the Urban Environment: Survival of the Cities. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1973. Describes the crucial role planning plays in the development of an urban community. Chapter 2 details the part shopping centers play and offers a depiction of how the mall concept has developed and expanded over time. Excellent background information for all interested readers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “Dynamic Planning for Retail Areas.” Harvard Business Review 32 (November/December, 1954): 53-62. Outlines the shortcomings of early shopping districts and explains how problems were overcome in malls that were developed later. Also describes ways of reviving downtown shopping districts. Good for undergraduate students and urban developers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hardwick, M. Jeffrey. Mall Maker: Victor Gruen, Architect of an American Dream. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004. Study of Gruen’s shopping-mall architecture, focusing specifically on the role of the Austrian expatriate in shaping American culture. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kowinski, William S. “Endless Summer at the World’s Biggest Shopping Wonderland.” Smithsonian 17 (December, 1986): 35-42. Provides an interesting description of the West Edmonton Mall in Canada, the largest shopping center in the world. Explains the evolution of enclosed malls. Very readable.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Malling of America. New York: William Morrow, 1985. A lively chronicle of the author’s journey through several malls in the United States. Discusses how and why malls were developed and what part they play in American life. Chapter 12 covers the Southdale Mall. Very readable and enjoyable.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stedman, Gordon H. “The Rise of Shopping Centers.” Journal of Retailing 31 (Spring, 1955): 11-26. Highlights the economic and societal elements that led to the increasing number of shopping centers in the post-World War II era. Articulates the steps that must be followed in developing a successful shopping center.

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