Tuesday would have been Randhurst Mall’s 60th birthday and was to be celebrated by art historians who adore the Basilica of Saint-Denis. For just as the 12th-century French church defined the Gothic style, the Mount Prospect shopping center set the cornerstone for 20th-century suburban design.
Randhurst architect Victor Gruen often referred to the American mall as the modern equivalent of Europe’s medieval cathedral.
Apparently, this judgment was based on self-interest. Still, Randhurst was impressive.
Covering an area of one million square meters, air-conditioned, covered and equipped with a huge dome, it allowed consumers to determine the rhythm of life, rain or shine. When it opened in 1962, Maurice L. Rothschild placed an ad in the Tribune promoting the Loop retailer’s new suburban back-to-school shopping facility.
The picture showed a teenager in a t-shirt and briefs. “The start of a busy school day for boys,” the text proclaimed. For $3 each, older students could return to college in “Fraternity Row Ivy Shirts.”
Carson Pirie Scott, one of the mall’s original three presenters, posed a rhetorical question in his Tribune announcement of the mall’s opening: “Where else can you admire palm trees in January, get your hair done in a plush pink setting while sipping free coffee , and dine in-the-round of an upscale restaurant in the center of an indoor mall?”
Shopping centers were hardly new in 1962. Planned shopping centers date back to Lake Forest Market Square, which opened in 1916. But until they were fenced off, malls could not serve as year-round promenades for the elderly or hangouts for teenagers, performance spaces for buskers, and galleries for sculptors.
That awaited Gruen’s vision.
As a Jew, he fled his Austrian homeland from the Nazis and arrived in America in 1938. He took away poignant memories of Vienna’s charming little shops, each a little different from the next. In the United States he did facelifts for cookie cutter shops. His signature was bold, even bold design.
Stores are “selling machines,” he said. It was a riff on a house as “a machine for living in,” a maxim of the modernist architect Le Corbusier. Gruen would have heard it as a student at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, where the curriculum was based on the socialist ideal of artists leading the way to a better world.
As World War II drew to a close, Gruen saw America’s cities crisscrossing the countryside. In one lecture, he vividly painted a word picture of streets “flanked by the greatest collection of vulgarity, billboards, motels, gas stations, cabins, car lots, various industrial plants, hot-dog stands, wayside shops – ever assembled by mankind “.
In a 1952 article in Progressive Architecture, Gruen and a partner proposed a solution to the rot before the city. Lacking a focus in the suburbs, one had to be grafted onto it.
“Ever since trading began under a tree, the market has been a meeting place,” Gruen remarked. “People could mingle at a leisurely pace, discuss business, exchange gossip.”
As he envisioned, a regional mall would provide suburban America with a focal point akin to the agora of ancient Greece and the town square of colonial America.
M. Jeffrey Hardwick, author of Mall Maker, noted that Gruen’s specifications were remarkably detailed—he called for 10-foot parking spaces, for example—since he had yet to build a mall.
In fact, despite praise from Jane Jacobs and other critics of America’s desecrated skyline, Gruen designed four malls that were not built. But in a traveling exhibition “Shopping centers of the future,” Gruen challenged the captains of industry with the moral imperative his professors had imposed on him.
“Only you, as a far-sighted citizen,” wrote Gruen, “can ensure that the amorphous growth of the uncontrolled commercial slum is replaced by the integration of the mall.”
Then, starting with his 1952 Northland Mall built near Detroit, he began getting shopping mall commissions steadily.
“Randhurst Shopping Center represented the pinnacle of Gruen’s suburban retail dreams,” Hardwick wrote.
The mayor of Mount Prospect thought the same way. “It is our wish,” he said as he laid the groundwork, “that Randhurst Shopping Center will fulfill all the dreams of those who transformed yesterday’s farmlands into tomorrow’s merchandising realities.”
The mayor’s summary was issued during groundbreaking for the mall on an abandoned farm 25 miles northwest of Chicago. “As about 200 officers and onlookers stood by, the small barn was set on fire by a giant match,” reported the Tribune on November 20, 1960. “A plume of black smoke rose high in the air and was visible for miles. ”
The website embodied Gruen’s thesis that a store is a selling machine. When a Tribune reporter visited the mall on the eve of its opening, he noticed that the stores had no loading docks. Instead, their goods arrived via a half-kilometer tunnel under the mall.
“Now trucks deliver goods to (underground) mailrooms where conveyor belts transport them to tagging and tagging rooms,” wrote the reporter, who was impressed by the “industrial engineering” embedded in Gruen’s design.
Eventually the goods were taken to the shops overhead. They formed an isosceles triangle, each with a department store: Carson’s, The Fair, and Wieboldt’s.
Since shopping malls are generally rectangular, Gruen’s geometry aroused curiosity.
The mall was closed on the first Sunday after its grand opening, but “2,000 people were jammed on the mammoth center’s grounds and surrounding freeways,” according to the Mount Prospect Police Department.
The day after Thanksgiving, 100,000 people started their holiday shopping in Randhurst. It had also fulfilled Gruen’s vision of a shopping center that isn’t just a place where the tills ring. It hosted a square dance, an art fair, a car show, and performances for the Infant Welfare Society and the nearby Holy Family Hospital.
But in a way, Randhurst didn’t fulfill Gruen’s dream. He thought a mall would curb suburban sprawl. It would have a magnetic force to keep development concentrated in its orbit, just as cities once did. Instead, one shopping center became more shopping centers, as was already evident when Randhurst opened.
“More than 100 outlying centers of various sizes, some under construction or in the planning stages, lie within the Chicago area,” the Tribune wrote on December 17, 1962, alongside a map. When a suburb’s tax revenue soared thanks to its mall, its neighbors figured they ought to have one too.
Gruen eventually regretted his own architecture. He expressed his regrets in “Is Progress a Crime?” a dystopian sci-fi novel in which, in one scene, he looked down from a spaceship at countless “clip-joint” malls where people buy what they don’t need.
Having retired to his native Austria, he feared that his Frankenstein monster was following him: a shopping center was being built near his beloved old Vienna.
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“I’m often called the father of the mall,” he said; “I want to take this opportunity to say hello to paternity once and for all. I refuse to pay alimony to these bastard developments. They have destroyed our cities.”
Many of Gruen’s stationary offspring experienced difficult times. Randhurst’s customer base was being consumed by the nearby Woodfield Mall. JC Penney and Montgomery Ward’s closed their anchor stores in 2001. Vandals set them on fire in 2003.
The mall closed permanently in 2008 and was replaced by an outdoor mall, Randhurst Village.
The Daily Herald wrote Randhurst’s obituary:
“Tomorrow came and went, cornfields gave way to merchandising, executives died and the old mall of the future was demolished to make way for a new mall of the future.”
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