Legacy of Southdale, the world’s first enclosed mall

A look back at the world’s first enclosed mall.
Bob Barker's 1957 telecast of "Truth or Consequences" from Southdale.

It’s no secret that the city of Edina is a shopper’s paradise: From 50th and France to the Galleria and the Container Store, shopping opportunities abound. But in this town, shopping is about more than just designer clothes or catching a sale. In Edina, the tradition of shopping is steeped in history that dates back nearly 60 years, before the term “mall” was ever applied to retail.  Bob Kojetin, long-time Edina resident and a former parks director, remembers when chicken farms were scattered on the plot of land just south of Highway 62, and wild prairie grass covered the expanse heading further south. That’s when architect Victor Gruen entered the scene with a vision for a new structure to help house all shopping needs and curb urban sprawl by bringing the community together in one concentrated spot.Dan Protess, PBS producer and writer of the documentary 10 Buildings That Changed America, which paid homage to Southdale’s enduring influence, explains that Gruen’s goal was to build an “inward-focused [building], with stores opening up to a central air-conditioned space, and surrounded on the outside by a sea of parking.” Although his construction didn’t curb urban sprawl, Protess believes, “it may have changed America more than any other building in this show.” When Gruen’s masterpiece opened October 8, 1956, with 75 stores plus two department stores (Dayton’s and Donaldson’s) all under one roof, the world welcomed the first-ever indoor shopping mall: Southdale.Although Southdale still stands, Kojetin recalls the excitement of those early days with nostalgia. “We never called it the mall; it was Southdale,” he notes. After a successful grand opening—and an appearance on the cover of Life magazine—Southdale quickly became a destination for people across the Midwest; buses shipped people in from the surrounding countryside, and a trip to Southdale was always in the cards for out-of-town guests. “It was an outing,” explains Kojetin. “When you went to Southdale you dressed up."In its early years, Southdale served as a de facto community center, with frequent special events and parties. Marty Rud, the public relations director at the time, said in his 2001 oral interview with the Edina Historical Society, that “we were the Mall of America at that time and had the same kind of attention they currently have.” Around Christmas, Southdale brought in dozens of choirs, in the middle of winter they put on a fashion show and an Easter animal farm was the highlight in the spring. Over the years Southdale hosted three symphony balls at center court, complete with dinner, dancing and an Eiffel tower replica. Although shopping was primarily an adult activity at the time, kids were thrilled when Southdale was transformed into the “big tent” for a three-ring circus, complete with elephants, monkeys and trapeze artists. Kojetin even recalls the Southdale monkey that families could rent out for birthday parties. But his favorite element of the original mall was the big atrium in the center, with oversize birdcages. “That is what made it feel big when you went in,” he says.Today Southdale is part of a vibrant community, surrounded by restaurants, parks, hotels and hospitals. Lauren Carpenter, the director of marketing and business development at Simon Property Group that manages Southdale, is in the midst of planning for the grand reopening on September 28. Their recent redevelopment of the mall included replacing floors and ceilings, building a new dining pavilion, bringing in new stores and restaurants, adding 400 new lights and integrating lots of wood and neutrals with pops of color in the soft seating that echoes 1950s style.“The whole renovation was trying to take it back to the original Southdale,” says Carpenter. The clock keeping time over center court is the original to Southdale. “You can feel the change, it feels happier,” says Carpenter. “There’s a change in attitude about the mall.” Although restrictions now make a circus comeback unlikely, Carpenter is excited to rekindle the community feel that made Southdale so popular in the beginning.