TL;DR: Before/afters of yet another dead monument to consumerism.
History: Opened in 1973, and topping out at two floors of nearly a million square-feet of retail space; this was the third and final mall built by the Randhurst Corporation, a cooperative effort between three Chicago-native department store chains: then-upscale Carson Pirie Scott & Co. (who was also the formal parent company of the Randhurst Corp.), mid-level Wieboldt Stores, Inc., and Montgomery Ward. The other two projects were the 1962-built namesake in Mount Prospect, and the 1971-built Lakehurst Mall in Waukegan. A fourth project was also apparently in the works after this mall, but never panned out.
Unlike its predecessors: famed architect, Victor Gruen, was not involved in this project (and it shows) – the honor instead went to Daverman Associates of Grand Rapids, MI.
In addition to the three companies in the joint-venture: JCPenney rounded the mall out as its fourth anchor store. The mall’s history is fairly uneventful until the bankruptcy and liquidation of Wieboldt’s in 1986, resulting in that anchor’s nine-year vacancy. The mall then underwent a renovation in 1993, and the Wieboldt space was finally filled and renovated by Sears two years later – both in response to the enclosure of another nearby, competing mall. The return to prosperity was, however, short-lived: in 1999 Montgomery Ward closed in a prelude to the company’s 2001 liquidation. Also, in a stunning double-tap: JCPenney followed suit the next year. The interior chain stores began to flee in droves – replaced by urban and independent retailers, or just left empty; a reflection of the area’s shifting economy.
It’s worth noting that this mall was actually once a direct competitor to, and stole several tenants from the infamous (and now-demolished) Dixie Square Mall, just eleven miles north. By the time this mall opened in 1973, Dixie Square had already lost its Turn-Style anchor, and was in the early stages of becoming the world’s first “dead mall”, as the city became ravaged by crime, poverty, and racial tension.
Around 2004, the mall began a major revitalization effort, backed by the village and new owners from Texas. The first project saw the re-routing and widening of the mall circle to connect the two major highways it sits on – in theory, eliminating the lower-traffic “back end” of the mall, and allowing development of new outparcel anchors. Those anchors opened in 2007: a Target, and in a bizarre twist: JCPenney.
Plans then shifted toward the mall itself, with the demolition of both vacant anchor stores, as well as the Montgomery Ward atrium to construct a grand new mall entrance – much like the one Randhurst built out of its old Montgomery Ward. The JCPenney anchor would be replaced by a large movie theater and an “outdoor shopping district” (as lifestyle centers have – for whatever the hell reason, considering our occasionally harsh climate – become popular in these parts) – bringing total retail space back to around a million square feet.
The mall hyped the development by hanging huge banners everywhere, inside and out, with stock imagery and motivational phrases like “IT’S HAPPENING NOW!”, while also launching the website “wereserious.com” – which unfortunately the Internet Archive was unsuccessful at capturing. Even as the mall now sits closed: these banners are still hanging over some of the mall entrances, fading and tattered by more than a decade of Chicago’s harsh winters.
Demolition on the mall started, and soon everything went to Hell from there, when a pissing-match broke out between the mall’s owners and financial lenders, and the property fell into foreclosure. Work halted mid-demo, leaving gaping holes at the former entrance to JCPenney, and the mall corridor which once-led to Montgomery Ward. These openings were crudely walled-off using some kind of fiberboard material and insulation, then drywalled-off from public view on the inside. The exterior, where this demolition took place, still looks like an eyesore to this day. Additionally, half of the upper level parking was torn-up and graded back down to ground level – meaning the mall’s emergency exits on the upper level, between Wards and Penneys, now opened to a 20-foot drop and had to be welded shut.
To repeat: fire doors, welded shut.
At the start of this decade: the mall fell into bankruptcy, and city inspections revealed this abortion of a project had compromised part of the mall’s foundation, the roof’s structural integrity, and the poor sealing job led to disgusting levels of mold growing in what remained of the Montgomery Ward wing.
A total of 24 safety violations were found in this first inspection; with some of the additional citations including crumbling facades at the entryways, unsecured doors in the demolished part, and dismantled sprinkler pipes. A new owner based in New York, who acquired the mall for a measly $150,000 in 2012, inherited nearly $3,000,000 in unpaid real estate taxes along with the responsibility for amending the grocery list of building issues – but did nothing to fix them. The village then sued to have the mall shut down, and day-to-day operations were promptly taken-over by a court appointed receiver while they tried to come up with a game plan, or carry out the closing of the place.
Meanwhile, Sears packed up the cats in 2012 – leaving Carson’s as the lone anchor, and a handful of mostly-independent retailers remaining in the mall’s interior. From there: the exodus was so rapid that mall directories were several years outdated by the time a county judge formally declared the building unsafe, and ordered it closed after the 2014 Christmas season. Carson Pirie Scott – who organized the construction of the mall over 40 years ago, and owns and maintains their own building – remains open to this day. However, January 7, 2015 was the rest of the mall’s final day of business.
Explore: A friend who was local to this mall and I first explored and photographed the place on January 5, 2015; two days before it closed for good. A handful of shops were still open, and on first impression: the place appeared quite clean and well kept, other than a noticeable amount of ceiling lights being out. Hell, we found the mall even put the Christmas decorations out one last time – most of them were still up. We spent about four hours shooting and exploring what we could, and surprisingly were never bothered by security until we were finishing up; when a lone, out of uniform guard we had passed probably half a dozen times, unaware that he was security, casually asked what the photos were for.
About a year passed after the shutdown before people started breaking into the mall, but images were kept mum for some time. That is, until a media whore narked to WGN a week prior to the publishing of this article, and as past viral attention on exploring has gone: effectively opening the floodgates and inviting everyone and their mom to fuck the place up. Because of this, I wasn’t really planning on returning here, on a hunch it was already locked or being heavily watched – and I was actually planning to go explore somewhere else that day – until I saw new photos of it emerging on Instasham the night before, confirming it was still open.
I decided to re-shoot the same views I had photographed on that first visit, almost two years ago. Hopefully, I can turn this into a series, if future visits remain viable several months and years, from now. The standard views were taken on this trip, while a return trip was made a few days later to re-take the fisheye shots.
In each pair: the top photos are early-January 2015, bottom are late-November 2016…
Montgomery Ward wing, second floor
Parts of the drywall, built to hide the unfinished demo work, had been torn-away so that scrappers could look around and move their hauls. The storefronts behind the walls – some of which included the mall’s old Payless Shoe Source, Kay-Bee Toys, and Foot Locker – were still pretty well preserved after being hidden and partially-demoed for over a decade.
Most of the motivational signs hung during the revival effort, which had become hilariously-pathetic toward the end, have been ripped down as scrappers took the light poles they were hanging on. This wall, however, got a special billboard-sized banner (check out that Nokia brick phone) that is nowhere to be found. They had such high hopes from this place, at the time… it’s a real shame how everything shit the bed, here.
This was actually as close as we could get on the first trip, as when all the stores had left this wing they actually closed the bathrooms and roped the whole section off! A karate studio or something was still open on the bottom floor, in what turned out to be the mall’s old Gap, but there was otherwise nothing here.
On another note, here: if you look in the center, you’ll see that storefront on the second floor looks very different. Whenever the mall couldn’t fill a vacant space after such time, they just drywalled and hung a banner with a fake storefront over it. Turns out that particular fake storefront in the center (which required quite a bit of unauthorized archaeological excavation to fully-uncover) was hiding the mall’s ANCIENT, never-renovated-since-the-’70s McDonald’s – a complete sitdown restaurant with period-correct bench seats, even, as they never had a food court – that had been forgotten for almost 20 years! It was so old that it took coming back here and finding a sliver of funky green wallpaper featuring the McDonald’s “M” to finally realize what it was! I was completely stumped, until then – and now I kind of want to go loot those funky wood panels.
Unfortunately the vandalism has already spiked since the place became hot. It was still fairly clean on the first visit, but in just the four days between the return trip: someone managed to find the marker paint the contractors were using and write a bunch of dumb shit everywhere. This is why explorers get pissed whenever someone blows-up a clean spot, and why I refuse to talk to the media or viral websites about this stuff. As the old saying goes: loose lips sink ships.
A public auction was held in the weeks following the mall’s closure. It was there where much of the scrapping rights, and anything of cash value were sold to the highest bidder in a desperate attempt to repay as much debt as possible. All of the Christmas decorations – which included huge, elaborate structures placed throughout the mall – were sold. What didn’t sell were the many live trees and plants found scattered about; some of which were neatly lined in the main atrium at the center of the mall, and simply left to die.
Giant wood sculptures and a mirrored clock once-graced the mall’s main atrium, however a new elevator (installed to meet the new Americans with Disabilities Act) and tall, granite columns became its centerpiece in the 1993 renovation. The elevator hydraulics have failed since closing, allowing the car to bottom-out and sink below the floor by several inches.
I was limited on what equipment I could bring when the mall was still open, so I wound up setting the camera almost on the floor for some of these – producing some funky angles with the fisheye. Other times I used whatever convenient benches, garbage cans, or planters were available to latch the camera to. A Gorillapod really came in handy, that first time.
Center Court shops
I was kind of surprised by how many of the larger fixtures went unsold at the auction – most of the jewelry cases are still there and (for now) unbroken. Interestingly, it seems the mall even tagged entire store facades for sale, however I only saw parts of one storefront missing.
Sears (Wieboldt’s) wing
The mall’s kiddie play area was originally located in the Montgomery Ward atrium, but moved here when that was blown-up. The walls, seats and climbing things were all sold in the auction – leaving only the stained, cushioned floor behind.
On the 2015 visit, I remember this part of the mall got eerily dark once the sun went down – even though a few shops still lingered, here – because so many of the lights were out. Foot Locker was moving the last of their fixtures out, while an airbrushed T-shirt place across the way was still open. I did meet the owner of that shop, who was walking around the mall, trying to coax the few lingering mall walkers in. I remember the guy was actually a really good artist – I hope he’s doing well.
A few shops in this wing held on through the New Year, but were already packing-up by the time we were in town. This area is where the auction was held, and the scrappers have been coming in, so it’s getting thrashed pretty quickly compared to the rest of the mall. The old Rainbow shop has lost all of its windows – the panes probably too heavy to take out in tact, so they’d just let them shatter and take what’s worth scrap value. The mall’s Old Navy sub-anchor that was on the second floor has also fared just as bad, and is missing almost its entire facade. Most of the broken glass, so far, seems to be concentrated in this wing.
Something I also noticed is that almost ALL of the stainless steel railing toppers throughout the mall are gone – either scrapped or stolen (or both). The last little bit of which is on the stairs, in the atrium in front of Carson’s. It’s worth noting that this area also had water fountains, back in the day; in the 80s they were filled-in and replaced by planters, then finally torn out in the 1993 renovation – leaving behind just an oddly-placed, spiraling staircase.
It wouldn’t be a dead mall built by the Randhurst Corp. without Carson’s sticking around after the mall had closed for good. Lakehurst survived more than two years after the mall shuttered, and Randhurst’s store is actually still open in the old Wieboldt’s (later used by Bergner’s) building. Within days of this mall closing, Carson’s actually walled-off their mall entrance, leaving no access to it from within. Interestingly, though: the lower level signs are still lit – neon tubes buzzing-away 24/7 – while the upper floor sign is probably wired into the mall and turned-off. Throughout the entire mall, these are the only two lights which are still on. By nightfall, everywhere else becomes pitch dark.
The store, itself, was actually quite busy on this first week of the Christmas shopping season. Makes parking for the rest of us rather easy, at least.
The Trib reports the village has rejected two proposed redevelopment plans for the site, but is now working with a local real estate developer, giving them six months to come up with a master plan. The village also recently purchased the Sears anchor and vicinity for $525,000 – meaning they now have the entire site except for Carson’s. These village-owned buildings will be torn down once a redevelopment plan is approved. Until then, who will pay for the demo remains up in the air, however the mall is in a tax increment financing district, where funds can be used for the demo and infrastructure work.
For now, we wait – and as I can verify that swarms of curious people sneak in here on pretty much a nightly basis: watch as the broken window theory takes effect. If you’ve come to the end of this article and already know which mall this is: hit it soon and keep it low key. Don’t doom the spot!