Big Town Mall

Mall was 'the place to be'

Long past its prime, Big Town coming down in Mesquite

08:46 PM CDT on Friday, July 28, 2006

By KARIN SHAW ANDERSON / The Dallas Morning News

MESQUITE – Big Town was big news.

The first enclosed and air-conditioned shopping mall in the Southwest, the 77 ½-acre "City of Shops," drew crowds too big to count when it opened on a Thursday in late February 1959.

The Mesquite icon boasted not only a shopping utopia, but a small amusement park and a cartoon theater for kids. The Dallas Morning News ran a 24-page section on the opening, making that day's edition the largest weekday publication of the newspaper to date.

It’s not shoppers who are flocking to Mesquite’s Big Town Mall these days, it’s demolition crews there to tear down the Southwest’s first air-conditioned retail center.

But through the decades, the crowds that once formed human traffic jams thinned to clusters of bargain shoppers and strings of mall walkers. Eventually, it attracted more folks thrilled to sneak inside an abandoned mall for snapshots of its morgue-like corridors than consumers ready to open their wallets at the remaining stores. When demolition crews began knocking down the peripheral walls late last week, it was a formality for a destination long ago declared dead.

Over its lifetime, Big Town served as a gathering place for Mesquite's first Rotary Club, a backdrop for a B-movie, and a way station for people fleeing Hurricane Katrina.

But to most, it was an early host to Dallas' obsession with shopping.

Big Town helped change the meaning of the word "mall." Early reports of enclosed shopping centers called each interior corridor a mall, a term for a pedestrian street. As more massive centers popped up around the country, "mall" became the description for an entire complex of stores.

Anchor store Foley’s pulled out of the mall in 1989, not long after a renovation, and others followed suit.

Big Town was on the crest of that wave.

A sight to see

The mayor of Kansas City, Mo., traveled more than 500 miles to see Big Town. Though he lamented that it could mean the end of downtown shopping, "Your Big Town is the finest I've seen," Dr. H. Roe Bartle said at the time.

And Marcella Gilchrist was in the middle of it all.

The Oklahoma transplant watched frenzied opening-day shoppers with wonder.

As secretary for the Big Town Co., she was dubbed the unofficial mayor of the mall, which once housed its own Town Hall.

"I had no idea how many places there were going to be in the mall," she said.

It started humbly, with Ms. Gilchrist working from a makeshift office inside a tin building in the remnants of a cotton patch. Then it grew to hold a conglomeration of big-name department stores, mom-and-pop merchants, a supermarket and a cafeteria.

Ms. Gilchrist had never seen anything like it.

"As each store went in, it was rather exciting. It made you feel proud to have been a part of it," she said.

Gerri von Frellick planned and developed Big Town.

His daughter, who shares his name, was fascinated as a youngster watching her father prepare for the mall's unveiling, which included an appearance by the hot-air balloon used in the 1956 film Around the World in 80 Days.

"I was there for the opening," she said. "Traffic was backed up for miles and miles."

Cora Cantrell went to Big Town the next day to buy a pair of shoes for her young daughter.

"The crowd was so huge, we couldn't find a parking place," Ms. Cantrell said. "I think everyone in Dallas came out to the mall in those first few days it was open. ...

"We started to leave."

In the nick of time, a space opened up, and Ms. Cantrell, her husband and two children made their way in.

It didn't take long before Ms. Cantrell became distracted by sparkling finery in the Zales jewelry display. That's when she got a tap on the shoulder.

"It kind of scared me at first, because it was so crowded in there," she said. "A man identified himself as a representative of the mall and told me to name three businesses that were out there at the mall."

Startled, Ms. Cantrell was able to name the store she stood inside, and she knew a Sanger's was around the corner. A quick scan of the mall brought the name of a third merchant, and Ms. Cantrell was rewarded with a $1,000 bill, the 11th of 18 given away during the mall's three-day grand opening.

They came from all over

During Big Town's heyday in the 1960s and '70s, families from around the area flocked to the mall at the end of each summer to outfit children for the approaching school year. Mike Shannon, a morning traffic anchor for WBAP-AM (820), remembers getting antsy during the marathon clothes fittings.

For several years, Mesquite’s Big Town Mall has been a shell of its former self. The center once boasted big-name stores, but recently, it’s sat mostly empty.

Still, Big Town was "the place to be," Mr. Shannon wrote in an e-mail.

"I'd retreat to J.C. Penney's record department to peruse the newest albums and would usually beg my mother for 83 cents to buy a 45 single," he wrote.

But the birth of newer malls across the area pulled shoppers away from Big Town. The Shannons, like many other families, began shopping at Mesquite's Town East Mall when it opened in 1971.

"Town East came in, and it pretty much dominates that market," Ms. von Frellick said. "Malls have to constantly change ... and the economic area where it's located is not as high as some other areas.

"Almost none of the shopping centers my dad built are still around in their original form," she said. "But I'm always sad to see them go away."

Though her father had successfully launched a similar project in Colorado by the time Big Town opened, and he would go on to open several more, Big Town stands out in Ms. von Frellick's memory.

"I think the overall enthusiasm really made an impression on me," she said from her Colorado home. "The city welcomed us. ... Everyone I met was very positive and encouraging."

Fond memories

Whether it was the $1,000 that stayed in her bank account for decades or the proximity to her Dallas home, Ms. Cantrell said she'll always have fond feelings for Big Town.

"I really hate to hear that it wasn't kept a mall," she said. "It was the end of an era. In its heyday, it was kind of a crown jewel."

But the condition of the aging structure demanded its demolition, she acknowledged.

"The land needs to be productive again, although it will never be what it was the day it opened."

Ms. Gilchrist agreed.

"To me, it doesn't seem that long ago," she said. "I don't know why there couldn't have been something else done with it."

But the shopping center simply lived longer than its usefulness, said Mesquite Mayor Mike Anderson.

"It just didn't fit the model for what malls were going to be," he said. "It's really been declining since the '70s."

Though Big Town got several makeovers, it couldn't compete with Town East. Foley's closed its Big Town store in 1989, and other anchors soon followed. By the time Montgomery Ward closed in 2001, many shoppers forgot about Big Town. Some even credit NorthPark Center as the area's first mall.

"It was more of a question mark. ... What are we going to do with Big Town?" Mr. Anderson said.

A new direction

After a development plan for the site fell through last year, the city and property owner came up with an agreement to demolish the mall as they wait for a buyer.

"The direction in which it's going now is a good one," Mr. Anderson said, though he's sad to see the mall vanishing.

"It's a part of our past that will always be there," he said.

His recollections of Big Town go back almost to its beginning, when his grandparents took him shopping at Woolworth in the early 1960s.

"The first time I met Santa Claus was at Sanger-Harris in Big Town Mall," he said.

E-mail ksanderson@dallasnews.com

CREATING A BUZZ

The crowd for Big Town Mall's opening day Feb. 26, 1959, was estimated at more than 100,000 people. Seven Braniff flight attendants in bunny costumes handed out candy eggs. The mall's developer, Gerri von Frellick, handed out $1,000 bills to 18 shoppers the first three days, having turned to the public for help finding the bills featuring President Grover Cleveland. They were no longer being printed. The hot-air balloon used in the film Around the World in 80 Days was launched from the mall, but after 80 minutes in the air made an unscheduled landing in the Trinity River bottoms. AMONG THE LEADERS

Shopping centers in Denver and Minneapolis both claim to be the first enclosed, air-conditioned malls in the country. Another indoor shopping center in Baltimore opened before Big Town, making the Mesquite mall the fourth in the U.S. and the first mall in the Southwest to treat shoppers to climate-controlled air. BIG MOMENTS

1959 – Big Town Mall opens in Mesquite as the first enclosed, air-conditioned mall in the Southwest.

1965 – NorthPark Center opens in North Dallas.

1971 – Town East Mall opens in Mesquite, less than five miles from Big Town.

1975 – A $400,000 remodeling project is completed.

1986 – Mall's exterior appears in the offbeat flick True Stories.

1988 – Renovation project begins.

1989 – Foley's closes.

1993 – Woolworth closes.

1993 – An outdoor farmer's market opens in an effort to bring in new traffic.

2001 – Montgomery Ward closes.

2005 – An investor's plan to turn the site into a multi-use development falls through.

2005 – Big Town serves as a staging area for people fleeing Hurricane Katrina and flooding in New Orleans.

2006 – Demolition begins.

BY THE NUMBERS

• 600,000 square feet of shopping space

• 7,000 parking spaces, including a lot for smaller cars

• 400 tons of stone for the original construction

• 25,000 square feet of glass, 2,500 gallons of paint, 200 miles of electrical wiring, 7,000 lighting fixtures and 120 aluminum doors to finish out the mall

• 600-seat Town Hall auditorium, a cartoon theater and a miniature amusement park

• 44.5 foot-tall green letters spelled out "Big Town" on the largest all-plastic illuminated sign south of Chicago

• 200,000 feet of pipe, 125 pumps, 10 boilers, 60 gas-fired heaters and furnaces, and 75 fans and blowers used to operate the air-conditioning system

References

Dallas News