Architecture / Photo Essay
Built in the early 1970s, a decaying Midwestern relic of throw-away consumer architecture will be torn down and developed into an updated outdoor shopping space. What is lost in the process?
by Tag Hartman-Simkins
An era is coming to its end in a mid-size Illinois city few Americans might recognize. Sandburg Mall, the four-anchor shopping arena constructed in 1974 on the northwest corner of Galesburg, is finally being torn down after decades of decline. Located near the intersection of Henderson street and Carl Sandburg Drive, just off the US-34 exit, the shopping center was built during Galesburg’s population apex — nearly 38,000 citizens were registered in 1960 census, dropping only about 1,000 by 1970. Per the city’s most recent census report, that number has dropped to just above 32,000.
Although my family is from the Midwest, I was born in West Germany and spent part of my childhood in Maine and Arizona with a brief stint in Aledo, Illinois, where my family lived with my grandparents. When we finally came to nest in Galesburg in 1993, the mall was still under management by the original owners and, if memory serves me, was entirely occupied. It was a busy building where teens traditionally spent evenings and weekends and families actually did holiday shopping. There was a McDonald’s, a Sun Coast/Sam Goody hybrid store, a Spencer Gifts, and a Fashion Bug among many other relics of the late 1980s and 1990s shopping landscape. There was a bookstore and a Kirlin’s Hallmark store which had been a staple since at least the early 1980s, if not since the Mall’s construction. This constellation of stores remained relatively solid throughout my childhood for about a decade.
In 2002, Galesburg’s largest manufacturing employer announced it would leave the city and move its facilities to Mexico, sending the the city into a micro-depression. The economic effects of that decision have been well-documented by many of the country’s most respected news sources as an indicator of the region’s unstoppable economic decline. It was highlighted in Barack Obama’s famous keynote address to the Democratic National Convention in 2004. Not long after the company announced its decision to move, the town entered a recession. As I matriculated at the high school and spent weekend evenings with friends at Sandburg mall, the familiar sight became store closing sales, including Sun Coast and Spencer gifts. By the time I graduated in 2006, students comically referred to the center as the “giant concrete hole.” Seemingly nothing was left.
Galesburg took a nosedive following the shuttering of Maytag in 2004, but no section of the city was more visibly devastated than Sandburg Mall, seemingly hollowed out in just a few years’ time. And as the town’s regional recession continued into the latter part of the 00’s, conditions became exacerbated as the national recession set in. In 2007, on the cusp of the housing crash, Sandburg Mall was sold to Sandburg Mall Realty Management, LLC for $3.3 million. Eight years later, in 2015, it would be sold to Mall Group Investments after the prior owners filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy with over $2 million in debt. Then, in August of 2016, the mall was placed for public auction and subsequently purchased by G.L. Harris for a meager $690,000. Tom Morris — comedically referred to in more than one Register-Mail headline as a cartoonish ‘Texas Real Estate Investor’ — is now working with Harris to help develop it into a mixed-use property.
Sandburg Mall and Galesburg are an easy flashpoint in the national conversation surrounding the decline of the Midwest and the surprise victory of Donald Trump in states where Democratic wins appeared surefire. Knox County went red for the first time since Ronald Reagan’s re-election in 1984, unsurprising given how much of the country rejected Mondale that year. Indeed, both downtown Galesburg proper — the stretch along Main street past the square — and the newer, commercially late-20th century ‘uptown’ portion — along Henderson, terminating at Sandburg mall on the north end of town — declined significantly over the next decade. The median household income fell 27%. After dropping out of my first semester at Illinois State University in early 2007, I moved to nearby Peoria and worked at X-Pac, a packaging company where workers treated and boxed up parts for Caterpillar before shipping them out globally. Many of my co-workers were previous employees of Maytag now commuting two hours a day to work in Peoria. Most of them told me they made upwards of $15 or $20 an hour at Maytag; at X-Pac we began at minimum wage, which in Illinois during 2007 would have been around $6.50 an hour before July.
Sandburg Mall is now a relic about to disintegrate, albeit one few citizens will probably miss. Its existence has been maligned for most of my teenage and adult life. It taunts and reminds most of a better, more colorful economic past in a town still struggling — and in some places, succeeding — to get back on its feet. Ownership seems acutely aware of its negative image. Twice during my time taking photographs of the interior were my motives questioned by staff, the first in Holmes Shoes by an employee wondering why I had taken a photo of a ‘SALE’ sign I admired and the second by the single security guard who shouted, “NO! No no no no no!” at me from across the empty center court on a Tuesday afternoon. Perhaps they were afraid of a millennial with an iPhone and a snarky blog presence, or ending up on DeadMalls.com, itself seemingly an antique from an embarrassing online past. The dying mall narrative is culturally already somewhat behind the nation, peaking in attention a few years ago.
My intentions in cataloging what I view as the quirks and eccentricities of what is otherwise a relatively unimpressive specimen of late 20th century throw-away consumer architecture are not, however, snarky. I have fond memories of the mall nearer its halcyon days, but in its decline I found a broader appreciation for its bones and imperfections, those inane moments in its design which give its age away. It has in its pinks and browns and off-whites, tiered entrances with rounded corners and walls of beveled mirrors the image of what James Murphy once referred to as ‘the unremembered eighties’ — an image of the near-past my generation can pretend to through collective cultural remembrance but through no direction connection of our own. Rather it contains reminders of an aesthetic moment which was already history in our own youth, within which we made our own now-distant memories. The JC Penny changing rooms to me are where I spent August afternoons in the late 1990s trying on back-to-school clothing while Player’s 1977 hit “Baby Come Back” would play softly on the in-store radio. I would wonder if this place was what the late 70s felt like, because it did not feel like the moment I was actually living in.
Murphy’s “unremembered eighties” were something of a knock on the cartoonish image of the decade that emerged in the first years of the 21st century. Depictions of the past can range from parodic visions such as Tim Herlihy’s The Wedding Singer, set in a technicolor 1985 rife with references and style jokes; or in more considered realizations, such as Netflix’s series Stranger Things, which downplays its era’s goofier frivolities in favor of both appearing of its time and more literary in its appeal. And truthfully, depictions of past eras are as reliant on the cultural moments in which they are made as they are on periods they aim to reproduce. Closer looks at 2011’s Downton Abbey and 1992’s Howards End probably reveal more aesthetically about the years they debuted than the Edwardian era fashion and decor they depict. Time is not necessarily a series of rooms with objects arranged at moments we can return to and identify as the 1970s and the 1980s, but it is always the present in which constellations of objects and people exist. Sandburg mall may never have been a 1980s I knew, but its identifier as being from that time helped shape my memories of the place and my idea of the era which birthed to it to this day.
The accuracy with which trends seem to approximate past eras appears to have gotten better the closer we get to recycling fashions from this very century. In my lifetime the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s have all come back to one extent or another, often with several ‘versions’ of them coming into vogue at different cultural moments, usually when tastemakers — the young, hip and urban affluent — cherrypick inspirations from the past and arrange them differently, often with a fresh take or twist on the old. Sandburg Mall feels tied to a version of each decade left in the dustbin due to its confirmation of how mundane much of the past (and the present) is. Its architecture is painfully lost in its own time and its updates only confuse by neither integrating well into the original structure or standing out as truly contemporary. The pink kiosks, orange tiles, teal chairs and green paneled rooms, the purple plush seating in the JC Penny dressing room, and the bright blue tiered entryways are, along with other decor flourishes, seemingly random, with no coherent pattern. Gold detailing, wood slats and beige terrazzo flooring make up the mall’s most recognizable visual style along with the lacquered blonde wood terraced seating surrounded by cement brickwork which adorns the mall exterior.
Over time the space has accrued the detritus not only of the decades of change and innovation it has survived, but of the regional economic failures in which it is situated and what is likely in many cases the implementation of cheap or ineffectual aesthetic updates and fixes leading to the opposite effect. The fake greenery now spread around the mall gives one the impression of a series of gigantic paintings in the Chicago Institute of Art depicting Rome after its fall, lush yet sparsely populated; or otherwise of the landscapes enjoyed by Fragonard’s tiny rococo upper class, overshadowed by a domineering cultivated environment in their brittle, sensuous escape. More bizarrely, there are moments where the foliage is set against paneled walls of single lines which, when separated from the rest of the room, give me the impression of a minimal modernist approach. Viewed at night, the exterior casts stark black geometric shadows on the cracked blacktop pavement of an empty parking lot, a foreboding pared-down concrete no-nonsense approach by the kind of brutalist architecture seen in Ben Wheatley’s 2015 film adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise.
The building is still home to a few stores. The website — which all-caps advertises the space as “AN EXCEPTIONAL SHOPPING EXPERIENCE” — lists nearly 30 retailers and service providers currently located in the mall. It’s also frequently used by citizens as a place to walk during the cold winter months, and it’s still the place where children go to have their photograph taken with Santa Claus during the holidays. And aside from its two remaining anchor stores, JC Penny and Bergner’s, Bath and Body Works seems to remains its top draw. Malls across America are dying, as Business Insider reports nearly 15% of them will disappear in the next decade, and it’s likely many of them will vanish from the increasingly depopulating Midwest in states like Illinois from cities which can no longer support them. Shopping malls may not be powerfully meaningful spaces — they are constructed for the purpose of gathering people into an enclosed space to spend money. But in struggling mid-size cities like Galesburg, they can serve as a mood ring for the local economy and gauge that place’s ability to compete on a non-local cultural level. The first thing many visitors comment on when they visit is how dead the mall is. Nobody explicitly visits a town this size to see its shopping mall, but its decay communicates to them something about the health of the city. That can damage morale and self-image, even if a city shouldn’t need to rely on the presence of a Starbucks or an American Eagle to feel as though it can compete with more economically viable places. When you’re trying to attract more citizens to your town, though, it can mean something vital.
Back in 2010 CFCF released the first of several mixtapes between albums, titled Slow R&B For Zellers Locations Canada-Wide. Clocking in at just under 40 minutes, the mixtape is a love-letter to the music that came to define a certain era of the consumer shopping experience. Zellers, described by XLR8R as “more or less the Canadian Version of K-Mart,” appears on the cover of the mixtape as a quintessential 1980s shopping sub-paradise. The music is both familiar and alien: chopped & screwed slow jams from the 1980s with the vocals pitched down and certain features enhanced or bolstered. When played on a low volume in the background, one is reminded of childhood viewed through the warped lens of nostalgia and the faulty technology that has shaped our collective memory of the era. It’s a warm backward nod to the monoculture through the blur of VHS noise; not exactly the moment as it existed, but as it survived through memory. Department stores are recalled not as a flimsy artifice of late capitalism in the 20th century but as the inviting spaces they projected themselves to be. This is a mixtape by people who once hid in the center of clothing racks and later grew up to detest — and participate in — the march of gentrification. And while the bulldozing of a midwestern mall is not the terraforming of entire ethnic urban neighborhoods into artisanal coffee shops and Apple stores, it reminds me that regardless of the purpose of the architecture we plan and build, the lived experiences of the people who enter and inhabit those spaces are what shapes our understanding of them and their value.
Sandburg Mall may be an unsightly and ultimately unsalvageable artifact of the 20th century. It’s tough to argue against anything which may bring jobs and revenue to Galesburg, even if it means destroying a recognizable part of the city in the process. Some architecture is strangely not built to last, and if the building is too expensive or difficult to maintain, the reasonable solution is to tear the structure down and update it for the 21st century. But what is lost when we tear down something difficult and and momentarily ugly in favor of joining nearby cities such as Peoria in the race to prove Galesburg can have it all, too? After the introduction of experimental pizza place Baked on Seminary Street and Iron Spike brewery on Cherry, Galesburg’s downtown seemed to be staking the claim it can hold its own alongside a Williamsburg or Wicker Park by emulating what makes those places recognizable, even if they are a tad unimaginative in realizing that vision. How can a city update itself and move into the 21st century without losing the character that distinguishes it? Or is this just part of the growing pains, losing the old in gaining something better? In 1974, Sandburg Mall may not have replaced something so much as provided the city with a vestige of the monoculture. With its demolition and replacement may come a new opportunity for young people to inhabit and realize the space which will replace it. My hope is that Galesburg — and the new owners of Sandburg Mall — see this as an opportunity to introduce something more unique and characteristic to the town’s landscape, rather than simply more of the same.