Observations and Images on Architecture, Culture and More, in Chicago and the World. See it all here.

Dead Mall Walking






 -by Lynn Becker

[August 25, 2008] - The day the shopping died.

The Magic of America, by Marion Mahony Griffin


Chicago Place shopping mall

Saturday, economy be damned, throngs of shoppers still surged like a teeming river along the sidewalks of North Michigan Avenue, Chicago's premiere shopping boulevard. Flowing past Chicago Place, the vertical mall at 700 North, it's unlikely they could imagine the strange world that awaits them on the other side of the large, self-powered revolving door that now churns impotently, stripped of its power to suck in passers-by.
Chicago Place shopping mall

Inside is a lost world, a seven story atrium of ill-fitting configuration, now eerily quiet, like a tomb, all but hollowed out of living human presence.

Three of five stores listed prominently above the entrance are no longer here. The reception desk is unmanned. The bright Chicago Place, escalator to closed Bockwinkels food martblooms of the New Leaf flowerstand that stood next to, departed without a trace. The Sunglass Hut kiosk, gone. Bockwinkels, the vibrant food mart in the basement long gone, the stopped escalators now leading only to a dark, crypt entombing the remains of abandoned cashier stations.

No more pots and pans and imported olive oil in designer bottles. No more day-planners, sofas, scarfs with shamrocks, fine fur pieces and clocks shaped like cows. The caravan of consumerism has folded its tents and moved on, body butter and concealer packed up in stacked cardboard boxes, awaiting reshipment, inside the dark and abandoned interior of the Body Shop.

The two elevators, glass walled in Frank Lloyd Wright knockoff frames, move up and down their open shafts like ghosts, past floor after floor of empty storefronts.

The current state of Chicago Place is hardly unique. According to Drosscape, Alan elevators, Chicago Place, North Michigan AvenueBerger's striking photobook on wasted land in America, over 440 indoor malls - about 21% of the U.S. total - are classified as abandoned, dead, or dying. It's just that you expect to find them rotting away, out of sight, out of mind, along some highway, not on one of America's most prosperous shopping streets.

Truth be told, Chicago Place has been a problem child ever since its 1990 opening. It began with a Saks Fifth in one corner, and an outlet of the historic Chicago jeweler C.D. Peacock in the other, complete with a striking metallic peacock just above the door. Shortly after, C.D. Peacock went out business, the peacock removed from its perch. Retailers on the upper stories struggled and failed. Speculation had it Chicago Place was too far south of Water Tower Place to be viable, but that theory was put to bed with the success of 1999's North Bridge Mall, anchored by Nordstrom's, still another several blocks south.
Chicago Place shopping mall, North Michigan Avenue
There was something unsettlingly mannerist about the design of the atrium, from the jagged irregularity of the corridor spaces to the the huge columns at the perimeter with the faux finishes that seem just enough of a reference to the style of Louis Sullivan to manage to be insulting and dispiriting at the same time. On the entry level, one of the fat columns appears to rest atop a glass display case, the actual structural component occupying a substantially diminished section at its core.

Squeezed into the two-thirds of the block not occupied by anchor retailer Saks, which continues to thrive, the layout has a cramped feel. When Chicago Place was full of stores and people, it was easier to look past. Now, the irregular proportions conspire with the emptiness to impart a palpable sense of unease that has you constantly looking over your shoulder to make sure you're not being followed.
Great window, Chicago Place Food Court
Ironically, the only truly inviting part of Chicago Place is the large food court at the top. It's a great, flowing barn of a space with high arched windows, and a huge rounded glass wall framing a view of the Allerton Hotel across the street. A huge, kitschy but exuberant three-dimensional depiction of Chicago's skyline, in a rainbow of day-glo colors, looks down from the back wall. Until recently, the gurgle of a fountain tempered the aggressively arid soundspace of the oversized facility.
Food Court, Chicago Place mall
When I worked at One Mag Mile, I was a food court regular, if for no other reason than I would often see the great Norm Pellegrini of WFMT making a habit of taking a late lunch there, as well. Stopping by this past Saturday, I found the fountain drained of water and still, and a glut of empty vendor spaces. What can you say for a place where not even a McDonald's can make a go of it?

Chicago Place is in the process of being "de-malled." Could any process sound more humiliating and eviscerating?

Last year, negotiations for a Best Buy to come into the Chicago Place Mall, North Michigan Avenuemall fell through; the chain chose to locate at the Hancock Center, instead. Now, the New York investors who bought Chicago Place in 2005 for a reported $45 million are seeking to break the lease, which runs through 2013, of long-time tenant Talbott's, occupying the former Peacock space, so they can make good on their commitment of a 15-year lease of 30,000 square feet of prime space to Zara, the Spanish discount clothier that is a direct competitor to Sweden's Hennes & Mauritz (H&M to you). In a time when a glut of new hotel rooms coming onto the Chicago market, combined with high gas prices, is sending occupancy rates plummeting, the plan, according to Crain's Chicago Business, is to turn much of the atrium and common spaces into a hotel.

For now, though, know you can find relief from Michigan Avenue's jostling crowds in the isolation of the weird space - part Caligari, part bargain-bin Petra - that awaits you beyond the revolving door.

Closed Body Shoppe, Chicago Place Mall
empty storefront, Chicago Place Mall, North Michigan Avenue
empty restaurant, Chicago Place Mall
drained fountain, Chicago Place Mall


(If you visit Chicago Place, be sure to check out the two huge Thomas Melvin murals framing the entrance, each 42 feet high, that depict in rich detail Chicago's architecture, history and ecology.)

Join a discussion on this story.



© 2008 photos and text Lynn Becker All rights reserved.

The Surreal Thing, by Lynn Becker
The Unprotected, by Lynn Becker
Pedro E. Guerrero's American Century

The Chicago Children's Museum - The Battle Over Grant Park
Chicago Spire, Santiago Calatrava, architect, Marketing Begins

Santiago Calatrava Explains it All for You - The Chicago Spire

Sixteen Short Pieces on a City Neighborhood - Chicago's Logan Square

Toy Futures - Building Asia Brick by Brick, by Lynn Becker

The New Spertus Lightens Up
Uptown the Architecture of Dreams and Waking

Richard Nickel's Chicago

James Turrell's Skyspace at UIC

Planning and Its Disconnects in the city of Chicago