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40 years of Northwoods Mall

Artist's rendering of Northwoods Mall from 1971 promotional material

Artist’s rendering of Northwoods Mall from 1971 promotional material

It opened on August 16, 1973 — 40 years ago next month.

Northwoods Mall was Peoria’s first indoor shopping center, and it was a long time in the making. It was conceived by Carson, Pirie, Scott, & Co., longtime downtown department store anchor and successor to Block & Kuhl. In 1961, they acquired the land bounded by I-74, US-150 (War Memorial Dr.), and Sterling Avenue. Back then, this was the very northwest edge of town. There was no Westlake Shopping Center (that would come shortly after Northwoods was built), let alone Glen Hollow. The land and roads were rural.

Soon, Carson’s partnered with two other downtown stores to become equal partners in the venture: Montgomery Ward and JC Penney. In 1965, a coalition of downtown merchants and some merchants from Sheridan Village raised objections to the rezoning and filed suit against Carson’s. By 1970, the lawsuits were settled out of court, and in February 1970, the Peoria City Council gave final zoning approval.

Construction of the interior of the mall, 1973

Construction of the interior of the mall, 1973

Groundbreaking took place on October 26, 1971. It would have retail space of over 700,000 square feet in the middle of 56 acres of land and cost $25 million to build. That’s roughly equivalent to $144 million today. There was space for over 100 stores in addition to the three anchors. Almost 3,700 parking spaces were provided for shoppers. When it opened, it was the largest indoor mall between Chicago and St. Louis.

The mall was designed by Chicago architects Sidney H. Morris & Associates. Original tenants (in addition to the three anchors) included Seno & Sons Formal Wear, Campus Music Shop, Moore Jewelry, Stride Rite Shoes, Susies Casual, Baker Shoes, Jeans West, B. Dalton Book Sellers, Kay Howard Shop, Petrie Stores, Brooks, Byerly Music, Browns Spoting Goods, O’Connell’s Restaurants, Kinney Shoes, Thom McAn, Foxmoor Casuals, Konee’s Restaurant, Fannie May, Tie Hut, Fact Foto, Florsheim, Aladdin’s Castle amusement center, Musicland, Evenson’s Card Shop, Just Pants, Claire’s Boutique, Dutch Mill, Burton’s Shoes, Fab-N-Trim, Page Jewelry, Honey Bear Farm cheese and gourmet food store, Gallenkamp shoes, National Shirt Shops, Paul Harris Stores, Helzberg Jewelers, Orange Bowl fast food store, Regal, General Nutrition, Singer, and Savings Center Enterprises (development corporation owned by First Federal Savings & Loan Assoc.). [See complete list of tenants c. 1984 by clicking here]

The mall was managed by Harold Carlson Associates of Chicago from its opening in 1973 until November 1983. In May 1983, Carson’s sold its one-third share in the mall to Cleveland’s Jacobs-Visconsi-Jacobs mall management firm, and in October, Wards sold their share to Melvin Simon and Associates (now Simon Property Group) of Indianapolis. Simon was chosen to manage the mall in November 1983, and it now fully owns and manages Northwoods. The change in management wasn’t without its critics. Several store owners at the time told the newspaper that Simon was more interested in getting national chains than supporting local stores. Simon countered that they felt they were providing the right mix of chain and local shops to serve the needs of the community.

Original Northwoods logo

Original Northwoods logo

The original center court included a 40-foot-tall wood sculpture and a large, four-faced clock tower. There were also sunken seating areas throughout the mall where weary shoppers could rest. These have all been removed in subsequent renovations. The most recent renovation was in 2005. JC Penney is the only remaining original anchor. Carson’s closed in 1983 and was replaced with Famous Barr in October 1985. Famous Barr was later acquired by and changed over to a Macy’s store. Montgomery Ward went out of business in 1997; Sears moved from downtown to Northwoods in 1998.

Perhaps the most famous tenant of Northwoods Mall was the Skewer Inn. In October 1983, 28 people who dined at the Skewer Inn contracted botulism from tainted onions served sauteed on patty melt sandwiches. The sickened restaurant guests survived (well, one person died months later, possibly in part due to complications from the illness), but the restaurant didn’t. Although they tried to reopen, they never could rescue their reputation.

One restaurant that didn’t make lists of tenants was The Nordic House. It was located inside Carson’s on the lower level and had a Scandinavian theme. According to the newspaper, the restaurant “face[d] an outside garden area on two sides, with sculpture and plantings enclosed by a wall attractively blended into the architecture of the building. The restaurant will offer buffet and waitress service for lunch Monday thru Saturday, dinner Monday thru Friday, and will be open for buffet service only on Sunday.” It received good reviews for food and service in later newspaper accounts.

It didn’t take long for Northwoods’ impact to be felt downtown. Just a year after it opened, a study was released that showed sales were down in the old central business district. Downtown retailers tried to stay positive, but within a decade, most of them had closed their downtown stores and either moved to the suburbs (“if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em”) or disappeared for good. Today, the central business district is predominantly parking, offices, and civic buildings.

I called Northwoods to see if they have any plans for a fortieth anniversary celebration. They said their plans were not finalized and they were not ready to announce anything at this time, but they’d let me know. If I find out anything, I’ll post the update here.

Share your memories of Northwoods in the comments section below.

1978 postcard advertising Northwoods Mall

1978 postcard advertising Northwoods Mall

20 comments to 40 years of Northwoods Mall

  • mazr

    I still like going to Northwoods. Or “The Mall” as we used to say.

  • Emtronics

    Nice Story. I left for the Navy, no Northwoods. Came home from the Navy and was surprised when my sister said; “Let’s go to the Mall.” I asked; What mall?

  • The Mouse

    Nothing to celebrate as far as I’m concerned. I’ve probably been there a half dozen times in the last decade. They tried to recreate a sort of downtown – with free parking and a roof. It worked in the sense that it killed the old downtown – more because of the free parking than the roof (that’s a lesson the City still hasn’t learned), but it isn’t a downtown, and never will be. It’s just a big, ugly bulding.

  • Nice fluff piece, CJ. You thinking of writing for Vanity Fair?

  • Sterling

    This was a good post. Those who ignore the past…

  • I had mixed feelings as I was researching this. On the one hand, it was sad to see the way it predictably and thoroughly decimated downtown shopping. On the other hand, it was refreshing to see private businesses paying for every bit of a $144 million (in 2013 dollars) project. No TIFs, no enterprise zones, no general obligation bonds from the City. All private financing. Where did those days go?

  • Paul Wilkinson

    City leaders have created developer welfare, especially downtown. Special taxes, gifts of tens of millions of dollars, etc. Why work when you can just nurse on the government teet.

  • Just the fact that there was a book store (B. Dalton) in town other than the Book Emporium sold me on the value of the mall. I spent many hours combing through the shelves there and at MusicLand and Zondervan Bookstore (later Family Bookstore). Plus, places like Jeans West and Suns of Britches provided me a source for incredibly ugly (think red, white and blue striped) bellbottom jeans.

  • always like it when you write, CJ, even when I don’t take the time to comment. Linking here from my blog and twitter so you can get some extra traffic, hopefully.

    Keep writing when you can!

  • MW

    Seems pretty sad that the mall took all the downtown business, but that is America. Free enterprise, right? Or something like it at least. It’s too bad that downtown Peoria has never really recovered but love it or hate it, hopefully with this museum and the newly renovated Pere Marquette and new development adjacent to it and the possibility of Warehouse District development, that will change. I would love to see a more vibrant downtown. It is sorely needed.

  • Not 1966

    some cities, like St. Louis, tried to counter the flight of retail out of downtown by building downtown malls. Most failed. see deadmalls.com for a fascinating history of many suburban malls that were once thriving and are now vacant, just like many downtowns.

  • Vickie Biggs

    Off the beaten track than most, but my husband and I just “gulped” and simultaneously
    Said “FORTY YEARS!!!” At first it seemed impossible, but then I remembered taking my newborn son (who is now 40) in to see his Grandma who worked at Carson Pirie Scott. WOW!

  • Bill Kauzlarich

    Nice place if you are their target audience: 57-year old FEMALES from Morton looking for clothes or shoes. YAWN!! Zzzzz…..Eating places have sure jumped the shark…Only a couple places left that would appeal to guys.

  • my name

    What I remember about downtown right before the mall went in was the fact stores was already shutting down and the crime rate was on the rise. I don’t blame anybody for not wanting to open anything in an area where the cops can’t control crimes. Main street used to also be a fun cruise strip, but the gangs, drugs, etc….. ruined that as well….. Why do people move to the outskirts of town? crime rates, gang activity, etc…… With that in mind, why would a store owner want to run a business in the same area that people don’t/didn’t feel safe to live in……. just saying……

  • Fluffy

    CJ, it would have been great if what you wrote about in the comments could have been the focus, rather than a more or less straightforward telling of the history of the mall: the fact that private business paid for it with no tax incentives, TIF zones, etc. Was that something that you tried to write more of into the story, only to have it cut?

  • Greg Cannon

    The Jokers Wild and The Art Gallery. Saw Suzy Boggus there on a Friday night.

  • intheholler2

    Worked at Montgomery Ward from summer 1976 to fall of 1979. Loved the seating areas! If you worked at the mall it gave you someplace to go on your break to sit and relax. NOW – there is very little seating and if there is, it is crowded so NO relaxing.
    Used to also see Suzy Boggus getting ready to sing on Friday and Saturday nights at the Art Gallery.

  • PatW

    I am wondering why Fannie May Candies is not listed as one of the stores when it first opened. If not when opened when did they come. I started working there in 1979, at that time it had been there for awhile.

  • Randall

    Fannie May was at Sheridan Village when the Mall opened

  • PatW

    I know from at least ’79 through ’82 Fannie May was at Northwoods, Sheridan Village and downtown(where the Jay Jansen building is).