Featured image courtesy of Mallmanac
My fabulous bride, DebbieMiller® remembers the last gasps of Huntsville’s downtown, when dime stores, movie theaters, burger joints and department stores could still be found within blocks of the courthouse square. Into the 60s, Saturday downtown was the social and commercial highpoint of the week for much of Madison county and southern Tennessee.
There’s a story about an old farm couple who spent long, thankless days and nights taking care of their chores. Sunday church and Saturdays downtown were their only relief.
The old farmer was dismayed when his wife began taking longer and longer to prepare for their trips into town, so one Saturday morning, finally, he left without her. The next Saturday, when he started the truck, there was a sound like a shotgun blast as his wife kicked the screen door open, knocking it off its hinges.
Saturday on the square was not to be missed.
As the Space Age beckoned, changes were inevitable. Designed by Nola VanPeursem Architects, the Shoney’s Big Boy Drive-In at the corner of University and the Parkway was a blast of modernity that would stand as a landmark and cruising destination well into the 80s.
My pal Tim remembers looking from that corner across University Drive, on a rainy Sunday when he was 5 or so, and seeing earth-moving equipment sitting idle in what was then an empty field. Something big was coming.
Other than Marshall Space Flight Center itself, perhaps no structure tells the story of the early Space Age in Huntsville like The Mall. And yes, as Huntsvillians are weary of confirming, The Mall was its official, complete name.
A masterpiece of Kennedy-modern design, The Mall really did seem designed to replace Huntsville’s downtown, and as such, its philosophy of accessibility was somewhat different from what malls would become in the 80s. Newer malls use a limited number of entrances and concentrated activity along a main thoroughfare. In contrast, many of The Mall’s businesses had their own entrances, accessible directly from the parking lot, and exterior sidewalks running the length of the building. If you just needed to pick up a bottle of peroxide at the Walgreens, you could pop right in.
There were dedicated main entrances, though, and they were impressive. Perhaps in a nod to antebellum convention, four columns — spires, really — supported a flat roof atop a vaulting porte-cochère. Above the roof, extending another 20 feet or so, the columns tapered almost to nothing, terminating with enormous lighted globes. Facing east and west, the entryways were glassed-in spaces that brought in tons of light.
Natural light was a big feature in The Mall. Above the facades of the businesses rose a translucent clerestory, accented with Mondrianesque panes of yellow and blue. The light was indirect and soft, with a blue cast adding more atmosphere than actual illumination.
At night, The Mall had a very different atmosphere from the day. Recessed floodlights in the ceiling cast well-defined circles of light onto the floor, and the businesses’ individual lighted signs shone out in the semi-darkness. The effect was jazzy, with the feel of downtown at night, but it wasn’t for everyone. Some thought of it as gloomy, and others even felt a little uneasy for their safety.
On balance, though, The Mall was a fine environment for shopping and socializing. Though only a mile and a half from the county square, it was worlds apart in comfort and convenience, quickly establishing itself as the crossroads of Huntsville. Lorch’s jewelry even emblazoned its name in the sidewalk with white-and-maroon tiles, just like downtown.
With the frantic optimism of the space race, the future of commerce had arrived in Huntsville. But dark days were ahead — in more ways than one.