The glory days of Chris-Town Mall

by John Bueker

 

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     The Phoenix area of the 1960s was a vastly smaller and more intimate community than the sprawling megalopolis that now engulfs the Valley of the Sun. People maintained a much slower pace in their lives, and the opportunities for pursuing the finer things in life were fewer and farther between. Major shopping venues were relatively few in number, and they often lacked the necessary atmosphere and diverse selection of retailers that can lead to long term viability.

     Malls such as Tower Plaza, Thomas Mall and the relatively high brow Park Central all prospered to varying degrees during this era, and yet they were simply no match for the pre-eminent shopping experience of '60s Phoenix: Chris-Town Mall. Opened in 1961, Chris-Town was the first self-enclosed, air-conditioned mall in Arizona, offering an exceptional selection of anchors and smaller shops, a superbly conceived design and layout, and an absolutely unique character and charm that set it apart from the other local malls of the day.
     Named for Chris Harri, a Swiss-born farmer who originally owned the land upon which it stands, the mall was constructed by Del Webb Corporation at the relatively remote location of 19th Avenue and Bethany Home Road, which at the time was practically the outskirts of town. Chris-Town soon proved to be an eminently accessible facility and one of the supremely popular places in Phoenix at which to shop and be seen.

     This mall was much more than a mere collection of stores; it provided 1960s Phoenix with a genuine communal experience. Visitors would often come and spend the entire day, to shop, dine, socialize, attend a movie, and simply sit and drink in the matchless atmosphere. It’s important to remember the social and cultural context of the time: the population of Phoenix was still small enough that running into one of your next-door neighbors at the mall was not an unusual experience. And so it was with Chris-Town.
     Chris-Town Mall in the '60s boasted an impressive line-up of anchors and major retailers including Korricks, Montgomery Ward, J.C. Penney, Woolworth, Walgreens and S. S. Kresge. The larger stores were intertwined with smaller boutiques and local businesses  like Hunter's Books, Chess King, Godber's Gifts, Bill's Records, Tony's Shoe Repair, Kerr Sporting Goods, Hanny's and Bob Fox. Arizona Public Service even sponsored a "Gas Appliance Showcase" in the mall at this time, promoting the virtues of gas as an alternative household energy resource. Incidentally, Tony’s Shoe Repair still remains in operation at the mall, the lone surviving original business (if you don’t count the reincarnated J.C. Penney).
     Much of the elegance and enchantment of Chris-Town was inherent in the original layout and design, which was organized around three themed courtyards: The Court of Fountains at the center of the mall, the Court of Flowers at the east end near Korricks, and the Court of Birds at the west end outside Wards. The courtyard motif expanded the whole scope and character of the mall, lifting it into an entirely new context for a mere shopping center.

     Chris-Town’s front entrance with its “cushion of air” opened into the Court of Fountains, an attractive and popular meeting place in front of Penney’s that was graced by an array of alluring fountains. The expansive space of the Fountain Court was adorned with marvelous Googie art sculptures and framed by a pair of “slipper arch” stairways that lead upstairs to the mall management offices and a handful of military recruitment centers. Legions of Phoenix natives can still recall the legendary organ grinder and his passive-aggressive monkey, who appeared for years in the Fountain Court before disappearing in the early '70s. The Court of Fountains was also the site of a seemingly endless parade of mall-sponsored special events over the years, everything from coin shows and rock concerts to cow milkings and beauty contests.

     At the east end of Chris-Town lay the entrance to the ever popular underground tavern known as Janitors Closet, which opened in 1967, as well as a small eclectic food court with vendors like Orange Julius and Pizza D'Amore. This area in front of Korricks (later The Broadway) originally featured a beautiful garden of flowers inhabited by a plaster statue of Ferdinand the Bull, and so was named the Court of Flowers. The addition of a Farrell’s ice cream parlor in the late ‘60s greatly enhanced the popularity of the Flower Court.

     The Court of Birds at the opposite end of the mall was in essence a collection of aviary structures suspended around a four-way concrete bridge. This charming little bailiwick featured a remarkable array of winged creatures in colorful pop art cages, some of whom would speak to the delight of passing shoppers. Artist Jac T Bowen, creator of the Flower Court’s Ferdinand statue, also devised a Roadrunner figure for the bird courtyard. Needless to say, the Bird Court tableau was particularly popular with the youngsters.

     An eclectic complement of surrounding businesses completed the exquisite ambience of Chris-Town. Across Bethany Home to the north stood the Chris-Town Car Wash, with its extraordinary car-on-a-clothespin sign. To the south, the El Rancho market provided a fine selection of groceries and sundries, while on the northeast corner of 15th Ave. and Bethany sat an excellent Piccadilly cafeteria, the first in Arizona. The Chris-Town Theatre facing 19th Ave. was the scene of countless feature film presentations and phenomenal stage shows by Wallace and Ladmo. Chris-Town in the 1960s was simply a sublime realm, a shopping and entertainment utopia in an age just prior to the advent of the soulless mega-malls. Would that this slice of Phoenix could have been frozen in time and preserved for generations to come. Pity.
     Unfortunately, the years since Chris-Town's zenith in the '60s and early '70s have been less than kind. Two ambitious expansion projects nearly doubled the size of the center in the mid '70s, but the original vision of the mall was thereby lost, and the inevitable signs of age and wear soon began to set in. The '90s witnessed the beginnings of a sad exodus of the original mall anchors: The Broadway closed in 1994, followed by J.C. Penney a few years later, and finally Montgomery Ward passed into history in 2000.

     Competition from other west side malls, particularly Metrocenter, was instrumental in the decline of Chris-Town in the ‘70s and ‘80s, which led to a general waning of the overall socio-economic vitality of the area surrounding the mall. Lower end retailers Wal-Mart and Costco replaced the once proud Broadway and Penney's, while Montgomery Ward was ultimately divided into a Petsmart and Ross Dress for Less location.

     Grossman Co. Properties, which purchased Chris-Town way back in 1964 for $9.6 million, inexplicably renamed the place "Phoenix Spectrum Mall" in 2001 as part of a $10 million mall overhaul. This would prove to be a remarkably unpopular decision. In 2006, Grossman finally sold the long-held property to Developers Diversified Realty, an Ohio-based management company.
     Developers Diversified made several changes of lasting consequence. The entire west wing of the mall was demolished in 2006 to make way for the return of J.C. Penney, and iconic features such as the court fountain and old-fashioned lamp posts were permanently removed. On the brighter side, after years of palpable public dissatisfaction with the “Spectrum” name, Diversified wisely restored the Chris-Town brand, sort of, re-christening the mall “Christown Spectrum” in 2007. In January 2012, mall management was transferred to Vestar Development Co.

     Chris-Town’s 50th anniversary came and went last year with curiously little fanfare. The shopping center that now remains bears precious little resemblance to the fantastic Chris-Town Mall of yore, and yet the fact that a major shopping mall has endured in the Phoenix area for five full decades without being completely razed to the ground is nothing less than miraculous. All the other old Valley malls of the ‘60s have long since vanished: Park Central, Tower Plaza, Thomas Mall, Maryvale Mall, Tri-City Mall, Los Arcos Mall. All gone.

     Chris-Town alone remains. And while a mere shadow of its former self, the glorious old mall nevertheless retains a certain majesty, and it has long since provided a lifetime of splendid memories for those of us privileged enough to have known it in its very prime of life.

 


 

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