(click to enlarge photos)
Perhaps the date, May 16, 1950, scribbled on the unsigned note accompanying this early portrait of Northgate’s “Miracle Mile”, may be slightly off. The view looks north from the center of Seattle’s first shopping mall during its, it seems. late work-in-progress. On the far left a temporary footprint map of the center is propped up to face east across the center’s ‘Main Street’ to the Bon Marche, largest and most polished of the malls structures. Built for three million dollars, the Bon was the new shopping center’s ‘anchor’ retailer. Most of the Mall’s lesser, but still large, parts kept to Quonsets, one of World War 2’s architectural preferences. Pre-fabricated Quonsets that could be easily assembled as pre-fabricated huts or expanded to the size of warehouses like the future Nordstrom Shoes, here on the left. Northgate’s superlative Bon was never a Quonset.
Historylink, Washington State’s non-profit webpage encyclopedia of our state’s history, has the retail magnet opening on April 21, nearly a month before the photograph’s date claim. “Designed by John Graham Jr., Northgate was the country’s first regional shopping center to be defined as a mall.” The opening was shown on KING TV, then on the air for less than a year. A Cadillac was given as a prize. Some of the stores startled their shoppers with electric-eye doors. A Christmas tree of world’s record size – it was claimed – was raised above this Bon-fronting part of the mall. It’s 212 feet were featured in Life Magazine. The tree was captured with both day and night recordings for the Ellis studio’s state-wide distribution of “real photo” postcards. Ellis’s other Northgate Christmas card was captioned “World Largest Santa Claus – North Gate Shopping Center – Seattle Washington.” This Santa’s glorification does not seem to have been so truthful as that of the tree. Ron Edge, a frequent aid to this feature’s repeating, remembers, “Kids are still probably having nightmares from Northgate’s oversized Santa. With its menacing eyes it looked like a maniac.”
The Seattle Times for February 22, 1948 first reported that the “curtain of secrecy which has enveloped the mammoth project was pulled aside” revealing “the biggest suburban development of its type in the U.S.” The term “mall” was most often used for the north-and-south center-line of the development. In the early 1980s when I first began delivering freshly published now-then books to Seattle bookstores, I was thrilled to learn that running below the mall – the north-south center line of the by then lavish development – was an austere tunnel designed for speedy deliveries to Northgate’s many retailers, which then still included both chain and independent book stores.
From its start in 1950 Northgate showed an often wild popularity that stuffed its surrounding parking lots with thousands of visitors. It was a retail flood that would soon pain the established shops in the University District, Northgate’s competing retail neighborhood to the south. Northgate’s many remodels created a covered and heated expanse of attractions. Besides the shoppers its comforts were used by seniors for winter walks, and exploring groups of teenagers practicing consumer – and human – development.
Anything to add, shoppers?