October 3, 1956
Southdale Shopping Center, located in Edina, Minnesota, was the first totally enclosed shopping center in the nation. In 1952, its developers, the Dayton family, long-established Minneapolis department store merchants, commissioned the architecture firm Victor Gruen & Associates to create a new form designed to reflect and serve changing patterns of suburban living. The master plan combined elements of the village green, of European city centers, and of elegant arcades and gallerias, in a constant temperature-controlled enclosure. When Southdale opened in 1956, it included 72 stores, and was anchored by two major department stores, all arranged in a two-level design around a brightly lighted center court. It offered free parking, and its 5000 parking spaces were grouped into lots, well marked by clever symbols to aid in locating one’s own in the sea of cars. Not only did Southdale Shopping Center fulfill the vision of its creators as a center of commerce and of social life for suburban residents, it also fueled suburban growth and became a much-imitated model.*
One of the first questions moderns may have looking back on this event is; why? Why group several businesses together and change the cityscape of a neighborhood filled with individual stores? What is it about Minnesota that catalyzed the concept of indoor, totally-enclosed shopping? Did they really need 5000 free parking spaces when the populations of its host cities of Edina and Richfield were 9744 and 17,502 in 1950? **
Let’s start at the beginning, a very good place to start, by tapping into the motives behind malls based in the human psyche. Sociologists such as Lev Vygotsky and Homi K. Bhabha could be considered advocates of the “Third Space Theory”. Although this theory applies across many aspects of learning, relationships, and cultures as it pertains to this subject it pertains mostly to place. There seems to be a human need for somewhere to interact beyond home, school, or work; another living room to breathe without judgment. In the words of Southdale’s architect Mr. Gruen, he desired to “provide the needed place and opportunity for participation in modern community life that the ancient Greek Agora, the Medieval Market Place and our own Town Squares provided in the past.” ***
Given that Gruen anticipated Minnesotan’s need for this “third space”, we move to some of the environmental and land usage issues that fostered this indoor, air-conditioned mall. Many travelers have had a small taste of our winters during the holidays, but do they know that the “174 °F or 96.7 °C variation between Minnesota’s highest and lowest temperature is the eleventh largest variation of any U.S. state”? **** Let us assume that people may enjoy “street life” in a range of temperatures from 40-85deg. F; that leaves us with a 51.7deg. range of extremes where they will not congregate. Southdale solved these issues by bringing the town square indoors both in terms of places to rest, interact, and enjoy blocks and blocks of indoor walking.
Lastly, we come to the issue of the automobile; why would Gruen choose to encompass his centrum with seas of parking spaces? While obvious economic motives may be clear, i.e. more shoppers equals more profit potential, the author is reticent to place these motives on Gruen. He, as did the developers of Southdale, recognized that the democratization of transportation represented by the automobile would change the needs and wants of local residents. They may choose to work downtown, but live in new suburbs that gave them better air, more space, and an affordable home. Likewise, many found the idea of shopping closer to their homes in the suburbs desirable. Maybe Southdale’s creators parking rationale went something like this; if we divide the combined populations of Richfield and Edina (27,246) by 5,000, we arrive at a parking space for every 5.44 residents. Is it possible that Gruen wanted every family of five to have access to his “third space” even if they arrived by automobile? Perhaps we will never know that answer, but we do know that this wonder of sociology, architecture, and commerce became the iconic model for shopping malls for a generation. Bravo, Mr. Gruen!
Shall we pray? Father, we are grateful that You made us for community. You sent us the Messiah at just the right time that we could experience an eternal “third space”. We thank You for His sacrifice that satisfied our legal separation from You as the human race. You invite us to know You and to be known in Your Healing Presence!
Let us first ponder the life and struggles of Victor Gruen with You. As a youth he saw the best and worst of Austrian culture: studying at the Academy of Fine Arts, exploring social engineering and sociology, yet seeing the painful betrayal of the Nazi brand of socialism annexing his homeland. Did his urbane and Jewish upbringing combine in his designs? He brought together the forerunning concepts of sociology immersed in a very spiritual need for shabbat in the shopping mall. Though his visions may have never reached his anticipated fruition, we applaud this visionary man so much like His Eternal Father! You push us to the stars, yet You more than anyone desire our rest.
Is it grievous to You, Lord of the Sabbath, that the gift of Southdale has soured in the modern mind? Have we exercised prejudice against the shopping mall? Are we just in our assessments of this icon for suburban life past and present?
In many ways, we have discounted and discredited the 1950’s as a decade of compliance and conformity. Contemporaries mock the innocence of its cultural markers: owning a small suburban house, owning a car, and shopping at a mall. But what if we turn these words around, Spirit? The word “compliance” connotes “obedience to, accordance with, observance of, adherence to, respect for, agreement, assent, consent, concession, concurrence, and acceptance”. Additionally, “conformity” conveys the ideas of “acquiescence in, adaptation to, adjustment to, accommodation to, alikeness, resemblance, and similitude”. Have we judged You insofar as we have condemned our ancestors obedience to You and adaptation to each other?
Conversely, we acknowledge to You the seeds of rebellion sown in the soft rains of suburban life past. As a State and people, we relished the awesome freedom of travel due to the automobile. This wonderful mall gives testimony that we planned cities around it. Ease of commercial activity by car seemed to be an indicator of successful city planning. Neither of these desires counter Your Kingdom’s mores, yet even good desires can ruin us when they are in imbalance.
How does the old campfire song go? “Seek ye first the Kingdom of G-d, and His righteousness. And all these thing shall be added unto you, Alleluia.” You want us to “Halaluyah” (Heb.) “praise ye YHWH”, be in right relationship with Him, and then our desires for things come from a full heart instead of an empty one.
Where we have idolized shopping in this era and the present, when we have used it to overcome the pain of broken human relationships; will You forgive us this offense? We are people who love shiny, new things, and sometimes fail to polish ourselves and our ways of relating to others, and to our Maker. Will You forgive the feast for the eyes that shopping malls past and present represent to us, and its offense of enticement to You?
We invite Your blessing into the way(s) we find what we need. We invite You to direct our paths to our wants and needs. (We must always remember that Our Good Father, enjoys our enjoyment of good things!) Will You bless the buyers and sellers: past, present, and future into chesed? By Your Life, death, and resurrection will You direct us into the “third space”? Over Southdale and all her children, will You write “shabbat”?
“Then Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those selling doves. And He declared to them, “It is written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer.’ But you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’”
The blind and the lame came to Him at the temple, and He healed them.” Matthew 21:12-14 BSB
- P.T.H. cites timeline formerly at this URL: mnhs.org/about/dipity_timeline.htm
The Minnesota Historical Society Web site, http://www.mnhs.org, is fantastic! Check it out!
** An excellent article summarizing this event and its primary architect Victor Gruen. Quito, Anne. “The father of the American shopping mall hated what he created”. Quartz. Internet. July 17, 2015. https://qz.com/454214/the-father-of-the-american-shopping-mall-hated-cars-and-suburban-sprawl/
*** United States Census Bureau. “Census of Population and Housing”. June 15, 2013.
** lumberjack1713. You Tube. Internet. “Southdale 1956 Richfield Edina Shopping Mall History Video”. December19, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q-c7IqDxukE&feature=emb_logo