Nikolai Nolan/Wikimedia Commons

Victor Gruen’s Northland Center set suburban architectural standards for half a century. Now, partially demolished, its next life is up in the air.

For months, the local papers watched breathlessly as a shopping center of unprecedented proportions rose on the outskirts of Detroit. When Northland Center finally opened in March 1954, they could hardly contain themselves.

“The size of such a mammoth group of stores as Northland Center is often hard for the layman to visualize,” marveled the Detroit Free Press, which added helpfully that the 9 million pounds of steel that would go into the structure represented the equivalent of “4,000 autos,” while the mall would be equipped with “enough refrigeration to make 200 million ice cubes daily.” Outside stretched space for 8,344 cars, then the largest public lot in the world. And should a customer lose their vehicle among the acres of Buicks and Packards, the “Lost Car Department” could dispatch a jeep to drive the customer around to find it.

The interior of this “stately pleasure dome”—embellished with gardens and sophisticated modern sculpture—would be lined with more than a mile of storefronts. “Wives who visit the new Northland Shopping Center will never want to go home,” declared Free Press columnist Louis Cook. “When they are not shopping they will just sit on the benches under the trees, listening to the splashing of fountains and dreaming up new ways of spending money.”

Darla Van Hoey was three years old when Northland opened in Southfield Township, an event covered not only by local outlets but also by Time, Life, Architectural Forum, and the Wall Street Journal. “Coming to Northland was a big deal,” she says. “The gardens were beautiful. We would make a big shopping trip before Christmas, and we took family there when they were visiting from out of town.”

A retired French teacher who now serves as president of the Southfield Historical Society, Van Hoey is quick to correct an out-of-towner’s pronunciation: Locals don’t say “NORTH-lund,” but “NORTH-LAND,” as if the monumental mall were actually a theme park along the lines of Disneyland. But while Northland still looms large in the minds of longtime residents—and in the history American retail—the mall’s glory days are long gone; after decades of decline, Northland closed in 2015, and a partial demolition is underway as the city of Southfield shops the land to developers. It’s a sad, if not unexpected, end to a building that set suburban architectural standards for half a century. But local leaders hope that what happens next may just offer a model for suburbia’s future.

When it opened, Northland was the biggest shopping center in America, commissioned by J.L. Hudson Company, a Detroit department store that at the time was second only to Macy’s in sales. Northland was the creation of architect Victor Gruen, an Austrian immigrant who loathed the strip mall-style shopping centers then growing like weeds along America’s arterial roads. But Gruen had equal disdain for his adopted country’s unruly and soot-choked urban cores. For years, he had been thinking about a way to marry the best of downtown’s walkable vitality with the sparkling modernity of the new suburbs. Hudson’s, whose owners had both money and moxie, finally offered the opportunity Gruen had been waiting for.

“Northland really put him on the map,” says M. Jeffrey Hardwick, author of the 2003 biography Mall Maker. At the time, Hardwick notes, the suburbs were constrained by a “bucolic ideal” that excluded commercial activity. “People worried that it would be a blight, that it would do to the suburbs the same things it did to cities.”

A Motown mural in front of a former entrance to JCPenney as seen in 2015. (Nikolai Nolan/Wikimedia Commons)

Northland’s fundamental innovation was allowing a single developer to control every element of construction and design over a vast area (Hudson’s originally purchased 460 acres for the project, although the current site occupies only 125). The architecture was tasteful and modern, there was no tacky exterior advertising, and from a distance the brick-and-concrete structure and its acres of parking were hidden from view behind grassy berms. A network of underground tunnels, some with ceilings high enough to accommodate a tractor-trailer, kept the less appealing logistics out of sight. Beyond fashion and furniture, Gruen wanted Northland to offer all the necessities of everyday life—everything that had compelled previous generations to go downtown. When the mall opened it housed a supermarket, a bank, a beauty salon, and a post office. There was a fallout shelter in the basement and a playground beneath a geodesic dome.

“This is not just the opening of a shopping center,” Gruen—never one for modesty—declared on opening day, “but an important milestone for city planners, architects, economists, merchandisers, and the American public at large.”

The model held immediate appeal—soon Hudson’s Northland was out-grossing the flagship store in downtown Detroit. “They had imagined that people were still going to go downtown,” Hardwick says, “which was a blind spot.”

Gruen went on to build dozens of malls over the next two decades. Beginning in 1956 with Southdale in Edina, Minnesota, he pioneered design elements like the 2-level, all-enclosed, climate-controlled structure with central garden courts and skylights that became features of every mall in America. But by the late 1970s he had soured on the concept—the sprawl of tacky strips, parking lots, and gas stations that soon surrounded most malls went against his original vision. “I refuse to pay alimony for those bastard developments,” he famously declared.

For Southfield, long a sleepy farming community, Northland kickstarted rapid growth. Around the mall sprang subdivisions and highrise apartments and between 1960 and 1970 the population more than doubled. Still, as the suburbs sprawled ever outward, newer, shinier malls lured the wealthiest customers away. Northland’s owners worked to keep up with the latest trends in retail, expanding the mall and fully enclosing it in the 1970s. But by Northland’s 50th anniversary in 2004—despite multiple facelifts—the number of shoppers had dropped to 9 million a year from a peak of 18 million. Tenants vanished, replaced by lower-end retailers, who disappeared in turn. The property itself changed hands repeatedly, until in 2014 when the latest owner defaulted on the mortgage. In 2015, the city of Southfield scooped Northland up for $2.4 million, less than a tenth of what it had cost to build back in 1954.

The city’s dream is that Amazon will choose the site for its second headquarters, and Southfield offered the space as part of Detroit’s bid this past fall. Mayor Kenson Siver points to Northland’s location at the geographic heart of metro Detroit, its proximity to highways and the airport, and the fact that all the infrastructure—electricity, sewers, road access—is already in place. And Gruen’s tunnels, Siver contends, would be perfect for housing data servers.

The poetry of today’s largest online retailer replacing what was once the cutting edge in brick-and-mortar may be appealing, but luring Amazon is a long shot, and the mayor acknowledges as much (“Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” he says cheerfully). So as bulldozers chip away at Northland three miles from City Hall, Siver lays out a future that includes new, walkable through streets, adaptive reuse of the original Hudson’s store, medical office space for adjacent Providence-Providence Park Hospital, a central park with a water feature and a band shell, and retail and restaurants anchoring mixed-use buildings.

If Southfield can find private partners to make this happen, Northland will not be the only dead mall converted to a New Urbanist town center. According to Ellen Dunham-Jones, a professor at Georgia Tech School of Architecture and co-author of the 2009 book Retrofitting Suburbia, out of some 1,500 one-time enclosed shopping centers in the United States, only a little more than two-thirds are still operating as such. About 200 are in redevelopment. A few dozen have been or are being rebuilt as mixed-used lifestyle centers, and some of these have proven very successful, Dunham-Jones says. While these developments do tend to share a certain aesthetic that may eventually feel just as dated as Northland does today, she believes that they will prove more resilient than Victor Gruen’s monolithic malls have.

“I think there’s reason to be hopeful that when you insert public streets and chop stuff up into blocks with multiple owners, you’re setting up a situation that allows for much more incremental change and responsiveness to the market,” she says.

That’s the hope of Southfield leaders, as the old-school suburb of office parks, strip retail, and single-family homes faces a future where that approach to planning seems increasingly an artifact of the past.

“Northland is never going to be a shopping center again,” says Mayor Siver. “But we have a vision. This city was built around the automobile, and we are trying to lessen that impact. Northland gives us the chance to start all over.”

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