News that a Kowalski’s Market was coming to Southdale made the headlines.
The grocery store would replace a portion of the mall some remember as the former Herberger’s space (also known as the former Mervyn’s space, which was the former Carson Pirie Scott space, which was the former Donaldsons space).
It might seem like a radical idea, except that it was the original idea.
In 1956, when the mall opened, it had Dayton’s and Donaldsons, Walgreens and Woolworth’s — and it had a Red Owl.
Some of Southdale’s early stores are familiar only to baby boomers, who shopped there hanging onto Mom’s hand. Kinney Shoes, Buttrey, Jack & Jill evoke a minimal amount of nostalgia. Red Owl, though, that’s different.
If you’re a Twin Citian, you might get a bittersweet twinge at the thought of Red Owl. Sure, it was just a grocery store. But unlike Piggly Wiggly, you could say its name and maintain your dignity. Its glowering-owl logo seemed to encourage you to make wise choices. Heck, even Mary Tyler Moore shopped there, if you believe the show’s opening credits.
The Southdale Red Owl wasn’t just any grocery store. Ads proclaimed it “The Store With Personality.” You could “Enjoy a tremendous selection of the world’s finest foods at your friendly Southdale Red Owl.” Another ad promised “Fresh and exotic foods from many, many foreign lands rushed direct to Red Owl for your greater satisfaction and convenience!”
The Red Owl logo glowed over the entrance to an underground tunnel where the deliveries were made. You could drive up to get your bags stowed in your car, surely the wave of the future.
But it was probably doomed from the start.
Malls, for most of their existence, have been places where you went to experience the possibilities of shopping.
If you need a hammer, you go to the hardware store. Need a bottle of wine, you go to the liquor store. But people went to the mall to wander, to hunt and gather, to be surprised to find what they hadn’t known they were looking for.
The Southdale Red Owl store lasted more than a decade before decamping in 1967.
For the rest of the century, Southdale would wax and wane.
It suffered a 1990s renovation that makes modern eyes wince. (All that teal!) The entertainment area, “The District on France,” brought restaurants and a new movie complex, but it still felt underpopulated. And all those restaurants, with their own entrances, looked tacked on.
The Great Recession hit hard, taking the food court with it. Southdale, you couldn’t help but feel, was finished.
But as it turned out, the Hennepin County service center, added to the mall in 2016, brought a new purpose to the place. The Penneys store was replaced with a Life Time Fitness in 2019. And now the old Herberger’s wing is going to become a new library — and a grocery store.
A fading facade
If the return of groceries to Southdale is a gain, there’s a loss, as well.
The refitting of the space for a grocery store might include the loss of yet another part of the building’s original facade.
The ground floor of the wing is faced with irregular, pastel-hued, rough rocks that scream 1956. (The jumbled natural-stone look was wildly popular in the 1950s and ’60s. If you didn’t have the budget for real rocks, you could buy a veneer for your rambler.)
Southdale’s original exterior has been diminished over the years, with design details characteristic of the time covered up or removed. When the Penneys store was demolished for the addition, we lost a prime example of 1972 windowless mall-bunker design. Not saying it was good, but it was a prime example.
Renovations to the entrance of the new food court stripped away some of the old white marble that lined the facade. Only a few patches remain. The original Dayton’s building was hollowed out in the early 1990s for a new wing of stores. The exterior was untouched, but a few years ago half the building was covered with signage for Dave & Buster’s.
Only a portion of the mall’s 1956 style can still be seen. Eventually, it’s likely the entire exterior will be unrecognizable to anyone from 1956.
That’s how dynamic environments work. Things change, buildings are repurposed, habits are altered, expectations shifted.
Malls, it seems to me, have three futures: successful retail, like Rosedale; mixed-use, like Southdale, or abandonment, like the bygone Apache Plaza.
If the original mall of America ends up as multipurpose community hub, it’ll be close to its architect’s dream for a new mode of suburban living.
Southdale’s architect, Victor Gruen, wanted the mall to be the heart of a new form of suburban living that included schools, hospitals, libraries and residences. It’s taken a while, but that’s what the area now provides.
He might not be happy about what Southdale looks like, though. The original, cohesive look has been remodeled into a mishmash. Nothing could bring back its once crisp, modern panache. Not even a Red Owl.