20 April 2013

Colonial Plaza, Orlando, FL

A dead mall

Orlando, Florida was our first destination upon leaving the blue shores and skies of Hawai’i. Having grown up in such relative isolation, I had a misguided, preconceived notion of what a mall was supposed to be. I thought that they were all either A) huge, open air monstrosities full of overpriced souvenirs and food from around the world or B) really awesome, special and magical places with monorails and fortress-like tiers of parking all around. And Sears, JCPenney and Liberty House had to be the only department stores in the world. Well, except for the open-air part, the first mall I visited in the mainland, Colonial Plaza, shattered all the beliefs that I had held dear for first ten years of my life.

Colonial Plaza Mallmanac ca. 1990. View the full PDF version here.

We were living at our grandparents’ house in the post World War II suburb of Winter Park while my father was TDY in San Diego for the Navy. My grandmother was your typical June Cleaver type in her fifties who, when she wasn’t doing dishes in high heels and pearls, could be found at her local mall. Or, in her case, malls. We were equidistant from three centers- Winter Park Mall, Orlando Fashion Square and Colonial Plaza. But only one of them had her favorite store, Jordan Marsh.

When her old Cadillac first pulled into the excessively huge parking lot surrounding Colonial Plaza, I was quite shocked at what I saw from my place in the back seat. Why does it look so old? Where were the monorails? Why was there only one level? Where the hell is Liberty House?

Colonial Plaza after its 1962 expansion.

Colonial Plaza was Orlando’s first modern shopping center when it opened in 1956 just to the east of downtown Orlando, pre-dating the Disney World population and building boom. It started out as a simple open-air strip center but soon sprouted an enclosed portion attached to the middle of the shopping complex. At the opposite end of the mall was a gleaming new, super high tech, four level mid-mod, plain and flat as the Florida horizon, Jordan Marsh.

The Jordan Marsh had somewhat of a “Thalhimer’s Turret,” though smaller in proportion than the ones that appeared on the element’s namesake stores. It was a drab adobe tone, a color one would expect for the sixties, but not very representative of Florida. In the early seventies, there was another expansion. This one was tacked on to the flanking side of Jordan Marsh, effectively turning Colonial Plaza into what I call a “walk-through” mall. (One where an anchor store has to be traversed in order to reach another portion of the facility.) In the early eighties, another anchor, Ivey’s, was slapped onto the mall’s forward face. This would be the final footprint of the old building.

Colonial Plaza after its eighties expansion.

We never spent much time in the newer mall portion. Usually we just schlepped between my mother’s favorite haunt, Woolworth, and the previously mentioned Jordan Marsh. The interior wasn’t that remarkable in my eyes, as I really don’t remember it that well. The fountains were small, natural light was sparse and there were hardly any places to eat. But they had mall maps, and that was all that mattered to me.

We were in Orlando for less than a year before moving on to Virginia Beach, and at that time the mall was just as busy as ever. When I returned five years later in 1990, it still seemed to be attracting a lot of patrons. The next time I visited Orlando, in 1998, however, it had met its ultimate fate. And, even though I never really appreciated it while it was still around, I was dismayed to see it absent from Orlando’s retail landscape.

Colonial Plaza after its redevelopment. Three small portions of the old facility remain- What is now Marshall's and Floor Decor was formerly Belk Lindsey, while the Barnes and Noble and the Petco, as well as the small building directly behind them, made up the western extreme of the old strip center (Publix at one time.)

Colonial Plaza may not have been noteworthy or spectacular in any way besides its milestone status, but I still think that the worst of malls are far more interesting than the best of power centers. And that’s what they demolished Orlando’s first enclosed shopping center for. What was once the star of central Florida’s retail scene had been recast as a supporting player to its larger neighbor just a couple of blocks to the east.

The mall’s redevelopment involved returning it to its roots as an open-air facility. The Colonial Marketplace opened in the mid-nineties, ushering in a new era of conforming, standardized shopping in the Magic City. In the very least, it seems that the shopping center’s present owners, Weingarten Realty, have rechristened the place with its original moniker. So even though the building itself withered and died in obselescence, at least the name lives on.

Weingarten Realty's page for Colonial Plaza.

1 comment:

  1. Plenty of memories at this old mall. It was pretty sad toward the end. Nothing much but two long hallways between the anchors because most of the small shops had closed. Now, it's one of those outdoor "power centers" that if you visit between 2PM and 5PM, you are guaranteed to get soaked by the typical Florida afternoon thunderstorms.