A dead mall
7 January 2015
22 September 2023
Smith & Welton in 1970. (Source)
Norfolk's Military Circle Mall exemplified the modern and radical elements of retail facilities designed and built during the early seventies. This was best displayed on the façade of the massive JCPenney, making their example the most memorable part of an otherwise inconsequential building. All of the plaza's anchors were housed within shells of dark, coffee colored brick that contrasted sharply with the lighter earth-tones encasing the common areas.
Military Circle soon after opening in 1970. (Source for all)
But what gave the JCPenney its unmistakable personality were the grandiose and imposing white concrete porticoes marking each entryway. Perilously hanging from the ceilings of each of these structures were a series of massive cylindrical light fixtures, all contained within an enclosure of yellow tinted glass. If an architectural style were ever inspired by the leisure suit, Military Circle wore it proudly.
1- A rare shot of the original yellow glass portico of Penny's. 2- Let's go to the mall! (Source for both)
Our suburban dwelling family never had much of a reason to venture out to Military Circle. We were by no means regular patrons at any of its anchors and knew that we could find the same selection of smaller shops at closer destinations, so we usually passed it up. The only time we ever ventured into the immediate area was to browse the extensive hardware selection at the antiquated Montgomery Ward outlet of the JANAF (Joint Army Navy and Air Force) Center located across Virginia Beach Boulevard. I remember being fixated on the hulking structure lying in wait just beyond the busy ten lane thoroughfare, beckoning me to explore the brutal monolith punctuated by the out of scale anchors and a high-rise Sheraton Hotel.
Military Circle mallmanac, ca. 2000. View the full PDF version here.
During that bygone decade of feathered hair when we were living in the southeastern Virginia region, Military Circle and Lynnhaven Mall were locked in a struggle for market dominance. The latter destination, in the midst of the explosive growth of Virginia Beach, was preferred by the suburbanite and the younger crowds, while Military Circle catered more to the urban and more established populace. But as the years passed and the hair metal of the eighties was exchanged for the grunge of the nineties, Military Circle's once contemporary and cutting-edge edifice was showing its age and vulnerability. Lynnhaven had long since proved victorious in the war for shopping supremacy while the older center was finding itself in a long running fight for relevance against lesser opponents such as Chesapeake's Greenbrier Mall and the beach's Pembroke Mall. And it was losing.
The Military Circle with which I was familiar during the eighties.
Military Circle Mall opened in what was then the suburban environment of southeastern Norfolk in 1970 as the Southside’s second enclosed shopping mall. It was plotted just a few miles west of Pembroke Mall on the very same east-west boulevard, bringing with it the fear that it would destroy its merely four-year-old competitor. But despite opening with four major department stores, Leggett, Thalhimer’s, JCPenney and Norfolk-based Smith & Welton, none overlapped with Pembroke’s offerings, leaving the two facilities to complement each other. Eventually, however, the newer destination emerged as the region’s preeminent retail corridor.
The Gallery at Military Circle from the air. (Source)
Through the eighties and most of the nineties, despite increased competition, Military Circle was able to hold its own. But the late nineties and the new millennium brought numerous changes to the market. Smith & Welton closed in 1990 and remained vacant until 1999 when Sears constructed a smaller "infill" store on the site. But further retail rivalry was to come as the lavish, triple-tiered MacArthur Center opened that same year in central Norfolk.
Military Circle during the latter part of the nineties.
MacArthur Center’s impact on the extant center was downplayed, however, as MacArthur was expected to attract a more regional, upscale clientele, with Military Circle's remaining focused on a more proximal and middle-class urban target. Thus far, the two have been able to coexist as one rarely pulls from the other's demographic.
The Gallery at Military Circle lease plan, ca. 2011. View the full PDF version here.
The construction of the MacArthur Center has brought a plethora of new growth to Norfolk, mainly in its central business district. Unfortunately, little of that reinvestment has made its way to the area surrounding Military Circle. With the shuttering of Sears in 2012 and their space's remaining unoccupied, the old classic is again at a crossroads. It could see either a resurgence or a retrenchment at this point. Will it continue to survive on its own locally based demographic, or will even those crowds move on as Norfolk's oldest extant mall remains stagnant? Only time will tell.
-7 January 2015
Not long after Sears’ truncated tenure was ended at the inner-ring complex, the last anchor to debut with the rest of Military Circle at its 1970 opening is calling it quits. JCPenney, billed as the retailer’s largest location within the region, shuttered in 2014. Its iconic, oversized porticos with huge, dangling cylindrical light fixtures precariously suspended behind yellow tinted glass have long been gone, now the entire store is just another memory. Macy’s stands as the sole remaining anchor at the declining center, which seems to be going the way of regional peers Newmarket North and Tower Malls.
Good-bye, JCPenney. (Source)
-22 September 2023
Military Circle has moved on to the giant parking lot in the sky. The mall, once Hampton Roads’ most popular, ended its more than half century run on 31 January 2023. After Sears and JCPenney’s departures, the Macy’s, which was first a JB Hunter, then Thalhimer’s, and a Hecht’s following that, mercifully called it quits two years after JCPenney in 2016.
1 to 3- The emptied out interior of Military Circle. (Source) 4- Military Circle's exterior just before closing. (Source)
Anchorless and rudderless, the Tidewater's very first regional-sized enclosed shopping mall struggled on as the neighborhood just beyond its ring road deteriorated. Optima Health converted the massive Penny’s building into office space and the former Macy’s even served as a vaccination center during the Covid 19 pandemic. But even then, Military Circle’s existence as a retail facility had come to an end.
The Gallery at Military Circle site plan, ca. 2011. View the full PDF version here.
Ross Dress for Less is the lone remaining store, though it has only exterior entrances. What’s next for the hulking monolith at the intersection of Military Highway and Virginia Beach Boulevard? No firm plans have been finalized, but there was talk of building a new arena on the site after Virginia Beach voters rejected an oceanfront complex of their own. For now, we’ll just have to wait and see as the rest of the mall crumbles.