27 May 2013

Northgate Mall, Hixson, TN

An extant asset

26 December 2021 

I've always been one to root for the underdog, even when it comes to shopping malls.  There's just something about those obscure, secondary retail centers within a community that have since been overshadowed by a more sophisticated, newer and flashier competitor with their newfangled natural lighting, climate control, and ADA compliance that just completely captures me. It's this predisposition that causes me to pull for Washington Square's success over that of Eastland Mall. The very same impulse leads me to carry an admiration for Pembroke Mall even though Lynnhaven Mall was the vast majority's preferred destination. And this mindset makes me far fonder of Chattanooga's Northgate Mall than its bustling rival Hamilton Place.

Northgate Mall Mallmanac, ca. 1997. View the full PDF version here.

Northgate Mall is a bit off of the beaten path, but it's definitely worth the drive. It's literally over the river and through the woods from Chattanooga proper in the city's northern suburb of Hixson. When coming in from the south on Highway 319, the first piece that comes into view is the large, rectangular Sears. Its walls are of a basic brick styling painted an off-white hue, but the brutalist entrance treatments are quite a feast for the eyes. The porticoes have the unique faux-effect appearance a widow's-walk off of the second level. On the rear of the building is an even bigger delight- the mocha with a touch of cream shaded, ultra-modern JCPenney look of the early seventies. With its curved corners and varying roof heights, it represents the disco era in every way. The shape of the entire structure kind of favors sci-fi spaceship designs from movies such as Alien, to the extent that I've dubbed this building the Starship Penney's.

The front side of Northgate Mall including Sears.

On the inside, Northgate Mall followed the exact template of other projects from the same era. The corridors were of an excessive width underneath ceilings of a notable height. The courts at the access points of the two end anchors as well as the main, central court were all of a precise box shape. All interior corners were drawn at strict right angles with little to no deviation. The main corridor was a curve-free, rigid channel with either end anchor having direct line of sight with the other. The floors were of an obligatory murky tile, wood was liberally utilized in the accenting of both the fixtures and the ceilings and the lounging sections were of a basic, hard edged design, not yet replaced with the soft seating areas that became the retail facility standard in the 2000s.

I love the curved lines of what I call "Starship Penney's".

Northgate Mall opened as Chattanooga's second major suburban shopping center in 1972, though it was the first to debut fully enclosed. Its original anchors were Millers, JCPenney and Sears. The mall was updated in 1991, 1997 and during the mid-2000s. While JCPenney and Sears have remained unchanged, Millers was eventually superseded by Hess's before being converted to Proffitt's. After a few years under that banner, the space became home to Belk, which already had a small presence at Northgate with a modest women's store near JCPenney.

Northgate Mall Mallmanac, ca. 2014. View the full PDF version here.

Northgate Mall is neither a groundbreaker nor historical in any way. There was nothing exceptional about the exterior look or the interior design. But there has always been just something about the old school aura of Chattanooga's secondary enclosed shopping facility that really made it attractive to me. Maybe it was the absence of oversized groups of people dominating the walkways or the under-abundance of stores like Hollister with their overpowering fragrances and incessant bumping rhythms disturbing the quiet sanctity of the nearby Orange Julius. Whatever it was, when not in downtown Chattanooga, it was definitely my preferred shopping destination over Hamilton Place whenever in the Scenic City.


-26 December 2021

Northgate Mall lease plan, ca. 2021. View the full PDF version here.

The wondrously groovy Starship Penney’s with its rounded corners and dark brown brick façade has closed. The nearly 50 year old location was a victim of the troubled retailer’s round of 2014 closings. There were only two of these Starship Penney’s designs that I knew of, and now the one at Coliseum Mall has been demolished while this one stands empty. Though JCPenney tends to have some of the more distinctive and unusual design elements on their exteriors, this is my favorite and I hope to see more before they’re all gone.

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