26 May 2013

Riverchase Galleria, Hoover, AL

An extant asset

It was the early nineties and my cousin had just returned from a weekend trip to Birmingham, Alabama. The state's largest city, it was located about a hundred miles south of our home in Huntsville. There was one highlight of the trip that he couldn't quit talking about, and one that I just couldn't hear enough about. You should've seen it, he said. The place didn't even look like a mall. When we were driving up to it, it just looked like this really a big city. There were, like, two or three skyscrapers with a bunch of nice restaurants around them. Then he described what he saw on the interior. Man, I tell you what, I ain't never seen nothing like it. The ceiling was just glass, and it went all the way down the mall from one end to the other. In the middle, it must've been about twenty stories tall. And they had a Macy's. A Macy's! Since when does Alabama have a Macy's? His description had me hooked. I needed to get a gander at this supposedly mystical place, even though I was a bit perturbed to learn that my own preferred shopping destination, Madison Square, had a larger competitor within its own state. And what was that rival? The Riverchase Galleria.

Riverchase Galleria Mallmanac, ca. 1995. View the full PDF version here.

The Galleria, as it was colloquially referred, was known throughout all four corners of the state. It was the standard by which all other retail was judged. It was, and still is, Alabama's largest commercial facility, a distinction it holds by a rather large margin. With major anchors such as Macy's and Atlanta-based Rich's, it boasted huge industry players not available in any of Alabama's other large cities. The mixed-use complex, one of the earliest developments to describe itself as such, offered a four star hotel, a 17 story office tower and an unmatched selection of retailers all under its massive skylight, once described as the world's largest. I couldn't wait to take it all in.

Riverchase Galleria Mallmanac, ca. 2002. View the full PDF version here.

It was 1995 before I finally got to experience the legendary and wondrous Riverchase Galleria for the very first time. My father and I were on our way to an admissions interview at a regionally well-known central Alabama university. We had stopped in the Birmingham suburb of Hoover to fill up on gas and to grab a bite to eat. I had convinced my dad to drive a few more miles down Highway 31 just so that I could finally see the Galleria with my own two eyes. And even though I was dealing with some agitation due to the upcoming institutional interrogation, those feelings were more than overridden by the sheer excitement I felt on approach to our spontaneously planned destination. Well before we traversed the I-459 underpass, beyond which was the center, I could already see the signature towers that my cousin had described years before. I was in awe, and I hadn't even seen the mall proper yet. We turned onto the first entryway, climbed up a small incline, and only then did the Riverchase Galleria finally reveal itself to me.

The first thing that came into my view was the massive Parisian, with a standard JCPenney sitting just to its right. We navigated the ring road to the flanking side of our destination, encircling the JCPenney before approaching the first of the two large parking decks. Just beyond the large, concrete multi-level structure, wedged in between this and another similar car park, was the impressive as it was immense Macy's. The nationally known anchor was three levels tall and encased in a shell of white brick with no ornamental designs to complicate the simple exterior. This was a time, not so long ago, when the presence of a Macy's stated that This place is big time, back before Federated diluted the brand's recognition by keeping locations in seemingly every little mid-market development such as Evansville, Indiana's Eastland Mall and Florence, Kentucky's Florence Mall. Hell, this was even before Macy's had any locations in Seattle or in the entire state of Hawai'i.

Riverchase Galleria Mallmanac, ca. 2004. View the full PDF version here.

The Riverchase Galleria opened in the Birmingham suburb of Hoover in 1986. It debuted with four anchors, Parisian, JCPenney, Pizitz and Rich's and a total area of 1.2 million square feet, not including the Wynfrey Hotel or the office tower. The following year, Macy's inaugurated their first Alabama location on the center's backside just before Pizitz was relabeled as McRae's. In 1995, still under construction on my first visit later that year, the complex commenced its only significant expansion. This led to the 1996 premiere of a short two-level wing containing additional shops as well as a Sears on the southwestern fringe, while Parisian nearly doubled their own store's footprint. These projects increased the facility's retail square footage up to nearly 1.8 million which, at that time, enabled it to supplant Atlanta's Lenox Square as the largest retail facility in the deep south.

1- Outside the old Parisian. 2- A shot of the original Rich's under the office tower and the Wynfrey Hotel.

I ended up attending classes at the university for which I interviewed in 1995. While enrolled and residing there, I actually took up part-time employment at the Galleria. I was hired on as an associate at Payless ShoeSource and despite being doted on by my friends with "original" monikers such as Al Bundy, it was a pretty tolerable place to work. Business was always brisk, making my shifts go by fairly quickly, and there was a decent selection of eateries to choose from in the food court. My favorite was a small, independent business called Crackers, and they had the best selection of pasta salads in the known universe. It was a lengthy forty mile drive there and back from my off-campus apartment, but that was no big deal as gas in the mid-nineties hovered around a buck a gallon. Besides that, my future ex-husband, who also happened to be in my Sociology class, worked just down the concourse from me at Brooks Brothers.

1- The massive skylight over center court. 2- More of the immense glass covering.

It's been years since I've been to Riverchase. Not a lot seems to have changed except for some shuffling involving the major businesses. The old Parisian and McRae's spaces are now occupied by Belk, the Rich's store is now a Macy's, and the original Macy's will soon be welcoming the state's first Davenport, Iowa-based upscale retailer, Von Maur. Even the venerable Wynfrey Hotel will be just another Hyatt franchise before long. As is the usual case, however, the JCPenney and Sears pads have not seen any changes.

-UPDATE-  Riverchase Galleria Mallmanac, ca. 2011. View the full PDF version here.

As the mall approaches its thirtieth birthday, I hear the same comments about the Galleria that one hears about every facility that is more than a few decades old. Supposedly, the gangs have taken over, everyone and their sister has been mugged in their dark, seedy and drug dealer infested parking lots at least twice, and a friend of a friend knows this guy who said his cousin was jumped in the Just For Feet. But even with these unfounded rumors, its advanced age and increased competition provided by "lifestyle" centers in surrounding municipalities, the Riverchase Galleria still draws in patrons from all over the region.

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