11 May 2013

Washington Square, Evansville, IN

A dead mall

Evansville's earliest mall was another one of those unexpected finds. During my first visit to the southern Indiana city in February of 1993, I happened to lay eyes on yet another mall belonging to the medium sized market. A representative from the college I was visiting and I were headed south on Green River Road toward Interstate 164 after having had a bite to eat at Eastland Mall, the newer and healthier super-regional center. We had barely driven a mile or so from Eastland when there to my left, something caught my eye.

Washington Square in better days. (Source)

Initially, it looked like just another free-standing and rather sizeable Sears. But attached to that department store, in an expanse of vacant and crumbling tarmac, was an older, smaller and emptier first generation mall. I so wanted to stop to get a good look around the aging place, but that wasn't part of our agenda. And while the rest of that weekend exists as a hazy fog in my mind, I never forgot about that mall.

Layout of Washington Square before Elder Beerman's departure.

Through the years, I was able to recall the mall's aesthetics to the finest detail. It displayed several splendid examples of early shopping mall design mainstays. It was a long, low profiled, dark brown brick building swimming in a sea of asphalt, the size of which was enhanced by the lack of vehicles. Over the main entrance halfway down the length of the facility was an atrium of dark glass with the words Washington Square in dated, groovy lettering. But most of all, what made the biggest impression on me was a more modern addition- large tents of white fabric, predating the ones at Denver International Airport, just beyond the main entrance. I appreciated the juxtaposition of the contemporary over the vintage.

Eventually, I learned that this place was called Washington Square Mall.

1- The main entrance. 2- Loving the old school brickwork.  3- Sears, an original anchor, still does brisk business. 4- The southern anchor, home to a revolving door of tenants.

Washington Square Mall opened in 1963 as Indiana's first enclosed mall. Its original anchors were Sears and an A&P Supermarket. These were later joined by Evansville's own Stewart Dry Goods in 1969 until it was replaced by Indianapolis based LS Ayers in 1980. Washington Square enjoyed success anchoring the city's center of retail activity during the sixties and the seventies until Eastland Mall debuted just to the north in 1982, shifting the city's commercial core with it. Retailers started departing Washington Square for the novel new mall, and a 1987 remodel (I assume when the tents were added) did little to stop the exodus. In 1993, a year after LS Ayre's closing, Elder-Beerman took over the southern anchor spot. This latest, and apparently last, of full line department store anchors was shuttered in 2000, causing a further decline in occupancy.

Washington Square pamphlet ca. 2017.  View the full PDF version here.

More than two decades after Eastland's introduction, Washington Square still struggles to stay relevant while the former flourishes in its nearby location, siphoning off the already limited number of possible patrons in the stagnant midwestern city. The Sears location is one of the most successful in the region and a few stores remain in its corridor, but the old Stewart building has recently only seen temporary, flea market like businesses occupy the 140,000 square foot space. The food court, under the tents, is modern and spacious... And empty. I think two places were open on my last visit.

1- The mall corridor looking north toward Sears. 2- The mall's nearly empty southern corridor. 3- Under the tents of the nearly empty food court. 4- The Food Festival is anything but.

The common area was not as dark and musty as I expected it to be when I finally stepped foot inside during the summer of 2003, a decade after having first stumbled upon the mid-century beauty. To my astonishment, it was decently lit and rather well maintained. The anchor that was once Elder-Beerman had its façade renovated by the mall's owners in the hopes of attracting a replacement. The exterior of the two story, rectangular anchor is reminiscent of the Dillard's standard. That store, however, entered the market with a location at the competition's facility. But I have never heard of the mall calling it quits. It has done well attracting quite a few non-traditional businesses, including medical facilities, teleservices and even a theater. But the mall seems to be stuck. Hahn, the most recent owner of the mall, announced that the old Stewarts/LS Ayres/Elder-Beerman would be demolished. What would replace it has never been revealed. But as long as a full de-malling of Washington Square is never proposed, I can live with whatever keeps the state's oldest enclosed shopping mall open.


  1. Enjoyed your article and the pictures. Sadly, my family and I literally just got home from our last trip to Sears. They are in full liquidation. About the only thing left that is still there from my childhood is the cookie shop on the corner of the once proud food venue.