01 May 2013

Pembroke Mall, Virginia Beach, VA

A relic of retail

In 1985 when we had moved to Virginia Beach, we had found our main mall pretty quickly. But the Southside shopping juggernaught was missing one thing- a Sears and all of the Craftsman's tools that my father coveted. That was in the city's "other" mall. (At this time, Virginia Beach was the only city on the southside with two malls.) We first drove out there on a bright, warm and sunny Sunday afternoon. Having just moved from Hawai'i where the skies and ocean were blue, but not the laws, we were surpised to find the acres of parking around the Sears empty. My father was disappointed, but not me. I was staring at an absolutely beautiful example of mid-mod architecture. The Sears consisted of repeating rectangular faces, each a shiny mustard/copper color, interrupted by embedded beige concrete verticle formations leading to centered, blocky "eaves" above. I'll never forget the awe I felt when I first saw that store. In fact, it completely overwhelemed Pembroke Mall itself, to the point that I don't even think I noticed it was there.

I couldn't find any photos of the old Sears and Miller and Rhoads exterior, so here's a closeup of those anchors from a rendering I did back in 1990.

On subsequent visits to the mall, I noticed that the Miller and Rhoads was no architectural slouch itself. It was classic mid-centruy beauty. It's footprint was nothing more than a rectangle, but the brickwork and color scheme on the exterior was unforgettable. Above the entrances, the structure framing the nameplate jutted out over the portico in a manner reminiscent of a drive-in movie screen or billboard. It was fantastic.

The Pembroke Mall Logo and Mallmanac ca. 1989. View the full PDF version here.

Pembroke Mall, at least in the 80s when I lived in Virginia Beach, was always under two shadows. There was the one cast by Norfolk's Military Circle just to the west, and a bigger one, more like an eclipse, cast by Lynnhaven Mall to the east. The mall was never considered by us kids to be cool; definitely not a place to be seen on a Saturday night. It was for old people with old stores and old fashioned-ness. Unlike hair and shoulderpads during that decade, it was flat and colorless. It was dark on the inside. And, although I would never admit it at the time, I absolutely loved everything about Pembroke.

Pembroke through the years. Top left, at its opening. Top right, in the mid to late 80s. Bottom left, the early 90s. Bottom right, the early to mid 2000s.

I remember the green Pembroke Mall label on the front wall facing Virginia Beach Boulevard, with a sign declaring, "The Friendly Place to Shop." I remember the dark crimson and brown floor tiles with the embedded gardens surrounding a small fountain and stage in center court. I remember the sparse natural lighting filtering in from discreet skylights. But my favorite part was the ceiling. It consisted of parallel slats of a dark oak or a similar wood. But the slats weren't laid flat and abutting each other, they were uniquely hung perpendicular to the horizon. Small, round incandescent fixtures provided a little light from between those slats and through those gaps you could see the exposed duct work, all painted black just to ensure that everything appeared cave-like.

Pembroke Mall Mallmanac ca. 2000. View the full PDF version here.

Pembroke changed very little during my time in Tidewater. The only occurence was when the two theater cinema located in the northeastern parking lot was demolished when an eight screen Cineplex Odeon was built on the mall's northeastern entrance. In fact, the entire commercial area around the mall remained untouched in all of its post World War II glory. But many changes were on the horizon. Miller and Rhoads closed with the rest of the chain, was replaced by Upton's, then Kohl's when that chain went under. Hess's became Dillards, then vacant and finally asphault as it and the entire northern expansion was demolished. But the biggest changes to Pembroke were happening just outside of the mall's property lines.

The lastest two footprints of the mall, post Hess's wing extraction. The mall seems to be right-sized now, with Target recently added.

A downtown for the mainly bedroom and resort city of Virginia Beach had been planned for years. The largely wooded area across the street from Pembroke seemed the perfect place, and in the late 90s, construction started on the Virginia Beach Town Center. Now the 1960s mall lies in the shadow of several modern office and residential towers, one of which is Viginia's tallest building. To compliment the new development, Pembroke's owners made the south side of the mall's property more pedestrian friendly (as pedestrian friendly as sidewalks facing an eight lane boulevard can be) with new restaurants and more accessible mall entrances. This has come at a price, unfortunately. The Miller and Rhods exterior was replaced by the Kohl's blandly standard template and the Sears, well, what they did should be considered architectural assault. I mourn the loss of this exceptional example of mid-century modern commercial architecture. The new plain, beige walls stand as somber and lifeless tombstones over the graves of what is now considered outdated and obsolete.

Pembroke Mall Mallmanac ca. 2013. View the full PDF version here.

But the mall soldiers on. In fact, it does much better than what was once the region's leading mall, Norfolk's Military Circle which is located just a few miles down the road. The owners have been wise enough to adapt and to change, as the many layouts above demonstrate. It's good to see that even as younger malls die and disappear, Pembroke Mall still holds its own.

L- Pembroke Mall in relation to the Virginia Beach Town Center. (Source) R- The full rendering I did of Pembroke in 1990. This is the way I will always remember Hampton Road's oldest mall.

Pembroke Mall's official website.


  1. This was really interesting! I've lived in Va. Beach my entire life and I miss many of the old landmarks. I have been trying to find a photo of the old round movie theater behind Pembroke Mall and can't find one anywhere. I guess it will just have to stay as it is in my memory. Thanks for the great post!

    1. Love the movie theater and coney island across from it ..also use to go to the Chinese buffet ..still a great mall but things have to change .

  2. Monmon@aol.com

  3. Now, the Pembroke Mall is closed! Exterior tenants will remain open for the time being, but otherwise, it’s finally happened! Pembroke Mall is no more. Hotel and apartments will come next year.