My dad was one of the best. A career navy man, he loved his Oakland Raiders and his Olympia beer. He was your typical Irish-American Catholic family man who never once made me feel abnormal for having all of these strange hobbies I clung for dear life to.
That's all nice and dandy, I know you're thinking, But what the hell does that have to do with Tower Mall? I'm getting there. Chill. Anyway, it was my twelfth birthday, which just happened to fall on a Saturday. After a day involving more than an adequate amount of cake, pin the tail on the donkey and the offering of peanut products without any fear of anyone's dying or the lawsuits that would inevitably follow, my father asked me what I wanted to do. It was an extraordinary request, but I had no problem taking it. I wanted to visit a couple of shopping malls that I had not yet had the opportunity to see. The first was Chesapeake's Greenbrier Mall. The second was Portsmouth's Tower Mall.
Tower Mall's original layout and anchors.
We had sped by the low profiled, dusty brown brick single level enclosure of the mall as we had sped by on I264 many times. There was a Montgomery Ward on the south end abutting the freeway, but I couldn't see much else through the trees. So, on that Saturday night in the late eighties as we pulled into the half filled parking lot of the only enclosed retail facility ever to make its home in Portsmouth, I couldn't be more excited. Forget the presents I had opened earlier in the day; hell, I have no more recollection of what I found in those colorfully wrapped packages. But what I do remember clearly is my first time in Tower Mall.
L- Interior picture of the groovy center court skylight. (Source) R- The exterior of Bradlees, originally J.M. Fields. (Source)
We parked on the back side of Montgomery Ward, and there to our right tucked inconspicuously into a forgotten corner of the back of the mall was a small sign in a very recognizable font. Miller & Rhoads, it said. The store was tiny and seemed almost to be an afterthought; it was less sizable than even the miniscule Hess's at Lynnhaven Mall. We entered the mall's wide corridors through Ward's and there I experienced the three key elements that I will always remember about the old place- 1) It was dark as hell in there, but somehow not uninviting. 2) There was a sunken seating area covered in dark tile at center court, and 3) The flags. The ceiling and skylight at center court were surrounded by all of these dusty, fading rectangular swaths of cloth. It was really the only color outside of the many shades of brown to be found inside the place.
Tower Mall in the late eighties showing its last configuration before its demise.
Tower Mall opened in 1973 in the city of Portsmouth, Norfolk's neighbor just across the Elizabeth River to the west. It was named after the water tower located in its front parking lot facing Victory Boulevard. The third mall to open in the Southside of Hampton Rhoads, it was also the smallest. Montgomery Ward and JM Fields were the original anchors, with Hess's and Miller & Rhoads added later, while Bradlee's replaced JM Fields. As the sole enclosed retail facility in the western end of the Southside, it enjoyed success until the late eighties when crime steadily rose in the area and a new competitor, Chesapeake Square, opened not far away in the neighboring town.
Overhead shot of Tower Mall (L) next to today's site layout (R). (Source)
I loved what I saw in Tower Mall on that cold winter evening when I turned twelve, but its great distance from our home made it an impractical place to frequent. The only other time I remember going there was when Montgomery Ward was having their store closing sale and my dad went crazy on their tools and hardware. Even though I thought band saws and wrenches were the most boring things in the world, I had to go just one more time to see the old place.
Tower Mall met its end just after the turn of the millennium. It was replaced with a power center of sorts called Victory Crossing. Towards the end, Tower Mall could aptly be described as scary, dangerous and ghetto. But that place sure as hell had some character. A whole hell of a lot more than any old power center.
-26 December 2021
A WAVY-TV flyover of Tower Mall in 1983.