25 November 2023

Ford City Mall, Chicago, IL

 A dead mall

It always seemed kind of strange to me that I had no real entries from the Chicago area.  There is one, but it was written as an April fools joke about a mall that never existed.  And even though I love Chicago and visit every so often, I never hit one of their many dead or dying malls.  So, on a recent trip, I resolved to see at least a couple.  One of those was Ford City Mall.

The southeastern edifice of Ford City Mall including JCPenney.

Ford City Mall, built in the far southwestern reaches of the city underneath the landing pattern to Midway Airport, has quite a history.  The structure housing the retail facility was constructed during the height of World War II as a plant building dedicated to defense, including building engines for B-29 bombers.  Population growth in that part of the city soon followed.

The nearly empty food court just inside entrance # 5.

Over six million square feet of building space was constructed over several buildings, but by late 1945 all of it was left vacated.  The war had ended and there was no longer any use for the factories.  Later, they were refurbished to house vehicle assembly for, among others, Ford Motor Company, though still operating far beneath the capacity for which it was built.

Ford City Mall center court and lovely fountains.

That changed with the Korean War in the 1950s.  Again, it was used for the production of aircraft engines for the war effort under contract with Ford.  The facility was completely modernized and, at its height, housed over 12,000 workers.  Soon, however, a ceasefire was called and again the plant was mothballed.

Ford City Mall anchor layout closer to its opening.

The entire complex was sold to a new civilian owner, who then decided to convert a large portion of the buildings to commercial usage.  Much of the square footage was demolished to make way for the acres of parking synonymous with your average American shopping mall while others, though not all, were to become what we know today as the Ford City Mall.

Ford City Mall anchor layout around the turn of the century.

As I rode the number 54B bus to the first generation shopping center from the terminus of the Orange Line of the El at Midway Airport, I saw that we were surrounded by a thin slice of retail along Cicero with large industrial facilities beyond.  It was a cold and gray November morning in Chicago, which felt apropos for the environment in which I found myself.

The main corridor of Ford City Mall.

I knew that Ford City Mall wasn’t exactly a top performing destination in the Chicagoland area, so I was somewhat surprised to see a rather healthy retail strip surrounding it.  But then I saw the monolith looming just to our north, hovering somewhere between relevant and obsolete, surrounded by a moat of crumbling asphalt.

Around Ford City Mall.

The bus dropped me off on the ring-road just a short walk away from Ford City’s lone anchor- a JCPenney sporting the newer red logo.  Inside, the JCPenney was unlike most that I had been to recently and was actually rather well stocked and staffed.  This one must actually make money for the company, and more than likely contributes to keeping the entire mall from closing down completely.

1- The southwestern facing edifice.  2- Looking toward the west.  The grassy area to the left is the former home of Montgomery Ward.  3- Entrance # 3.  4- Entrance # 4.

The exterior of the complex retained an industrial quality to its façade, with its repeating squared patterns of earth tones surrounding a mauve-ish block center.  In true seventies fashion, the entrances were numbered, with each containing an element of darkened glass so usual for shopping malls of that era.

Ford City Mall lease plan ca. 2011. View the full PDF version here.

Making my way through entrance # 5 just before the stores’ actual openings, I found myself in a nicely modernized and appointed food court.  Only one stall looked as though it was still occupied and they didn’t look to be in any hurry to open for the day.  Just beyond was center court, with its water features still adding to the ambiance beneath raised ceilings held up above industrial style trusses.  I have to admit, I quite liked it.

1- Entrance #1 located in the mall's rear facing the strip center.  2- Entrance # 2 abutting the former Carson Pirie Scott.  3- Looking down the backside of Ford City Mall.  4- The strip center just behind the former Carson's.

In proximity of center court and running toward JCPenney was where Ford City Mall was most alive.  Though still in the midst of many darkened storefronts, top tier mall retail names like Victoria’s Secret, Claires and Charlotte Russe seemed to still be doing well.  But further away from center court to the western portion that at one time was home to Carson Pirie Scott, the liveliness definitely fades away.

1- The strip center's common area where The Connection was merged.  2- The healthier western end of the strip center.  3- Empty storefronts to the east.  4- The former Sears location.  5- Sears and it's neighbor haven't been occupied in ages.  6- The entire strip center.

I eventually exited at entrance # 2 and found myself in the mall’s rear car park and facing Ford City’s other offering- an exterior oriented retail strip once home to an outlet of Chicago-based Sears.  The end of the strip closest to Cicero was pretty well filled, while further east, the storefronts were almost all vacant, with the Sears labelscar still very apparent even though the space was darkened more than a decade ago.

The western wing of the main corridor leading to the former Carson Pirie Scott.

I spent a bit more time exploring the exterior surrounding the mall’s eastern end before calling a Lyft and starting my way toward my next destination- Harlem Irving Plaza.  Unfortunately, I stupidly left my phone (and all of my pictures) in the back of that Lyft.  This pretty much took all of the wind out of my sails, so I just returned to my hotel.  Luckily, the Lyft driver was an absolute gem and after we got in touch, I received my phone and these pictures in the mail a week after returning home.

Ford City Mall lease plan ca. 2020. View the full PDF version here.

After its previous life as a war-time producer, the new Ford City opened in 1965 with both its enclosed and open-air portions.  The two were connected using the underground areas of the building that previously stood between them.  Wiebolt’s opened as the eastern most anchor with Montgomery Ward as the middle anchor.  Located just south of the food court, the building has since been razed and is now an open field.

1- Even the security stations are empty.  2- Looking down the corridor just inside the easternmost front entrance, the only one that isn't numbered.  3- I love the roller coaster sign above this darkened arcade.  4- Looking back from the main corridor.

The Sears space was previously a Turn Style then Venture before finally opening as its final incarnation through its closing in 2010.  As far as I can tell, JCPenney has always been the eastern anchor.  Eventually, the Montgomery Ward closed and was never replaced while Wiebolt’s became a Carson’s, which itself was closed in 2018 and has remained darkened since.

The JCPenney mall entrance, including a cute retro planter just in front.

The underground connection between the two retail portions, then called “The Connection” was closed in 2012 just after a major renovation in 2010.  All of the tenants were then moved above ground.  H&M opened a store at Ford City Mall in 2018, but it has since closed.  Other businesses, such as an IHOP, have moved from the mall proper to out lot locations.

A walk around the JCPenney and its many former entrances.

Though I’m pretty sure I will never see it again, I was glad to have visited such a unique piece of industrial and retail history.  Even if the property does see a resurgence in commercial activity, I doubt it will be housed in a deteriorating structure nearing a century in age.  Ford City Mall has served its purpose well, but I fully expect something new to replace the complex entirely sooner or later.

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