The Shopping Center of Tomorrow is History

From gardens of rhododendrons and azaleas to marijuana. That seems to be the case with the Northland Center located outside of Detroit. Designed by Victor Gruen, the Northland Shopping Center opened on March 22, 1954.

Designed to accommodate a rapidly changing post-war America, Northland reflected the desires of consumers who were settling into the new and fresh suburban life where the automobile became a necessity for daily living.

Architect Victor Gruen designed Detroit's Northland Shopping Center as an open-air pedestrian mall with arrayed structures. The mall opened on March 22, 1954. Victor Gruen papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.
Architect Victor Gruen designed Detroit’s Northland Shopping Center as an open-air pedestrian mall with arrayed structures. The mall opened on March 22, 1954. Victor Gruen papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

A few days before the center opened, a press event was held for media and dignitaries. In a speech delivered to the group, Gruen described the Northland Center as “the first ‘Shopping Center of Tomorrow’ to come to life – a ‘Shopping Center of Tomorrow’ which you will see today.”

Gruen described the role of the shopping center when he proclaimed, “Our sprawling suburbs have lost connection with the mother city. They need new Shopping Centers; but they need, in addition to that, cultural, civic, and social centers.”

He continued by describing the many features of what was at the time the largest shopping center ever built – 1¼ miles of store fronts surrounded by 7500 parking spaces, mass transit ports, and highway links. Retail shopping opportunities now will be “restful and fun,”

Gruen declared. There are “public areas for relaxation and amusement.” The complex included retail clusters surrounding the Hudson Department Store. Gruen said to the audience, “When you wander around Northland we would like you to observe not only the buildings, but the other important, town-planning element: the space between the buildings.”

Northland Shopping Center had 1¼ miles of store fronts surrounded by 7500 parking spaces, mass transit ports, and highway links. Victor Gruen papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.
Northland Shopping Center had 1¼ miles of store fronts surrounded by 7500 parking spaces, mass transit ports, and highway links. Victor Gruen papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Gruen, who was born in Vienna, Austria in 1903, came to America, and, in 1939, started Victor Gruen Associates. His European influence was incorporated in his designs. Explaining the concept to the audience, Gruen said, “For the first time in a new commercial project, open, architecturally defined spaces have been created which resemble the market squares of European cities.”

Victor Gruen, ca. 1955. Victor Gruen papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

He described the garden areas as “having been richly planted with trees, shrubs, and flowers – different ones [including rhododendrons and azaleas] in each court and mall.” He went on to describe another first – the use of modern art. “For the first time modern art has been included, on a large scale, into the architectural concept of a commercial project.”

Flowers surrounded a piece of modern art at Northland Shopping Center. Victor Gruen papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.
Flowers surround a piece of modern art at Northland Shopping Center. Victor Gruen papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Northland flourished for many decades. In 1974, the center became a mall when it was enclosed. However, by the late 1990s, Northland entered into a decline. Stores like Montgomery Ward, J.C. Penney, and T.J. Maxx closed. In 2015, the last of the major anchor stores, Target and Macy’s, closed. Northland Center officially closed on April 15, 2015. 61 years after its opening, the “Shopping Center of Tomorrow” is history.

The City of Southfield purchased the property and demolition began in the fall of 2017. Plans for the future redevelopment of the site were announced in 2019. Those rhododendrons and azaleas that filled the gardens of Northland could be replaced with housing, retail space, and a medical marijuana facility. Northland reflects an ever-changing America.

Learn more about Gruen’s innovative architectural designs in the Victor Gruen papers at the University of Wyoming’s American Heritage Center.

– Post by UW American Heritage Center Archivist John Waggener.

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