Head a bit further up route 2, and you get to a part of history where I get to rely on research rather than my own wildly inaccurate memories. Jumpers and the Severna Park Mall and Marley Station all loom large in my memories, but it’s been very hard to research them (Researching Marley Station is easy enough because it still exists, but it’s hard to get a historical perspective on it). They weren’t important or historical and they both ceased to exist long before the internet was a thing, and defunct shopping malls of the 1980s doesn’t seem to have caught on as a nexus of internet-age nostalgia.
But as our weird and personal little history draws to a close, we get to intersect some actual history for a moment, because the next thing you’re going to come to, provided you are making this trip about twenty-five years in the past, is the Harundale Mall.
And… I don’t really remember much about it. To me, it was mostly just the sign on the roof that looked like a nineteenth century frontier army fort. I’m only consciously aware of having visited it once. This would have been back in 1987 or 1988, when I first started wearing glasses. My dad took me to the eyeglass place there, New Deal Optical, I think. It was where he’d always gotten his glasses ever since he was a kid (The chain, I assume, not the actual shop, since my dad grew up in Hamilton, and it’d be weird to go all the way to Glen Burnie to buy eyeglasses). I took a pair of frames off the shelf to look at them, possibly try them on, and the clerk yelled at me for being a kid and interacting with the merchandise. My dad got angry at the clerk for this treatment and vowed never to shop there again.If you’ve been reading this column from the beginning, you might notice that I seem to have a lot of stories involving my father getting angry in a mall off of Ritchie Highway. In the interest of defending my father’s reputation, I should explain that the reason I remember these stories is because it was so unusual for my normally mild-mannered father to make a public display of anger. My wife has cautioned me to remember this when I become frustrated in the presence of my own children. Also, I don’t know, it seems like driving up Route 2 tended to put him in a bad mood. I ended up getting my glasses at the Pearle across the street from Marley Station.
When the Harundale Mall opened in October, 1958, (for the first four months, it operated under the name “Arundeltown”, a fact that is missing from all but one of my sources) the only other mall in the US to bear the designation was Minnesota’s Southdale Center. Then-Senator John F. Kennedy cut the ribbon at the opening ceremony.
Built by James Rouse’s company, which would go on, rather famously, to build the town of Columbia, it offered around 20 retail spaces and a half-dozen kiosk spots. Parts of the mall had a second floor, but only Hochschild-Kohn had retail there. The rest was used for offices and storage, as well as a rentable public meeting room. It was a small mall by today’s standards, around 300,000 square feet, half of which was taken up by its three largest stores, originally Hochschild-Kohn, G.C. Murphy and S.S. Kresge.
Hochschild-Kohn, which I mentioned very briefly before, was one of the famous Baltimore-regional department stores from the old days. They went defunct in 1983 and the store at Harundale was sold to another Baltimore chain, Hutzler’s. Hutzler’s didn’t last out the ’80s. The mall tried to attract J. C. Penney to replace them, but Penney had a new building constructed at Marley Station instead. The space went to Value City instead. In 2007, the Value City closed, replaced by the Burlington Coat Factory from Jumpers.
G. C. Murphy was a five-and-dime chain. Their Parole location (Actually their discount department store version, “Murphy’s Mart”: commercial Realtor documents still list it as “Murphy’s Mart Shopping Center”. Now a Shoppers or a Kohls. Or maybe both. I don’t remember which end of the building was theirs) has a bunch of little flashbulb-images stored away in my memory, mostly involving the capsule toy machines near the registers, but that’s a story for another day. Murphy’s had survived the Great Depression, but couldn’t survive the ’80s. They got sold to Ames in 1985, who sold the smaller stores to McCrory’s. The G. C. Murphy at Harundale became a McCrory’s in 1990. I don’t know when exactly it closed, but McCrory’s was bankrupt by ’92 and the last of their stores shuttered in ’01.
S. S. Kresge was another five and dime, which seems mildly extravagant to me. You think you’ve never heard of them, but you’re wrong: Kresge is the “K” in “Kmart”. I’m not sure if the Kresge at Harundale was still there when they stopped using their original name in the late ’70s. Maybe they moved to become the Jumpers K-Mart.
The rest of the mall was mostly local chains and non-chains, most of which don’t exist any more. From the list of original tenants, I recognize Lerner, Thom McAn, and Baltimore Gas & Electric. Annapolis radio station WNAV (Fun fact: currently part-owned by Pat Sajak) had a broadcasting booth on the concourse. There was also a grocery store — first Food Fair, later Pantry Pride — and an Italian restaurant with a sunken seating area at the south end.
The court at the north end featured the mall’s architectural centerpiece, a large fountain in the center of which was displayed the Harundale Rock, a dedication stone engraved with the names of the builders, a list of architectural awards, and a brief history of the site. The stairs to the second floor wrapped around the fountain, so you could pitch coins from landing. Next to the fountain was a large birdcage where they kept talking birds, which turned out to be exactly as good an idea as it sounds, and the mall eventually became famous for its profanity-spouting Mynahs.
Harundale’s star had slowly waned over the years. None of the small malls up and down Ritchie Highway had posed serious competition, but the place was showing its age. It wasn’t positioned to survive when Marley Station opened. The well-known, upscale retailers who’d been among the early tenants fell on hard times: Kresge had become Kmart; Murphy was gone; Hochschild-Kohn was gone; Hutzler’s was gone; Oppenheim-Collins was gone; Read’s Drug Store was gone; Equitable Bank had been eaten by Maryland National, then by NationsBank, then Bank of America. Their replacements had been progressively less prestigious: Erol’s TV and Video Club; Record Town; Value City; Dollar Tree, etc. Horn & Horn briefly reenters our narrative, taking over the Severn Room restaurant and turning it into one of their cafeterias.
The Rouse Company sold the mall to the Mannekin corporation in 1997, and they had it demolished over the course of 1998 and 1999. The old Hochshchild-Kohn building, then a Value City, was left standing. They rebuilt the center as “Harundale Plaza”, a strip mall. It’s a nice strip mall, I guess. Fairly modern and attractively designed. There’s two buildings there now, one anchored by the Burlington Coat Factory, and the other by a Regency Furniture, originally a Super Fresh, before all the Super Freshes closed. There’s an Outback and a Mission BBQ on pad sites in the parking lot and a Bill Batemans attached to the Burlington side, also a non-chain Italian restaurant.
The Harundale Rock is still on display, under a sort of tower between the two buildings, next to a cut-through that leads back to the Baltimore-Annapolis trail. I only just learned about the trail, a hiking path that follows the old railroad line from Annapolis to Baltimore, basically running more-or-less parallel to Ritchie Highway from near Route 50 to the Cromwell light rail station. It also runs behind Marley Station, and Jumpers.
I wish I had some firsthand memories of being inside the Harundale Mall. The only explanation in my memory for why we never went there is a dim notion of my parents saying there wasn’t anything there we’d be interested in. There’s only a handful of pictures of it on the web, almost exclusively from its early days. I’d love to know more about what it looked like in the ’80s. I gather that a big part of its downfall was due to complacency, with the Rouse Company failing to make substantive improvements over the decades to keep the place current. That’s obviously a bad thing from a marketing standpoint, but man alive would I like to have some memories of a shopping mall whose dominant style was still late fifties. The few photos I’ve seen remind me in a way of my high school, which was built in the mid-60s (and wouldn’t see a major refurbishment until after I’d left). The overall style seems heavily influenced by neoplasticism, its decor very abstract with lots of horizontal and vertical lines and big squares of color and nods to Mondrian that feel deliberate. I’m a little bit of a sucker for this sort of thing. There’s a sense in this sort of mid-century “pragmatic” modernism of a design aesthetic that is essentially, fundamentally contemporary in its sensibilities, but because it arose in such a different cultural context, it’s still radically different. You get the feeling that the people who came up with this look thought the same way we do, but they were informed by radically different time and place. It’s less like the past, and more like an alternate universe that evolved along a just-slightly different track. It’s a universe I’d like to see more of.
There’s a sense in the handful of photographs and the handful of articles I’ve read that Harundale Mall represented a time and a place where going out shopping was an Event. I don’t like shopping. I pretty much only go to a store if I’m in an Emergency mindset, since if I didn’t need something right away, I’d just order it. So I have to go out of my way to get something that I need with some urgency. And they probably don’t even have it. And all I get for it is to wander around a high-ceiling’d warehouse store that slowly gives me a migraine.
I remember a different time. Or maybe I imagined it. But there was a lot of slipping into the empty space at the center of a circular rack, hidden by a curtain of hanging blouses while my mother browsed for clothes. There was a lot of banging on the vaccuformed buttons of Prop-Tronics televisions, turntables and adding machines. I remember sights and sounds and textures. And ceilings. I miss ceilings.
Like, if you went even further up Ritchie Highway back in the day, there used to be a Best in Glen Burnie. Not Best But. Just Best. A chain that is really, really hard to Google because their name was just a common noun and there’s a current chain with a similar name. Best was a catalogue store. This is a weird enough idea that there’s basically no such thing any more, and I’m not even sure if there were any others then. Their big thing was that they only sold things via their catalog. Even though they had stores. This all sounds like a fever dream now. So you went to the store, and instead of being like a normal store, where you could pick up items and take them to the register, the whole place was just a showroom. You know how if you want to buy something heavy like a sofa or a television in a normal store, you don’t just pick it up and carry it to the counter? Well imagine if the whole store worked that way. Okay, I guess we’re not that far off from the Ikea model. But it was still pretty weird. You’d wander around the showroom looking at stuff, and then you’d go to the counter and they’d give you the order form from their catalog and you’d fill it out and write them a check. And then, at least, from the point of view of a small child, you sat in the car for a very long time being bored. And eventually you would have your office chair or lamp or shirt or something. I’m probably not explaining this right.
The thing about Best, though, was that the guy who owned the company was really into postmodern architecture. So most of the stores incorporated these really artistic architectural embellishments. Like having a live tree grow out through the front wall. Or having one of the exterior walls designed to look like it was frozen in the process of being lowered into place from above, or half demolished, or curling away like birch bark. I do not remember anything special about the one in Glen Burnie, but I hardly ever saw it in daylight. Almost all of the old Best stores have been demolished now. Because once the initial excitement wore off, no one really gave a damn about postmodern architecture when all they really wanted was to buy an office chair.
In my research, I found people referring to Harundale in its heyday as a “Shopper’s Mecca”. It’s hard even to imagine it, and however sound an economic decision it might have been to tear the place down, I can’t help but be a little indignant that a piece of history like that is gone. Not just demolished: there’s so little information left about it. A handful of stories, few of them much more detailed or fully-remembered than mine. It’s the first mall on the east coast, and it was a major regional hot-spot for thirty years, and yet I haven’t found a single photo of the mall’s interior post-dating 1960. Even the one photo I found showing its 1998 demolition inexplicably looks like a forty-year-old polaroid.
And I don’t even mean to suggest that its historical importance merits keeping it around as a commercially non-viable historical curiosity. But I wish there were something. More than just a rock. I don’t want to go back and live in the ’80s, much less the ’50s. But I kinda wish I could visit.
As it turns out, there’s maybe one place where I still can.