Shopping Gem of the Golden Era

Shopping Gem of the Golden Era

From the Promenade Shops in Saucon Valley, to Bethlehem’s historic Main Street shopping district, the Lehigh Valley is home to a host of diverse shopping opportunities.

But for many longtime residents, there is one destination that still brings back memories of a “golden era” of retail… a time when a fully enclosed, air-conditioned mall was an exciting, new idea… and when taking a trip to one was treated as a “special occasion.” That place is the Whitehall Mall on MacArthur Road.

Today, most people think of the Lehigh Valley Mall as the premier mall on MacArthur. But the truth is, there was a time when the Whitehall Mall set the standard not only for shopping in the Lehigh Valley, but in all of Pennsylvania.

Opened to the public in the summer of 1966, the Whitehall Mall was the first enclosed shopping center in Pennsylvania outside of Philadelphia – a modern wonder that was air-conditioned in the summer, heated in the winter, and offered an impressive fifty-two stores, a supermarket and a 1,000-seat movie theatre. In the words of the Evening Chronicle, the Whitehall Mall was “a fresh, futuristic outlook on retailing and merchandising.”

For many people, the Whitehall Mall was a “destination” shopping center where thousands of people flocked daily, both to shop and to simply enjoy the mall’s rich atmosphere. Featuring stately, ornate fountains that cascaded water in beautiful, wild patterns, the mall’s wide-open walking areas were elegantly designed and decorated. Stylish modern planters (modeled after the ones used in the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels) held a variety of tropical plants, while large cages housing exotic birds were on display for the delight of children and adults alike. Leonard Mercer, vice-president of the company that developed the Whitehall Mall, explained his vision by saying, “You know, I treat this thing as a Broadway production… we’re going to run it as a gala.”

And a gala it was. Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Whitehall Mall hosted countless affairs – including musical performances, art exhibits, beauty shows and community events. Circus Vargas, an “old-time” circus that was once billed as one of the largest traveling “big tops” in the world, put on a spectacular show in the mall’s parking lot that attracted more than 4,000 spectators. Allentown Central Catholic High School’s graduating class of 1967 even held its prom in the mall.

But despite the Whitehall Mall’s early popularity, by the mid-1970s fully enclosed shopping centers had become commonplace and no longer captured the public’s attention. Instead, people’s tastes began to shift as they again looked towards the next “newest thing.”

For Lehigh Valley residents, this “next new thing” came in the form of the Lehigh Valley Mall, which opened in October of 1976. Located directly across Grape Street from the Whitehall Mall, the Lehigh Valley Mall was built at a cost of 30 million dollars. With 130 stores spread out across approximately one million square feet, the Lehigh Valley Mall dwarfed its older neighbor in both size and selection.

As a result, the Lehigh Valley Mall immediately began drawing attention – and shoppers – away from its aging neighbor. In particular, younger crowds who sought both a wider variety of stores and a faster-paced, more vibrant setting, began leaving the Whitehall Mall behind and heading to the Lehigh Valley Mall instead.

By the mid-1980s the effects of this migration were becoming painfully noticeable. Instead of the busy, bustling masses of its heyday, the Whitehall Mall began to primarily attract smaller groups of senior citizens, who welcomed the slower, quieter atmosphere and minimal crowds.  The mall’s physical structure, meanwhile, was also beginning to show signs of twenty-plus years of wear and tear. The ornate fountains that once attracted admiring eyes were removed, as were the plant life and exotic birds.

By the 1990s, the Whitehall Mall was a shadow of its former glory, quietly falling into obscurity as many of its original stores moved out. Major anchors such as Leh’s and Woolworth’s closed, leaving large areas of the mall vacant. In 1998, in an attempt to rejuvenate the property, portions of the original mall were razed, and the structure transformed into a less connected, more open “strip mall.” But despite these efforts, the mall continued a slow decline that culminated in the closing of the Plaza Movie Theatre in 1999. Many Valley residents saw the loss of the theatre, which had provided a constant source of entertainment since the mall opened in 1966, as one of the final blows to the once-great retail center.

In 2004, however, Simon Property Group, the same development company that controls the Lehigh Valley Mall, took over as the new leasing agent of the Whitehall Mall. As part of a multi-year rejuvenation effort, they began a series of improvements aimed at bringing the mall back to life. The following year, Gold’s Gym moved into the space that had once housed the Plaza Movie Theatre. Shortly after, retailing giant buybuy Baby moved in as well.

Today, along with major anchors Kohl’s and Sears (which is the only original anchor from 1966), the Whitehall Mall is in the midst of a revival effort. While it is unlikely it will ever return to the gala and spectacle of its early years, the fact that the mall still continues to persist is enough to evoke fond memories from many Valley residents.

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