Some of us old-timers occasionally slip and refer to Downtown Oak Park as "the mall." Many folks, especially at holiday time, even grow nostalgic for the good old days of the 1970s and '80s when Lake Street was blocked off from Harlem Avenue to Forest Avenue. So we asked a few folks who've been around long enough to remember (and are willing to admit it) to share their memories of the late, lamented or not, mall.
"The Oak Park Mall is long gone," says Nancy Greco, who grew up in the village. "It's been over 15 years now since they bulldozed the berms, chopped down all the trees and reopened Lake Street to auto traffic. It's better the way it is now. But every so often, especially at Christmas, I'll remember the mall and I'll miss it. The Oak Park Shopping Mall was a very interesting experiment. It just didn't work out so well."
Back in 1974, in the hope of luring back shoppers and retailers who had abandoned the once booming Lake-Marion-Harlem shopping district in favor of the new regional shopping centers, village trustees turned the four-block downtown district into a landscaped pedestrian mall. They paved over the streets to create broad walkways. Rolling berms were landscaped with trees, shrubbery and flowers. More than 150 shops were on board. Fifteen years later, however, after numerous futile attempts to revive sagging revenues, the village board voted to reopen Lake Street. (The block of Marion Street just south of Lake Street remains closed for now, but that's another topic for another time.)
"The Oak Park Mall was a major project," remembers Michael Termine. "There were people who opposed its development from the beginning, so it was a brave undertaking at that somewhat vulnerable time in our historyâ€"the early 1970s. For 15 years the mall changed the face of the village. Traffic had to be rerouted for blocks around it. But Oak Park was trying to be competitive with all the new shopping centers while also redefining itself. In the old days, before the '70s, shoppers had come from all over for the heavy concentration of big name stores, all within a few blocks downtown."
"I was in the last drivers ed class to drive down Lake Street into River Forest," Karen Borgstadt notes. "I remember thinking that this was a neat distinction, while the mall was being built. This was during the oil embargo, so there wasn't a lot of driving going on."
Plans were big for the Oak Park Mall. Martin Silverman, the first mall commissioner and owner of Maple Furriers, told a reporter in 1974, "This mall will be more than just a place to shop or seek professional aid or service. It will be a meeting place for people. During December the mall will feature a Winter Wonderland with lots of special events. After winter it will once again become a huge green island right downtown where everyoneâ€"young and oldâ€"will be able to gather for fun and entertainment."
December on the mall
"The first Christmas on the Oak Park Mall was so exciting but it was not quite ready in time," remembers Nancy Greco. "Construction was way behind schedule. So they just covered the unfinished areas with painted plywood scenes that year. Often later at holiday time on the mall there would be cute little wooden houses with hay and live animals. There was always something special going on."
"I loved just walking around the mall at holiday time with all the bushes in the center covered with little lights," says Pat Watts, now living in Florida. "Everything was always very festive. I remember caroling with the Oak Park Concert Chorale on the mall for a couple years and also inside the Montgomery Ward's building. But the outdoor caroling was more memorable, especially with the snow falling."
Barb Eulenberg remembers caroling with her high school choir on the mall in the 1970s. "When we'd get done singing or after school in the winter we'd always go to Murphy's Off the Mall, just north of Lake Street on Marion, for their fabulous hot chocolate and their amazing grilled cheese sandwiches."
At Christmas time, there were costumed characters making the rounds, greeting shoppers and spreading cheer. One of them, "Chris Mouse," was clad in holly sprigs and jingle bells, when he/she greeted children.
A prominent "Dear Santa" holiday mailbox was located in the center of the mall. Renee Glos, mall secretary, personally "helped" Santa answer all the children's letters.
"The mall commission was really good at getting the community involved and excited, especially in December," Greco recalls. "Different groups would carol and participate in all sorts of events. I remember in high school singing in various choirs from the mezzanine at both Montgomery Ward [now the Shaker Building] and Lytton's. We'd stroll the mall in our fancy madrigal outfits, passing out candy canes."
"The mall was so beautiful during the holidays," Greco notes. "Each store offered treats, like Lytton's would have hot cider and cookies. And you could count on stores being open in the evening. My family would do all our Christmas shopping on the mall. There was such a wide range of shopping, from Woolworth's to Marshall Field's. And the big stores all had their specialties, like the wonderful bakery in the back of Field's, which was located where Borders coffee shop is now. Wieboldt's had their own Santa Claus in the huge 'Toyland' in the basement, near the S & H Green Stamp redemption center."
"Wieboldt's technically wasn't on the mall," reminds Julie Zeller, who worked in Wieboldt's Department Store during high school. "It was a large department store on the southwest corner of Harlem Avenue and Lake Street, on the River Forest side. At Christmas time the windows were filled with all kinds of moving figures and mechanized holiday displays that would draw big crowds. The lady elevator operators at Wieboldt's wore white gloves to open and close the doors. Those big old stores really had everything. Cosmetics, my department, was located right across from candy. There was even a full grocery store in the back of Wieboldt's."
Carol Gould remembers that "the mall was so pretty at Christmas time. Marshall Field's was lovely but Wieboldt's was my favorite. I still miss it. They even had a wonderful little restaurant right in the store where I'd take my four kids for lunch. Wieboldt's had everythingâ€"fine quality but affordable. They carried nice children's clothing at a good price. My daughter once terrified me at Wieboldt's for nearly an hour. She was playing a trick on me and hid in the store. I thought she'd been snatched! I was frantic."
"There'd be so many shoppers at Christmas time, several policemen were usually on duty just crossing people at Harlem Avenue," Greco remembers. "People new to the community now wouldn't believe the classy stores we used to have along Lake Street, like Lytton's, Bond's, Baskin's, Bramson's, and Chas. A. Stevens. Oak Park had long been known for its fine selection of quality stores."
Shopping in a park
River Forest resident Jan Dressel, a young mother at the time, says, "The Oak Park Mall always seemed so civilized. It was a great place to stroll. There were convenient benches and a lovely fountain. The trees made it seem like you were in a park surrounded by stores. I remember how I'd often throw my kids in the stroller and we'd walk around the mall just to get some exercise while I'd window shop. Toddlers could scamper in front of you without the danger of traffic."
"So many of the stores had their unique attractions," recalls Zeller. "Bramson's, for instance, had a fish pond in their basement. Lytton's, at Forest Avenue and Lake Street, actually had live monkeys in the men's department. It may seem unbelievable now, but they did."
"The Lake Theatre featured one movie at a time back then," says Eulenberg. "It was one big theater with a single screen. My mom and I would go see a movie at the Lake (we never added the word 'theater') after a heavy afternoon of shopping. The Lake was always so warm and inviting on a cold winter day."
"There was a lot of variety for shoppers," says Termine. "The mall offered everything from Gingiss Formal Wear to Just Jeans. There were two long lunch counters where shoppers could grab a quick bite, at Woolworth's and Walgreens, which faced one another. There was Lyon & Healy, a longtime music store, where the antique mall on Marion Street is now. There were two bookstores, Kroch's & Brentano's and Browz-A-Bit."
One popular store, The Peacock Boutique, at 1024 Lake St. next to the Lake Theatre, featured Indian import items, from silver filigreed necklaces to water buffalo horn bracelets. The Practical Tiger, 1107 Lake St., specialized in gifts. Katie's Country Candy Store, 1116 Lake St, in the old Drechsler building, was a popular stop for shoppers of all ages. Kettlestrings, a kitchenware store, aroused some controversy by borrowing the name of the first settlers of 1830s Oak Park, Joseph and Betty Kettlestrings.
"I have always been especially fond of shoes," Dressel remarks. "The mall was the place for shoe shopping. From O'Connor & Goldberg's to Joseph's, there were about 15 shoe stores within a three-block radius. It was heaven."
But Termine remembers shopping trends were changing everywhere in the late-1970s and '80s, not just in Oak Park. "There were a lot of high-end men's stores," he explains, "but almost all of them ended up biting the dust. Increasingly, I hate to remember, more and more mall stores went under or relocated. I think they finally dumped the whole mall concept just to wipe the slate clean and start over."
"When the mall first opened in 1974 there had been a lot of controversy," adds Greco. "Many merchants immediately left. Montgomery Ward, one of the big anchor stores, pulled out fairly early on. They had the opportunity to go into the new North Riverside Shopping Center, so they abandoned the mall. That big corner department store building stood empty for a few years until it was adapted and redesigned."
Memories of the Oak Park Mall remain vivid for many community members. Lately there's been considerable controversy surrounding the possible re-opening of Marion Street, the remaining portion of the 1974 mall project.
"Personally, I liked the Lake Street mall and miss it," says Karen Borgstadt, "but I will be very sad if they totally eliminate the remaining mall on Marion Street [between Lake Street and North Boulevard]. That one-block mini-mall is so quaint and park-like."