Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Greengate Mall.  All photos c by William Kowinski
Christmas at Greengate Mall

Greengate Mall opened in 1965 just outside my hometown of Greensburg, Pennsylvania.  In many ways it was the inspiration for the research that resulted in my book, The Malling of America.  Greengate figures in several chapters, including one in which I describe the all-night process of building the Christmas decorations. 

For over 30 years, Greengate Mall was a major center for Christmas activities for the county community. Even after other malls and shopping centers sprang up, Greengate continued to have the most elaborate Christmas decorations, including the center court train ride for children. When it was the only mall, and then the dominant one especially for the western side of the county, it was a bustling hive of shopping during this season, and the prime place for people to meet up with each other. More than a replacement for Greensburg's Main Street of old, it was the county's Main Street every Christmas.

By 1999, when I last visited it, Greengate was a ghost mall: a gleaming and almost empty shell, invaded by shabbiness and deterioration.  It soon closed altogether. But on that last visit, I could still marvel at its old essence.  Greengate was designed by Victor Gruen, a renowned architect who essentially invented the enclosed shopping mall with his design of Southdale in Minnesota, which opened only nine years before Greengate.  Greengate was also one of the few collaborations between Gruen and the Rouse Company, an important developer (begun by another visionary of the era, James Rouse) that helped define suburbs and cities across America in the second half of the twentieth century.
In many ways, Greengate was a kind of template for enclosed shopping malls that became part of ordinary life throughout the country.  Yet there was still something unique about it, which I tried to describe and define in my book.  Through its layout and architectural touches, it was especially theatrical, though in a subtle way.  I visited way too many malls in my researches, but Greengate remained special in my estimation.

So it could be argued that Greengate had architectural as well as historical significance.  It certainly had local significance for several generations.  But while Greensburg citizens rallied to save its handsome but dilapidated train station as an historic site, to my knowledge no one even considered Greengate worth preserving as a building that could be saved for other uses.  In any case, in the summer of 2003, it was erased from the physical landscape altogether.  What was once the colossus that replaced Main Street became a barren plain of cracked concrete, mounds of debris, and a huge hole bordered by the remnants of a deep foundation.

Shortly thereafter a brand new WalMart rose in its ashes.  When I drove around this new Big Box and its attached shopping center (nostalgically named after Greengate), the entire area was completely unrecognizable.  The roads, the very landscape had been changed.  It wasn't even possible to see exactly where Greengate Mall used to be.    
In 1985-its 20 year anniversary--Greengate installed this
time capsule.  In it, among other things, was a copy of
The Malling of America I signed.  The capsule and its
contents were "lost" during demolition.  Ironically, it
was supposed to be opened in 2005, the year that Walmart
opened there instead.

But if its historic significance had escaped the attention of preservationists, Greengate was and is still alive in the collective memory of Westmoreland County.  It has its own web site (Greengate Mall Revisited) and Facebook page, and has become part of online mall nostalgia, as represented by sites like livemalls, labelscar, and inevitably, deadmalls.

What people remember in particular is Christmas at Greengate. So along with excerpts from the chapter of The Malling of America that describes the night of Christmas decorating, I am adding photos I took of that Greengate Christmas (which I believe was in 1981), along with a selection of comments left at Greengate Revisited concerning Greengate Christmas memories.

Greengate was the first enclosed mall in the Greensburg area--in fact, the first in Westmoreland County.  But it remained such a community center, especially at Christmastime, partly because it was a mall for everyone (or nearly everyone), before non-urban retail began to split so decisively between high and low end. There were some differences, between what I called "bread & butter" malls and "high fashion" malls.  Greengate was more bread & butter, and it was managed as a hometown mall.
Greengate began in the wonder era for malls, when their magic was a combination of newness, easy and free parking and the fantastic comfort-controlled world inside them. With a fountain!That world was a combination of a variety of shops and eating places with a spacious and pleasant environment. It looked like an internal town square, a garden of Eden in a box, Main Street in a spaceship. It was always clean and shining (even in my last visit there in 1999, when it was almost empty of stores, the tile floors gleamed and the fountain gushed as high as ever.) It was the people's palace in the fabled land where every working man is king.

At Greengate that meant certain architectural touches, and lots of space: two levels of wide side courts and a big center court that soared to the ceiling. So the potential community, drawing from nearly all strata of the local population, had room to meet and lots to look at outside the stores. Greengate's management was in tune with its community: a family-oriented, house-proud working class culture with middle class incomes. This all got expressed in the Christmas season with elaborate decorations that built on traditional images for Christmas.

As the mall replaced Main Street, it certainly raised troublesome issues about the loss of public versus and the ascension of corporately controlled "public" space. But in retrospect, Greengate gave a different kind of life to some elements of community. Those Christmas displays enacted fantasy images more elaborately than any on Main Street, though they didn't replace the nostalgia many had for shopping along snowy streets, of the contrast of cold and darkness to the bright lights and warmth of department stores, or unbundling in a booth near the steamy windows of a coffee shop for hot chocolate. Still, for several generations Greengate provided its own set of experiences, and became the locus of nostalgia for seasons like this one.

In these photos you can see the evidence of large crowds.  To some extent, this went on for much of the Christmas shopping season.  I remember one visit when I ran into several people from various times in my local life, beginning with friends of my grandparents and including high school classmates I hadn't seen in years--one after the other, and then in bunches.  It was as surreal as a dream at times.

In the following excerpt, I write about the manager of Greengate Mall, Harry Overly.  He was already a legend in the mall business, and an extremely good guide to what made malls different and successful.  He was also a local legend. Health problems led to his semi-retirement by the late 1980s, but as the following text indicates, he didn't do Christmas up big only at Greengate Mall.  His elaborate decorations at his home were a traditional stop for Greensburgers, who drove by and dropped some money for charity in the pot held by a Christmas elf.  Over the years these locally famous Christmas displays accrued more than a million dollars in donations for several children's health programs, and eventually attracted national notice. In 1994 Overly created a charitable foundation to dispense the proceeds of the displays, and moved them to the Westmoreland County Fairgrounds, where they are still seen every Christmas season. Overly died in 1998 at the age of sixty-eight.  So in addition to some Greengate memories, this is for Harry.

This excerpt from The Malling of America (chapter 8) includes a few additional details from notes I took at the time about the 1981 season, as reflected in my 2002 paperback edition.

Decorating Greengate  (from The Malling of America)

Greengate was known throughout western Pennsylvania for its elaborate Christmas displays, which saturated the entire mall to create a total Christmas fantasy. Greengate had spent some $50,000 on decorations over the years, resulting in a grab bag of holiday images. The train that children rode in center court, for example, was called the Sugar Plum Express, and there the kids could (according to the sign at its entrance) "learn the true meaning of Christmas from the Wizard of Oz." But this year all the decorations were going to be new, and all tied into one Christmas theme: the story of the Nutcracker.

"This is the first time we've done a completely coordinated theme," said Karen Kozemchak. In her mid-twenties, she was Greengate's director of marketing, advertising and promotion. "We wanted something special this year because we're just finishing a major remodeling of the mall. We have a new floor, new fixtures, everything's been repainted, there are lots of new lights. We want to bring people in to see what we've done. Also we want to create a classier image. Our demographics show there's a more upscale market for us out there now. But we don't want to lose our old market either-the decorations came in with lots of purples and pinks, but we're mixing in red and green. This is a very red-and-green area."

"Don't tell him we spent seventy-seven thousand dollars on them," said Harry Overly, Greengate's sardonic manager.

The Christmas season has become a holiday celebrated, more than anywhere else in America, in the shopping mall. Downtown department stores by and large don't do it up as big as the malls now do, and this is where people come, not only to shop but to experience the season.

Christmas shopping is crucial to the mall's economic success. At least a quarter of annual retail sales and half of the retailers' profits are chalked up in these few weeks. More than a third of what consumers spend during the year is spent for Christmas. The mall environment is expensive to maintain-without a good Christmas, most malls could be in trouble. So they deck the halls of Maplewood Mall in Minnesota with pink angels dangling from the ceiling around huge simulated ice cream cones spinning over the central court; they hang giant green and gold banners at the Sunrise Mall in Massapequa; they come donning and blitzering with the Los Angeles Premier Chorale Strolling Christmas Medieval Feast Ceremony in Costume at Promenade Mall in California. And at Greengate Mall, they produce the Nutcracker.

I remember it was where I first told Santa what I wanted for Christmas,” remembered one of the commenters. “I always loved going to Greengate Mall with my parents. It seemed like the holidays weren't the holidays unless we had our usual trip to the mall to sit on Santa’s lap.”

Harry led the way to the enormous workroom where the actual displays were being built. Working from designs prepared by Walter Schwartz of the Design Group in New York City, men in green work clothes hammered and sawed, while high school girls with bright orange handled scissors in the back pockets of their jeans applied details to dozens of already completed components that would be assembled into a number of large displays. There were colorful wooden castles, cardboard arches, tubular towers and oversized boxes swaddled in shiny gift wrap. It was part Cecil B. De Mille, part junior prom.

"We build all our stuff right here," Overly explained. "We usually just build freestyle, but we're building from blueprints this year because the Rouse Company wants to be able to duplicate this at other malls next year. Other centers around here spend as much as we do or more, but they don't have as much to show."

Harry beamed at all the activity and introduced me to one of the men working on the displays who had the size and some of the appearance of John Wayne. In fact his name turned out to be John. "John's been here about as long as I have," Harry reminisced. "Yeah," John said laconically. "But I'm still poor."

Harry led me to center court where some of the decorations were already going up. The latest addition was the thirty five foot high artificial Christmas tree itself. Harry was going out to inspect it. It was late in the day; the mall was closed and mostly dark, although center court was brightly lit.

Harry looked up and around. "Everything looks great so far," he said to the congregation of management and maintenance staff, and others hired specifically for the Christmas decorating job. "Everything, except for that damn tree."

There was a certain nervous stirring among the assembled, who for the most part pretended to be doing something else. "I hate that tree," Harry said flatly. "Did you ever see a real tree like that? The branches don't stick out like branches."

He as assured that it would look more treelike when the branches were properly fluffed and decorated, but he was apparently unconvinced. The discussion among the inner circle of four or five moved on to other subjects, but Harry kept returning his gaze to the tree, and sour comments about it punctuated every couple of sentences.
Then Harry began to ask questions about a large decorative golden ring, several feet in diameter, suspended from the ceiling over center court. He wanted to know what size screws were holding it and where they were placed into the support beams and ceiling struts. He asked how much the ring weighed and how the weight was distributed.
"I don't want the damn thing to fall," he said. Everyone assured him that it couldn't possibly fall. The support was adequate for a much heavier load, many times what the ring weighed. The weight was evenly distributed. It had been checked and rechecked.

"If it falls, it wouldn't fall straight down," Harry continued, as if no one had spoken. He kept looking at the ring. "It would sway a little. Probably it would hit the train track and derail the train. Or it could hit a train full of kids."

By now everyone in center court was standing still and looking up at the ring. Someone else calculated how the ring would fall. It might hit the tree. Or sway into a storefront. But in fact Overly had already concluded that the ring was more than adequately supported, and with a wave and a final okay-and with everybody else still looking up at the ring-he began to walk back to his office, out of the circle of light in center court and into the semidarkness. "Somebody has to ask these questions," he said with a shrug.

Then in the shadows he stopped and turned back for a final look. "I hate that tree," he said.
“I remember lights in the food court that would change colors (yellow, blue, green, etc) during Christmas as Charlie Brown music would play.” “There was a puppet show that kids would huddle around and watch.”

Stacey Smith
In the management offices, Harry overheard a discussion between Karen and Stacey Smith, the mall's receptionist and Karen's assistant for the Christmas preparations. Stacey explained to Harry what had just happened: a truck she had dispatched from the mall to pick up a load of materials needed for the displays returned full, but with only half the boxes it was sent to fetch. There hadn't been enough room for the rest.

"I asked the guy at the warehouse how much there was," Stacey said, "and he told me that one small truck could carry it all." Now the warehouse was closed and the rest of the boxes wouldn't be available until after the weekend.

"What did I teach you?" Harry said quietly.

"I should have sent a bigger truck anyway?" Stacey said.

"No," Harry said. "What do I always say? Don't take anything for granted. You ask them: How many boxes are there? How big is each box? Is it big enough for a man to fit in it?...You ask questions."

This was another of Harry Overly's functions within the Rouse Company: to groom employees for larger responsibilities in other Rouse malls and for the main office in Columbia. After three or four years of tutelage and raffish abuse-known in the company as "Harry's School of Charm"-they would be ready for bigger jobs. Stacey and Karen were Harry's latest pupils; in fact, in a few months Karen would be moving on.

For now, however, they all had to deal with Harry. But Karen had already managed a modicum of revenge for Harry's mall-treatment. Every Christmas season, Harry Overly's rambling ranch homestead on a rural road near Greensburg becomes a local legend. White Christmas lights outline every inch of it, as well as the fences around the grounds and the Christmas figures (snowman, sleigh) scattered within. On the nights before Christmas, a costumed Santa (usually a Greengate employee) is posted at Harry's gate to give small gifts to children in the many cars that line up to see the decorated house, and to take donations for a local charity. Like townsfolk coming to the lord's castle, carloads of people come to his manor every year.

All of this is well known within the Rouse Company. On this particular evening at Greengate, after Harry had left, Karen was told that he'd made off with another box of the mall's Christmas lights for his house. So Karen told me about the corporate practical joke pulled on Overly at a meeting the previous year in Columbia, to which she had been a willing party.

Karen's part in the joke was to make a short film that her co-conspirators would show at the end of the company's conference on mall energy conservation, after all the statistics and graphs had been presented. Karen's film began with a shot of an extension cord being plugged into an outlet at Greengate mall. Then the cord was followed out of the room, winding down a supply tunnel and into the mall parking lot, then across the highway and down portions of various roads, until finally it snaked down a long driveway and was shown being connected to a string of Christmas lights.

The last shot was of Harry Overly's house, all lit up.
Many recalled riding the train through the snow-covered Christmas village. “I remember the animated deer with the jerky movements that built toys as kids rode through the display.” Another recalled a young adult perspective, of accompanying nieces and nephews, and watching “how big their eyes would be when they first walked into the center courtyard... Nothing made my parents more happy then seeing [the children] laugh as they went round and round on the train.”

"The snow is thinner this year," Karen told the fifty or so people gathered in the mall community room at three o'clock in the morning. "So be careful because once it tears, that's it." The crew-some regular mall part-timers mixed in with community college students majoring in retail and relatives of the mall staff-nodded, put down their soft drinks and coffee, and headed back to center court.

Karen Kozemchak's duties ranged from coordinating market studies and writing radio ads, to counting the number of staples that would be used in a year's promotions. Some malls have two or three people to do what she did. In fact, her immediate predecessor at Greengate had lasted about a month. One morning his resignation was found on his desk and he was never heard from again-he simply disappeared. But for Karen, no time was busier than these few weeks, and these few days in particular. While the decorations were going up, she would be at the mall for forty-eight continuous hours.

After Harry's unfavorable reaction to the tree, Karen began replacing lights and starting the fluffing process, getting up high in the basket of the Snorklelift 40-a big, noisy machine that extends a hydraulic arm upward and side to side from a tractor-like cab on wheels. Then the tree lights were tested in the silent mall, causing the fragments of glittery stuff dangling from the ceiling to spangle shadows across the darkened storefronts.

Then out of the shadows the parade of elves began. Boys in sweatshirts, girls in sweaters and fresh jeans, carried some of the thirty animated figures from the workroom and stacked them against the storefronts. Then they brought out the oversized gift-wrapped boxes-they were large but empty, so each elf could carry several. Those working at center court turned to see this prodigious parade and smiled.

Then a crew of strangers arrived to set up the tracks and kid-sized train. They were a motley crew that usually works for carnivals. "You crazy old man!" one of them would shout at the grizzled individual wearing a beat-up logo cap with bill turned up that said CHRISTY'S BAR BE QUE and an ancient T-shirt that said 4 x 4 FORD "You put the wheels on backwards!"

Karen watched them carefully, nursing a bottle of Squirt. "They're wild men," she said. Yet there was something absurdly evocative about them: large men hammering spikes into tiny ties, like some strange parody of the building of the railroad across the American West.

After the carnival crew disappeared back into the night, the next task was to lay a base of chicken wire over the entire court inside the train tracks. Then a crew of girls began cutting and laying down the Dacron snow carpet, inserting tiny lights underneath to create an effect of snow gently illuminated by moonlight.

This work continued after the 3 A.M. break. A girl gathered a string of tiny bulbs already turned on; she held them like a bouquet of light. Moving carefully through the webs of glass, two women stapled down the snow. Some of the girls walked on the snow carpets in their socks, but Karen and Stacey had come prepared: Stacey with a pair of white moccasins, Karen with brown.

Then the big displays were fitted together, installed, moved around and installed again. By five in the morning, the final elements were being added-the flags of starched felt, the hot-pink dusted Styrofoam balls. A boy threw loose plastic snow around the castle and towers, which were tubes covered with vinyl in shades of azalea and American Beauty rose. A man who has been wiring lights "inside" the Christmas tree, suddenly emerges through the bottom branches. One girl was off by herself, absorbed in arranging the Dacron snow carpet on a hill of wire, bending forward from the waist with her feet flat on the floor. Her work was as delicate and graceful as that supple physical movement, but also careful and deliberate. When she was finished, her particular area could not have looked more like wind-driven snow.

The work continued on through the morning-25,000 yards of ribbon, 150 pounds of diamond dust, 850 pounds of scattered snow, 4,000 sets of miniature lights, and 24,000 feet of snow blanket. Several crews came and went, working diligently, fighting fatigue, getting silly, getting angry, making friends.

The process was familiar to me from my participation in college stage plays: setting the lights, laying the cable and wiring, assembling the sets, moving things around, getting it all to look right, through the hours of labor and fatigue. The burly guys do the lifting, the girls do the work requiring patient attention and care, and the people in charge function as producers and directors, speaking with kindness but always rearranging and re-doing, never settling for less than perfection.

By early afternoon the towers were topped with snow cones, the figures were all in place and animated, and the train was moving smoothly through the displays with its first load of enchanted children aboard. Already customers were exclaiming and taking pictures. Some participants from earlier crews returned to look at the finished product. A television crew from a Pittsburgh station arrived to film the displays for the Greengate Christmas commercial, using the Snorklelift as a makeshift movie crane.
The official tree light-up occurred on the next weekend, followed a week later by the Christmas parade, with the Hempfield High School band and majorettes and color guard marching around the parking lot and through the mall. The parade ended in center court, where the Nutcracker (played in costume by Stacey) and the wooden soldiers cracked open the Nut, out which emerged, who else but Santa Claus.

The pay-off for all the hours of effort, all the quiet artistry and gimmickry, all the money and calculation and enthusiasm and care, was the ballet of cars at the traffic lights leading to the mall. As Christmas came nearer, there were constant lines on the highway, and lines of parents and children at center court to get into the miniature train, lines on the side court to get pictures taken with Santa, lines at the pizza place, and lines to the ladies' room.

It's the Christmas Paradise Parade, the Captivated Shopper's jingle of her ankle cuffs, the finest hour of the Retail Drama, when the customers dance after the Phillipe designer handbags, Pant-Her Coordinates, Bromley opossum-trimmed nylon coats, and misses' White Stag Outerwear, the Oneida flatware and Nikko Ming Tree twenty-piece service dinnerware, the oral water jets, Pastamatic 700, battery tooth polisher kits, energy boots, Crazy Foam, pulsar quartz watches, Fantasy Ultima II makeup kit complete with cell renewal lotion, plush-touch velours, Vanity Fair French Flirts, Swiss Army shirts, Maidenform Delectables, personalized blazer buttons, Izod Lacoste bicycle jackets in navy, kelly or eggplant, blueberry sleepware Jammies Nightshirts in a Jar, Wintuck orlon fisherman sweaters, the Buns Calendar, Ciao garment bags, ceramic pagodas, plus 20 percent off all chemical services at Great Expectations Hair Salon, their Christmas special.

Meanwhile, down the highway at Westmoreland Mall, flamenco Muzak plays as people line up at Orange Julius and at the glass elevator that goes from one floor to the other. One of the Star Wars soundtracks animates teenagers in Camelot Music, as well as their older siblings knotted in spontaneous reunions with dimly recalled high school classmates home for the holidays. The serious shoppers-heartbreaking young women with modified wedge haircuts and perms, their frankly svelte figures in pullover splitneck tops and black polyester-knit flared pants, each dragging three blond kids and a doubleknit sloppo husbands who looks like he's been drinking beer in a Laundromat for twenty years-are spinning through aisles of genuine walnut jewelry boxes with sardonyx Incolay stone tops, Infinity Model Qa speakers with optional pedestals, TV Action News Team dolls, financial planning programs, imitation Christian Dior velours, anti-cling crepeset lounging pajamas, wrap-tie shawl cardigans, electric crock pots, handsome wall dividers, multi-option video games...while old men sit on benches in the non-shade of the non-palm trees.

The sheer numbers are stimulating, exciting, from the rarely filled but now overflowing parking lot to the jammed courts where old acquaintance is renewed amidst the shopping din. All the elements that the mall manages start to click, and the energy takes over-people exciting people in a visual and aural riot of images. Products, colors, light, music and sentiment-they all make for the Retail Drama's big finish.
"It's a madhouse," one customer at Greengate said, not complaining. Another turned from the center court display. "Isn't it something?" she said. "Hurry up," her companion told her. "We've still got two more malls to hit today."