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North Hills Mysteries: Six Northway Oddities

A recent visit to Northway left me scratching my head. Can you help answer these questions?

A new year brings a new series: North Hills Mysteries. Inspired by a December trip to Northway Mall, this will look at some of those things that have been bugging Ross residents (and former yet still in tune residents like myself) for a good while. I’ll keep writing North Hills Flashback, and actually have plenty more historical features from around the North Hills ready to go, but I’m hoping to get something started here as well. It won’t be a regular feature, but could be something I do once a month or so.

Most folks who keep up with this site know me as the guy who wants nothing more than to see Northway Mall  knocked down or at least radically transformed. However, Northway has always intrigued me. Perhaps it’s because dying malls are often more fascinating than real ones, or the fact Northway holds a ton of history within its walls. Whatever the case, a few things popped into my mind over the past few days, especially after posting some photos to the Ross Township Historic Society  group. Here’s hoping some of these mysteries can be debunked!

1. The Woolworth Escalators

From the time the mall opened until January 1991, Woolworth was a major tenant at Northway and was one of only two stores with more than one level (the other, of course, was Horne’s). When Woolworth closed, the entire store was sealed off, opening only if the space was needed for some other event.

Within Woolworth were two escalators and a concrete staircase. These were almost forgotten by most until 1995, when they suddenly reappeared, seemingly outside the old Woolworth walls, once again providing a connection between the upper and lower level on the mall’s north end. The staircase received a makeover, having been tiled in the same dark blue tile used as an accent when the mall was renovated in 1987.

The escalators were definitely replaced. The Schindler plates at either end of the two escalators were not there when the store was Woolworth. In fact, there was a rumor (which I have never had proven one way or another) that one of the old escalators actually had stopped working during the four years it was out of service.

But--did the escalators actually move? Several people claim they are in a different location than they had been. It certainly seems that way, as they were within a store when they were part of Woolworth and are now outside a store. However, there is also plenty of evidence that the only thing, which may have moved, was the actual escalator apparatus in relation to the stairs and/or wall.

The potential evidence against the moving of the escalators:

A. The staircase itself would be difficult if not impossible to reassemble if it were moved. Anyone who saw it as a part of Woolworth will remember its solid concrete construction. It is true the escalators themselves may be a slight distance closer (as in a few inches) to the stairs than before, but the staircase itself is almost certainly the same one used by Woolworth shoppers. The drywall around the escalator, however, was radically redone.

B. Marshall’s actually is shaped differently than Woolworth’s upper level had been. The evidence to back this up went away with the destruction of the upper level, as it could be proven by tile. New tile had been laid right around the angled window of what had been a Dress Barn store. Based on both this and the way the old Thrift Drug entrance/corridor intersected with Marshall’s, retooling was evident. (Thrift is actually part of Marshall’s now).

The potential evidence to support a move:

Maps. There is a 1962 map in the Ross Historical Society Facebook group, which shows the original entrance (modified after Thrift left). I also was able to find a 1996 map of the mall from an archived version of Northway’s website (available through archive.org). Looking at the map, it appears the escalators may have moved slightly at some point, as the 1962 map shows Northway Sports Center taking up the space that looks as though it could pass for the hallway in front of the escalators. However, cartography of malls is often a bit off, especially when looking at older maps and comparing between two extensive renovations.

So--did they move or not? I shopped at Woolworth before it closed and used these escalators almost every time I was there. I have always believed the escalator structure is the original, albeit retooled for what appear to be replacement (or at least refurbished) escalators. However, I know there’s always a chance that my logic may have failed me. Keep in mind these were sealed off for over four years, which is plenty of time to forget precise positioning of mechanical staircases.

I’m interested to see what folks who are familiar with this have to say, especially if they have any sort of evidence (namely photographs and blueprints) to back it up.

2. The Stairway To…

No, I’m not going to complete this with the word Led Zeppelin fans would expect me to. Instead, the destination of this stairwell is something I have wondered about since I first stumbled across it.

There is a service door directly to the left of the old Borders entrance, which usually stayed closed until recently. Inside are a large fan and a concrete staircase. It looks as though it’s some sort of service staircase, but the destination would be unclear, aside from going somewhere within the confines of Marshall’s. I’m guessing this is some sort of holdover from Woolworth, but perhaps it leads elsewhere, maybe even the mall’s roof?

The door happens to be right before the famous “hump” in the lower level. A bit of history--the “hump” was originally a slight incline between Northway Shopping Center (back when it was a strip mall) and the original A&P store, at the time unconnected. Eventually, the mall corridor was built to join the two buildings. The “hump” became part of the lower level and was very noticeable. It can still be seen as a “ramp” to the old Borders entrance but was more pronounced when Herman’s was occupying the space (and took up only the book department of Borders, not the lower section used for music, which was used by other stores and the mall corridor).

Where does the staircase lead? Only someone as familiar with the mall as Rocky Catalfamo, the late legendary mall cop of Northway, would possibly know.

3. More Elevators?

Everyone knows Northway for its glass elevator, which actually gets its own mystery section, but what about the other elevators? No, we’re not talking about the shaft near the entrance to Dick’s, built in 1996, or the wheelchair ramp connecting the atrium and lower level, which it replaced. We’re talking department stores which may or may not have had elevators.

By the time I was shopping at Northway, Horne’s had only its lower level furniture gallery, later Value City, to speak for its former presence as an anchor. The upper level had become Dahlkemper’s and any semblance of the two levels being one had been reduced to the white ceramic brick and blue tile on the outside of the store.

Rumor was there had been an elevator inside the store, supposedly near the back, but I have been unable to get any sort of positive response on whether this existed or not.

Woolworth also apparently had an elevator, yet nobody seems to recall its exact location.

Were there elevators inside Horne’s and Woolworth or are folks getting their childhood memories of vertical transportation devices confused with the famous glass elevator?

4. The Demise of the Birdcage

If you grew up when downtown was the place to be, you probably told at least one person to meet you under the Kaufmann’s clock. However, if your childhood was Northway Mall, chances are you instructed your friends to meet you near the birdcage, and for good reason--it was a landmark and is still fondly remember by anyone who has cognizant memories of the mid-90s or earlier.

The birdcage was unceremoniously removed right around the time the 1995 renovations were completed. No explanation was ever given, although the cage had gone from housing exotic species to common parakeets by the time its final days were upon us.

The question--why? Would Kaufmann’s remove its famous clock and not offer an explanation? Would the Gateway Arch suddenly disappear from St. Louis for no reason (aside from a possible heist by Carmen Sandiego)?

We need a good answer on this one.

5. The True Demolition Factor

Admit it. You shed a few years when you saw the upper level in ruins in early 2007. This was home to the birdcage. Old-timers recall shopping at G.C. Murphy, National Record Mart, and Hughes & Hatcher. Not-quite-as-old-timers recall lunches at Pappan’s, prescriptions from Thrift, and cheap movies at Super Saver Cinemas 8. Those who haven’t been around all that long remember seeing first run movies, buying lottery tickets at Northway Dollar on the upper level (where yours truly bought and cashed his first winning ticket), and checking out books at Northland Library’s temporary location.

Let’s look at the period between 2002 and 2006. At some point within that time frame, mall management decided to convert these spaces to outdoor access stores, utilizing only the eastern half of the corridor and turning the remaining space into parking for both the mall and new outparcels.

To a degree, luck was involved in the bad fortunes of the mall. Family Toy Warehouse, which had occupied a large space on the upper level, had gone bankrupt in 2002. The Federated-May merger of 2005 opened an opportunity for Nordstrom to open at Ross Park Mall due to the closure of the former Horne’s store (which had become a Macy’s by that point; Kaufmann’s was chosen as the “keeper” property to become the new Macy’s since it was much larger). This, in turn, led to a desire to move from Northway, especially for Dick’s (which had wanted to move to a space near the former Media Play at one point) and Old Navy (which ultimately did move to Ross Park). Throw in a bit of a recession in late 2001 and it appears Northway may have simply fallen on hard luck.

However, it was obvious the mall management was setting up for a punt, perhaps prematurely. Northland Library rented the old Family Toy Warehouse while the Cumberland Road building was renovated. While this did bring plenty of shoppers to the mall, no effort to reuse this property was made afterward despite being a fairly good location for several types of stores. Hobby Lobby, for example, would have been a perfect fit, especially with Bill & Walt’s departing for Three Degree Road.

Some of the storefronts did have to be consolidated to meet changing retail demands. In fact, some of the setups were impractical for modern mall stores. I’ve said it for years--a 1962 mall cannot reasonably accommodate modern stores without modification, and once that is done, the stores will become fewer albeit larger with little room to grow due to geographic and construction constraints. Still, the types of stores brought in could have changed this. Why not bring back a venue in the vein of Tiffin Lounge or Louis D’s in one space and a few specialty shops in the others? This would have been possible with the old upper level still intact.

The true punt setup happened when Northway Mall Cinema’s lease was not renewed. Opened as a budget theater in 1988, it was converted to a first-run format in late 2001 and closed in January 2007 despite being nine years newer than its neighbor and sister National Amusements property, Showcase North (now Rave Cinemas). Why kill off a movie theater instead of using it as a cornerstone, perhaps for a mixed-use complex?

My theory has long been this: a way to avoid property taxes. There is little doubt in my mind the taxes on the Northway Mall property were lowered once the old upper level was demolished. To some degree, it makes sense. If you’ve got a bunch of vacant stores, why pay taxes on them if nobody is going to rent them? Still, it destroyed history and the potential for the mall to become a secondary mall (not unlike the Galleria in the South Hills) or a mixed-use center with historical architecture intact in the process.

Was this the real reason? Only a few people probably know for sure, but if anyone can offer insight, it would be valuable.

6. The Sealing of the Elevator

As promised, there is a mystery involving the glass elevator. Lauded by everyone when the mall opened, the elevator was the third of its kind and was easily accessible from the lower level, mezzanine, and upper level.

When the upper level was renovated to include a food court, the old access hallway was sealed off. (This was around where the water fountains near the restrooms are located today). Instead, one had to go through the food court and use a ramp in the back to access the elevator from the second story. To combat this impracticality, the newer elevator was installed as part of the next renovation.

Once the food court was converted to Kid Company, the elevator became nothing more than a way for Kid Company employees to get to work. (Evidently some of them did--I talked to one former worker who apparently had a key, which was required for second floor access after the playground opened). When Kid Company closed, access to the second floor was never restored.

Today, the elevator is only useful to get to the mezzanine. Even with a key, nothing would be accessible from the second floor.

Why seal off this great treasure of Northway, not once, but twice, rendering it almost useless for most shoppers? Surely there was a reason for this, but why couldn’t the food court ramp been built as a second way to access it along with a corridor for the masses?

There you have it--a six-pack of questions for Northway experts. Answers are greatly appreciated! Let’s make solving these mysteries of Northway Mall our first resolution for 2013.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Russ roda January 14, 2013 at 08:57 AM
John, What was your Mom's first name? Winnie? I words there from 81 to 83 or 84.
Jim Aronson July 11, 2013 at 01:06 PM
My Father, Dr, Ed Aronson, a dentist, worked at Northway with his partner, Dr. John Orie, a family doctor, with their offices on the mezzanine level, which also housed other offices for years. Any former patients on here?
Jeff October 28, 2013 at 07:52 PM
does any1 remember the Sega arcade or the place where u could make really really bad short music videos? they were right across from each other by the bird cage.
Nina Lyons October 28, 2013 at 11:26 PM
Yes I went to doc Aronson! My mom worked at Tiffins across the hall from him. I worked at Hornes and we did have elevators for freight! Tom is correct!
Kris Kilner Britt January 30, 2014 at 01:10 PM
John Nash - I worked with your mother for a few years in the late 70's. Please let me know she is. My email is irish245@zoominternet.net

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