Wednesday, October 8, 2014

When the Palm Beach Mall was King

The Wonderfall!
            Before 1967, we shopped in the little stores along Northlake Avenue or downtown in West Palm Beach. I remember how exciting it was as a child to head to the Burdines store downtown.  Originally opened in West Palm Beach in 1925, the store closed in the 1930s and re-opened in the location I remembered in 1941. Nothing was as fun as going to dine in the Burdines restaurant with my mom.  There were fashion shows where models walked among the tables modeling the newest fashions while we ate meals that could have been served in any four-star restaurant.

            But in 1967, the shopping habits of Palm Beach County residents changed for good. That’s the year the Palm Beach Mall opened on Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard next to I-95.  It was the largest mall in the Southeast United States.  Burdines followed in 1979. The restaurant was moved, too, but it was never the same.

            Palm Beach Mall became the “in” place to shop. We always saw someone we knew as we strolled on terrazzo floors in the air conditioning.  In the very center of the mall was one of the most unusual fountains I have ever seen. Called The Wonderfall, it was made of strands of string. Standing proudly in front of Jordan Marsh between two bridges, the strands ran from the ceiling to a fountain where the strands disappeared.  Drops of water slid down the strands, sparkling in the spotlights. We often chose that spot to sit with a soda just so we could watch in fascination.

            The Mall was still going strong when I was in high school in the late 1970s. It was still the social magnet for the county. Once we had our drivers’ licenses, we found every excuse possible to head there. It was the JCPenney diner that became our favorite place to eat.

Every Christmas season, the Mall was decorated beautifully and Santa sat in splendor. Bleachers were erected on the terrazzo outside the mall entrance to Jordan Marsh where high school choirs from all over the county took turns performing songs of the season. After the North Shore High School choir was finished performing, we raced down to Orange Julius for a slice of pizza and a soda.

            It was in the Mall theaters that we saw Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Saturday Night Fever.

            It was at the JCPenney jewelry counter that my wedding rings were purchased on what truly was one of the most exciting and fun days of my life.

            The last time I was at the Mall was in the late 1990s. No longer lined with an array of fun shops, it seemed a shadow of its former glorious self. Dillards was the first major store to close in 2008. In the years since, stores closed and were replaced, but it just never seemed to regain the panache it had in the early decades. It was 2010 when it was announced that everything but JCPenney, Firestone and George’s Music would close. The Mall would become a ghost town.  

            Now everything has been demolished to make way for the Palm Beach Outlets. The newest experience in outlet shopping opened in February, 2014. I have yet to go, but I will. I expect it to be an odd feeling--much like walking Clematis has been.

            Those of us who grew up thinking heading to the Mall was a big deal have been missing it since the renovations started in 1980.  For us, it was a tragedy when that incredible fountain was removed in 2000.

              I wonder how hard it would be to construct a Wonderfall in my living room?

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