Thirty-five years ago this March 15, Chattanooga’s first all-enclosed shopping center – Northgate Mall – opened.
Because it was the first local mall, Northgate – which was designed by architects Jerry Cooper and Rodger Dodson and built by general contractor Ed Jolley – was welcomed with much fanfare.
Here is how longtime Chattanooga News-Free Press business writer John Vass described the event: “Hundreds of persons gathered in front of the center to observe the grand opening ceremonies and to await the chance to view for the first time the colorfully decorated stores inside.”
On hand for the 9:30 a.m. grand festivities were the Hixson and Soddy-Daisy high school bands, as well as Vice Mayor Pat Rose, County Judge Chester Frost, Miss Chattanooga Debbie Zoulek, Arlen Realty and Development Corp chairman Arthur Cohen and his wife, and local Arlen Shopping Centers officials Jay Solomon, Moses Lebovitz and Charles Lebovitz.
Judge Frost told the crowd, “It will be a blessing and a convenience to so many of our people.”
Young Michael Lebovitz, the grandson of former theater entrepreneur Moses Lebovitz, helped cut the ribbon officially opening the mall.
And inside, in the unlikely event anyone needed any distractions from the stores, noted organ grinder Garland Parnell and his 25-year-old monkey, Sam, entertained.
It was a very exciting day for Chattanooga and would forever change Hixson, which was already being transformed from a rural area to a popular residential suburb.
At the time, JC Penney, which was managed by Glenn Wilson, and Miller Bros. were the only two department stores there. Miller Bros had actually already opened on the north end on March 2. Sears would not build its store on the south end for several more months.
Northgate would also result in other retail changes throughout Chattanooga. Lovemans would open a store at Highland Plaza to replace the department stories that left there for Northgate, while Eastgate, which had been built in the1960s as an outdoor shopping center, would quickly convert its facility into an enclosed retail mall as well.
Hamilton Place Mall, of course, would not come along until 1987.
According to a listing found in the 1972 Chattanooga newspaper on microfilm, here are the stories that were in the mall when it opened: Der Stein restaurant and bar, Men’s Den barber shop, Vanitas beauty shop, Paraphernalia, dentist Dr. C. Michael Phillips, General Shale Products, State Farm agent Gene Sharp, Northgate Shoe Repair, Northgate Cinema (inside the mall), Modern Bridal, Russell’s Tuxedo Rental, Cardan’s Jewelry, Size 5-7-9 Shop, Romay, Lillie Rubin, and Ira Trivers.
Others included Baker’s Shoes, Hardy Shoes, Jarman Shoes, Parklane Hosiery, Mrs. Stover’s Candies, Motherland Maternity, Baskin-Robbins, J. Riggings, Gateway Card Shop, General Nutrition Center, G.C. Murphy Co., Anderson-Little, Frederick’s of Hollywood, Fifth Avenue Cards, Wicks ‘N Sticks, Pelican Pipe, Cheese Villa, and Ace Uniforms.
Also in the mall in 1972 were American Wig Center, Piccadilly Cafeteria, The Hour Glass, Optical Fashion Center, Waldenbooks, Young Age, Helen Gallagher, Mary Lester Fabrics, Swiss Colony, Singer, Pet-A-Rama, Bottom Half, Carousel Snack Bar, Craig’s Shoes, Once Upon a Happy House, Merle Norman, and Hamilton National Bank.
Others were Arts and Craft Center, Cosmopolitan Health Spa, Zales Jewelry, Tie “N Tac Shack, Eckerd’s Drugs, Susie’s Casuals, Butler Shoes, Record Bar, Chess King, Thom McAn, Lerner Shops, Kinney Shoes, Young Men’s Shops, Casual Corner, Pier 1 Imports, Miller Bros., JC Penney, and Kroger (outside the mall).
Of those roughly 70-75 stores, the only ones still there 35 years later, based on the Northgate website, are General Nutrition Center, Zales, Waldenbooks, Piccadilly, JC Penney and Sears (which, as mentioned, opened a little later). And all are apparently at the same locations they were when they opened.
Miller Brothers went through multiple ownership changes and names, and a Belk is now located there.
The mall itself has also changed over the years in its appearance to give it more of a contemporary look, although the department stores appear to have changed minimally on the outside.
Northgate was later taken over by the Lebovitz’ CBL & Associates after they started their own firm. Today, the mall is headed by General Growth Properties of Chicago.
At the time the mall opened, Arlen chairman Mr. Cohen was already a mega-millionaire, despite being in his early 40s. Charles Lebovitz, of course, has gone on to enjoy a little success as well, and Mr. Solomon went on to head the General Services Administration under President Jimmy Carter. The Federal Building was later named after him.
A sixth-grader at Bright School in March 1972, I still vividly remember when Northgate opened. Having been reared in the Valleybrook subdivision, I also recall when Northgate was just a field and when construction was taking place.
The mall opened on a Wednesday – when I was on spring break - and I was not there then. But later that day or the next day, I was talking with neighborhood friend Rick Glenn, who had already been. He was telling me all about it with much excitement.
My mother and I went on that Friday, and I remember being awestruck and mesmerized by all the stores that were just five minutes from my house. Pet-A-Rama was about my favorite store at that time.
As a teen-ager in the 1970s, I bought many an eight-track tape of Elton John, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Neil Young and America at the Record Bar and JC Penney. I also ate regularly at the Eckerd’s soda fountain and at Burger King, which opened a few years later inside the mall near Waldenbooks.
I also remember buying some 1970s-style polyester clothes at places like Anderson-Little or J. Riggings, and some suede Wallabees to wear at Baylor at some of the shoe stores.
When my mother, Mrs. Wayne (Velma) Shearer, wanted me to buy some nice clothes, she would take me to Ira Trivers, or perhaps one of the department stores. Her favorite store to shop for herself was Lillie Rubin.
Perhaps the biggest Northgate constant for me over 35 years has been eating at the Piccadilly, from the days when it was furnished in an English medieval motif to its current farm animal look. The backdrop has changed but the creamy macaroni and cheese has always been the same for me – delicious.
As I grew older and became interested in history and historic preservation, I became much more of a fan of downtown Chattanooga shopping. Unfortunately for me, the downtown department stores started closing about the time I re-embraced them.
And strip shopping centers seem to have become much more popular to construct than malls in recent years. As a result, Northgate now has almost a nostalgic early urban sprawl quality to it.
But it seems to have survived nicely the constantly changing and moving retail scene, even though it is not next to an Interstate highway, as later became a prerequisite for a mall location.
It now has stores with names mostly different from those in 1972, but I have an idea its current stores are not much different from the earlier ones. After all, people have always wanted to look and dress nicely, be entertained and eat good food.
The stores tried to meet those needs in 1972, just as they are in 2007.