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Mall Maker: Victor Gruen, Architect of an American Dream

Author(s):Hardwick, M. Jeffrey
Reviewer(s):Vitell, Scott J.

Published by EH.Net (April 2004)

M. Jeffrey Hardwick, Mall Maker: Victor Gruen, Architect of an American Dream. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004. 276 pp. Notes and index. (cloth), ISBN 0-8122-3762-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Scott J. Vitell, Department of Marketing, University of Mississippi.

In Mall Maker, the author, an editor at Smithsonian Books, provides an interesting and sometimes compelling narrative of the professional life of the “father” of the American mall, architect Victor Gruen. Gruen, an Austrian by birth, developed the mall concept from his personal vision of an ideal America, a concept that would benefit both the consumer and the retailer. He combined art and architecture along with an uncanny sense of marketing savvy to redefine what it meant to shop in American. Nevertheless, he, himself, did not really enjoy shopping and he even criticized his own architectural creations.

The book essentially starts with Gruen’s escape from Vienna in 1938 after the Nazis invaded Austria. After immigrating to the U.S. soon afterward, he found himself involved in store design, although historically this was not considered to be part of architecture. The depression of the 1930s had, however, forced Gruen, along with other architects, to move away from more traditional architectural pursuits. Success came quickly. Gruen and his partner of about a year, Morris Ketchum, began by designing a couple of boutiques on Fifth Avenue in New York. Thus began a successful career in retail architecture for both men.

During World War II, Gruen, along with his new partner and wife, Elsie Krummeck, moved to California where their primary client was Grayson’s stores of California. Grayson’s was a fairly large chain from that era (over 40 stores in 1945) selling lower-priced women’s clothing. While other retail construction was relatively stagnant, Grayson’s growth, not coincidentally, was phenomenal. Interestingly, many at the time decried the growth of chain stores, arguing that they destroyed local independent retailers.

As the end of the war approached, Gruen became more and more interested in the concept of shopping centers as the ultimate retail achievement. As with his other retail endeavors, Gruen sought to combine the concepts of a retail shopping facility with a social and entertainment center. Nevertheless, the years immediately following the war saw little retail construction. Luck changed, however, for Gruen and Krummeck in 1947 when they “landed” the account for Milliron’s, a large-scale department store. Still, it was not until the early 1950s that Gruen built his first shopping center, Northland’s, in the Detroit area, although by now both his partnership and marriage had dissolved. In Northland’s he made extensive use of fountains, sculptures, benches, beautiful landscaping and outdoor pedestrian malls. The design was influenced in large part by his native Vienna, as well as other European cities, where one can stroll leisurely through a city.

In 1956, he developed Southdale mall in the suburbs outside of Minneapolis for the Dayton’s department store company. This project departed from all previous malls in that it was a completely enclosed mall, a concept that would dominate retailing in America for at least the next twenty years. Gruen filled the common spaces with exotic plants, kiosks and plenty of natural light.

While Gruen was immensely successful on one level with his retail shopping malls, he was dissatisfied on another level. He, as well as many others, began to worry about the future of America’s cities, most particularly the central business districts. Thus, he switched his focus from the suburbs to the downtown, believing that the same principles that were successful in the suburbs could be applied to downtown. Gruen became a leader in what was ultimately known as urban renewal. Although, for political reasons, his first attempt at urban renewal (Fort Worth, Texas) ended in failure, ultimately his ideas were responsible for renewal efforts all across the country.

Gruen continued working on both suburban shopping centers (for private interests) and central business districts (for public interests) until 1968 when he decided to retire and return to his native Vienna. There he seemed to become more and more disillusioned with his own legacy and accomplishments. His final project, the replanning of Tehran, Iran, was an attempt to realize his dreams of completely reshaping an existing urban area. Unfortunately, this was cut short by both the overthrow of the shah and his own failing health.

Hardwick’s text not only brings to life the saga of this dynamic, and sometimes paradoxical, individual, but also provides the reader with a compelling history of the nascent years of the shopping center in American life. The book is further enhanced by the use of numerous photographs of some of Gruen’s major retail innovations. While personally this reviewer would have liked to see more emphasis on the shopping center phenomenon in general, the book is a biography, and the author has, in fact, done an excellent job of recreating the halcyon years of shopping centers. Business historians, particularly those with a retail bent, will find this to be a most readable tome.

Scott J. Vitell is the Phil B. Hardin Professor of Marketing at the University of Mississippi. He received his Ph.D. in Marketing from Texas Tech University. Currently he is the Marketing Section Editor for the Journal of Business Ethics and serves on the editorial review boards of the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science and the Journal of Business Research. His recent publications have appeared in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, the Journal of Retailing, the Journal of Business Ethics, Business Ethics Quarterly, Business Ethics: A European Review, International Business Review and the Journal of Consumer Marketing, among others. He has also published in many national and international conferences.

Subject(s):Business History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII