Remembering the mall in its original iteration

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The DeSoto Square Mall was the place to be in the late 20th century. Pictured is the mall on November 22, 1982.

  • Malls such as DeSoto Square were a central point of daily living. They were more than just shopping spots. They were cultural touchstones that were crucial to growing up, economic mobility, and social interaction.
  • The DeSoto Square Mall was as important to Bradenton as it was, but it eventually failed. DeSoto Square Mall traces the history of American malls from their opening in 1973 to the beginning of the 21st century, when things really started to go downhill.
  • DeSoto Square Mall was built during an era that could be referred to as the great American shopping mall boom.
  • As a teenager in the mid-1980s, Iris Pitnikoss worked at Ritz Camera, the film and photo equipment store in Manatee County’s DeSoto Square Mall. 

    She sold cameras – professional devices like Nikons and Kodaks, as well as smaller models like Fujifilms, which were more for everyday candid snaps. The store even had a machine that processed photo negatives in under an hour.

    “We used to get really busy in there, have a lot of rolls of film to print, and this was one-hour photo,” Pitnikoss said. “I always loved Nikon cameras so it was fun to sell those.” 

    Daryl Solodar, her boyfriend, was always waiting for her at home after she finished work. mallA bouquet of carnations is displayed in hallways. He would drive over an hour from his home in Clearwater just to see her after work. 

    Daryl eventually asked her to marry him. Iris Pitnikoss later became Iris Solodar. Ritz Camera’s manager was the photographer at their wedding. Back then, the whole staff at the store had a passion for taking pictures – including Iris, who went on to a career in sports photography. 

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    Malls like DeSoto Square were a focal part of daily life

    Stories like Solodar’s are typical of people who came of age in the latter half of the 20th century. Malls like DeSoto Square were an important part of daily life. They were more than just shopping spots. They were cultural touchstones that were crucial to growing up, economic mobility, and social interaction.

    You could also go there to purchase things. You can always find the latest in merchandise at stores like Lane Bryant, Waldenbooks, Camelot Music, and Camelot Music at DeSoto Square. fashionEntertainment. It was much more than that.

    The mall had a movie theater, an arcade, places to eat and plenty of space for events like high school proms and science fairs, home decor expos, political discussions and celebrity visits. It was such a community focal point Ronald Reagan held a rally there when he campaigned for president in 1976.

    The DeSoto Square Mall was as important to Bradenton as it was, but it eventually failed. DeSoto Square Mall traces the history of American malls from their opening in 1973 to the beginning of the 21st century, when things really started to go downhill.

    It is officially Closed as a mallOn April 30, 2021

    Previous coverage

    Nancy McCarly and Darlene Whisenaut check out records at Camelot Music at the DeSoto Square Mall.

    Shifting dynamics

    DeSoto Square Mall was built during an era that could be referred to as the great American shopping mall boom. 

    The widespread use of the car and the creation of the interstate highway system that followed the end of World War II resulted in population growth in newly formed suburban areas by mostly white families, Tom Fisher, director and Minnesota Design Chair at the University of Minnesota’s College of Design, said.

    Austrian architect Victor Gruen, who had emigrated to the U.S. during the rise of Nazi Germany, saw that this new suburban population would need shopping closer to where they lived. 

    “In the suburbs, there were a few stores in the middle of seas of parking lots. (Gruen) felt that the suburbs deserved to have a type of pedestrian environment, similar to a downtown,”Fisher said. “He wanted to get people out of their cars and walking, in the same way that he experienced when he was in Europe as a young man.”

    The first mallGruen designed the Southdale Center in Edina (Minnesota) in 1956. Although it was an enclosed, indoor center, it also had touches that alluded to the outdoors, like a bird aviary, a fish pond and a cafe. 

    “He was basically trying to replicate being out on a real street but doing it in an enclosed, air conditioned place,”Fisher said. 

    It was Gruen who came up with the idea of having competing department stores on either end of the shopping center. This was designed to attract more people, give them choices and encourage them to walk down the mall’s hallways and see other, smaller tenants along the way, Fisher said. 

    Gruen’s mall design would go on to be replicated by other architects and developers throughout the next few decades. 

    Over the past 30 years, there has been an immense wave of mallConstruction in suburbia 

    “What happened in many communities is a mall was built in close proximity to the exit of a U.S. highway or an intersection which was newly built or developed, and it was wildly successful,” Mark A. Cohen, director of retail studies at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business, said.

    Cohen said that the rise in specialty stores and chain shops was also a result of malls. They were created to fill in the spaces between anchor stores in malls. 

    “Some of the specialty stores came from downtown, but many of them were newly formed national chains, like The Limited, for example,”He said. 

    It was a result that once-thriving downtown areas started to fall apart. It didn’t happen overnight, though – it happened in stages. mall boom, it occurred slowly and steadily, over the course of about 30 years in the mid-to-late 20th century, Cohen said. Many cities had more than one. mallOn different sides of town, and all were successful. 

    “The local department store saw their business decline, because they were doing business in the mall, or they actually closed their downtown stores. And the mom and pops, or local stores that had typically done business downtown either found a way to move to the mall or they went out of business,” Cohen said. 

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    News of a mall coming to the Bradenton area spread in the early 1970s. In November 1971, an entity called Bradenton Mall Corporation purchased about 100 acres at U.S. 301 and Cortez Road for $1.6 million from 32 various landowners.

    Bradenton officials, including Mayor A.K. Leach is concerned about how the aforementioned could be achieved. mallMerchants located outside of the city’s limits would suffer. Leach explained that merchants have already been through a lot, including a 1926 storm and the Great Depression. “the onslaught of the Mediterranean fruit fly.” 

    “I think they’ll weather this storm, too,”Leach spoke to the Herald-Tribune 1972. 

    But downtown Bradenton began to become less of an urban center and more of a business district. This change was not limited to Bradenton. 

    “It became logical for stores to locate new branches near where people were living, and also which were easily accessible by car,” Steve Kirn, a retired lecturer from the University of Florida, said. “So the fundamental design of the shopping mall, with a cluster of stores in the middle, surrounded by an ocean of parking places, because people now had cars and they could drive there: ‘Woohoo, this is exciting.'” 

    The builder of DeSoto Square Mall was the one who understood how to capitalize on this excitement. 

    DeSoto conquers Bradenton

    His name was Edward J. DeBartolo. He was born in Youngstown, Ohio, in 1909 to an Italian family. According to the New York Times, he worked 15 hours per day during the week, 10-12 on Saturdays, and seven hours on Sundays. 

    In 1972, the year before DeSoto Square opened, the Edward J. DeBartolo Corporation built 4,231,670 square feet of retail shopping center space in the U.S. That same year, the company had an estimated $300 million in assets; projects in the pipeline at the time were expected to bump that total up to $450 million.

    Like any good developer, DeBartolo did his homework. That research gave DeBartolo a particular affinity to Florida. In 1973, he told the New York Times Magazine that the Sunshine State was more than just a place to retire. 

    “Boy, this state is really something,”He told the Times magazine. “It’s jumping right out of its skin. Land prices are high, but I’ve got news for you: They’re going to get a hell of a lot higher. Honest to god, in my opinion, this crazy Florida is in its infancy. You hear me? In its INFANCY.”

    Stan Rutstein, a Manatee County-based commercial realtor with decades of experience within the retail industry, stated that DeBartolo was the type of developer who would tell you what to do instead of asking. 

    “We would go in the conference room with Mr. DeBartolo. He would have in front of him – eight cities, seven cities, where he’s going to build a mall. And you would say, ‘it’s great, we love it, we’ll take this city, that city and this city.’ And he’d say, ‘Oh, no no no, we don’t work that way,'” Rutstein said. “‘Unless you take this, you don’t get that.'” 

    The mallRutstein stated that DeSoto Square wasn’t one of DeBartolo’s most prominent and high-profile properties. It was more like a place where you would have to open a shop if you wanted to be a part of one of his shiner developments. 

    The corporation name indicates that the original name for the shopping center was Bradenton Mall. It was renamed after its founder. “DeSoto Square”Richard Turner, president of the Manatee County Conquistadore group, was the one who suggested that giving the money to the charity should be done. mall a name with historical significance would draw more attention to the area’s annual DeSoto Celebration.

    Building suspense

    As DeSoto Square’s opening approached, the DeBartolo Corporation started to release the names of the retailers that would fill out its state-of-the-art concourses.

    According to a 1972 press release, the company released a 99,946-square foot Sears store on the west side of the property. It also has a full-service cafeteria and a 16-bay automotive service centre measuring 20,000 square feet. 

    J.C. Penney Co. is at the opposite end. The middle anchor spot was visible to customers as they entered the front doors. mallIf there were, there would be Maas Brothers.

    The center point of the mall in front of Maas Brothers, there would be a huge colonnade courtyard with two circular fountains that, “when shut off, will be converted to a stage area for use in fashion shows and other activities,”DeBartolo Corporation stated this in a press release.

    In a story published August 14, a day prior to the mall’s doors opened to the public for the first time, the Bradenton Herald, didn’t hold back the accolades. 

    “Manatee County is proud of its new shopping center – every bit as much as the Edward J. DeBartolo Corporation, its builder, and those who own the businesses which will operate within,”The Herald wrote. “The pride is showing.”

    It was a grand opening

    The DeSoto Square Mall fountains ahead of its grand opening on August 15, 1973.

    Half of the mall’s tenants, including JCPenney, were still under construction on opening day. But that didn’t stop 10,000 people from wanting to be among the first to check out Manatee County’s hottest – and most anticipated – new attraction.

    The mall’s hostesses, who had been training for this day, directed customers to the stores they were looking for. Local law enforcement ensured a steady flow of traffic through the mall’s 2,469 parking spaces, which were filled to capacity all day.

    And greeting visitors at the main entrance, in its six-foot tall, bronze glory, was a 200-pound statue of Hernando de Soto, the Spanish conquistador. The statue, designed by Miami artist Bob Stoetzer, was flanked by six ships, in full sail, hanging from the ceiling above the conquistador’s head to further illustrate his conquest.

    Aug. 15 might have been the mall’s first day, but some tenants, like the DeSoto Square branch of Manatee Federal Savings and Loan, had opened a few days prior. Carolyn Keller, the bank manager at the opening day, said that the bank branch was two stories tall and had a staircase on each side of the ground floor that connected in its middle. 

    Keller, now retired and still living in Manatee County, recalls the excitement. 

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    “All of the stores were getting ready to open and making sure everything was perfect. There were free coffee and cookies and all kinds of things,” Keller said.

    Over the next few months, more and more retailers filled the gaps. mall’s fleet of tenants, Manatee County historical records show. There was Nello’s Men’s Store, which started in Sarasota in the late 1940s as a shoe repair shop. There was the Ranch clothing shop, the World Bazaar, and the mall’s McDonald’s.

    The Montgomery-Roberts departmental store was finally opened to the public in late November. Company president Hurdis Cestnut was there for the ribbon cutting. 

    JCPenney is the last of the mall’s three pre-planned anchors, officially opened in January 1974. The ribbon was cut by John Mitk, the store manager, Stan Putman, vice president, regional manager, Jim McCall, and Miss Florida Ellen Meade. 

    Piccadilly Cafeteria was one of the highlights of DeSoto Square’s early days. The cafeteria concept was very popular during the shopping boom. mall boom, before food courts took over as the norm. 

    A typical Piccadilly cafeteria in the 1970s and 1980s would be about 10,000-square-feet, Rick Fuchs, who was vice president of real estate for the company starting in 1982, said. According to Herald-Tribune archives the DeSoto Square Mall was approximately 11,000 sq.ft.

    Customers would take a tray and walk down the cafeteria line to see the hot food. They could also ask the staff behind the glass if they could have some.

    New traditions

    Piccadilly had more than 1,500 of its own secret recipes, Fuchs said – the cafeterias would have eight to ten hot entrees, up to ten different varieties of salad and tons of dessert options, all at the same time.

    Fuchs stated that this concept really took off in southern states. People used to go to church on Sundays and then eat dinner in the cafeteria. Mother’s Day was their biggest day in sales. 

    “We had chicken entrees, beef entrees, seafood entrees, and everything was cooked from scratch. We had our own recipes that we kept secret, or tried to,”He said. 

    Rutstein owned a Casual Corner store in DeSoto Square that he operated for around a decade. The mallIt was the same as any other mallHe said. It was nothing extraordinary – in fact, the Casual Corner store there did poorly. 

    But it was still a mallBecause malls were the most successful retail models of the time, they attracted major department store tenants. 

    The mall’s fourth anchor, a two-story, 100,000-square-foot Belk-Lindsey department store, opened in 1979, historical records show. An expansion added room for eight new stores totaling 5,534 square feet and two more movie theaters, bumping the mallThe total reached six. There were rumors in 1979 that Burdine’s would join the ranks of the mall’s fifth anchor. 

    The Belk-Lindsey store at the DeSoto Square Mall was the mall's fourth anchor. The store opened in 1979.

    DeSoto Square was much more than just department shops, cafeterias and places to grab quick food. 

    In December 1973, its first holiday season, DeSoto Square hosted a clown showAccording to historical records, this was to commemorate Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus’s 104th anniversary world premiere. In February 1974, the mallHosted an art event showIt features the work of 25 professional artists.

    A petting zoo was established in the following month. mall, and a goat named Charlie pulled kids around in a carriage.

    DeSoto Square was so central to events that in 1977, mall general manager Brian Hennesey took on the role of director of promotions on top of his management duties. 

    “Did you ever really stop to think about the frequency and diversification of the promotional events at DeSoto Square Mall?”The Bradenton Herald inquired on Aug. 18, 1977. “Very few people realize the magnitude of some of these events, and the efforts required to maintain these programs in a timely fashion.” 

    Hennesey stated to the Herald at the time, “The Herald has been informed by the Herald that the mallAn estimated 80 events were coordinated annually by the Merchants Association.

    Some, like boat shows or art exhibits, went without a hitch. But others, like Santa’s arrival in 1976, had to be rearranged. Santa was to parachut into the sky that year. mallTo make his grand entrance for the holiday season, Santa parked in the parking lot. The sky was so overcast, that Santa had to return to the airport. mall with a police car escort. 

    Reagan’s first big visit was in 1976, as part of a campaign swing through Florida. His visit was a big deal, even though the sound system went out near the end of his speech, according to Herald-Tribune archives. 

    Keller, Manatee Federal Savings and Loan branch manager, said that the bank is located inside the mallDuring the candidate’s visit, it was used as a Reagan-team headquarters. She said she exchanged pleasantries with him and found him to be very nice.

    “He autographed a business card for me,”She said. “There was a lot of excitement when things like that happened.” 

    At the mallThe Bradenton Herald, which celebrated its 10th anniversary in October 1983 reflected on its impact. Retail stores were replaced by residential developments and business offices. It is possible to have a mallShopping was made easier by the presence of a wide range of stores located in one central location. And with the vast amount of entertainment options available, the mallIt has become the modern version the old town square. 

    “Ten years ago, DeSoto Square, like thousands of other shopping malls across the nation, sprouted up because it boasted ‘one-stop shopping,’ free parking and shelter from inclement weather,”The Herald wrote. “But malls offered more than just convenience. They provided a common meeting place for communities and offered entertainment such as music, craft shows, car exhibits and consumer product demonstrations.” 

    Food is the key to success 

    Rutstein stated that DeSoto Square was not one DeBartolo’s most prominent properties despite its popularity in Bradenton. 

    “The income levels weren’t there, the size of the community wasn’t there, the anchors were not quite what we would like, but we had no choice,” Rutstein said. “That mall was built because the developer wanted to build the mall. That’s why today, you hear the expression, ‘There are so many A malls, B malls and C malls,’ because most of the those malls were built on what was referred to as tertiary real estate – third-rate locations, and you can’t make lemonade out of lemons.” 

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    The biggest challenge malls faced since their inception came in the mid-1990s, when Amazon.com was invented by Jeff Bezos in Seattle. Amazon started out as an online seller of books, but quickly expanded to things like video games, toys, home improvement items and consumer electronics. 

    “A lot of the senior retail executives – some of whom I worked with and for, village idiots, one and all – sat in their cloistered boardrooms 25 years ago and said, ‘well, this internet thing is a fad. Anybody can sell books and music but nobody will buy anything consequential via the internet,'” Cohen said. 

    Cohen stated that the internet slowly but surely began to take away the market share once held by department stores and shopping malls. And as a result, retailers had to look for ways to make cuts.

    At first, those cuts might have been subtle. Maybe the merchandise at a store would be a little off one week, or the store would seem a little dustier than usual because of cuts to janitorial staff. These things began to add up eventually. 

    “For decades the customer was more or less handcuffed to that location. Now the handcuffs are gone, because the internet had become a portal for an enormous array of customers into anything and everything from anywhere,” Cohen said. 

    DeBartolo died in 1994 at the age of 85. Simon Property Group purchased his company in 1996 for $1.5 Billion. Simon, who was founded in Indianapolis in 1993, was a competitor to DeBartolo. 

    The merger of the parent company didn’t seem too significant on the day-today operations or the shopper aspect of DeSoto Square. There was still a lot of fun to have at the mallIn the 1990s. 

    According to several interviewees, Christmas was always a major event at DeSoto Square. Christmas celebrations in 1993 consisted of bells and drums. Victorian bears ice skated near JCPenney. Anyone who rode the mallDuring a Santa visit to the train, the express train was given a free coloring book by DeSoto Square Bear Cub family. Newspaper historical records were also provided. show. Shoppers can also get their gifts wrapped free of charge by presenting their receipts at the gift wrap booth located near the store. mallThe Learners Store 

    Crowds flood the DeSoto Square Mall on Christmas Eve 1984. The mall would get decked out for Christmas every year.

    In 1994, 15-foot high sandcastle was constructed in the concourse of the mall60 tons of sand.

    Nevertheless, shoppers began to notice something was missing by the mid-1990s. Food courts, where multiple restaurants would operate around a giant cafeteria’s perimeter, were an expected part to the shopping experience. mall experience. One was found at the Gulf Coast Factory Shops in Ellenton, which featured a Chinese restaurant, a soups and sandwiches spot, a Taco Bell outlet, and a Gloria Jean’s Gourmet Coffee. 

    But despite talk about adding a food court in the late 1980s, DeSoto Square didn’t have one.

    The Bradenton Herald reported in July 1996 that the owner would invest $2.7million to build a food court for 388 people and an entrance into the Sears wing. mall. The food court, called Port O’Call, would have a tropical theme with several restaurant slots – including a spot for longstanding tenant McDonalds. 

    In 1997, the food court opened with two spots available – one for McDonalds and another for Charley’s Steakery. Barnie’s Coffee and Tea Company and Bourbon Street Cajun food were the planned tenants. Nature’s Table and Sbarro’s were also considered. Chick-fil A was also considered. Arthur Treacher’s Seafood Grille, located near Dillards, also moved from its previous restaurant. It had been replaced by Belk-Lindsey in 1992 as an anchor. 

    Some existing mallThe centralized eating spot was not a popular choice for restaurants, including Mr. Dunderbak’s Bavarian Pantry located near JCPenney. The mallAlso, there was a branch at the legendary Sarasota ice-cream maker Big Olaf Creamery. 

    Mall in transition

    The business was strong. DeSoto Square was 91% occupied, and the Cobb-owned movie theatre was due for expansion from six screens to eight, according to historical newspaper records. When Port O’Call held its official grand opening in April 1997, Dawn Wells, who played Mary Ann on the television show “Gilligan’s Island,”It was there to decide a “Gilligan’s Island” castaway look-alike contest. 

    Even though it is difficult to believe, mallIt had been open for 25 years. The experience of going there as a kid in Bradenton was very similar to that in 1973. 

    In this photo from the early 1990s, Christmas shoppers at the DeSoto Square Mall enjoy a lunch of hamburgers in the parking lot.

    Dakota Duffina (24 years old) used to go there often between 2003 and 2010, due to the skatepark that was just across the street. Before that, her mom told her about taking her older siblings, who were ten and 13 years older than her, to the mallHalloween is the best time to trick-or treat. Regis Hairstyles in DeSoto Square cut her hair about 11 years ago. 

    “They would have everything decked out for Christmas, and it would be so, so busy in there. That was the time period where they had the carousel in the food court, so that was really cool,”Duffina said. 

    Even during those great days, there were cracks. show. DeSoto Square had more discount and service-oriented shops by 2005. 

    Piccadilly Cafeteria deSoto Square closed in May 2003, a few months short of its 30-year anniversary. 

    This was the beginning for DeSoto Square Mall. It didn’t die quietly, slowly, or subtly. In order to get to where it ended up on April 30, DeSoto Square Mall would have to be pummeled by several other unrelenting retail storms. 

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