The History of Metrocenter Mall

Mar 5, 2015

Phoenix has long been on the cutting edge of retail, especially when it comes to shopping malls.

The first mall in Phoenix was Park Central Mall, which opened at the corner of Central and Osborn Road in 1957. It wasn't long before the Christown Mall followed in 1961, which was notable for being the first indoor, air-conditioned mall in the state.

Soon, other malls began sprouting up all over the valley:


Maryvale Mall - opened 1960

Tri City Mall, Mesa - opened 1968
Los Arcos Mall - opened 1969


But the grandest of all was Metrocenter Mall, which opened in Phoenix in 1973. The mall was located in the northern part of town, just west of Interstate 17 between Peoria Ave and Dunlap Ave. It's worth noting that in the early '70s, I-17 only went up to about Camp Verde. It didn't connect to Flagstaff until 1976, and even then it was just a two-lane highway between Camp Verde and Flagstaff.


Metrocenter Mall under construction in 1972.
Image Credit: city-data.com

The Early Days
Metrocenter was a record-breaker in many ways. With over 1.4 million square feet of space, it was both the largest mall in Arizona and the first two-story mall in Arizona. A $21 million dollar loan was granted to build the mall - the largest commercial loan in the state's history (up until that time).


Metrocenter Mall in Phoenix, AZ.
Image Credit: barbarastew-art.com

In the 1970s, a typical mall layout had 1 to 3 large department stores called "anchor stores" surrounded by smaller stores and restaurants. Metrocenter was unprecedented for having 5 anchor stores! The original five were Sears, Rhodes Brothers, Diamond's, Goldwater's, and The Broadway.

Architect Robert Fairburn was inspired by Le Corbusier's Palace of Assembly in India.
Image Credit: AZCentral.com
One of the features that made Metrocenter different from other malls was its unique appearance. Architect Robert Fairburn drew inspiration from Le Corbusier's Palace of Assembly in Chandigarh, India. Each entrance to the mall featued a large, upswept wave of concrete that seemed to defy gravity. These entrances fascinated me as a kid - I thought they looked like giant skateboard ramps!

Metrocenter Mall, 1974 magazine photo
Photo by: Marianne Marabella on Pinterest



The Glory Days
Metrocenter was a destination in itself, with an ice skating rink, arcade, and dozens of specialty stores all under one roof. It was a hotspot for families to come and enjoy the day in air-conditioned comfort.

The mall had a very futuristic feel inside, as you can see from these photos. There was a cobblestone brick type of flooring throughout much of the mall. Check out these photos of Metrocenter Mall throughout the years:

Escalator at Metrocenter Mall in Phoenix, 1980
Source: Unknown
 
Stores in Metrocenter Mall, 1980
Source: Unknown

 
Metrocenter's Ice Skating Rink, 1980
Source: Unknown

The famous "airplane bar" above the ice skating rink
Photo by: Marianne Marabella on Pinterest
 
The Metro Ice Palace closed on March 18, 1990.
Photo by: The Arizona Republic
Fountain with Sculpture in front of Rhodes store and King's Row Fireplace Shop
1974 magazine photo
Photo by: Marianne Marabella on Pinterest

Elevator at Metrocenter Mall, Phoenix, 1974 magazine article
Photo by: Marianne Marabella on Pinterest
 
Another fountain in Metrocenter Mall, 1974 magazine photo
Photo source: Marianne Marabella on Pinterest


This amazing shot shows the escalator, lots of planters, as well as the brick texture flooring. Check out Spencer's on the left. Don't forget to look up at that futuristic ceiling! 1974 magazine photo.
Photo by: Marianne Marabella on Pinterest
Lots of plants surround the built-in seating areas outside a store called Wicks 'N' Sticks.
Photo by: Marianne Marabella on Pinterest
What is that sculpture outside of Sears? Giant wooden oars?
Photo by: Marianne Marabella on Pinterest
Goldwaters Department Store was one of the original five anchor stores.
Photo by: Marianne Marabella on Pinterest


Some of my personal memories of the mall are of the fountain, that was on the lower level of the mall. It would shoot jets of water in a pattern - sort of a precursor to the Bellagio Fountain in Las Vegas. There was a Foot Locker store with a giant glass display filled with tennis balls. And I remember "The Alley" which was a small section of the mall that was designed to look like a back alley. It had a store that did airbrushed T-shirts (this was in the 90s, after all). If you have photos of any of these places, please post a comment or get in touch with me! I would love to see them and feature them here.

Golf 'N Stuff (Castles 'N Coasters)
In 1976, the amusement park Golf 'N Stuff (now CastlesN-Coasters) opened in the southeast corner of the mall's parking lot providing 10 acres of rides and miniature golf. It is home to a two-story indoor arcade, four mini-golf courses, as well as many rides and attractions including go-karts and bumper boats. A log flume ride called Splashdown opened in 1991, and the Desert Storm roller coaster opened in 1992. The family fun center has a very unique architectural style, incorporating Moorish Revival with elements of Islamic architecture. It is still open as of 2020, with many new rides and attractions including a zip line and obstacle course.

Golf 'N Stuff (now Castles 'N Coasters) in 1980.
Source: unknown

Cruising Metrocenter
The mall was popular with young people, who would often cruise around the mall in their cars. Metrocenter is encircled by a loop of pavement, enabling drivers to cruise all the way around the entirety of the mall. Friday and Saturday nights were often filled with voices, honking horns, and people shouting and waving at their friends, driving in circles and having fun.
No Cruising sign from Metrocenter Mall.
Photo by: Edward Georgevich. Used with permission.

Western Savings and Loan (1975)
One of the smaller buildings on the perimeter of the mall was Western Savings and Loan, built in 1975. This former bank is easily visible from the Interstate and widely recognized for its unusual architectural shape. It was designed by architect Wenceslao Sarmiento, who also designed the Phoenix Financial Center (sometimes called the Punchcard Building) at Central Ave and Osborn Rd. For many years, it operated as a restaurant called Souper! Salad! that offered soups and a large salad bar. The restaurant has closed permanently as of 2020.

The former Western Savings and Loan is a well-preserved icon of 1970s architecture.
Image Credit: North Phoenix Blog
Metro Park 8 Movie Theater
Not long after the mall opened, a small movie theater opened in 1977. Located on the business loop outside of the mall (10201 N. 28th Drive), it was called Metro Park North 8 and was at one point a United Artists theater. According to a discussion thread at cinematreasures.org, it was believed to have been built as a twin cinema and later expanded to 8 screens.

In the 1990s, local theater chain Harkins opened Harkins Metro Cinemas, which was inside the mall. After the Metro Park North 8 theater closed sometime in the 1990s, it sat abandoned for several years. The building became a magnet for homeless people, and was finally demolished in 2003. The land is still empty today, right next to the Phoenix Public Library's Cholla Branch.

Cholla Library
The Cholla library opened on May 1, 1977 and was re-dedicated July 14, 1990 following a major expansion.

Exterior photo of the Cholla Branch library at 10050 Metro Parkway East. Cholla library was dedicated on May 7, 1977 with Mrs. June Garcia as Manager. The library consisted of 10,000 square feet. This photo is before the library's expansion to 30,000 square feet in May 1990.
Photo by: Phoenix Public Library
An aerial shot of Metrocenter Mall on December 26, 1980.
Photo by: The Arizona Republic


Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989)
Metrocenter Mall made its big-screen debut in the 1989 film Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure starring Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter. Key scenes of the film were shot on location at the mall, as well as other locations in Phoenix. I personally remember sitting in those wire metal chairs at the food court. They were heavy!




The Decline
Sometime in the 1990s, Metrocenter mall began to fall into decline. The ice skating rink was closed in 1986. The mall saw some of its business siphoned off by Arrowhead Mall in Glendale, which opened in 1993. Metrocenter became known as a place of teenagers with sagging pants and a hotspot for petty crimes like vehicle break-ins.

The mall took a major blow when Robinson's-May and Macy's merged in 2006, leaving one of the anchor stores empty. (Macy's would stick around for several more years. The chain announced in January 2015 that the Metrocenter location would close, which it did in early 2016). JC Penney left the mall in 2007, leaving a second anchor store open. The mall changed owners in 2004, in 2010, and again in 2012.
 

A then-and-now shot of Metrocenter Mall in 1979 and 2013.
Image Credit: North Phoenix Blog
In 2004, the new owners spent $32 million dollars to give the mall a facelift. They re-paved the parking lot, added more lighting, and redid the landscaping. Sadly, those famous curved concrete form entrances were "modernized" by the time the redesign was done in 2005.
Metrocenter Mall after the 2004 facelift.
Image Credit: North Phoenix Blog

Metrocenter Today (2015)
Metrocenter Mall may be down, but it's not out. As I mentioned in a previous article, serious efforts are underway to rejuvenate the mall. First, Wal-Mart announced in 2014 a plan to build a store at the south end of the mall, replacing one of the vacant anchor stores. This will provide jobs and will hopefully draw more shoppers to the area.

Another boost to the Metrocenter Mall will be the arrival of the Valley Metro Light Rail, which is already in progress. The line is being extended north from 19th Ave and Bethany Home Road up to Dunlap Ave, with plans to cross the Interstate and create a transportation hub on the mall property.
Dec 2015: Demolishing the old Broadway building to make way for Wal-Mart.
Image credit: North Phoenix Blog.

Looking Ahead
Will these efforts be enough to revive the once-great mall? I think that if the mall and its owners can clean up the mall's tarnished image, it has a great chance at becoming a safe and profitable place that people can enjoy once again.
Wal-Mart: Opening Late 2016.
The Walmart Supercenter held its grand opening on October 11, 2017 according to The Arizona Republic.

June 20, 2020 Update: Closing Permanently after 47 yearsA news story published on June 19, 2020 stated that Metrocenter Mall will be closing for good on June 30, 2020. The mall's owners cite that due to decreased foot traffic from COVID-19, they can "no longer sustain the operation of this large property." I am very sad to hear that after 47 years, the mall will be ceasing operations. It is likely that Wal-Mart, as well as other surrounding retailers, will continue to operate.
https://www.fox10phoenix.com/news/sources-metrocenter-mall-closing-june-30-after-47-years-of-operation

36 comments:

Kim said...

The Walmart development in Metrocenter mall will hasten the trashing of neighborhoods to south of the mall. I have lived in the neighborhood for over 37 years. In its heyday Metrocenter generated an incredible amount of traffic. In the late 70s and early 80s traffic flow along 29th Avenue was unrestricted and the neighborhood was nearly inaccessible from Thanksgiving until after Christmas with shoppers trying to get to Metrocenter on surface streets. Thankfully, the city changed the traffic control at 29th Avenue and Dunlap, requiring north and south bound traffic to turn at Dunlap rather than flow freely north and south. This alleviated a great deal of congestion in my neighborhood. I fear that city leaders will change the traffic flow back to the previous configuration which will be a nightmare for my neighborhood. Black Fridays will mean I and my neighbors will have great difficulty getting in and out of our driveways, let alone trying to go somewhere other than Metrocenter. Destruction/construction has begun on the walmart store and, I fear, further trashing on my neighborhood.

Surface said...

I really appreciate the outward-in approach to development currently happening at metrocenter. The rejuvenation of the outer mall loop and shops and restaurants along Peoria have really changed my outlook on the area. I hope to see continued growth at a once great location.

Unknown said...

Fantastic article. I only began visiting MC as far back as 1991 but I still saw it in it's prime. It was a fantastic venue. Seeing it remodeled to a completely bland interior now with only 1 department store hanging on is painful. Will always remember the better days.

Darla said...

My late father worked on the dirt work of this mall when it was being built. A little side story about the architect and my father. The architect wanted it where you could enter the mall from ground level and be on the 2nd floor. Many said it couldn't be done safely. My father who supervised the dirt work said it could be done. My father finished the dirt work ahead of schedule and made it so the builders could build the center to the architect wishes. Because of this job my father was able to go into business for himself because it gave him a great reputation in his line of work.

Brother Bill said...

Just discovered your wonderful blog and wanted to post one minor correction... Metrocenter was actually featured briefly in Robert Altman's O.C. & Stiggs (1985), beating Bill & Ted to the screen by 4 years (and since O.C. & Stiggs is set in Phoenix and not San Dimas, California, that means Metrocenter was playing "itself" and not pretending to be San Dimas Mall!)

A screen shot from the film is visible at the Hollywood In Arizona Tribute Facebook page.
https://www.facebook.com/hollywoodinarizona/photos/pcb.1809460252637319/1809460129303998/?type=3&theater

Unknown said...

The ice skating rink was there until at least 1987. That was the year I moved there, and it was the first time I went ice skating. It was still a really cool place back then.

Unknown said...

I spent my high school leisure time at the mal. 1973-1976.it was fabulous in its heyday! I went in there the other day, came out crying. It's gone way downhill! So sad!

Unknown said...

I did the early 70s till now I still try to shop their ,if not its a good place for remembering when I was a young teen having the time of my life skating ring ,movies below ground level ,then at one time later their was a small intertainment with rides.and on ground leavel their was farrals where you could buy the biggest jawbreakers,and their came the time when a big jet plane you could walk in to that was a bar . I remember the days when their were thing for the children to do ,when things get taken away the children will find their own excitement and a lot of it is not the good kind

Unknown said...

Remember they use to have Vans Skatepark so much memories there

Unknown said...

I too remember the beautiful mall at its best... late 1970-1992. We lived just a short walk away! I remember my brother and father worked at Pearle Vision. There was not only one Pearle Vision but two! One on the first level at one end and the other on the second floor. Back then each managed a store. Since then, my father passed away in Phoenix and I went through a awful divorce and moved back to Indiana. I always thought I would see it again. But not. Does anyone remember the name of the photography store upstairs?

ISeta1964 said...

I was there the Day Metro Center opened it's Doors . I Worked there in 2006 and 2007 . It was a popular place back then . Now it's a Mall full of memories. With about 80% of its Store's closed down . All the Businesses outside the Mall are The only thing keeping the place open . Inside the Mall is used by people staying out of the heat to do there daily walking .

Blueyez713 said...

Yes!!! No one else seems to remember the skate park there or the glow in the dark mini golf ��

Unknown said...

There was an amazing pretzel shop here (maybe privately owned or franchised ) in the late 90’s. It wasn’t pretzel time or auntie Anne’s. Does anyone remember the name of it?

Brother Bill said...

Hot Sams?

AngM said...

Hot Sams. I would go there at age 6 just to get Hot Sams. ;-)

AngM said...

Hot Sams. I would go there at 6 & remember their pretzels being the best. They got me hooked on the warm cream cheese as a dipping side.

John said...

I played league hockey in Phoenix until 1988 and metro center was one of the leagues rinks

Unknown said...

Can any of you awesome people help me remember the name of this burger restaurant near metrocenter?
Clues : ~1990 ... I remember you'd go in, sit down , look at the menu and order by picking up a telephone handset on the side of your booth. What was this place called?

Unknown said...

I think it was Round The Corner Burger. Used to love it when my Mom would take us there to eat.

Anonymous said...

Hello!
Back in 2001 there was a hotel by the mall with a bar/nightclub. I met John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin there and he signed a cocktail napkin for me. The logo on the napkin is a stylized W. Can anyone help me with the name of this hotel?
Thanks!
CLP

TB said...

I remember going to Farrell's Ice Cream for birthdays. Eating the cndy we bought there while watching the ice skaters below.
We also loved to pitch pennies on the tall geometric sculpture from the top floor to see who could make one stay on a ledge.

Unknown said...

Does anyone else remember the mall having an underground bar when it was first built??? Kinda in the center of the bottom floor were steps that went to it. It didn't last too long as I remember
Just curious

thanks
kk

Metrocenter Mall dies at age 47 said...

I thought the ice skating rink closed in 1990 (not 1986), after the 1989 film Bill and Ted had filmed there.


Metrocenter Mall dies at age 47 - June 30, 2020

Heidi Fischer said...

Does anybody remember that the grand opening of Metro Center Mall in 1973 was delayed by a few days due to a water main break?

anonymous responder said...

Windham?

Ray Foxx said...

Thank you so much for this blog, it's great to read everyone's comments! Does anyone else remember a toy store on the second level during the 80s? It wasn't KB Toys. It was an entirely different store, but for the life of me, I can't remember the name.

Brother Bill said...

The "underground bar": you may be thinking of The Janitor's Closet which was actually at Chris-Town.

Brother Bill said...

Ray Foxx: The toy store you are thinking of was "Toys By Roy"

Unknown said...

It was Cocos sttached to Ruebens

Tracy said...

There was a place called “Headshots” that took glamour photos if that’s what you mean.

Anonymous said...

5/04/2020 9:48 AM The hotel was Hotel Westcourt and the bar/restaurant was called Trumps, no connection to POTUS 45.

Cassandra said...

I used to shop at Lotions & Potions in that little Alley in the mall back in the early 80's. I loved their Apricot lotion! I moved away back in 1986 and haven't been back but am glad to know that Lotions and Potions is still in the valley, making lotions!

Lynn said...

The mall will be missed. Many childhood memories there.

Annie Body said...

I grew up very near to the MetroCenter Mall and Oh the glory days of getting all dolled up to go meet friends for some cruising around the mall or playing video games and air hockey at Castles and Coasters. Wow, what a hookup joint that was for us teenagers of that day. Sad to hear it has been neglected, I will always remember it fondly and thankful for its magic which helped get Me through My teen years relatively unscathed. For if it were not for the Metro Center Mall, that quite literally offered so many different entertainment options, who knows what we teens could have been up to.

I experienced My first kiss there, saw My first Midnight movie there, enjoyed playing Janet for the Rocky Horror Picture Show floor show, and so many other cool memories from as far back as I can remember. What a magical place!!!

Unknown said...

Loved reading thru these comments. I had the joy of also being a Metro mall rat, and eventually working at Millers Outpost, late high school and a little after, before Arrowhead opened. I grew up not far west from Metro, so it was the hub of high school life. Hoping all the other HS Hawks and Colts, Rams, Vikings and Rockets who came of age there, are all doing well ;).

It's name will always make me smile. Thanks for putting this article together. I hope something great becomes of the behemoth commercial space.

Roberto said...

Name of Mexican restaurant between Black Angus & Bennigans 1990’s?

 

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