Penn Square: Oklahoma’s First Modern Shopping Mall
by Lynne Rostochil, photos from the OPUBCO collection at the History Center, Oklahoma Historical Society, Kynda Houara, and Russell Pace, Jr. Ads from The Oklahoman archives.
We’ve had such an interesting conversation on the Okie Mod Squad page on Facebook about Penn Square that I thought I’d put all of that info together with vintage photos I’ve collected of this once unique mall here on the Mod Blog, much like the one-stop shopping experience Penn Square itself has provided since opening in 1960.
As people moved north of long-established neighborhoods ringing downtown Oklahoma City after World War II, developers saw the opportunity to create the newest trend in shopping, a modern mall. Local firm Sorey Hill Sorey was hired to design Penn Square, located at the increasingly busy corner of NW Expressway and Penn, and members of the firm traveled across the U.S. to existing centers to see what worked and what didn’t with mall design. One thing they didn’t like was the uniformity of the existing malls in which all of the shop fronts looked exactly the same, so they decided that Penn Square would contain a variety of storefront styles, from Old English to rustic to modern. The mall also would be comprised of seven separate buildings, each with its own distinctive type and color of brick to break up the monotony of the structures. The indoor-outdoor plan called for six of the buildings to be grouped around a central park-like courtyard with raised planters, plenty of seating, and a stage for live performances. The seventh building, Ward’s Auto Service, would be a stand-alone structure on the southeast corner of the mall property. Here’s a rendering of the Penn Square:
Once the design was approved, work started in 1958 to build the 587,000 sf shopping center. Over 400 people spent 16 months constructing Penn Square, which contained 30,000 cubic yards of concrete, 4.5 million pounds of steel, 1.6 million bricks, 650,000 concrete blocks, and 60,000 sf of glass and measured 10 football fields large. In addition, the 35 acre parking lot provided room for up to 4,500 cars. When it opened in March of 1960, people arrived by the busload to check out Oklahoma’s first modern mall, which contained 46 stores (including anchors Montgomery Ward’s and John A. Brown):
Smaller shops comprised most of the square footage, though, such as Campbell’s Hobby House, the British Import Shoppe, and Paris Shoe Repair:
There was also a Humpty Dumpty at Penn Square. Yes, a grocery store in a mall!
Here are the other shops that occupied space in the new shopping center:
(Notice that the ad has the sign backwards.)
Between the shops and the mall itself, Penn Square employed 1200-1800 people (the higher number during holiday seasons), and saw thousands of shoppers a day stopping by to check out the latest fashions:
The outdoor spaces provided a peaceful respite from all of the retail hubbub going on inside:
The generous outdoor space was used for all kinds of events, such as this early ’60s concert by the First Christian Church choir…:
… this contest for National Record Breaking day in 1976…:
… and an annual arts festival (pictured here in 1973):
Later on, after the mall was enclosed, even jazz great Lionel Hampton played at Penn Square in 1986:
Perhaps the most dramatic outdoor features at Penn Square were the hexagonal canopies that looked like inverted umbrellas and greeted visitors at the west and south entrances. Here they are under construction:
The finished product:
And how perfectly they blended with the mall itself:
And provided shoppers with a beautiful, shaded promenade:
Squadder Kynda (daughter of architect Robert C. Knoblock) kindly shared some photos of a wee little her and her mom, Pat, on one quiet Sunday outing to Penn Square in 1966 or 1967 — as you may recall, malls weren’t open on Sundays, so Kynda and her family had the place all to themselves:
How great are those? I love the one of the bank in the background. Yes, to make the mall a true one-stop shopping experience … and perhaps to encourage lavish shopping sprees … the mall was also home to Penn Square Bank, which was also designed by Sorey Hill Sorey:
A convenient drive-thru was located at the north end of the parking lot:
Over the next decade, Penn Square thrived and became a destination spot for visitors from all over the region. One Oklahoman story from the late ’60s pointed out that the parking lot contained almost as many cars with out-of-state tags as local vehicles. Check out these great aerial shots from the late ’60s and into the ’70s:
By the ’70s, fashion at Penn Square had changed quite a bit:
The first grumblings about completely enclosing Penn Square began soon after Crossroads Mall opened in February 1974. The new mall on the city’s south side was one of the 10 largest in the country when it was constructed and prompted The Oklahoman to crown Crossroads as “the most magnificent enclosed and air-conditioned shopping mall in the Southwest.” All of this publicity must have worried Penn Square’s owners about possible retail and customer defections, so planning began on enclosing and expanding the 15-year-old center. Nothing much happened with the plan, though, until another enclosed center, the $20 million, 1 million sf Quail Springs Mall opened much closer to home on October 23, 1980.
Soon, work was under way at Penn Square. A $3 million renovation completely enclosed the mall and increased Penn Square’s size to 637,000 sf, still far short of the newer malls. The now-enclosed mall lost all of the distinctive features of the original Sorey Hill Sorey design and became the uniformed space that the firm had worked so diligently to get away from. Here’s the new Penn Square shortly before it reopened in November 1981:
And here’s what happened to at least one of those glorious hexagonal canopies:
Squadder Russell Pace found one of the hexagons in the riverbed near NW 10th, and he says it’s still there.
The newly enclosed Penn Square proved as popular as ever. As for Penn Square Bank, well, anyone living in Oklahoma during the bust remembers what happened there. Under the leadership of this guy, B.P. Jennings…
… the bank began making high-risk energy loans that swelled the neighborhood institution’s assets from $56.2 million in 1974 to over $450 million by 1982:
Penn Square sold off many of its risky loans to other institutions, and the entire house of cards came crumbling down on July 5, 1982 when Penn Square collapsed on the heels of the oil glut. Here, bank customers wait in long lines at Penn Square to recover their deposits:
The ripple effect was felt throughout the nation as one institution after another closed its doors. Seemingly overnight, Oklahoma went from boom to bust. But, even with all of the chaos and scandal going on at the bank, the mall itself continued to do well, even when shops advertised over-the-top “Dallas” and “Dynasty” inspired fashions such as this shoulder-padded beauty:
(As much as I love vintage, I will NEVER wear ’80s again. EVER!!)
In 1988, the mall expanded again, adding a second level and a food court for a whopping $100 million! Over the years, Penn Square has continued to grow and evolve, but from what I can tell, only one shop has called the mall home since its opening way back in 1960. Care to guess which one? Give up? Well, it’s Lerner Shops (photo below is of the shop on Main Street, downtown, 1954):
Lerner Shops is now New York and Company, which maintains a large storefront on the second level of the mall:
Today, Penn Square is as popular as ever, even though the building (not six now) gets uglier with each renovation:
So, are there any original elements left at Penn Square? Try as I might, I can’t think of one single thing that harkens back to the mall’s beginnings. Can you?
P.S. Terri pointed out that the photo of the sign was taken from the other side, and being the idiot I am, I guess I completely forgot that signs have two sides. Dumb me!