Sunday, January 21, 2018

40 years later, it's still all "under one roof"

Forty years ago, before Black Friday was Black Friday, shoppers weren't bracing for midnight openings at outlet malls or setting up tents outside of electronics superstores. Most folks in St. Petersburg had one post-Thanksgiving destination in mind: the new Tyrone Square.

The mall officially opened Oct. 5, 1972, with Miss Florida Suzanne Charles and Lt. Gov. Tom Adams on hand, but only 20 stores were actually up and running. By Thanksgiving, many more of the 109 planned stores were open for business, though parts of the 1-million-square-foot mall were still under construction.

Shoppers flocked there. Customers living within a mile of the mall, the biggest on Florida's west coast, walked to avoid the historic traffic jams.

They crowded among the circles of pay phones, between the purple and chartreuse walls and beneath hundreds of mirrored lights. They weren't there just for shopping, but also to lay eyes on the holiday decorations everyone would be talking about. Never before had so many Christmas trees, wreaths, garlands, lights and holly berries been assembled "under one roof."

Those three words, "under one roof," were used frequently in the more than 100 newspaper articles that appeared in the St. Petersburg Times and Evening Independent after Ohio developer Edward J. DeBartolo announced in early 1971 that he planned to build the mall.

The mall, however, had much more impact on the city than fulfilling shoppers' dreams of seemingly endless variety in one enclosed space. It was the kindling for the blaze of residential and commercial development that swept through the west side of town.

New housing was already steadily going up in the 1960s, but after the mall was built, the Tyrone area was even more in demand. Smaller shopping centers and another new species of retail, the strip mall, popped up regularly in the decade following Tyrone Square's debut.

And with the development came the traffic. A once-sleepy crossroads became a bottleneck. Thousands of dollars in state and county money was spent to widen streets, add turn lanes and install traffic signals.

As the shoppers headed west, retail on the east side suffered. Gateway Mall would become all but deserted except for mall walkers and the seagulls that flocked by the hundreds in the parking lot.

Downtown, as well, would see beloved stores relocate to the Tyrone area or shutter completely. Twenty years after Tyrone Square opened, it would take the reopening of the Renaissance Vinoy Resort & Golf Club to prompt a revival of downtown.

Fashion, Farrah and Farrell's

But didn't St. Petersburg shoppers deserve a multitude of stores where they could shop comfortably without concern for soaring temperatures, rain or parking meters?

Tyrone Square offered department stores, 14 women's wear shops, 10 men's clothiers, 10 shoe stores, three jewelers, a cheese store, a bookstore, a candle store and even two banks all "under one roof." DeBartolo declared Tyrone Square would be "the best shopping mall that has been built to date in the U.S."

"I think everybody in town was excited about the mall opening and the ability to go there and get a variety of things," said Betty Willis, who was a mother of two young children at the time. "Having things all together was a big help. It did make a big difference.

"And it was fun to go there and see how they decorated it up so beautifully at the holidays.''

Commercial real estate broker Lisa Ulrich was in high school when Tyrone Square opened.

"I always went to Spencer Gifts,'' she said recently. "You'd see a lot of people you knew at the mall."

She also remembers the talk at St. Petersburg High about who had been to this store or that.

The anchors were Sears Roebuck, which was already there as a standalone store, Maas Brothers, JCPenney and Robinson's. Another big pull was the theater with six movies showing simultaneously, you guessed it, "under one roof."

When Tyrone Square opened, Fiddler on the Roof had top billing on the marquee. Among the top selling books at B. Dalton Booksellers was Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

The Maas Brothers store offered decor not seen before. The juniors department featured a phone booth and a working juke box. The preteen section, labeled Shindig Corner, also played groovy tunes such as Chicago's Saturday in the Park on its juke box. The men's department had various raised and recessed platforms where it showcased not only classic suits but even "the latest assortment of colorful underwear."

Decor at the rest of Tyrone Square's stores ranged from antique to strictly mod.

Wolf Brothers men's clothier had display cases made of 100-year-old Cuban mahogany while Chess King sold the latest in men's baggies stacked on mirrored shelving.

Other popular shops included Wicks 'N' Sticks. It didn't just sell round candles. They came in hundreds of shapes from spotted mushrooms to the word "love." Spencer Gifts had its black light section with glowing bumper stickers and in 1976 would sell thousands of iconic posters of Farrah Fawcett in her red bathing suit for $3.99 each.

Orange Julius, which remains in Tyrone Square, served up its trademark frothy juice concoction long before anyone had heard of something called a smoothie.

Farrell's Ice Cream Parlour, which offered "fabulous food and fantastic ice cream fountain fantasies," was the place to celebrate birthdays and Little League games. It boasted red-vested waiters in straw hats and a player piano.

Former Times staffer Mary Ann Marger, who has lived in the Tyrone area since 1960, couldn't believe it when she first heard the plans for Tyrone Square to rise up in the middle of an empty field.

"It was the boondocks. They announced 100 stores were coming in and I thought '100 stores? Wow,' " she recalled. "When it opened it was really nice to have an air-conditioned mall with plenty of parking exactly a mile from my house. I measured it."

Her son, David Marger, now a property manager, remembers riding his blue Schwinn 10-speed to the mall.

"My bar mitzvah was in 1975, so I could go to the bank and take out $5 then go spend it in the arcade," he said.

Retail's shifting sands

Some shoppers, including Mary Ann Marger, still patronized their old shopping haunts.

"Downtown was 7 miles away, but gas was 25 cents a gallon so it didn't really matter," she said.

Willis also still visited downtown often where shoppers and store employees knew each other by name. Tyrone Square was so big that it lacked that personal touch.

But over the next decade and a half, more and more shoppers preferred the mall where everything was under one roof.

"For a while they were calling it 'the new downtown,' " said real estate agent Jack Bowman, who sold homes to several of the retail executives at Tyrone Square. "That's because there was nothing going on downtown."

Though the intersection of Second Avenue NE and Beach Drive was once called Fashion Corner because it had so many women's boutiques, downtown steadily lost its draw.

One by one, stores such as Rutland's and Slimers closed. In 1987 when Peltz Shoes moved its downtown store to the Tyrone area, owner Gary Peltz lamented the challenges of urban retail.

"Parking is the main problem," he said at the time. "Do you know I had two customers just yesterday whose husbands drove around and around the block and couldn't find parking spaces? … There's no new retail business coming downtown. Everything is offices, and that doesn't draw people down here."

"When they opened up in Tyrone my business fell down to nothing," 94-year-old Ray Geiger, who owned the A&W drive-in restaurant on Central Avenue, lamented recently. For more than a decade car hops on roller skates stayed busy delivering papa burgers, mama burgers and baby burgers and root beer floats to customers in their cars.

"Then the traffic on Central stopped when everybody started going to the new shopping center," Geiger said. He closed shortly after the mall opened.

Tyrone Square, of course, couldn't stay the newest and best forever. Newer, bigger, better and brighter malls came behind it.

While it now boasts 170 stores, including anchors Sears, Dillard's, JCPenney and Macy's and recently landed the very popular H&M, it's not the first choice for many of the city's shoppers. A lot prefer to drive a little longer for the bargains of Ellenton Premium Outlets or chic ambiance and designer labels of International Plaza.

Even as downtown may be resurrected as a prominent shopping hub with the Shops at St. Pete opening in the former BayWalk in 2014, the center's developers say they see International Plaza as competition. Not Tyrone Square.

But for the combination of convenience and selection, the mall still fits the bill. Though she prefers International Plaza in Tampa, Mary Ann Marger, who lives in the same house a mile away, remains a supportive customer of Tyrone Square.

"Because gas isn't 25 cents a gallon anymore," she said, laughing.

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report.

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