The 'eternal springtime' of Randhurst Center: suburban retail icon lives again in new book

May 4, 2011

I seldom go to shopping malls. I live six blocks from Evergreen Plaza, but I haven't shopped there since buying diamond pattern sweaters and baggy slacks from Chess King in 1984. I went to Oakbrook Center earlier this year to buy a birthday present for a dear friend, then realized I hadn't been there since I. Magnin--remember them?--was there. That must be 20 years ago.

It wasn't always this way. When I was a kid growing up in the 1970s, a trip to the mall was almost a treat. We'd get in the car and travel far beyond our usual retail haunts like the Community Discount Store at 87th and Greenwood, or Frank's Shoes on 79th Street--and my father's favorite, Starks Warehouse somewhere on Harlem on the Southwest Side--and land in climate-controlled suburban retail utopia, where the stores were endless, the air seemed candy-scented, and the old man could find easy parking for that big black 1970 Buick Electra 225.

I thought about this while reading the new book Randhurst: Suburban Chicago's Grandest Shopping Center, by Greg T. Peerbolte, executive director of the Mount Prospect Historical Society. The slim volume (with a wealth of pictures) tells the story of retail architecture giant Victor Gruen's pioneering shopping anchor of the northwest suburbs. The book talks about Randhurst's history from its Space Age origins on Gruen's drawing board in 1958--its 1962 opening beckoned shoppers with the promise "eternal springtime"---to the mall's 2008 closing and its current rebirth as Randhurst Village, a lifestyle center mall.

Peerbolte manages to capture the nostalgic fun of Randhurst's heyday when chains like Wieboldt's, Montgomery Ward, Baskin,and the Limited occupied space within the Mt. Prospect mall's pinwheel siteplan. He was kind enough to discuss his book with us and share some of his images of Randhurst.

Q: Greg, why was it important to tell this story, especially now? This concept was brought to [my] attention shortly after beginning here at the Mount Prospect Historical Society. One of the first and most consistent items I was asked about by the public was Randhurst. People were so eager to share their memories and to find out if the society had retained any material from the center. Moreover, it was something of an equalizer. Local teenagers were just as passionate about their Randhurst  memories as the residents who witnessed its construction in 1962. It was not only evident to me that this place had stories to tell, but that there people who wanted to hear these stories.

Q: Malls were really magical places in their infancy, weren't they? I can still remember when my Aunt Essie took me and my cousin Derrick to the Dixie Square mall in the early '70s. I couldn’t agree more. “Magical” is probably the best word to describe it. I’ve noticed in speaking with different people throughout researching the book, everyone has really intense, personal memories of “their” malls, myself included, almost to the point of being territorial over them. In the days where large, multi-tenant malls were considered a novelty, the aesthetic integrity of these structures was very important. Randhurst in particular placed a strong emphasis on features that were designed to invoke the sublimity of nature. The inclusion of fountains, plantings, and skylights were a trademark of Randhurst’s fascinating Architect Victor Gruen, who was known as the “Father of the Shopping Mall.” Gruen even commissioned over $100,000 worth of public art for Randhurst, the equivalent of over $700,000 today.

Q: Will malls ever capture this kind of magic again? I certainly hope malls and shopping center developments continue to realize the power of aesthetics and instilling a sense of the magical into shoppers. I can tell you that I recently visited Randhurst Village and was struck by how charming and inviting it was, even under construction. There was certainly a sense of that old magic I remembered as a child. In my opinion, even the concept of the “lifestyle center” itself recognizes the past. In a lot of ways, these new centers hearken back to the shopping trends of the 1950s, before the age of indoor malls. To me, this represents the realization that what is old can always be made new, and that so many aspects of our lives are cyclical. As someone who grew up in the 1990s, I never really knew “downtown”-style shopping, so it is exciting in many ways to see aspects of this trend returning.

Q:What's been the reaction to your book? I’ve shipped books to as far away as Seattle and New Haven. I think this further demonstrates how much Randhurst means to people. The book is certainly meant to be a tribute to Randhurst, but I also did my best to make it a serious, critical work of history. I feel that retail history is something of an emerging category in the field and there has been enough hindsight to examine and analyze places like Randhurst; what they mean to us, what they say about us, and their continued place in our lives. Overall, I sought to make the book approachable to anyone, regardless of a personal connection to Randhurst.

Q: What's a cool Randhurst story you want to make sure people read when they buy the book? I really enjoyed discovering photos of celebrities like Michael Jordan, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Oprah Winfrey, making appearances at Randhurst, just when they were on the verge of becoming the household names we know them as today.  Others visited Randhurst at the peak of their fame: There was a much-photographed campaign visit from Robert F. Kennedy in 1966 to support Senator Paul Douglas, with “Da Mare” Richard [J.] Daley himself making a rare foray to the suburbs. Probably one of my favorite asides in the book is of the hapless Chicago Cougars Hockey Team. One would probably not expect a story about professional hockey championship in a book about a shopping center, but this is the beauty of this subject matter and the fun of researching and writing this book: You just never know what you’re going to find.