The Prince and Princess of Wales, Charles and Diana, made their first official visit to the United States with a trip to the nation’s capital in November 1985. The visit predictably threw Washington high society into a state of pandemonium. The future king of England would be presenting the beguiling Princess at three exclusive dinners, including one at the White House, and only a select few would be lucky enough to receive an engraved invitation. “You cannot believe some of the women who are calling … people you wouldn’t think would stoop to call,” confided one official involved in the planning to a reporter with the Washington Post. “I mean, these are upper-crust socialites—with breeding.” Celebrities such as Joan Collins had her people “exerting a lot of pressure” on the planners to cough up a ticket. It was said the royals were fans of “Dynasty.”
But there was one stop on the royal agenda that did not require A-list credentials: a planned 50 minute tour through the Springfield Mall, a large retail center in northern Virginia that was viewed as representative of the typical American shopping mall. The mall visit attracted curiosity as “the most populist” event on the royal American tour, with a walk-about through the department store J.C. Penney as the centerpiece. In preparation, Penney’s unfurled a “Best of Britain” display featuring seven-foot replicas of Buckingham Palace guards, imitation crown jewels, and, to top it all off, a white and beige Rolls Royce Silver Shadow balanced atop four white Wedgwood demitasse tea cups. Several cups were crushed during the initial attempt to position the Rolls. Penney’s purchased 5,000 red, white and blue balloons to distribute in order “to generate excitement.” The mall rolled out a red carpet.
Inside Penney’s, Charles and Diana were presented with an enormous white American quilt embroidered with birds and hearts. “Is it a queen-size or king-size?” quipped the prince. Later they stopped to admire a blue two-piece maternity suit, sparking a round of furious speculation as to whether the princess had a royal bun in the oven. As for the precariously perched Silver Shadow, the couple apparently did not know what to make of it. “How are you going to get that thing off?” asked Charles. An L.A. Times report appeared under the headline, “Rolls-Royce on Teacups Baffles Charles and Diana.” Baffled, yes, but also touched by their visit to a great American mall. Springfield Mall would touch many other lives in the years after the Prince and Princess of Wales departed. During the 1980s and ’90s the mall’s two arcades, Time Out and Time Out II, extracted thousands of quarters from girls and boys testing their skill at games like Arkanoid and Dragon’s Lair.
Teens and tweens in acid-washed jeans circled the mall in animated packs. Flocks of seniors walked the grand mall loop for exercise. Everybody scarfed Arby-Qs and milkshakes in the food court and watched Who Framed Roger Rabbit? At its peak the two million square foot Springfield Mall had two movie theaters, more than 100 shops, a martial arts studio, a merry-go-round, and more. The D.C. Metro opened a subway station across the street.
And then, in the late ’90s, what was once a very cool place to hang out somehow began to lose its mojo. People stopped going to the mall.
Big box stores like Best Buy and Kohl’s had sprouted nearby and redirected car traffic. Competition from other malls in northern Virginia siphoned shoppers. By 2011, the retail occupancy rate at Springfield Mall had plummeted to 60%, leaving many corridors with nothing to show but drywall and desolation. Criminal activity, which had always been a marginal feature of the mall, became a growing concern. In early 2008, a 60 year-old woman was abducted in the parking garage by teens carrying a fake gun and later died when they crashed the getaway car. This past summer, the mall closed for good.
Where do malls go when they die? Is there a mall heaven? If so, it may be getting crowded. As recently as the 1990s new malls were going up across America at a rate of 140 a year, according to one analysis. But in 2006, just one new enclosed mall was built in the entire United States. The decline is such that some are saying our native Mallus Americanis may be on its way to becoming an endangered species—cannibalized by countless big box stores and strip malls spawned in endless concentric circles of sprawl. Online shopping has taken its toll, too; American malls today are seeing near-record vacancy rates. In response, some suburbs, like Springfield, are trying to design the downtowns they never built in the first place. Springfield Mall is now being “renovated” into a town center filled with office complexes, a hotel, and some 2,000 apartments.
But will these new town centers ever achieve the cultural status that the old mall managed to attain? Will Springfield Town Center ever warrant a royal visit? Not bloody likely. The mall is dead. Long live the mall!
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David Merritt Johns grew up in suburban Virginia, scarfing down Arby-Qs and milkshakes in the food court at the Springfield Mall. Today, he’s a doctoral student in Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. He’s also a frequent contributor to Slate.