Southdale is an icon

  • Article by: JANET MOORE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 26, 2012 - 6:21 AM

PBS show to highlight Edina landmark in '10 Buildings that Changed America.'

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When this photo was taken in 1956, shoppers were awed by Southdale’s giant interior court, where it was “perpetual spring.”

Photo: File, Star Tribune

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Sure, Southdale Center in Edina was the nation's first enclosed shopping mall. But an architectural gem?

That's how an upcoming PBS documentary called "10 Buildings That Changed America" sees it. The 56-year-old behemoth on France Avenue, currently undergoing a $19 million facelift, was chosen by the program's producers and writers because "it changed the way America shopped," said Geoffrey Baer, host of popular specials on Windy City architecture and history for WTTW, Chicago's public television station.

Baer and the WTTW crew will be shooting footage at Southdale on Wednesday for the program, which is slated to air on PBS affiliates nationwide next year. The 10 buildings were chosen by the show's cast and crew, after consulting with historians and architects nationwide.

Southdale's visionary architect, Victor Gruen, will play a big part of the five-minute segment devoted to the shopping mall, now home to a Cheesecake Factory, Macy's and other stores, including Gap and J Crew.

Gruen, who died in 1980, "was an amazing character, a social visionary," Baer said. "He was an avowed socialist, but here he created the modern shopping mall, which is an icon of capitalism."

Southdale was developed by the Dayton family, the Minneapolis department store merchants, who hired Gruen to design the mall.

The refugee from Nazi-occupied Vienna, Gruen set about creating a new community that could reflect the changing patterns of suburban living, according to the Minnesota Historical Society.

His original plan -- never quite realized -- included a village green, with apartment buildings, schools, medical facilities and a lake. Only the mall -- which was modeled after the shopping arcades of Europe -- was built.

Still, when Southdale opened in 1956 it featured a two-tiered design with department stores Dayton's and Donaldson's anchoring more than 70 speciality stores and a vast center court, complete with a skylight, bronze trees, a small petting zoo and a bird cage featuring exotic birds.

And it was all temperature-controlled, a warm respite during Minnesota's harsh winters.

Southdale served as a template for hundreds of malls across the country and was considered revolutionary in its day.

Southdale spokeswoman Lauren Carpenter was delighted with the news.

"Southdale is important to the history of Edina, the state, and the retail climate as a whole," she said.

"The timing couldn't be better; with our ongoing and upcoming renovations, we're working to make Southdale Center a modern place to shop, dine and be entertained while still maintaining the historic integrity of the building."

Southdale is now owned by Indianapolis-based Simon Property Group, the nation's biggest shopping-mall owner.

Janet Moore • 612-673-7752

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