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The Most Important Architectural Development of the Last 100 Years

Alex Planes
March 22, 2013

On this day in economic and financial history...

The first modern shopping mall in the United States opened its doors to the public on Mar. 22, 1954. The Northland Center, as it was known, was first devised in 1948 as a way to capitalize on the great suburban migration taking place after World War II. Designed by Victor Gruen for the Detroit-based J. L. Hudson department store, the Northland Center would be the first of several suburban developments to showcase the Hudson brand amid a number of other retail outlets.

The Northland Center was built between 1952 and 1954 in Southfield, Mich., a nearby suburb of Detroit, and it quickly attracted a lot of attention and consumer money. Its "anchor" Hudson department store alone proved the worth of the new mall model within its first year, as the store's gross revenue was three times the cost of building the Northland Center.

A number of shopping malls opened across the country shortly after Northland, including three sister shopping centers in other inner-ring suburbs of Detroit. They kept getting bigger, as well. Three early malls in Baltimore, northern Virginia, and suburban Minneapolis reached a combined 2 million square feet in available store space, but by the 1960s individual malls were built to this size. Northland itself was an open-air ring of stores around the Hudson department store until it was enclosed in the 1970s, by which point most American malls had adopted the single-building model. Gruen also pioneered the enclosed-mall format, and his developments in this field prompted Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers and The Tipping Point, to proclaim him the most influential architect of the 20th century.

J. L. Hudson would later merge with Dayton's, the department-store owner of Gruen's first enclosed shopping mall in Minneapolis, to form Dayton Hudson. You know it today as Target (NYSE: TGT), one of America's most notable shopping-mall anchor stores. Today, the shopping mall (or shopping center) has become perhaps the most important retail development in the country, and yet few of America's largest corporations are dependent on it for business. In fact, none of the components of the Dow Jones Industrial Average (INDEX: ^DJI) can be considered mall-centric, although both Wal-Mart and Home Depot often serve as mall anchor stores. Instead, the products and services provided by the Dow's megacap companies are often found on the shelves of mall retailers, building or operating mall infrastructure (including their technological infrastructure), or providing the liquidity and financial services that grease the wheels of American consumer culture.

Today, there are roughly 105,000 shopping centers of all sizes spread across the U.S., offering the American consumer more than 7 billion square feet of retail shopping space. The Northland Center, now enclosed and modernized, continues to operate to this day despite the Detroit area's ongoing population exodus. There's still a Target there, but ownership has passed from the modern parent of J. L. Hudson (which sold its Hudson locations to rival Macy's in 2006) to Jones Lang LaSalle (NYSE: JLL), one of the world's largest real-estate management companies with roughly 2.1 billion square feet under management.