150 Years of Department Stores, Retail Booms and Busts, and Revitalization
We’re proud to continue our Then and Now blog series to mark the Chamber’s 150th anniversary and to unearth the roots of our state’s key industries. Here we recount Rhode Island’s history in retail with a focus on malls and department stores past and present:
Downtown Providence is home to America’s oldest mall. Built in 1828, the Arcade evoked awe among New Englanders in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s with its imposing Greek Revival columns, granite walls and skylight that spanned the length of the building, illuminating three floors of shops. With its windows elaborately decorated, the Arcade was the place to shop, eat and socialize during the holidays. Just a couple of blocks away sat downtown’s largest department store, the Outlet Company, built in 1891 and known for having a talking Christmas tree. Over the years, downtown’s other bustling department stores included Peerless, Gladdings, Shepards, Cherry & Webb, Jean’s and more.
“Most Rhode Islanders are aware of the former status of Providence as the major retail destination on the East Coast for decades,” says Christine Francis, a Providence shop owner. “Until suburban shopping malls became the norm, and driving yourself to a parking lot replaced taking public transportation downtown, a visit to downtown Providence was usually a retail treat.” In 1976, the Arcade was designated a National Historic Landmark.
In the meantime, Warwick staked a claim on retail history, too. When Routes 95 and 295 were completed in 1966 and 1968, respectively, they “produced profound changes in the shopping habits of Rhode Islanders,” according to a state history from the State of Rhode Island General Assembly. “The intersection of these superhighways just east of Natick offered an ideal location for … the Midland Mall, the state’s first enclosed, climate-controlled shopping plaza, completed in 1968.”
In 1972, the Warwick Mall also opened. Together, these two malls were home to national chains including Sears and J.C. Penney and Boston-based retailers Filene’s and Jordan Marsh. The opening of these two malls, along with Lincoln Mall in 1975, contributed to the closing of some of Providence’s longstanding retailers—W.T. Grant, City Hall Hardware, J.J. Newberry, Shepards and the Outlet Company—leaving downtown with a number of empty storefronts. In 1986, a fire destroyed the empty Outlet Company building. That plot now serves as the main green for Johnson & Wales University.
After two largely dormant decades for retail in downtown Providence, the Providence Place Mall opened in August 1999. As the largest building in the state, it cost $460 million to construct and represented the (sometimes-controversial) centerpiece of an ambitious downtown revitalization plan.
The Arcade met a fate similar to many other downtown malls and department stores across the U.S.: During the recession in 2008, it closed, landing on the Providence Preservation Society’s 10 Most Endangered Properties list. In 2010, the Pawtuxet River’s historic flooding left the Warwick Mall waterlogged, closing it for five months. A year later the Rhode Island Mall (previously the Midland Mall) also closed.
In 2012, the Arcade underwent a $7 million reinvention into a mixed-use space, incorporating 48 micro-lofts, plus shops and restaurants. Its comeback made national headlines (e.g., “You Can Now Live Inside America’s First Shopping Mall”) and helped inspire the writing of new chapters for other historic buildings in and around Providence. As just one example, the O’Gorman Building on Westminster Street, which long ago housed department stores The Big Store and Dimonds, was converted into residential apartments after 35 years of sitting vacant.
Today, one in four Rhode Islanders work in retail. Though the industry supports nearly 13,000 retail establishments, the state lost 7 percent of its retail jobs over the last decade, as consumers increasingly shop with their computers. The future of retail has been buoyed of late, however, by a series of announcements: The state’s 29 shuttered Benny’s locations were purchased by Carpionato Group, which will turn them into shops and restaurants that will employ 1,000 people versus the 750 that Benny’s employed. Approximately $20 million has been invested in the Providence Place Mall’s renovation, including converting most of the former J.C. Penney into more parking, and the Warwick Mall, which houses 86 tenants, was recently approved for a $75 million refi. The Rhode Island Mall began showing signs of life again in 2015, when Burlington Coat Factory opened there. Today, it’s also home to retailers like Dick’s Sporting Goods, Kohl’s and Wal-Mart.
And across Rhode Island, retailers like Hasbro and CVS Health are making a massive impact. CVS, which is headquartered in Woonsocket and is Rhode Island’s third-largest private-sector employer, announced in December that it would buy Aetna for about $69 billion. There’s also talk that Pawtucket-based Hasbro will buy Mattel, uniting the country’s two largest toymakers under one roof.
For more of our Then and Now blog series, check out our post on Rhode Island’s rich and surprising history in jewelry manufacturing here.