Kevin Warren's Commentary

Posted January 8, 2006(user submitted)

For those people who are familiar with the Rhode Island retail history, how can we ever forget the ambitious retail mall known as "Davol Square Marketplace"?

Davol Square was a private development by the local 'Marathon Properties' which had an ambitious vision in the late 70's; to have a high-end samll-scale shopping mall developed out of a plot of neglected land compromised of three or four empty factory buildings (the former Davol Rubber Company), with easy access off the main thoroughfares (Rtes. 195 & 95)in a rather decrepit part of town (Fox Point section of Providence). The mall would be high end, and lack the 'big box department stores' as anchors, but would house a number of specialty stores to bring the affluent customers in; stores which were only available to these people if they drove up to Boston. As a matter of fact, this mall was to rival Boston's sucessful "Quincy Marketplace/Faneuil Hall" which was launched inthe mid-70s. The Davol Square project took root, and was supposed to be finished by Thanksgiving Weekend, 1982 to crowds of holiday shoppers. There was much national press covering the project; all eyes were on Davol Square.

The first 'strike' to the project was shortly before the completion date, when many of the big names - including "Crate & Barrell" and "Legal Seafoods Restaurants" - announced they were delaying signing a lease for the project. "Strike Two" was when the mall was delayed in opening, due to an electrician's strike, in which no union members (construction, truck drivers, or UPS delivery men) would cross the line. The strike lasted about two weeks. There was also talk that all four floors of the building would no longer be jsut retail; there would be a mix of office space on the third and fourth floors.

Rushing to get the much anticipated project open for the Holiday season, the mall did finally open a few weeks before Christmas giving itself the 'Strike 3'- with just under a dozen stores ready for business (out of an expected 70 stores, according to the press releases). Holiday shoppers strolled empty halls with thw sounds of jackhammers and drills behind papered storefronts (with "Opening Spring of 1983"), rather than the sounds of Christmas muzak. Still, shoppers milled around the handful of stores that Christmas and marveled at the architectural jewel which the buildings became. (In a rather distinctive format, the architects connected each building to each other with glass ceilings; what was once 'outdoor dark back alleys' between the buildings now became sunny indoor atriums).

By the Spring of 1983, more stores, boutiques, restaurants and smaller eateries were opening one by one. 'The Talbots' and 'Laura Ashley' were the 'big anchors' for the mall, with 'The Talbots' actually buying their building (a samller parcel which was on the property) and having no indoor access to the rest of the mall. 'Laura Ashley' was the only other store to have a seperate entrance from the outside, though they did connect to the mall on the inside also. These two stores were a big 'coup' for the project, and for RI retail, since other shopping malls were dying to get these two high-end stores onto theor properties since the 70s. "Talbots" and "Laura Ashley" never saw the rival malls as a place for them - not 'up-scale' enough.

Other stores included a Hallmark Card shop, as well as Benneton, and smaller RI stores with roots in other affluent communities in the state (Watch Hill, Barrington and Newport)to brig an eclectic up-scale mix to the shopping center. Other boutique shops had roots in the Boston area, as well as Greenwich CT. "Legal Seafoods" and "Crate & Barrell" however, decided against the endeavor once and for all. The "C&B" space was leased to an architecural firm instead (no other store wanted the huge space). "LS" space became a restaurant known as "City Lights" which experimented with 'pretty food' and 'architectural designed foods' before becoming a full-fledged nightclub for the 'Miami Vice' wanna-be's of 30-something-year-old baby boomers.

The mall was bustling for a while (1983-1985) during the booming economic times, with changes in management happening at a rapid pace. The long-term focus of the mall became clouded. As short-term leases came up, rents sky-rocketed forcing many of the fancy boutiques to pack up and move out. By the beginning of 1986, many stores pulled out (many te day after Christams, 1985), as shoppers were now welcomed with papered storefronts. By the summer of 1986, the occupancy rate plummeted as the vacancy rate sky-rocketed. Empty stores were filled with 'offprice' venues and 'junk stores' - anyone who was willing to sign a short-term lease (usually month-to-monthers'). Management tried to spark morale in 1987 by introducing two 'biggies'- Koenig City Restaurant" and "marshmallow's".

"Koenig City Restaurant" was a (supposedly) notable German restaurant straight from Germany, making it's American debut here in Providence. Everything from the restaurant was from Germany - from the tables and chairs, to the glassware - as well as the personnell (chefs, waiters, bartenders) gaining national attention. Within months, th German chefs, waiters, etc. took off and was replaced by Americans - with a notable difference in the food and service.

"Marshmallow's" was a furniture/ktchen store with origins on Cape Cod, which had an infusion of money to expand into larger territories in the mid-80s through joint investors. It was designed to rival "Crate & Barrell" in terms of products and srvices - even boasted as being a step above "C&B" - without competing directly with "C&B" (they stayed out of the Boston area, and decided to cover RI, CT and the Cape, capturing those "C&B" customers). They became a two-level anchor store for the complex.

By 1989, however, "Marshmallows" moved to the more affluent out-door shopping center "Garden City Center" which was finishing construction just ten minutes away from Davol Square; designed to rival Davol Square. ("marshmallows" shuttered most of their store shortly after, however). Other boutiques soon followed, leaving for Garden City or the still-thriving Providence Arcade Mall just down the street from Davol Square, making Davol Square a ghost town. Many other boutiques closed completely, through a myriad of bankruptcies under each individual owner.

By 1991, what was left of the highly anticipated mall (a couple of stores and offices) - including 'Koenig City' - was shuttered completely, and the property was sold to become a mini-convention center for the costume jewelry industry. In the past 15 years, it has changed ownership multiple times as well as uses for the property. Today it houses a health club and nightclub in a small portion of the largely vacant complex.

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