Jill Hoffmann Mach's Commentary

Posted July 27, 2009 (user submitted)

The Valley Fair Mall, or the Dirt Mall as my husband and I called it (yes, it is a direct reference to Kevin Smith's Mallrats), was located at the corner of Memorial Drive & Calumet Street on Appleton's far south side. Contruction began in 1953, finally opening on August 11, 1954. It preceeds the Southdale Mall , which other sources cite as the first enclosed mall, by almost two years, but the claim as being the first is still debated. By the style of the decor , it received a face lift sometime in the late '70s, at which point part of the building was removed, but nothing much more than maintenance after that. Archived photos from the opening showed a bright, airy concourse with exposed brick that looked like a glassed in strip mall, with a mid-century modern flair. The center concourse had a large kidney-bean shaped lighting feature on the ceiling, which it retained until its demise. The irony is the original decor probably would have had a certain appeal today, moreso than the unfortunate dark, dingy '70s "update."

The original mall featured one anchor store, a Kambo's Grocery Store. The other original stores, according to my research, were House of Camera & Cards, Badger Paint and Hardware, Donald's, Hamilton Bakery, and Eddie's Self-Serve Liquor. Other early stores included Walgreens, Fanny Farmer, Russell W. Brown Carpets & Draperies, Nobil Shoes, House of Beauty, Alfed Jung Men's Clothiers, Woolworths, 3 Sisters (a restaurant, I think), Ritz Millinery, V.F. Launders & Cleaners, Edith Lewis Tot Shop, Neumode Hosiery Shop, Birchwood Luncheonette, and Arcade Barbers. A second anchor, W.G. Grant, was added in short time, judging by photos. Later this would be incorporated into the mall proper, and a new Kohls was added on the east side of the mall. I think it was a combo grocery/department store when it opened, but I only remember it being a department store, with the turquoise/red arch detailing of the older stores. The stores that stick out in my mind are a local camera shop (their website said they were tenants since 1980), an local ice cream shop, a local nail salon, a a bookstore, and some sort of junior's clothing store. At some point, there was a Dartmouth/Lady Dartmouth store (way too "old" for me to shop in at that age), a homemade craft store, a Braun's (I don't think it made it to the Christopher & Banks changeover), a Ford pharmacy, a staffing service and I think a GNC and a travel agency though I could be mistaken). At various points, there were such national mall staples as a RadioShack, Thom McAn & Hallmark. There was also two restaurants- the Golden Griddle, Pedro's (later Sergio's, reputed to be the first Mexican restaurant in the area)- and an arcarde. Towards the end, there was a local shop called The Fire, which sold pottery, an insurance agency, Pet Supplies Plus and Karate America.

Most importantly, there was a Marcus theatre that was probably a bigger draw than the anchor store Kohl's. Added in the late '70s, it originally had three screens but received an additional three screens in the late '80s. The '70s remodel featured the typical elements of the day- lots of dark wood, color combinations of orange, yellow and green, and carpeting. The ceiling was vaulted with almost full-story windows, and it was faily bright in spite of the heavy dark wood. There were also banners hanging from the ceiling, and I remember wrought iron and wood signs (the names burned in, of course) hanging over the hallways. The central hallway also had planters with tropical plants (real, not fake) that disappeared when the fortunes of the mall declined.

For it's first 30 years, Valley Fair was the only mall in the greater Fox Valley. In 1983, the smaller Northland Mall, a hybrid enclosed/strip mall opened on the north side of Appleton. It was anchored by Shopko, a Wisconsin-based discounter, and a Kohl's (which moved into another vacated W.G. Grant) with the enclosed potion in between and the strip portion fanning out from the Kohls side. On it's own, this mall, which was probably smaller and on the opposite side of town, could have co-existed peacefully with Valley Fair. However, a blow would be dealt to both malls in a short time. In 1984, the super-regional Fox River Mall opened up on the west side of Appleton. It boasted the best location of all the malls with access at not one but two exits off of Hwy 41, which is the main 4+-lane highway in the area. It runs runs from Milwaukee to Green Bay and on north, which means it has great access from the north and south. Valley Fair was a very modest distance from 441, which is the bypass that runs around the southeast side of town, but 41 is the preferred route. Also, Memorial Drive is one of the main north-south arterials through the city, and the main route to Appleton from bordering Menasha or Neenah. In all, the location is not prime, but not horrible either. In fact, early mall promotional materials boasted the distance from small towns as far north as Clintonville. That said, the area is not what is used to be, with aging low-rent aparment complexes flanking it to the east. The more affluent areas toward Greenville in the west and Darboy to the east each brought retail explosions in their wake which further hurt the mall.

The Valley Fair Mall had one advantage over the newer, better located Fox River- it arguably had the best theatre in town. The Fox River Mall had a theatre, but it wasn't as nice of a fac ility as Valley Fair. We called it the "Tin Can Theatre" because it was so inferior, and it was no surprise when it was converted into a Scheels All-Sports in the late 90's. There was another theatre off Northland Avenue on the north side of town (also a Marcus, I think), but it tended to have more adult movies versus family-friendly fare . In the Disney cartoon heydey of the late '80s/early '90s, the Valley Fair Cinema carried ALL of their movies (I went to see every one of them). Marcus had recently expanded the theatre, making it even more competitive.

This investment should have been a boon for the mall, but unfortunately, the mall wasn't able to capitalize on it. At this point, the mall was due for the requisite 10 year decor updates. And since it didn't have a dedicated food court, it would have been a great time to create one to cater to the increased theatre clientele. Also, the mall could have tried to attract businesses that would have been interesting for the moviegoers who came early to buy tickets and had time to kill. At this time, the mall was undergoing a series of management/ownership changes that for whatever reasons left it unable to make changes that would have ensured a brighter future. Then, in the '90s, Kohls pulled out, replacing it with new stores in Darboy to the east and Neenah to the south. This would prove to be a crushing blow to the mall. For a while, the anchor was mostly vacant, occasionally playing host to a flea market. My sister directed a prodution at the local Attic Theater, and they used vacant stores as a rehearsal space, which other groups most likely did also. Then, the Marcus theatre went from a first-run to a second run- when new theatres were built in Darboy & across the highway from Fox River Mall.

In 2002, with its future in jeopardy, YouthFutures purchased the mall. YouthFutures, a nonprofit faith-base group, planned to make the mall into a teen hangout, for teens, run by teens. This was supposedly the first of its kind in the nation. This would have taken the mall back to the community-oriented center that many early mall planners envisioned, so really the mall was getting back to its roots. With the tagline "Mall on a Mission," it oficially opened August 12, 2004, after a soft opening on July 28. At that time, Area 51 Skate Park was added in the old Kohl's, along with a meeting place called Matt's House (the labelscar is still visible on the exterior). The mall had a vacancy of 80% , and many of the few remaining tenants didn't fit with the teen overhaul. Unfortunately, the aging structure was too much upkeep for a non-profit (not to mention a questionable location), and it was sold to a local developer in 2006. With no other plans for the future, the mall was razed in October 2007.

My husband and I made one last trip there when it was announced that the mall would be razed. By that time, a lot of the dated '70s decor had been removed, but it had been replaced by the ubiquitous white drywall of dead retail space. It smelled a little bit funky, and because it was mostly empty, felt very creepy, even though there was a lot of activity by the theatre. Even the mallwalkers were gone by this point. I have not been to the theatre in years- it was changed to second run, it was not taken care of as well as it once was, and it smelled musty, had moldy ceiling tiles, and a very sticky floor. I was not anxious to go back. Hopefully it has improved.

Today, all that is left of the mall is the theatre and the old Kohl's building/Area 51. The Kohl's pylon sign, with the YouthFutures wrap, the main sign, and the theatre marquee sign are all still standing, but in rather poor condition. An Express Convenience gas station went up in part of the former parking lot, which is graveled. Several of the businesses located in the mall (Sergios, the camera shop) relocated to other buildings close by. Maybe someday it will be redeveloped, but with the glut of retail space (as I write this there is a small strip mall on an outlot at Fox River that is completely vacant) that may be a long time coming.


Coming Down: Appleton's Valley Fair Mall

Work begins to raze Valley Fair Mall: Site is on fast track to demolition


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