Friday, July 10, 2009

Can you love a strip mall?

My commutes through St. Louis County are a constant reminder of why I choose to live, shop, play and raise a family in the city. I loath strip malls, especially contemporary ones. I can't think of anything uglier than the unending chain of fast food restaurants and half empty strip malls that dot Manchester, Olive, Clarkson and many of the other main streets heading west out of St. Louis.

However, I might be a hypocrite. I frequent the strip mall at Hampton Village at Hampton and Chippewa in southwest St. Louis. There is a sea of parking, and a hideous McDonalds on the property. But, something seems different and more tolerable at this shopping center. It's less offensive than the oodles of strip malls in the burbs. Am I just being a homer? Do I have my city goggles on?

Why do I go here in the first place? The Schnucks in clean and they play classical music over the speakers. I don't even like classical music, but for some reason it calms me. I like the high ceiling in the produce and deli area. I also like the seafood dept here. The Emperor's Wok is a guilty pleasure. When it's time to get my MSG on at the Americanized Chinese buffet, this is my choice (mmm steamed mussels), and my kids like the ice cream machine. JC Penny's. I like this department store. Ever since Value City closed in Crestwood, this is where I get my office/work clothes. It's got a lot of useful stuff packed into the 2 floors, and they have some great change of season sales. It's way less offensive than going to the typical suburban mall. My dentist is here. The shoe shop is useful, I like me a seafood grinder at Bellacino's, my kids love sitting at "the bar" in the Noodle Co.

But why is this place any different than the strip malls in Generica? Maybe it's the history.

Hampton Village was developed in 1939 and according to the above source is probably one of the oldest in Missouri. It may have been one of the first auto-centric strip malls west of the Mississippi. Original developer Harold Brinkop was a wise man, he saw the writing on the wall when it came to the personal automobile. By the 1940's it housed one of the city's 1st supermarkets with 20 stalls leased to farmers and merchants. By the 1950's the place was so successful, they added the medical building and the JC Penny's. They tried to incorporate the Colonial feel of the neighborhood at the time.

This strip mall has stood the test of time, and the occupancy rate still appears to be very high. So is this strip mall any different than it's more contemporary counterparts in the county? Maybe the fact that it actually has a history, and I can conceptualize this in my sentimental mind when I go to the shopping center, I can justify this as place worth appreciating.

So it begs the question. Where do you stand on modern, auto centric structures when it comes to historical preservation? The San Luis debate that has raged on in the CWE has me questioning my opinions on the merit of this age as it relates to the much older buildings/places in the city. Maybe Hampton Village should be considered for the national registration of historic places. If nothing else, to chronical the history of the automobiles impact on the outer limits of the city. Heck, if a freaking reproduction boat built in 1969 in St. Charles can be listed as a landmark, why not Hampton Village. If this site is considered a landmark, or historic in nature, does that somehow cheapen the overall landmark status? Will the county strip malls follow suit in 30 years?

Will there come a time when future generations fight to "save" the autocentric strip malls of the current day?


  1. I don't loathe individual strip malls, but it is a bit ridiculous when going down stretches of Olive, Page, Watson, Lindbergh etc...and all there ever is a constant stream of strip malls. They are boring, lack any sort of character, and just give the whole area around it a drab, sterile feel.

    Hampton Village is an obvious exception as it is architecturally interesting, it has an actual name that people call it by, and has a definite charm that isn't outweighed by the fact that nearly every store in it is a chain. Plus that stretch of Hampton has so much going on besides more strip malls. Buder library, the Record Exchange, and the numerous cafe's and restaurants that have people sitting outdoors give Hampton a great vibe.

    I think it offers a great rebuttal to the blandness that is obvious in most of the suburbs - even our strip malls are unique ;).

  2. ^man, it's not just me. I feel validated somehow. I like your props for Hampton; it blows away the burbs commercial corridors.

  3. Interesting! I grew up in the shadows of Hampton Village (when the old Schnucks was there) and have many, many, memories of shopping trips in that "strip mall". I even remember the old Walgreen (did it used to be Wolworth's?) and the soda fountain counter! I worked at the old dilapidated Schnucks for a bit as well. My pediatrician was in the medical building. I tipped over our cart of Thanksgiving groceries (on T-day even!) because I swore to my Dad that I could handle the cart going down the hill that was the parking lot. Oh...and many, many, many early morning breakfasts with my Dad at Schnucks Station Restaurant! Ok..sorry for taking up your comment section with my trip down memory just all spilled out. I guess that's why I never considered Hampton Village a strip mall!

    BTW, love your blog! :-)

  4. I'm with you - Hampton Village is totally fine with me, and I can't really explain why. Is it all that different than the strip centers at Chippewa and Kingshighway? Architecturally, it's much more attractive than just about any other strip mall I've seen, so that's a plus. I think the second floor medical offices help make it feel a little more substantial.

    The only other strip center I can think of that I don't hate is Lamp & Lantern at Clayton and Woods Mill out in West County.

  5. I think the absence of Dryvit stucco helps. As does the peculiar pastiche of architectural styles one sees in newer--or newly "renovated"--strip malls. Some kind of neo-colonial, southwest, French provincial, bastardized melange. I look at some of these newer developments and I get the distinct impression that it is no mistake that some of these places look so...placeless. I would guess that the goal is to make them as bland as possible so as to accomodate as many retail establishments as is practicable. In other words, I think most retailers want to be able to move into structures which can be neutral enough to fit their "brand" visually. This is accomplished more readily with faceless strip malls. Put your sign up, and your in. They either do that, or like St. Louis Bread and Starbuck's in Loughborough "Commons", create their own visual mark within the context of the larger development. Blame it on marketing.

  6. ^"bastardized melange" I like that description.

  7. You guys are living on a cloud of imaginative nostalgia. I lived in the neighborhood around Hampton Village and still go there for my dentist. But let's be real it's a stip mall like many other "types" of strip malls. I agree that empty buildings add a bleak tone to the landscape.

    I share the internal disgust you guys have with the expansion of the burbs (cookie cutter existence, loss of habitat, etc...) but I must remind you that the whole section of St. Louis that you guys extoll was a burb in the very time that Hampton Village was created 1939.

    There is much more open space in this area than in older sections of the city. Open space grows as one exits the boundaries of the city. There are also less ordinances in regard to building patterns. The areas in the county were happy to be getting a tax base and so made few restrictions to what the business thought was a good design.

    The history of the suburbanization of the United States is very interesting.

    Mark - You are just subconsciously repudiating your past since you grew up in the surbubanized section of Belleville.

  8. ^you know I love DT Belleville. It's the suburbanization of my old neck of the woods (now parking lots) that I take issue with.

  9. This post reminds me of Atlanta...The other side of my family lives there.

    What is the one thing I can't stand about ATL Suburbs?


    The entire place is crawling with them, its corporate America flooding every corner. St Louis does not even compare to ATL.

    I live downtown and prefer the scenery/real feel of old buildings. You can keep your strip malls...

  10. I second emotion to what samizdat's comment. I agree that stucco could be a great way to preserve any structure for a longer time. Aside from its durability, it is also known to have that elegant finishing look that makes the structure looks new.

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