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The Power of Pride: The Lost History of Lexington Mall

 

All mall images via abandonedonline.net and Kentucky.com

I have the strangest hobby of wanting to learn more about the most obscure of things. Things that don’t really get much attention historically, or have much relevance in today’s culture, but they often mean something to me.

If you’ve never heard of urban exploration, you should definitely check out some of the footage and photos available online. You probably shouldn’t attempt it yourself due to the potential danger or legal ramifications of doing so, but the concept itself is truly interesting. If you haven’t seen the photographic documentation of what is known affectionately as “modern ruin” from photographer Seph Lawless, you should definitely do so. His photos of snow falling inside of Akron’s Rolling Acres abandoned mall made national headlines. Check his work out here (http://sephlawless.com/).

 

As a kid living on the complete opposite side of town from the Fayette Mall, my family often shopped at the Lexington Mall, which was right off of Richmond Road.

 

The last of retail life in Lexington Mall in the summer of 2003. (Image via abandonedonline.net)

 

Some of my earlier memories are from going to that mall. I remember my family going to the Piccadilly Cafe for dinner after seeing Star Wars in theater. I’m fairly sure there’s a small fortune of Godzilla VHS tapes from the video store in the mall somewhere in storage. I also remember at four years old  shopping in the Rite Aid store at the mall and begging my mom to buy the Star Wars themed bath soap, we left the store to go get something else and returned to find it closed. This was the closest thing I knew to heartbreak at the time.

Before we moved in 2005 the mall had been in decline. The only store that remained was Dillard’s, which seemed to be in a state of closure for the entire last year it was open. One of my favorite things to do when we went to Dillard’s was wander around the closed portion of the mall. All of the stores were gone, the theater closed, and the restaurants empty. It was somewhat fascinating to me as a kid to see everything so empty. A place where so many people used to visit was just hollow and dark.

Silence. (Image via abandonedonline.net)

 

When I came back to Lexington the curiosity bug bit me.

What happened to Lexington Mall? Why did it seem to just be gone so suddenly?

I started my research.

There was no visiting the old grounds, as it had become the new Southland Christian Church. The original structure was totally unrecognizable. Most of the surrounding stores had long left as well.

All I had to work with were photos, press releases, and old Herald Leader stories.

Lexington Mall opened in 1975 with 48 tenants. As a matter of fact, for most of the 80’s the mall was at 100% occupancy, and several stores in the mall led the nation in sales for their respective companies.

At the same point in time the Turfland Mall and Fayette Mall were growing and renovating.

By the early 1990’s the mall seemed dated. It had never been renovated, and still featured many of the quaint features it did in 1975. Fayette Mall completely renovated in 1993 with an entirely new expansion, luring many shoppers to drive across town for a better shopping experience.

The mall management at the time promised renovation and upgrades to all of the tenants and shoppers. Plans were put in place and that’s as far as they went. In 1996 mall management revealed a second attempt at renovation. A couple of long tenured stores in the mall had closed shop citing failed promises and poor sales for the first time in mall history. Mall management revealed a plan to add a second floor to the main concourse of the structure, something that would make Lexington Mall a viable threat to Fayette Mall.

These plans were once again given to all the tenants in the mall, only to have them never materialize. In the summer of 1997, one of the mall anchors, the Sony theater, closed it’s doors and was replaced with Lexington Cinema Grills.

In 1999 Hamburg Pavilion was developed, pulling more customers from the area to it’s entirely new outdoor shopping experience. At this point, the Lexington Mall had not only failed to deliver on design upgrades and renovations or the planned second floor, but it also became a victim of general neglect. Plants seemed overgrown, the parking lot seemed to have never been repaved, and the mall itself just became an unappealing sight.

Between 1996 and 2004 came one of the worst examples of mall management or property management in retail history.

Home Depot, which ironically enough, is the only remaining store on the property from the Lexington Mall era, announced plans to build next to the mall.

Lexington Mall cited a desire to be involved in the building and planning of the Home Depot property, which Home Depot disagreed. This led to a legal dispute that lasted close to an entire decade. Both parties even met before the City Planning Commission that turned ugly. Both parties were told by the council to “grow up.”

Lexington Mall tenants paid close attention to the massive funding going into the dispute that wasn’t going into the renovations to the mall.

Between 1996 and 2000 tenants began to leave the mall in droves. They either left for Hamburg Pavilion or the recently renovated Fayette Mall. Mall management made little to no attempt to deliver on any promises made to the tenants, and the property itself began to see visible decline.

By 2004 when the court decided in the Lexington Mall’s favor, the management had nothing to return to.

The only remaining tenant was Dillard’s, who were held into a long term lease agreement signed years beforehand. In September of 2005 Dillard’s closed to focus on it’s Fayette Mall location and the mall was left empty. It closed due to lack of tenancy, lack of money, and lack of general interest in the mall.

Shortly afterwards the Turfland Mall closed, rendering Fayette Mall as the last standing mall from a period of intense retail competition in Lexington.

Of the things forgotten from this period in Lexington retail is the property itself.

Lexington Mall was constructed on the Ellerslie Estate. Built in 1787, and constructed by the grandfather of Mary Todd Lincoln, it was the oldest brick home in Fayette County, and the second oldest in Kentucky. The 21 room mansion was demolished in 1946 by the water company after they purchased the property. Levi Todd, one of the builders of the home, was also one of the founding fathers of Lexington.

The property is now completely unrecognizable outside of some old restaurants and structures that still surround it. When Southland purchased it they completely rebuilt the mall portion of the structure. It was met with a somewhat mixed reaction after the $8.1 million dollar transaction was completed. Many were just happy that  something was finally being done to the property to repair the eyesore that the mall had begun to be known as, while others felt that it should have been sold to a management firm to rebuild or refurbish the building for a new mall in Lexington.

Today Fayette Mall is what many know as “the mall in Lexington”, but not so long ago there were two others. They play an important role in the history of local business in the city, and serve as a strong example of how not to manage a property for the rest of the world to learn from.

 

 

 

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