One of the Warren Mall fountains. Photo courtesy Warren Mall Fountains Facebook page.

Pieces of the Past: The Mall

October 18, 2023

It’s Victor Gruen’s fault! He designed the first fully enclosed shopping mall in 1956. Gruen was from Minneapolis. Winter shopping there was actually downright dangerous! When I was there in the early 70s, it was not unusual for temperatures to go below zero and stay there for days. Getting shoppers indoors was important.

The Chautauqua Mall was built nearly 10 years before Warren. I remember riding with my dad before the mall was open. His observation of the empty parking lot was: “Man! You could land a plane here!” The Chautauqua Mall made a huge impact on downtown Warren! Despite sales tax on clothing and a higher sales tax to boot, Warren shoppers made a big impact.

Johnstown-based Zamias development brushed aside the objections and started building Warren’s mall in 1979. Original anchor stores like JCPenney, BonTon, and KMart were, in Zamias’ opinion, a can’t-lose combination. In the late 90s, I worked at Radio Shack there. We were one of the busiest small stores in the Radio Shack chain.

What nobody knew was that Gruen’s mall design had one major flaw. The design was built to last a maximum of 20 years! In places like Warren, the weather shortened that life span. Leaking roofs led to weakened walls. The Warren Mall was in rough shape by its 10th anniversary. Zamias was on a preservation mission. With sales sagging, the exodus of its major anchor stores began.

Warren Mall was in the death throes one year short of its 40th anniversary. It had already outlived its actual lifespan. When Victor Gruen himself was in the same condition, he reportedly expressed regrets that his concept killed downtowns all over America.


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