For the past several years, I’d been hearing about how Laurel Mall had gone drastically downhill. Literally—as parts of the upper level parking decks had famously collapsed.
Admittedly, I hadn’t visited the mall in probably more than a decade, since I began residing in Northern Virginia. But even friends who still live in Laurel would tell me not to waste my time there, as virtually everything we once knew had long-since vanished. Truth be told, there wasn’t much other than Time-Out that I missed significantly. But until I pressed for further information, I didn’t really comprehend just how far gone Laurel Mall actually was.
I read various blog articles about the mall’s current condition; and by “current condition”, I mean the steady and shocking exodus of nearly all retailers that began as long ago as 2001. I learned about multiple failed renovation plans, multiple ownership bankruptcies, and other sordid details. I heard stories about crime and violence at the mall. Even the mall’s own website shut down at some point. Yet, all the while, the structure remained—and remained open. Occasionally driving past on Route 1, Cherry Lane, or through Laurel Shopping Center, you could see the occasional shopper emerging from Burlington Coat Factory; or a car entering the lower level parking area. Signs of retail life, albeit faint.
This past summer, I decided to see just how bad it was for myself. In late July 2011, I drove to Laurel Mall—or what I used to know as Laurel Centre. I would have loved to walk through the skyway between the Shopping Center and (what used to be) J.C. Penney, but I knew that was also long-gone. Driving between the buildings, you can see where it once was.
The upper-level parking areas had all been blocked off.
I parked in the east side lower-level garage, and entered the mall next to what I recall being a Fujifilm 1-hour photo place in the early 1990s. Now, of course, it’s just an empty, shuttered space—much like the rest of the mall’s interior. That day, I found myself eerily alone in what was essentially a vacant Laurel Mall; literally a shell of the vibrant, bustling little shopping center I fondly remember from my youth.
I had been here in 1979, when the mall first opened. The following year, I won a Halloween costume contest right in the center of the mall. (In fact, I was being introduced the very moment that guest judge Congresswoman Gladys Noon Spellman suffered a heart attack and slipped into an 8-year coma just a few feet away).
Now, even in spite of the sealed doors, the darkened windows, and the emptiness, the mall still maintained a familiarity. Scenes such as this from an October 1979 issue of the Baltimore Sun were still palpable.
I walked through the mall that day by myself, trying to recall which empty spaces once held stores that I’d frequented. Somewhere downstairs was Spencers and Kay-Bee Toys; somewhere upstairs was Waldenbooks. Aside from Payless Shoe Source (the only remaining original tenant, to my knowledge), there were only a few generic shops open for business; places that, sadly, would probably be better suited selling their wares on eBay than paying rent at a place like this. Most of these were on the lower level. Amazingly, the entire north upper level (the former J.C. Penney side) was closed completely.
I took a number of photos that day, not knowing if it would be the last time I’d ever see Laurel Mall or not.
A few months went by, and I read that yet another plan to replace the mall had apparently been approved, this time with demolition permits already secured. According to the Mayor’s office, demolition (at least to the parking garages) was actually going to begin by the end of the year, but was delayed until after the holidays per Mayor Craig Moe’s request. According to the official release, within 45 days, (meaning by February 2012, supposedly) Greenberg Gibbons plans to submit to the City its full demolition plans to the Mall; and also will update its plans for the “Laurel Town Center” development project. So, yes—despite earlier talk of “Laurel Commons”, the name of the new mall appears to be Laurel Town Center. Or might I suggest “Centre”, in a nod to the original name. At any rate, they don’t seem to mind the fact that nearly anyone who knows Laurel will forever associate the name “Town Center” with the existing strip mall at the corner of Rt. 197 and Contee Rd., but I digress.
As the end of the year approached, I had an idea. I wanted to visit the empty mall at least one more time—this time with old friends and other like-minded Laurel nostalgia buffs. More than a few people had mentioned being wary of walking through the mall alone, which was part of the reason they hadn’t gone in years. (The other part being the fact that there were no longer any actual stores in the mall). So in December, I posted an event invitation on the Lost Laurel Facebook page, announcing the chance to join a small group of curious ex-mall rats, as we walked through the vacant mall to take photos and reminisce. To make it “official”, I designed a flyer:
At the same time, I’d been trying to contact mall management—to both inquire about the vague demolition schedule and to let them know about the plan to tour and photograph the property before it’s gone for good. I’ve also been curious to find any early mall directories, advertisements, etc., which one would assume any mall management would have archived somewhere. (If you happen to have any, please let me know!)
Unfortunately, the phones weren’t being answered at the main information number. No voicemail, no nothing. A second number I tracked down (for the non-existent “Laurel Commons”, interestingly enough) yielded a voicemail message from a barely intelligible Indian woman, thanking the caller for phoning Laurel Commons (whatever that is) before degenerating into an incomprehensible listing of other numbers. Again, there was no option to leave a message of my own.
I did the next best thing—I called two stores that I knew were still open—Burlington Coat Factory and Payless Shoe Source—to ask if they knew when demolition would start. The clerk at Burlington did not, and ironically suggested that I call mall management. The clerk at Payless also wasn’t aware of the pending schedule, but was able to answer my main question about whether or not the mall would be open and “walkable” on December 31st. She believed that it would be.
So on New Years Eve, I picked up two of my oldest friends in Laurel—the twins, Rodney and Ronald Pressley—and we did something we hadn’t done in years. We drove to the mall.
Within minutes of parking in the lower level garage area, we heard a familiar roar. Thankfully, it wasn’t the upper level collapsing; it was another old friend arriving. Jimmy Smith, driving a custom pickup truck that holds the engine from his old Chevy Camaro—the car in which he used to cruise this very parking lot in the 1980s.
Jimmy also came dressed for the occasion, literally. His black leather motorcycle jacket was purchased at Wilson’s Leather—here in the mall—back in the 80s. He also brought his old mall rat jean jacket, a relic from his high school days.
You may have noticed something in that photo of Jimmy’s Steelers truck—a mall security vehicle in the distance. As you’re probably guessing, it was a harbinger of things to come.
Jimmy, the twins, and I entered the mall together—easily the first time we’d done so in nearly 25 years. At least one of the escalators still worked, and after riding it the way some of us occasionally used to, the realization of what the mall had become slowly began to settle in.
We’d been in the mall for only a matter of minutes, when a lone security guard—sitting in the empty Food Court—politely summoned our small group. Having noticed my camera, he informed us that he’d gotten a call from mall management (the apparently ubiquitous yet unreachable mall management). They were concerned about reports of “people taking photos in the mall”. I introduced myself and explained our reason for visiting and taking the photos, and the guard was sympathetic. He seemed genuinely impressed that we cared enough about the deserted mall to organize a group tour, if you will, and explained that management was mainly concerned about us taking any “structural photos”. He clarified that it would be okay to take a photo of someone—but no photos specifically of the mall structure itself. We both laughed at the irony of this, given that the mall structure was slated for demolition any day now.
While we chatted, I could hear his walkie-talkie reporting a number of other people taking pictures in the mall. It had begun.
Other old friends began filtering in: Kevin Buter, whom I’ve known since kindergarten, arrived sporting a Galaga t-shirt—a tribute to the countless video games we’d played at Time-Out, just around the corner.
Soon, a number of others gathered between the old Time-Out and Hair Cuttery. Some I recognized, others I had never met. But they’d all heard about the “Last Call: Laurel Mall” event, from a variety of sources, and were compelled to visit. Memories were shared about old jobs in the mall, and pinpointing the location of certain long-lost stores proved easier said than done. But just milling about the area, nearly everyone could recall specific sensory details from decades ago—the smell of peanuts roasting at The Peanut Shack, and cookies baking at The Great Cookie; the sounds of Donkey Kong, Asteroids, and countless quarters being changed by Time-Out manager Jeff Perlin.
All said, approximately 40–50 people showed up for the impromptu event, reminiscing and somewhat nervously noting the fact that this many people probably hadn’t assembled in the mall in years—a concern about whether or not the upper level would even support us all. Thankfully, it did.
In the hour or so we spent walking through the mall, the group I was with (most people broke off into smaller groups to tour at their own pace) was approached by security guards two more times. Each time, the concern was again voiced about people photographing the structural aspects of the mall. It was also suggested, albeit not very strongly, that we leave. Again, I asked about speaking to the mysterious mall management personally—as I’d tried to do from the start. Since they weren’t available (still), I explained that I’d do my best to remind the others not to specifically photograph anything that could be construed as “structural detail”. The understanding was that as long as a person was in the photo, we could take it.
There were a couple of “structural details” that I felt compelled to photograph, one way or another. These were remnants of the original Laurel Centre Mall that I once knew—remnants that existed before the mall’s inexplicable makeover in 1991 (when the mall was only 12 years old) that saw the complete removal of the beautiful, polished brown tile floors, wooden handrails, and wooden storefront frames in favor of white formica flooring and blue-painted metal rails. Hiding beside the old J.C. Penney was one of the original benches, and just outside the closed gate of the former Spencer’s Gifts was a row of the original brown floor tiles.
It was also suggested by security that we “buy something” at the mall during our visit. But the inherent problem with the current mall is that there isn’t anything really worth buying there. So some of us did the next best thing—we bought gumballs (which may very well have been from the 1990s) and rode the kiddie rides.
The kiddie rides, coincidentally, were once featured on Laurel Mall’s now defunct website—as an attraction to lure potential shoppers. Is it any real wonder why the mall is about to be torn down?
We walked the length of the mall a couple of times, pausing to reflect at nearly every empty storefront. You’d be amazed at just how many memories can come flooding back in a place like this, especially when you’re surrounded by old friends. I think the most common sentiment, aside from the general sadness of the mall’s fate, was surprise at just how well-kept the place actually is—despite it’s emptiness. Many were expecting a truly derelict mall, full of broken glass and crumbling walls, and that really wasn’t the case. In fact, someone remarked that it almost felt freshly painted. When I’d visited over the summer, the floor had apparently just been waxed as well. Why, I have no idea.
I always enjoyed this mall as a kid and as a teenager. And strangely enough, I enjoyed revisiting it in its final days, both alone and with just a few of the many visitors for whom it will always be a special place. If this really is the end of Laurel Mall as we knew it, hopefully its next life will be one that successfully revitalizes the area that we once called home.
For more photos, check out the full set from Last Call: Laurel Mall on Flickr.