Friday, January 26, 2007

Crystal Mall; Waterford, Connecticut

The Crystal Mall opened in 1984 in Waterford, Connecticut, by brand-conscious mall management outfit, Simon Property Group; who around the millennium, began training shoppers to memorize their Simon brand a la Westfield.

Located off Interstate 95, CT Route 85, and just bordering the city of New London serving coastal regions of Connecticut with the changing regional indoor shopping mall trend which was sweeping in after a boom of smaller, indoor malls of the decade before it. In its time of conception, the two-level mall was a bright, new attraction easily trumping a few smaller enclosed malls around the area including the New London Mall, located a short exit away on 95 which has since become a "lifestyle" center, and the further away Norwichtown Mall, nestled in Norwich but plenty far north and holds near flatline status. Even back then, neither could quite compare to the increasing appeal for the regional Crystal Mall; who had no hard competitive edge for many miles.

I wouldn’t say developer Simon is as brand-centric as egomaniacal Westfield Group, who sees its objective to rebrand and disassociate much about older malls they either own or have acquired over the years for the sake of their icon (find me one person content calling a mall "Westfield..."). The two groups are certainly bordered by a fine line in presentation, attempting to revive aged or long-neglected centers and you‘ll see the resemblances at their other malls doning their names at even kiosk and corner. Currently, Simon owns just one property in Connecticut, and it so happens to be Crystal Mall which is also the smallest regional mall by square footage but also one with some distinct qualities in a sea of copycat shopping malls.

The central chandelier at Crystal Mall

While no certain or admitted history is currently available, there’s very little doubt its developers named their mall after the elegant Waterford Crystal name; based in Waterford... Ireland. Seeing its base in Waterford, Connecticut, it was more or less a shoe-in to connect the two and create more than just a name but doubling as a classy shopping center. To further this conclusion exactly, the mall actually features a much scaled down, and quite frankly, eccentrically placed chandelier in the smack central of the mall, where there could’ve easily been a center court designed to better display it. Why exactly does a median-level mall need a chandelier anyway?

Known Anchor History

Filenes; 1984-2006, subdivided into Christmas Tree Shops (Level 1) and Bed, Bath & Beyond (Level 2) to be completed in early 2008

Jordan Marsh; 1984-1996, became Macy’s 1996-presently
JCPenney; 1984-presently
Sears; 1984-presently

One of the more fully-functional Sears includes an Auto Center around the other side.

The Crystal Mall hasn’t done much more in past years to challenge most upper-echelon malls in the state, especially those with the glaze of malls like Westfarms, an iconic Connecticut Taubman Center located in Central Connecticut. Given it's cozy, somewhat isolated position along the coast, it really doesn't have to.

When Crystal Mall opened in 1984, primarily brown-and-gold shades draped the center from top to tiles, like most malls fading out of the darker-centric tones of the 70's. At around the tenth anniversary of the mall's life, it came to realization that a refreshing look would have to dawn through the dark corridors of the aging dungeon look of the center. Brighter trends of the mid-90's were clashing with with primarily outdated brown-atmospheres of yesteryear architecture turning the contrast up many notches to a sterlized, arctic wonderland of white.

At last, Crystal Mall would start to resemble its crystalline persona.
Now, everything’s white as snow as far as the eye can see enough to mistake it for Level-8 in The Legend of Zelda; except for it feeling anything like the dungeon it used to.

This is 2007, and where most malls across the state have updated their look or are planning (like Macerich-owned Danbury Fair Mall), expanded, and grew with the changing trends, Crystal Mall is steeped in insipid mediocrity by design and decor. As far as its basic array of shops (including a retro Radio Shack) and clientele, it probably won’t attract any different a crowd of most median-income malls across the state (or country for that matter), even that of a vastly improved The Shoppes at Buckland Hills, even those who've drastically upclassed its image (and name!) in the past years to compete not only with the changing trends of shoppers but also with rapid developments (like the outdoor mall; The Shops at Evergreen Walk) all around it.

An original Connecticut Filene's, with a truly distinct, geometrical skylight-facade, now vacant.

Simon is certainly capable to revitalizing aging centers; Florida Mall, built in 1986, is their quintessential portfolio. Those who’ve seen the Florida Mall turn a 180 in the early 2000s to its present look can see what’s over the horizon at a [Crystal] mall centered around its decade-old reworking.

Now a Crystal Mall wouldn’t be crystal enough without the theme intact it took a good ten years to get right. A roof-lined of skylights all along the middle keeps the center now from feeling dank; which also allow the mall to live up to a "crystalline", luminous sheen beyond its years, especially on those sunnier where the light casts down onto the center creating less of a indoor experience (especially in the Winter months). Despite this, and it's white-era, there's some aspects that hearken back to the mall's origins apart some aging white tiles like wood-trimmed railings and even some groovy sloped bars below them.

Yet, among the whited-out decor of the mid-1990's remodel, the mall is given a volumous appeal while holding close to an earlier era especially within most of its anchor stores; especially the rock face facade around the Filene's, the [scarred] brown-brick around the former Jordan Marsh, and the mirrored walls around JCPenney. While they've addressed most of the mall's aging looks, there are certainly those elements which hearken back but also give the mall it's character and origins not decimated by the banes of today's cheap, safer, less-experimental facades.

If not for the colors of the interior, Crystal Mall might’ve just been inspiration for Danbury Fair Mall with the spiked tent-like skylights, warehouse-style ceilings, and a somewhat airy interior helped along by it's brighter sheen, and is an eerily alternate link to the past with a darker-shaded Pheasant Lane Mall in Nashua, New Hampshire (sans the step-downs), also owned by Simon.

A touch of neon lighting "Food Court" sign added sometime during the remodel and a mirror-facade JCPenney which hasn't changed since!

Compensating for its size, the mall follows a two-level standard and just a few things that make it a unique mall, certainly also a memorable one. Lately, the tenant set hasn't matched the vitality of a once booming center that appears to now seek steady improvement.

Crystal Mall once featured a few Boston-based department clothiers Filenes and Jordan Marsh -- not featured in any other mall at the time, which helped make the mall a more distinct shopping experience in '84, apart Westfarms.

This is the only Connecticut shopping mall to have featured an originally built Filene’s department store anchor, which were otherwise added later in the state when the G. Fox namesake became phased out as part of the 1993 Filene’s name enclosure. Unfortunately, the original husk was vacant up until late 2007 until a couple unusual-for-mall tenants Christmas Tree Shops and Bed, Bath & Beyond announced a subdivision, to be completed in 2008.

Filene's, which once bogged the mall with it's outtatime look and unfortunate vacancy stay original with an interior wooden brown-toned 1970's-styled facade which remains very true to art deco design on the outside as well. The vestibule is complete with the tones; globe lights, and a geometric skylight glass entrance. A few years before its closure, the store was slightly renovated, replacing the once, deteriorated wood-draped exterior.

Visible Jordan Marsh scarring against a stone-originated inner (as well as outer) entrance.

Jordan Marsh also opened with the mall, unlike any other during its time, which in 1996, became a home to Macy‘s when they sunk. While Jordan Marsh is but a memory, the interior helps live that legacy being richly evident of Jordan Marsh stores in the 1980’s with a host of 70’s basketball court faux-wood linoleum flooring, low-level ceilings and bizarre wood-framed department dividers. It’s a true relic and experience into the 70's-80's fade of decor, certainly one that hasn’t seen the brighter age of some of Macy’s newer looking acquisitions with vastly improved lighting and space.

The exterior is also an intruging design -- with a rich, rounded stone design which is sadly fallen victim to heavy deposits of time's weathering today.

A food court, which has been reworked over the years still serves most of the fast food types (Burger King, Sbarro, "Chinese" etc.), but also some designed with an athletic-centric mini-stairs idea I personally remember this mall for since my coming here as a young'n. All across both levels of the mall, the developers fancied the idea of including various steps and handicap accessible ramps alongside for a good amount of footage along the mall's interior. Instead of a flat layout like most malls, this one believes you should stay in shape while you browse the shops at Crystal Mall.

A fine idea then and now; especially for a growing obesity rate in America (or one which hopes you'll become hungrier and/or thirstier faster). At any rate, Crystal Mall might just contain the most manual staircases in any mall frequented in the state leaving any sense of automatics inside anchor stores or at either points of the mall.

Steps or ramps?

You might often be forced to use those manual-access stairs. That's right, the oddly placed "one-way" escalators on each side of the mall will have you walkin' or steppin'. Can't use the stairs by any chance? Need to get back downstairs? Either take the center's elevators (which happened to be under repairs when I last visited) or go around looking for a randomly-placed polarity escalator.

Surprisingly, there's no actual center court or fountain; typical indoor shopping mall centerpoints, even if the chandelier and neighboring cascading-waterfall staircase hint there maybe should've been one. Upon the ten-plus year old remodel, there's no more planters and seating areas are now scant. Should you want to, you'll have to "refuel" in the somewhat uneasy food court where you'll likely spend your time under some purple fluorescents. No time for relaxing, so eat or shop!

As something of a sub-anchor, the mall also contains a Massachusetts-based Tweeter Etc., which has reportedly faced downsizing over the years in favor for a "Mall" entrance beside it. While not the trend or scale of amateurish Best Buy and Circuit City, Tweeter Etc. traffics in mainly top-of-the-line hi-fi home theater and consumer goods with an all-around wider selection in that arena than its younger-aimed counterparts but not quite to the dimension of Bernie's.

The last "retro" Radio Shack left in the state, which refuses to update its signage.

As the Simon-template webpage shows, and a keen observation from one of our readers, they've abandoned once "street-style" signs which once directed shoppers as they hung over tenants. Upon the white remodel, the brown-gold original octogonal vertical-striped "C" logo from the original mall has also been retired. Apart the colors, Crystal Mall is still preserved in its original mold as well as not having had too many anchor changes over the years and, of course, has yet to expand.

The Caldor Rainbow visited the mall on a very chilly New England weekday morning in January 2007 but have returned since January 2008, so we hope you enjoy our year-old (particularly exterior) shots. If you want to get an idea of what Crystal Mall looked like before the remodel, check out some of our photos from a bizarro Crystal Mall: Pheasant Lane Mall in Nashua, New Hampshire, taken January 2008.

Very special thanks to David "Fox N Allen" Cuozzo, who submitted this Christmas shopping bag featuring the vintage logo from a personal collection. Retail Memories Coast To Coast has an incredible amount of shopping bags from retail history.

UPDATE: June 26, 2007. A "vintage" picture of Crystal Mall; circa 1980's. You can see Radio Shack on the far right end as well as The Gap on the lower level. They may have only painted the slats but they kept that chandelier! And check out those floor tiles! Submission by Joseph Rifkin.

Here's a bonus gallery of shots taken at Crystal Mall, some not pictured here, as part of my Flickr. While the mall has a written no camera policy, that of course didn't stop us apart the mall's lack of patrols!

This page has been edited due to appearent inaccuracies and additional information gathered. Would you like to report any others? E-Mail me
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