The Center for Land Use Interpretation Newsletter

The Best Dead Mall?


562 Dixie Square Mall, Illinois. CLUI photo by Steve Rowell

AN EXHIBIT ABOUT ONE OF the most dramatic dead malls in the country was on display at the CLUI this summer. The electronic presentation, created by Steve Rowell of the CLUI, was entitled The Best Dead Mall in America: A Photographic Documentation of the Dixie Square Mall in Harvey, Illinois. Located 20 miles south of downtown Chicago, the 800,000 square-foot mall has been abandoned for over 23 years, and in that time, the mall has been transformed into a new kind of post-shopping experience.

From the outside the general form of the mall appears intact, and all of the rambling megastructure is still standing and is navigable. Faceted facades and colored wall treatments subtly echo the anchor stores at the ends (that type of brickmust have been a Sears; those vertical stylingsMontgomery Ward?). The shape of the structure is more difficult to discern than it once was, as a new growth forest of trees is doing well in the parking lot, plazas, and alcoves around the outside of the building, breaking through asphalt, and overgrowing out of planters. Behind the rusty cyclone, the garden center has finally gone to seed.

Inside the unlocked or doorless doorways is a space beyond the language of design. Surprising and exotic textures and forms are visible within the faint remnants of the familiar commercial layouts of the 1970’s branded spaces. The interior lighting, natural, haphazard, and high contrast, brings full visibility to some spaces, while others remain occluded and mysterious, where senses other than sight are summoned to experience the space. A true manifestation of a deconstructed architecture, inside veneer exfoliates, panels peel, and drop ceilings drop. Holes appear, and spread, giving angular views of the structural layers.

This “dead” mall is actually more alive than many of its living counterparts: the building lives through its continuous transformation and integration with its surroundings. Visitors are free to interact with the space, to make modifications, adjustments, renovations, as they see fit, and to make it their own, if only for indefinate moments. Organic matter lives and thrives, especially in the random atriums formed by the partial roof collapses. Grids of floor tile are covered in carpets of moss, with flooded puddles, which resemble a landscape of forests and lakes seen from above, teasing one’s sense of scale and cartesian formality.

This is an inside out architecture, where full trees have reclaimed some of the interior space, breaking through the linoleum and the concrete floors, and where drifts of snow are free to migrate through the corridors as far as they can, and hallways become avenues of ice. Conversely, some of the interior materials have begun to spill out the service doors and other apertures, a belching of soaked drywall, carpet, mattresses, old appliances, display cabinets, bringing some of the inside out to the exterior spaces.

563 Dixie Square Mall, Illinois. North face (winter). CLUI photo by Steve Rowell

564 Dixie Square Mall, Illinois. North face detail (summer). CLUI photo by Steve Rowell

And to top it off, there is a layer of artificial construction and destruction, subtly and indelibly merged with the existing history, further complicating the archeology of the place: in 1980, a year after the mall closed, it was refashioned for a film shoot, for a film that involved the destructive highspeed perusal of the shops along its interior corridors. As the police chase the Blues Brothers’ renegade police car through the mall, Elwood casually comments on the new fashions, then steers the car through another row of plate glass.

Dead Mall in Dead Mall

565 Part of the Dead Mall display in the Dead Mall. CLUI photo by Deborah Stratman

Amidst the mostly incidental displays within the Dixie Square Mall, visitors may find the exhibit for the Dead Mall design competition, that was hosted by the Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design during Fall of 2002 and the Spring of 2003, and supported by the National Endowment for the Arts. As part of this Dead Mall landmark, copies of the Dead Mall competition prints have been installed on selected flat surfaces within the mall, and have become part of the surficial material of the mall interior. While not officially open to the public, the exhibit will, like the mall itself, be on display indefinitely.