The idea of being a “fan of retail” has gained a good deal of traction in the last couple of years. With the prevalence of Facebook groups, YouTube Channels, Discord Servers interest in retail is growing. My interest in retail began with the discovery of some of the earliest retail blogs. As retail has become more mainstream it has started to develop an “aesthetic”, based mostly around nostalgia. This aesthetic extends to an interest in abandoned things and Vaporwave. Fun stuff, but it’s not what really got me started with retail. What really got me started, all the way back in the days of dial-up, was an interest in unique design.
Today we’ll be talking about The Portofino Shopping Center. Located off of I-45 in Shenandoah, Texas, Portofino is closer to The Woodlands, than Houston City limits. Although it does fall inside of the Houston Metro Area. My first encounter with this shopping center must have been around the about 2000. It would have been with my grandfather on to his home town of Groesbeck, a tiny berg East of Waco. The drive required us to take I-45, which was at the time a small two lane highway. Driving through what was mostly pine forest, I noticed something in the distance a massive shopping center. The trees mostly obstructed the view, but you could tell that this was a MAJOR project for what was at the time a mostly rural area.
Speeding down the highway chauffeured by my grandfather in his ’88 Ramcharger. The height of the car helped to make up for the somewhat obstructed view. The further along we followed the shopping center the thinner the tree line became. With more and more of the brilliant architecture peeking through the green curtain. At this point most of the buildings had yet to be painted. Although a primer coat had been applied making all the unopened shops shine brilliantly white. The huge spires, and detailed plaster work burned an image of the unfinished leviathan into my brain. One that I would be sure to look for on our next trip to Groesbeck.
After my first glance at the Portofino Shopping Center, every trip North gave me a chance to check out at the developing complex. My grandfather who was also intrigued by the center kept me updated with the occasional newspaper articles he would encounter as an avid Chronicle reader. On one of our trips we took the exit and attempted to drive up to the view the shopping center. Unfortunately at the time I-45 was undergoing a huge expansion, which meant access to the store was quite difficult. We ended up getting back on the highway and I never again had occasion to actually stop and visit Portofino again until this summer.
My fiancee and I were on my way to a get together, we made plans to buy shoes meaning I only had a short amount of time from the parking lot. Some eagle eyed readers may notice that I had to leave some stores out. Some like Old Navy, have been redesigned and no longer resemble their original Italian inspired design. Others like Stein Mart, I was just not able to get a good shot of due to the weather and time limits. After taking these photos I did some research into the background of the shopping center. I had remembered some of the story from my grandfather’s Chronicle Article updates, those memories had mostly faded.
What I found on the Portofino Shopping Center turned out to be quite an interesting story. The brainchild of Jim Fisher, a developer who was inspired to build this after a trip to Italy. Some of the special features included a bell tower, fountain, actual imported limestone; all of which are located in the central shopping center shown above. The shopping center also had 8 Gondolas imported from Italy soon after the grand opening. This is something I actually remembered from my grandfather’s updates. My grandfather was quite interested in trying out the Gondola ride, until seeing the price of $10/ticket.
The Portofino Shopping Center held its grand opening celebration on August 26, 2000. Some of the major opening day tenants included Bucca Di Beppo, Famous Footwear, Men’s Wearhouse, and Stein Mart. This first wave of stores would quickly be followed by a secondary set of stores. In the original section stores were divided into two generations. Those which took part in the grand opening and those that did not. All of these stores were designed to the original shopping center specifications in terms of decor and design. For the most part many spaces seemed to be leased prior to the grand opening.
Stores such as Michael’s were “first generation” stores. While, Oshaman’s (Now PGA Tour Superstore) is an example of a second generation store. It is difficult to tell first and second generation stores apart, generally the only difference being the opening date. According to newspaper articles the majority of the budget was spent constructing the original section. This is also apparent when visiting the shopping center. The smaller tenants, which were added on to the second generation stores, were not nearly as elaborate earlier designs.
With staggered openings, and a blown budget the developers began to tone down their designs. This is more apparent when you realize that the arches are not even finished on the right side of Buffalo Wild Wings in the photo above! Although built on a smaller budget, the unique aspect is still kept with this design. The arches and bell towers, all add to a unique beauty not really seen in modern shopping centers. Influenced by classic design and architecture, Portofino does not seem to simulate the Italian Shopping experience, but rather to create an experience.
Overall my first visit to Portofino was a positive one. I enjoyed getting to see all of the stores up close. Although as far as I could tell the Gondolas had not been run in quite some time. The Portofino Shopping Center lives on as a monument to unique, high budget retail architecture. I should be back soon, with a Halloween Post (Time Permitting) in the meantime check out Houston Historic Retail’s Facebook for more occasional updates.
How much did it cost to build out the whole strip?
My hairdresser works in Portofino- they have a whole area inside that is taken up by salons of various kinds. It’s very gorgeous on the inside- huge staircases. Honestly looks like a wedding venue!
Had you not informed me otherwise, I would have sworn that TJ Maxx was a former Casa Bonita.
Ha! Now that you mention it, I do see the resemblance.
What amazing architecture! There’s a shopping center near me that also has a common design across all the stores (South Lake Centre; I’ve featured it on my blog before), but its architecture was just designed to be common to all the stores – not super fancy, elaborate, and evocative of an Italian experience, like this complex. Love the effort and attention to detail! And so cool that you have a childhood connection to the plaza’s development, too 🙂
I’m glad you enjoyed the post! I checked out yours, and wanted to add that stylized shopping centers are big in Houston, and have been for at least the last 20 years. Some of it deals with the fact that many shopping centers are still owned by grocery stores, or real estate companies formed from former grocery stores.