Happy 40th Anniversary, Willowbrook Mall!

Editor’s Note: Today we begin Houston Historic Retail’s Month of Malls! Our 3 Wednesday posts will feature all new Mall content! Lets start off Part One with Northwestern Houston Resident Expert Anonymous in Houston! -Mike

Those who have visited the Willowbrook Mall area in Northwest Houston know that several words can be used to describe the territory, but ‘sleepy’ is probably not one of them in current times.  However, prior to the official opening of Willowbrook Mall on September 23, 1981 (though the original three anchors of Sears, Foley’s, and Montgomery Ward had all opened for business by September 2, 1981), ‘sleepy’ was probably the perfect word to describe what is now known as the Willowbrook area. In fact, ‘sleepy’ could have been used to describe all of the Northwest Houston suburbs prior to the opening of the mall!

When the Homart Development Company division of Sears decided to place a mall at the southeast corner of the intersection of FM 149 & FM 1960 in the late 1970s as their second Houston-area mall after Baybrook Mall, even they probably could not imagine how much of an overnight success the mall would be and how much the area would grow and prosper in the subsequent 40 years. The development of neighborhoods in wooded Northwest Houston/Harris County in the 1970s, which led to the opening of the small North Oaks Mall at the corner of FM 1960 W & Veterans Memorial Dr./Stuebner Airline Rd. in 1976 (you can read about North Oaks Mall here, here, and here), probably gave Sears hope that a larger mall in Northwest Houston could be successful. Still, their expectations were surely exceeded almost immediately when the fortunes of the area boomed shortly after the mall opened due in part to technology industry activity that isolated the area from the economic malaise related to the oil bust that plagued the rest of the Houston area in the 1980s.

A quick glance at the Willowbrook area on a modern map shows that it sits at the corner of a freeway, SH 249, and a major road, FM 1960 West. Not far from the mall is the Beltway 8 freeway loop. When Willowbrook Mall opened, however, the Beltway 8 freeway did not yet exist, SH 249 was a fairly quiet non-freeway road named FM 149, and FM 1960 W was hardly the major artery that it is now. The fact that FM 149 even became a freeway as quickly as it did was surely boosted by the presence of the mall and related developments. FM 1960 W surely would not be the wide mega-road that it is with the underpass under SH 249 without the traffic caused by the mall and surrounding retail centers. Anyone who shopped at Willowbrook Mall in the 1980s or 1990s, as I did, surely remembers how horrifically bad traffic was near the mall before the modern roads were upgraded around the mall!

As mentioned earlier, the Northwest Houston suburbs, the Willowbrook area in particular, were isolated from the economic malaise that plagued the Houston area in the 1980s. The main reason for this is probably the explosive growth of the Compaq computer company that was formed in 1982. Compaq placed their sprawling global headquarters in a quiet part of FM 149 at Louetta Road in 1986. Compaq quickly ascended to become the leading manufacturer of PCs by the mid-1990s from their wooded offices just up FM 149 a few miles from Willowbrook Mall. With this, several educated and well-paid Compaq employees built homes in Northwest Houston/the Willowbrook area and this all helped boost sales for the retailers at Willowbrook Mall. The success of Compaq and Willowbrook Mall hastened the infrastructure improvements that led to rural FM 149 becoming SH 249, a major Houston freeway. Although Compaq’s 2002 merger with Hewlett-Packard did somewhat diminish the technology sector impact on the Willowbrook area, the area was had already become a huge growth area that continues even to this day with modern shopping and housing developments such as Vintage Park.

Willowbrook Mall was such a success that there were even rumors of the mall adding a second story in the 1990s, but that never materialized. Nonetheless, the mall continued to add anchors beyond the original group of major anchors that opened along with the mall in 1981. Being a Sears/Homart developed mall, Sears naturally had the prime anchor spot at the mall. On the other end of the barbell-shaped mall was Foley’s who used a store design that was later reused at West Oaks Mall a few years later. The anchors that operated off the main mall corridor were Montgomery Ward and Joske’s. Joske’s did not open their location at Willowbrook Mall until July 1983, nearly two years after the mall initially opened. The mall also had a movie theater near the center food court.

In 1984, Macy’s opened a three-story department store at Willowbrook Mall and that easily became the most upscale anchor at the mall. In 1992, the mall added JCPenney as an anchor after years of rumors about Penney’s opening at the mall and the mall was also renovated in 1992 to have the interior design that the mall is still using to this day. Prior to the 1992 renovation, the mall had an indoor forest/park design that relied heavily on earthtones like most malls of the 1970s and early 1980s. The 1992 renovation replaced the earthtones with a more bright white-colored design that was starting to become popular at that time and which still maintains popularity to this day. Even with the interior of the mall being around 30 years old at this point, I believe the mall’s décor still looks up-to-date.

In the mid-1990s, Macy’s closed their Willowbrook Mall location. Dillard’s, who had taken over Joske’s in 1987, was rumored to be interested in taking over the Macy’s building while also maintaining their existing location at the mall with a split men’s/women’s store arrangement like what took place for at least a short period at Baybrook Mall, but ultimately Dillard’s took over the Macy’s building and closed their existing location at the mall. Lord & Taylor eventually picked up the old Joske’s/Dillard’s location, but that was short-lived. When Lord & Taylor closed, that anchor building was demolished and left as an empty grassy anchor pad for several years until Nordstrom Rack opened their location at the mall in 2014.

After Montgomery Ward went out of business in 2001, Foley’s took over the Wards building and implemented the men’s/women’s store split that Dillard’s was considering some years prior with the men’s and furniture departments moving to the old Montgomery Ward. The two Foley’s stores then became Macy’s in 2006.

In recent developments, Dick’s Sporting Goods became the latest anchor at Willowbrook Mall, which is now operated by Brookfield Properties, in 2016 when their location was added to the side of the food court. The new food court restroom complex partially uses the area which used to be the long-defunct mall movie theater. In early 2020, Sears closed their Willowbrook Mall location. Thus, the most visible anchor building at the mall is now empty. If you’re interested in seeing what the Sears looked like inside while it was still open, I recommend reading this recent blog post at the Louisiana & Texas Retail Blog which contains photos taken inside the Willowbrook Sears in 2017-18.  I can only guess that the old Sears building will be demolished at some point and turned into some kind of outdoor lifestyle center development at some point, but that has not happened yet. Even if a new anchor tenant is added to where the Sears is now, it’s hard to imagine it being a traditional retail department store.

I have read a lot of opinions about the current and future state of Willowbrook Mall. Depending on which websites you read, you might hear the mall defined as a thriving mall or a dying mall. I think the truth lies somewhere in between those claims, but it’s probably closer to being a thriving mall than a dying mall. Well, at least it’s a thriving mall as much as any suburban US indoor mall can be called here in the 2020s that does not have a significant outdoor lifestyle center component and/or exterior entrances for inline tenants. Willowbrook Mall still draws in a lot of shoppers and the mall is full of grade-A retail tenants. New tenants, like the In-N-Out Burger that is an outparcel at the mall, still bring a lot of excitement to the mall. The surrounding powercenters, such as The Commons which is across FM 1960 W from the mall, all still appear to be doing pretty well.

In my opinion, the loss of Montgomery Ward twenty years ago, the elimination of electronics from Dillard’s and Foley’s/Macy’s years ago, and the decline and closure of Sears has done a lot to turn Willowbrook Mall from a place that was very interesting to me into a place that really does not offer me very much. Sure, if I need work or formal attire, stores like Dillard’s and JCPenney are great options, but that type of shopping does not excite me very much. As sad as it is to say, I think the most interesting ‘retailer’ at Willowbrook Mall these days might be the Comcast/Xfinity store. Yikes! While it might not be realistic for stores like what Radio Shack used to be to start returning to Willowbrook Mall and other malls across the US, I do hope that retailers of some interest to me will open up at Willowbrook and other malls in the future. As such, there is not much reason for me to visit Willowbrook Mall regularly here in modern times.

With that said, Willowbrook Mall is still a major shopping destination in Northwest Houston. In fact, Willowbrook-area retail is probably still the shopping destination in Northwest Houston. As for the mall itself, the future of the mall, like so many other malls, is quite dependent on the health of the major anchor stores at the mall. If retailers like Macy’s and JCPenney can rebound and find relevance in the next decade, the future of Willowbrook Mall will probably be very bright. If those retailers fail in the next decade, which is certainly possible, Willowbrook Mall’s golden jubilee anniversary might not be so golden unless the mall can re-invent itself in a way that will likely not be centered on department stores and other traditional retailers.

Additional resources about the history of Willowbrook Mall:

If you are wondering what Willowbrook Mall looks like on the inside here in modern times, I recommend watching the YouTube walk-through video of the mall by Jeff from the Retail Mix USA YouTube channel.  Jeff provides nearly 45 minutes of footage from inside the mall that was recorded in September 2020.  In addition to the interior walk-through video, Jeff also has a video of him driving around the mall.

Earlier in this post, I mentioned how quiet the FM 149 & FM 1960 W area was before the mall was built.  To get a visual image of how quiet things were, I recommend viewing the image on page 252 of Erik Slotboom’s excellent 2003 book Houston Freeways.  The image in question is an overhead construction photo of the Willowbrook Mall construction site that was taken in October 1980.  Erik kindly provides his book as a free downloadable PDF on the Houston Freeways website.  This book is a highly recommend read for topics even beyond Willowbrook Mall.

Finally, given how well Willowbrook Mall did early on and how much suburban Northwest Houston was growing, it is perhaps not a surprise that other mall developers hoped to build malls in Northwest Houston to compete with Willowbrook Mall.  Je of the Louisiana & Texas Retail Blog wrote a blog post in 2014 about two of these proposed developments.  One proposal had plans to build a mall called the Bluebonnet Mall along with a race track called Bluebonnet Downs at the corner of US 290 & FM 1960 W.  Another proposal, which was pushed by the developers of the Mall of the Mainland, was to build a mall in Copperfield at the corner of FM 529 & Highway 6.  The Copperfield Mall proposal was probably a serious one given that the same developers did actually build the Mall of the Mainland during the same general time period, but obviously neither it or the Bluebonnet Mall were ever built.  Je’s blog post also mentions a couple of Houston malls Homart hoped to build in the 1980s or 1990s, but they did not get built.  Homart was involved in the development of the Deerbrook Mall, which opened in 1984, and The Woodlands Mall that opened in 1994.

A Note About The Photos Used In This Post: Many thanks go to Mike of HHR and Je of the Louisiana & Texas Retail Blog for opening up their personal collection of photos of Willowbrook Mall.  I am thankful for their collegiality and dedication to covering Houston retail.  Mike’s photos were taken in mid-2021 and Je’s photos were taken in early 2020.

12 comments

  1. I enjoyed going here I the late 90s it would be my movie theater and Morrison’s cafeteria was delicious. Boy do I ever miss those cafeterias. I also ate at the chick FIL a that’s still there if I’m not mistaken. I used to work across the street at the old academy location. I’m done ranting just putting my 2 cents in.

    1. Hi Michael, while the Luby’s Cafeteria at Willowbrook Mall is long gone, at least a couple of Luby’s not too far from the mall are on the list of Luby’s locations that will be purchased and will continue to operate. One is near FM 1960 W & 290 and the other is on FM 1960 W near I-45. Fortunately, it’s not too late to eat at a cafeteria on this side of town!

      Willowbrook Mall was quite a place in the late 1990s. If nothing else, Sears was still a happening place and Montgomery Ward was still around. Although the mall still does well as far as indoor malls go, the late 1990s was pretty close to the end of the period where the mall had a real buzz about it. It’s not that the mall got worse, but retail trends started to shift away from malls not long after that.

  2. You really did a great job with this post anonymous. I really enjoyed the trip to the past from these old ads for the mall. One thing I recently remembered is a laser light show back in the early 90’s. It was on the side of the mall near Sears/Dillard’s. Thanks for placing the links to my posts, it is greatly appreciated. I haven’t had much of a chance to visit my social media sites these past few weeks so I am glad you let me know about this post.

    I think the future of this mall is still bright. The mall has gained some very good tenants recently with Zara and Nordstrom Rack joining the mall. One thing I was thinking about is for TJ Maxx and Homegoods to move to the mall to take up the old Sears space. TJ Maxx would be a great addition and they keep mall entrances open. They have been moving into malls lately even into some old Sears spaces. At least Sears should reopen again this year as a Spirit Halloween. Dicks Sporting Goods would have been a more popular addition to the mall if they had their Field and Stream and Golf Galaxy concept in the store. The massive Baybrook Dicks SG location with all three of the concepts in one building is so much better and busier. Replacing the Bar Louie space next to Nordstrom Rack is going to be a little challenging, these oddly placed restaurants attached to malls usually don’t fare well by themselves. The good thing is that the interior spaces throughout the main walkway of the mall don’t sit vacant for long if a store closes.

    I certainly agree that the design of this mall has held up well over the years. The food court renovation is how the rest of the mall should be designed, only a minor upgrade to bring back some of the natural wood look of the past. Deerbrook had a similar food court and mall signage update, but the food court update made the place look very bland. They did a much better job at Willowbrook. At least the neon elevator is still in place at Deerbrook.

    1. Thanks, I’m glad you liked the post! Also, thanks for the photos that you were able to provide for the post, they are great! Your photos, along with the great ones Mike took, really made the post.

      I do remember the light show since I was there! I don’t remember if they did it multiple times, but I was at least one of them. I think maybe they did fireworks as well, probably for July 4th, for at least one year? Malls used to host all kinds of community events, but sadly a lot of this has been eliminated in the last 10-15 years.

      A TJMaxx and HomeGoods combo would draw a lot of traffic to the mall. For better or for worse, however, HomeGoods and fellow TJX store Marshalls are located across FM 1960 in The Commons shopping center. TJX moving their locations is hardly inconceivable though given how many major retailers have moved from one Willowbrook area shopping center to another nearby one in the last 15 years or so. AMC, Bed, Bath, & Beyond/Cost Plus World Market, Academy, Conn’s, and Toys R Us all come to mind.

      In addition to the Dick’s Sporting Goods sister stores at Baybrook Mall that you mentioned, the Baybrook area also has a Dick’s SG Clearance Store in a neighboring shopping center to the main Dick’s SG. Baybrook certainly has everything a Dick’s Sporting Goods fan could possibly want. Baybrook probably has an advantage over Willowbrook in that the coastal location makes selling fishing and perhaps other outdoor gear more viable. Still, it would have been nice to have the extra options at the Willowbrook store.

      I figured that Bar Louie was going to be doomed when I first heard about it opening. I suppose it lasted longer than I thought it would, but yeah, it’s going to be a bit of a challenge to replace that spot. If the old Sears spot is ever redeveloped, hopefully they are smarter about building spaces which have more long-term viability.

      While it’s highly unlikely to happen, I’d love it if Nebraska Furniture Mart opened a location in the old Willowbrook Sears. Sure, it would be a fraction of the size of the Metroplex NFM, but I think that old Sears still gives them enough room for furniture, appliances, and electronics. Of course, a NFM without electronics wouldn’t be worth it.

      It’s really hard to believe that it’s been 30 years (well, 29 technically) since Willowbrook Mall last received a major renovation, but the mall still looks pretty fresh. Restoring some of the natural wood look in the food court was a great idea. I wouldn’t mind them blending the 1992 look with the 1981 look through the rest of the mall as a way of an inexpensive update to the mall that wouldn’t require much alteration.

  3. One thing I should mention is that Dillard’s did substantially re-do/expand the Macy’s building (the original Macy’s, not the Foley’s Macy’s) to make it look like their own prototype. Interestingly, they didn’t redo the Deerbrook Mall building, which retains its original exterior.

    1. Yep, that is true that Dillard’s did renovate the exterior of the Willowbrook ex-Macy’s to look like their corporate standard when they didn’t do the same at the Deerbrook Mall ex-Macy’s. Dillard’s also renovated the first two floors at the Willowbrook location, but the third floor still has a lot of a Macy’s look to it like with that earthtone tile photo.

  4. I love the collaboration and contributions from many different retail enthusiasts in this post! Great coverage of the mall.

    On the topic of the two Sam Goody stores in the same mall, I wonder how common that was — not just for Sam Goody, but for any business. I can’t imagine it’s a profitable arrangement except in the most extreme cases, but even then, it’s got to be a very short-lived window of time… right? I visited a mall in Savannah, GA, which had three GameStop-owned stores: GameStop, ThinkGeek, and one of the last EB Games in the US (which had a separate GameStop sign in the window and was essentially a duplicate GameStop). Crazy.

    1. Thanks, I’m glad you liked the post! Je and Mike’s photos that I was able to use for this part are really exceptional. I’m so glad I was able to use them. I suppose those of us in Houston who make posts like this are lucky to have a really great local retail enthusiast scene where we can rely on each other for information and resources. Without giving away too much information, I will say that there will be some more Houston mall posts here at HHR in September by other bloggers and they’re going to be great posts! You might even see some of my resources in one of the posts!

      Wow, a mall with both a GameStop and an EB Games. That’s pretty crazy without even factoring in the ThinkGeek. Like with the two Willowbrook Mall Sam Goody locations, I wonder if those stores shared employees. Woolworth had a pretty major presence for a brief period of time at Willowbrook when they had a Woolworth Express store at the mall to go along with Foot Locker and Lady Foot Locker at the very least. Granted, those weren’t all similar stores.

      If you think the Willowbrook Sam Goody situation was strange, you should have seen what was happening at The Galleria in Houston for a few years after Macy’s took over Foley’s. The Galleria had both an original Macy’s and a Foley’s when Macy’s was taking over Foley’s. Macy’s decided to keep both stores going for a few years and both were run as full-line stores at the same mall! No, this wasn’t a men’s store/women’s store situation, they were both full-line stores. Eventually, the store that started out as Macy’s did close, but it was a very odd situation for a few years!

      Anyway, here’s a link to a Sam Goody ad from 1995 which shows both Willowbrook locations listed: https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/openurl?ctx_ver=z39.88-2004&rft_id=info%3Asid/infoweb.newsbank.com&svc_dat=AMNEWS&req_dat=0D1C2A34C3EF45E0&rft_val_format=info%3Aofi/fmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Actx&rft_dat=document_id%3Aimage%252Fv2%253A14DB39C1C40322B4%2540EANX-171D963C0E892732%25402449773-171BC34CF28488E8%254051-171BC34CF28488E8%2540/hlterms%3A

      1. Fun article! I worked for Sam Goody at Willowbrook in1994. One store was a Sam Goody/ Suncoast video combo store & one was just Sam Goody. I don’t recall that we shared employees.

        1. Hi Anonymous, thanks, I’m glad you liked the post! That’s neat that you worked at one of the Willowbrook Sam Goody locations. You’re right that the Sam Goody near Sears was combined with a Suncoast Video. I can’t remember exactly where the other Sam Goody was, but I know that it was out towards the Montgomery Ward and Foley’s.

          Another odd thing I remember about the Sears wing Sam Goody is that the outside shipping and receiving door out near the Sears men’s department/package pick-up entrance had a Sam Goody logo above it that was more ornate that one would expect for a store which had no exterior entrance. At least I think that sign was at the Sears wing Sam Goody, it could have been at the other location or maybe both of them. Anyway, it was one of those strange things I remember. I’m not sure if any other Willowbrook shoppers of that time remembers that as well, but perhaps you might remember that since you worked there.

    1. I’m glad you liked the post! I don’t have strong memories of Mr. Music at Willowbrook, but I absolutely remember the Hastings at Willowbrook Mall in the 1980s. There was also the time Willowbrook had two separate Sam Goody locations in it at the same time in the 1990s! This seems like ancient history now, unfortunately.

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