Montclair Shopping Center

Montclair Shopping Center was the first traditional indoor mall in the United States to start construction. While only one portion of this mall would be completed, the land would end up being developed as a shopping destination, and its path to that makes for an interesting story. It all began back in 1946 when Russell W. Nix, a notable Houston developer, had helped Houston grow to support an influx of population during World War II. Towards the war’s end, citing a need for housing for returning GIs, Nix went to work on developing land at North of West University. The site chosen for development had originally been owned by Harris County and operated as a Poor Farm, a home for the elderly, disabled, etc… The Poor Farm system was abandoned around 1920 when the first County old age home was constructed. With the land free for development, West U came in and swooped up all around the poor farm, except for one the tract on which the farm actually sat. This approximately 75-acre plot of land would end up in the hands of the county who had operated the farm, and they elected not to sell the tract to West U Developers, who had already started to build along the Western edge of the property in 1930. While I could not find exactly how Russell Nix acquired the property, he did so, likely thanks to his connections with the local government, and likely had control of it before 1946, as his plans seem to have been finalized by then.

Nix’s initial plans were quite different from what ended up being built. His initial proposal was to use most of the land (59 acres) as residential property and leave two strips of land fronting Weslayan and Bissonnet (known as Richmond Road at the time) open for commercial use, taking up 17 acres. While this was not a small retail development, the concept was two blocks of shops and not lots of room for large stores. The idea was to have storefronts and a long-running sidewalk along the streets and parking along the back. When Nix presented this design to the City Council, they quickly okayed his plan to bring residences to the area. By this point, West U had the area booming, and Houston wanted in on the action. However, they did not like his retail plan. City council members and Nix argued over problems like parking and a sixty-foot setback. Nix felt that his plan for

Version Two of Montclair Plaza increased space by deleting two residential streets to support bigger parking lots behind larger stores. Source: Houston Post

Montclair was fine, with an included 15-foot setback, for the planned widening of Bissonnet (Richmond), and he also felt that parking should be behind the businesses. In the end, Nix would agree to the stipulation of the 60-foot setback and 2 square feet of parking for every square foot of retail space. He would also need to break apart and lay a street between the retail and residential, along with connecting the main thoroughfares. With new rules cutting into space, Nix returned to the drawing board. Needing to make the best of the land he had not already started developing.

Nix initially looked at Country Club Plaza in Kansas City for inspiration. The center was already over 20 years old at this point and had accomplished largely what Nix had initially envisioned, which was to utilize streetfront development. To round his bases and likely get a bit of vacationing as well, Nix also visited Los Angeles. In LA, he would find his “big break” in the idea of service tunnels. When downtown Los Angeles was being developed, cramped streets led to the concept of service tunnels leading streets to basements. Department Stores would take advantage of this by setting up their loading docks under the stores. While Nix knew that he couldn’t exactly replicate this, he wanted to adapt the idea into the first story, “Truck Wells,”. During this visit, AT&T publicized that the West University area of Houston had the fastest and most consistent development of any part of its network in the United States that year. With this new information, Nix broadened his scope and decided to increase the size of his retail space to 28 acres. The new version of the center would be a beefed-up version of the original. Two streets would be deleted, retail and parking space would increase, and the center would resemble a second downtown shopping center more closely. At this point, Nix would even begin talks with prospective tenants, including an anchor in the way of a downtown department store looking to branch out. While the store was never explicitly named, it was likely Palais Royal, Danburgs, Weiner’s, or another similar store, and likely not Foley’s, Sakowitz, or Sears.

Version Three is quite clearly a mall, and most notably includes the Weingarten’s that was built, although it’s under a second story parking lot in this depiction. Source: Houston Chronicle

With plans to create an expensive build coming together, Nix contacted a few more sources before proceeding. One of these was likely a gentleman he had met while in Los Angeles, Victor Gruen. Gruen was already a notable developer; he and his wife, Elsie Krummeck, had gained a reputation as being on the cutting edge of retail design. In 1949, the couple’s latest development was the first branch of Milliron’s Department store. Constructed during a time when branch stores were still new in concept, the firm broke barriers by building a large but not tall store with rooftop parking. Something about this spoke to Russell NIx, who hired Victor Gruen to work with local architect Irving Klien to build the United State’s first indoor shopping center.  The plans this time were radically different from anything proposed so far, but this is the first proposed portion actually to be constructed. The Gruen plan was not called a mall, as the term wasn’t used to describe indoor shopping centers back then. Rather, it was described as a completely indoor and air-conditioned shopping center. It was to connect a grocery store, a large 5-story branch department store, a smaller 2-story junior department store, and a large restaurant. To physically connect the two department stores would be a “mall,” specifically an enclosed corridor with shops along both sides. The mall would have room for 109 stores and feature parking on top of the stores. Gruen would also call for constructing a basement to act as a service corridor. A plan even existed to depress Weslayan by 14 feet, allowing the mall to continue the entire way between the two parcels of land.

The entire shopping center would come in over 1.5 Million Square Feet and, according to Nix, would be ready in 18-24 months. While the entire idea was revolutionary, the most shocking thing was the price tag, which landed at $12 Million.  The mall seemed ready to go, and the city of Houston was hot for development. Just the year before, Glen McCarthy had announced the construction of the Shamrock Hotel. The original proposal included a large indoor shopping center named the McCarthy Center. The dueling proposals were locked into a race of who would open first, and Nix seemed destined for Montclair to win; in 1951, Weingarten’s, the mall’s first tenant, would begin construction. The location would be the second largest in the chain and specially designed to have three sets of entrances—a main entrance along Bissonnet and two secondary entrances along the East and West sides. The store would also feature a space reserved for connection to the future mall. Most importantly, though, a fact mostly known to those who worked at the store, this Weingrten’s was built with a basement, which had offices and featured another connection point to the planned mall. The Weingarten’s would open in 1951, and Russell Nix, owner of the property and originator of the retail concept at this corner, would continue to promote Gruen’s plan all throughout 1952 in an effort to find funding. However, with the high price tag and uncertain outcome of the first modern mall, Nix could not find a bank willing to back the project. Gruen would redevelop his idea into the Southdale Center, and Nix would be left alone to develop his property.

Version Four of the Montclair Shopping Center, is what would eventually be built. Source: Houston Chronicle

In 1958, Nix proposed the fourth and final version of the Montclair Shopping Center. This new version would radically change to a mostly standard shopping center, with W.T. Grant on one end and Weingarten’s on the other. Each anchor would be only 10% the size of the original mall, and the new shopping center would feature small “mall” spaces. The malls were intended to connect the front and rear parking lots while allowing more flexibility for tenants who wanted mall openings. The center was also built to allow for future expansion. This new version of the center was signed on Walgreens as the first mall tenant and quickly filled up. While it was not the mall Nix had intended, he did at least see some version of his concept appear. In 1968, on the second plot, across from the existing shopping center, Woolco would lease land to build their second Houston store. This giant new complex would also include a separate space attached to the store to be sublet to other retailers. The first major addition would occur in the 1970s when a strip center was added to the north side of the original parking lot. In 1980, the center would undergo a major update to remove the iconic Montclair Plaza sign and replace it with two large towers above each mall. This would also expand the strip center across the entire North side of the parking lot. The center would maintain its popularity; the descendants of Nix owned it until the family sold the property in 1997. After its sale, one of the first tasks was to remove the malls. The mall on the GRants side was turned into retail space, and the Mall on the Weingarten side is now an open-air walkway. Despite barely resembling any of the initial proposals, Weslayan Plaza remains a popular shopping destination to this day.