As Steve Moore reminded me back in January, Monroeville Mall is famous for more than being the backdrop for George A. Romero’s zombie opus Dawn of the Dead (1978). In the film Flashdance (1983), when Alex Owens’ friend Jeanie Szabo has her dreams of figure skating dashed, her downfall, quite literally, is showcased on the ice at Monroeville Mall’s Ice Palace (pictured).
In my piece for Bullett Magazine, “Eternal Spring: The Immortality of the American Shopping Mall,” I excavated some forgotten details about the mall, in a sort of then-and-now comparison:
Built in 1969 and situated on 170 acres of land that spanned 1.4 million square feet, Monroeville Mall embodied the quintessential shopping experience of the day. As the first indoor shopping mall in Pennsylvania, it featured hundreds of stores in a climate-controlled environment designed, like so many shopping malls across the country, to act as both civic gathering place and consumer paradise. Living gardens, water fountains, and idyllic pedestrian bridges overlooking ponds filled with koi and goldfish were situated between shops like G.C. Murphy Co., Kenny Kardon, and The Candy Tree; a theatrical stage encircled by sunken seating framed the entrance to the Joseph Horne Co. department store at one end, while a clock tower with animatronic puppets that emerged each hour (representing the different ethnicities of Pittsburgh) stood in a large common area outside of Gimbels department store at the other end; restaurants and lounges like the Brown Derby and Di Pomodoro dotted the upper and lower levels; and an indoor ice skating rink, dubbed the Ice Palace, urged visitors to further immerse themselves in the experience.
Walk into Monroeville Mall today, however, and there are few if any signs of the consumer oasis that Romero captured on film. Primarily that’s because shifting economic climates have forced mall management corporations to maximize their selling space. In response, features like the mall’s living gardens have been removed, replaced with kiosks where minimum wagers hawk Proactiv Solution and fluorescent iPhone covers. The former site of the clock tower, dismantled sometime in the 1990s, sits empty, a shuttered store front in the background. And the Ice Palace, which once held the distinction of being the first ice skating rink in an enclosed mall on the East Coast, was removed in 1983 and replaced with a food court. Like so many of the nation’s established malls, remodeling efforts and a willingness to embrace change has enabled destinations such as Monroeville Mall to remain financially solvent. Those same changes, however, have also slowly removed all traces of the mall’s once-distinct identity.