Apache Plaza: Farewell to the ‘Center of the Community’

by Jeff Anderson

On December 30, 2003, a brief article in the St. Paul Pioneer Press quietly announced that Apache Plaza in St Anthony, Minnesota would be closing its doors in February 2004.  The announcement signified the sad ending of an era, a day that fans of the mall expected yet hoped would never come.

Apache Plaza was not Minnesota’s first enclosed shopping center.  In 1956, Southdale in Edina, Minnesota, became the first fully-enclosed, climate-controlled shopping center in the United States.   Nearby, St. Anthony Village (now known as the “City of St. Anthony”) was rapidly evolving from fields of farmland into miles of new rambler houses occupied by bright-eyed young families.   It only made sense that a bustling city such as this be chosen as the location for Minnesota’s second enclosed shopping center, Apache Plaza.  

Ground broke on the exciting new venture on April 18, 1960, on land that was formerly owned by hog farmer Ken Lee.  The mall was the creation of Apache Corp. and architect Willard Thorsen.  Indoor shopping of this magnitude was still revolutionary to the Minneapolis area at the time.   Early promotional materials from the mall described the experience as “in effect, shopping in one huge store with everything (you) need under one roof.”  Original anchors JC Penney, Woolworths, Montgomery Ward and GC Murphy were supplemented by nearly 60 shops and stores, catering primarily to shopping needs and whims of the contemporary housewife of the 1960s.

The plaza's central court, three stories high and larger than a football field, measured in at a length of 350 feet. The court's roof was gloriously marked by ten inverted hyperbolic paraboloids, measuring 65 by 71 feet and standing on single 28-inch square columns. In 1961 this construction was very “space-age” and is now historically representative of the era. Mall promotions described the center court as  a year-around garden of exotic plants and flowers, pools, a jet spray fountain, birds, sunken brick garden...kept perpetually sunny by a glass clerestory which frames the ceiling.   This multi-colored glass clerestory was indeed spectacular, with alternating bright red, yellow and blue squares.   At night the windows were lit from many directions, projecting splashes of color from every angle.  The center court floor similarly featured colored inlay, and throughout the mall were red, blue, and yellow lockers where shoppers could store their belongings as they shopped in sunshine comfort.  Simply put, this place was gorgeous.  

The mall opened on Thursday, October 19, 1961, amidst much fanfare.   In a recent interview with apacheplaza.com, Mr. Eugene Johnson, manager of one of the mall’s first stores, described the Grand Opening as “the most exciting thing to happen in all of the north metro area in many years. It was responded to by long lines of people awaiting their first glimpse inside the mall. The ceremony was hugely attended and included local media stars and dignitaries. There were cars lined up for miles along Stinson and Silver Lake Road”. Governor Elmer Anderson arrived by helicopter and ceremoniously raised American, Minnesota, and Apache Plaza flags. For the years that followed, Apache  truly was the  Center of the Community.”

Throughout the 60s and 70s, Apache was a bustling hub for the North Twin Cities area.  It was during this time that neighboring shopping malls Brookdale, Northtown, and Rosedale held grand openings of their own.  These new malls were larger and flashier than Apache, but by no means  prettier in regards to design.  Regardless, some sources believe that the opening of these malls were the true beginning of Apache’s misfortunes.   

A string of bad luck for the mall began in 1979, when original anchor store Montgomery Wards jumped ship, followed soon by fellow anchor G.C. Murphy Co.   Despite this shift in some of its major retailers, however, life appeared rosy as ever for Apache.  The mall was even starting work on its first large scale renovations, including an exterior overhaul, new indoor lighting, an upgraded court fountain, and brand new center court floor tile.   

Still the bad luck continued.  On April 26, 1984 a tornado tore into the South end of the mall, injuring many, and causing millions of dollars worth of damages.  Some speculate that the mall never recovered from the setback caused by the tornado, as Apache remained closed for several months before its grand re-opening on November 15, 1984.    

The grand re-opening unveiled a much less colorful Apache.  Missing were the beautiful clerestory colored windows that rounded the central court (which were destroyed in the tornado), as well as the colorful matching floor inlay that accentuated the court area.   The mall’s new look reflected a era in which 60's chic was no longer cool.  In its place was a bland, generic look that managed to strip the mall of much of its original charm.   Still, it was a striking indoor shopping space, and with the opening of a new Herberger’s department store in 1987, things seemed to be on the mend at Apache.  

The mall remained at practically full occupancy until the beginning of the 1990s, when Apache’s misfortunes began piling up at a rapid rate.   The mall, suffering from mismanagement and sorely in need of repairs, was sold to a new owner.  During this time F.W. Woolworth Co. declared bankruptcy, and Apache’s JC Penney store closed its doors after 32 years.   Apache’s bowling alley, a steady attraction since the mall’s opening,  was boarded up in 1996.  To make matters much worse, one third of Apache was mercilessly demolished to make room for a new Cub Foods store, which was not physically connected to the mall.   Merchants and customers fled from Apache in droves, and by the end of the decade the City of St Anthony began actively exploring new alternatives for the space.    

In the summer of 2003 came the inevitable announcement from the city that Apache Plaza was being redeveloped into a new mixed housing and retail space.    The city’s plan to demolish Apache in spring 2004 is a sadly tragic ending to a mall that began, like so many other regional malls of the past 50 years, with so much promise.    Apache fans know that this was more than just a mall, however.  It was a community space as well as a charming architectural beauty.  For fans of recent architecture, Apache Plaza’s demolition is further reminder of the recent history that continues to slip away from us in the name of “progress.”

Jeff Anderson
Webmaster, apacheplaza.com