HAMMOND — After 65 years, the Carson's department store that long anchored the Woodmar Mall is coming down, marking the end of an era in Hammond's evolving retail landscape.
Downtown Hammond was once a regional shopping destination that was home to many grand department stores like E.C. Minas, the Lion Store, Kresge's, F.W. Woolworth and the Goldblatt's that native son Jean Shepherd immortalized in "A Christmas Story."
The city's center of retail started to shift south when Carson Pirie Scott opened in 1954 at the Woodmar Mall at Indianapolis Boulevard and 165th Street at a time when the city and nation were suburbanizing. Later rebranded as just Carson's, it was originally a 115,000-square-foot, two-story department store, but a third floor was added in the 1960s, when Woodmar was enclosed.
Southlake Mall in Hobart and River Oaks Center in Calumet City went up, drawing away many shoppers as the old industrial city lost population and major employers like the W.B. Conkey bookbinding plant and the Pullman-Standard train car factory closed and people moved from north Lake County to newer suburbs south and east.
After years of decline, the mall, which was formerly home to landmarks like Court of Lions, the Court of Turtles, Woodmar Records, a popular arcade and a bookstore catering to the nearby Purdue University Northwest campus, was torn down in 2006.
Carson's soldiered on alone until last year, when its parent company, The Bon-Ton Stores, went bankrupt after failing to turn an annual profit since 2010 and burning through its cash.
Now Hammond is tearing down the Carson’s that long anchored the V-shaped mall designed by the Austrian architect Victor David Gruen, one of the biggest and best-known shopping mall designers in America from the 1950s to the 1970s.
The last remnant of the Woodmar Mall is being wiped from the lakefront city's landscape. JM Wrecking is now using excavators to tear chunks out of the brick building after all the asbestos was removed.
Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. said the city had gotten proposals on redeveloping the city-owned Carson's property, which includes the store's parking lots, from four or five developers. He’s hoping for restaurants and hotels that could serve the youth sports league athletes and their parents flocking to the neighboring $17 million Hammond SportsPlex, a state-of-the-art youth sports facility that opened last year.
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“We were going to do a ceremony, maybe knocking down a wall with a sledgehammer,” he said. “But some in the administration thought it might be tasteless since so many people have good memories of the place. This is progress, but we'll do a ribbon-cutting at a more appropriate time.”
McDermott said it was unlikely any department store chain would move in and take over the vacant Carson's building at a time when most department stores chains were closing stores or going out of business. Carson's itself had been looking to downsize before it closed.
"In this day and age, one retail chain after another is going bankrupt," McDermott said. "People are going on Amazon and getting their clothes or gifts sent to them right on their doorsteps. We'd like to have something small, hotels and restaurants."
Hammond is reviewing proposals by developers for the site. McDermott said there's been a lot of initial interest.
"It's immediately adjacent to the Hammond SportsPlex and 15,000 cars per day pass right by there," McDermott said. "There's heavy traffic at that site."
The demolition of the Carson's marks the end of an era, McDermott said.
"People use to shop in downtown Hammond and that changed," he said. "Woodmar Mall was dominant when I was a kid. It had a lot of shoppers but then they built River Oaks and Southlake, which are now struggling themselves. Woodmar had moved downhill by the time I became mayor. Woodmar still had some good stores and an arcade, but it was its last gasp. This is the end of the mall era in our city. I don't think malls are a good bet long term anywhere, and I sure wouldn't invest in one."
Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.