July 01, 2015

Photo Essay: The Dead Mall of the Carousel (Updated for 2024)

[Last updated 3/31/24 4:36 PM PT—Carousel Mall was completely demolished in Fall 2023. Recent photos of the cleared site were added to the bottom of this post.]

I grew up with a generation that was obsessed with the mall. When my sister and I were little, our dad used to bring us on the occasional day trip to a mall in some other city – maybe Utica – for a little mall tourism. We didn't even have to buy anything. We could just walk around.

It was a great escape from the summer heat while my dad was at work, the perfect spot to meet my friends and not have to spend any money, and even a great date place. You could get dinner and a movie. You could get your ears pierced, your hair cut, and your nails done, and then get your portrait taken.

And, starting in the early 1990s, you could ride a carousel.

In Syracuse, when Carousel Center opened, it was a big deal. It was the first time that a mall had really embraced its identity as an amusement park – just as commercialistic, with just as much walking around. All it needed was a ride to complement your Orange Julius, popcorn, and ice cream.

Tourists starting coming down from Canada just to shop at Carousel. And seeing the revenue-generating potential, other malls, like Shoppingtown, followed suit and installed their own merry-go-rounds.

But it wasn't quite the same: Carousel Center was built around a 1909 carousel by the Philadelphia Toboggen Company, which had spent the greater part of the 20th century at amusement parks in Kentucky, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania, and in Upstate New York parks. I didn't know it was historic when I rode it on Maria's 16th birthday. I just knew I loved it.

Another Carousel Mall popped up around the same time, across the country: but it wasn't a new mall, just a rebranding of the Central City Mall in San Bernardino, California. Built in 1972, Central City Mall was part of a major revitalization plan for historic downtown San Bernardino, directly across from the Civic Center and incorporating the historic Harris Company building, which had been there since 1927.

The big revitalization of the early 70s didn't go quite as planned, and the mall languished from the late 70s to the late 80s...

...until another revitalization plan brought a brand new carousel – and a new name – to the shopping center.

Unfortunately, the new theme wasn't enough to attract enough patrons to keep the anchor stores there... Montgomery Ward, JC Penney, and all of the rest of them left and went elsewhere...

...just like the shoppers did.

Now, Carousel Mall in San Bernardino is technically a dead mall...

...but the casket lid hasn't been closed on this one.

The mall is still open for business.

The doors haven't been locked yet.

It's just that...well, nobody's really walking through those open doors.

It has the eeriness of a ghost town whose population has dwindled down to just a few residents...

...who stay inside, peering out of their kitchen windows from behind the curtains... whomever dares to visit.

The main tenant is the County of San Bernardino, including its school district.

Sometimes you hear the faint echo of childish prater wafting down the mallway...

...but no one rides that carousel anymore.

Unlike the one in Syracuse, which had been rescued and restored...

...this carousel was built new, at the cost of $300,000.

It's in great condition...

...and has a distinctly modern feel compared to most of the vintage ones out there...

...though its modernity has all the charm of being over 20 years old – not quite old enough to be historic, and not nearly new enough to be exciting.

The few non-governmental tenants that are left include a Chinese food restaurant, a pawn shop, a couple mom-and-pop shops, and a news radio station.

But all the mall directories are pretty much just blank...

...and even some of the stores that still display their goods in the window weren't actually open for business. It's as though they just left...and left everything behind.

The Central City Mall has somewhat of a double identity: the entry points on three sides of it are through large parking lots and multi-level structures...

...while one side abuts two vintage buildings in a more pedestrian-friendly setting.

But this mall never really got the walk-in traffic they hoped for.

And now the Harris Building stands vacant.

Once the flagship for a popular chain of department stores in the Inland Empire... attracted shoppers with its Italian marble entryway...

...colorful tiles, and ornamental stonework and grillwork.

Patrons would walk through large copper doors not just to shop, but also to visit the tea room, cafe, and roof garden.

But no more: much of the building's 1920s features were replaced with more "modern" amenities in the early 1970s with the opening of the Central City Mall – which it found itself literally and physically connected to. The Harris Company survived multiple recessions, but even a merger couldn't help them as customers increasingly preferred to go (or stay) out in the suburbs for their shopping. Single screen movie theaters in urban centers had the same problem. The historic building was vacant by the end of 1999, and the company was out of business ten years later.

The funny thing is, Carousel Center in Syracuse managed to thrive. A couple of years ago, it was rebranded "Destiny USA," and now is bigger, more popular, and more like a theme park than ever – replete with IMAX, arcades, a comedy club, a mirror maze, go-karts, a golf simulator, laser tag, and something called an "inversion tunnel" (which I really want to check out). Maybe it's because it was already in the suburbs. Maybe the harsh climate makes Upstate New Yorkers appreciate an enclosed mall more than Californians do.

Though it doesn't have the word "carousel" in its name anymore, the Syracuse shopping center of my youth still has the same carousel that spins 'round, up on the second floor by the food court. It's hard to imagine that one ever becoming a dead mall.

But then again, it never occurred to me that we would ever lose Fayetteville Mall, or Fairmount Fair, or Camillus Mall...

Update for 2024: Carousel Mall in San Bernardino was demolished in Fall 2023 after closing in 2017 and sustaining damage in a vagrant-lit fire and having much of its valuables (including copper wiring) stripped in 2022. (No word on what happened to the carousel itself.)
It's hard to tell from the road as you drive by, but the view from North E Street and from the roof of the old Andreson Building (now The Enterprise Building) is decidedly empty and depressing.

No comments:

Post a Comment