Early Shopping Centers of Virginia's Tidewater Area

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Early Shopping Centers of Virginia's Tidewater Area

Post by carolinatraveler »

The following was written several years ago at the request of a research specialist that had been working on the history of early shopping centers. Having discovered this forum, it seems that this article would be of interest to readers here.

I grew up in Hampton, VA during the postwar boom of the Tidewater area, and the natures of the cities that make up Tidewater perhaps have contributed to my interests. It certainly puts me in a unique position to provide information about early shopping centers as the Tidewater area has (and had) a large number of centers that date from before the end of WW2. Furthermore, I was a child of “displaced Carolinians”, folks from North Carolina who had traveled to Tidewater in the wartime and postwar boom to work in the Military-Industrial complex. We, as a group, made up about a third of the population of Tidewater. There was a mass exodus every Friday evening as many returned “home” for the weekend. I grew up making the trip frequently, and saw much of 20th century North Carolina develop in the process.

About Tidewater: Prior to July 1, 1952, the area that is now the Tidewater area consisted of the “inner” cities of Newport News, Hampton, Suffolk, Norfolk and Portsmouth, anchoring the defunct Virginia counties of Elizabeth City, Warwick, Norfolk, Princess Anne, and Nansemond, along with more rural counties of York, Isle of Wight, Gloucester that are now part of the greater metro area.
On July 1, 1952, the small city of Hampton, Virginia incorporated the former Elizabeth City County and town of Phoebus into a new city of Hampton. Fifteen days later neighboring Warwick County incorporated itself as the city of Warwick, which merged with Newport News in 1958. These two counties, now cities, make up the portion of Tidewater known as the Peninsula. Across the bay, known as Hampton Roads, the 17th century cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth (along with the smaller cities of South Norfolk and Virginia Beach) were expanding their borders, absorbing portions of Norfolk and Princess Anne counties. In 1963 Princess Anne County merged with the small city of Virginia Beach to form the new Virginia Beach and South Norfolk merged with Norfolk County to form the city of Chesapeake. Later, in 1974, Nansemond County incorporated itself as the city of Nansemond, the then a year later merged with the city of Suffolk, which it entirely surrounded. These three counties which were now five cities make up the portion of Tidewater known as Southside Hampton Roads.
During the 23 years between 1952 and 1975, five largely rural counties became modern cities, largely though the growth of suburbia that was anchored by shopping centers.

Shopping center development had begun on the Peninsula side many years earlier, when Newport News real estate brokers Drucker & Falk began development of Wythe Shopping Center. Wythe, an unincorporated town in rural Elizabeth City County, began as housing that sprang up along a streetcar track that ran from Newport News to Hampton in the 1890s. A road connecting the two towns, now known as Kecoughtan Road, as connected from pieces that existed prior to 1900 and located one long block off the streetcar track. A planned residential development, Indian River, was built beginning in the 1920s and classic “taxpayer” retail blocks began to develop along Kecoughtan Road. Central to the first Wythe business district were a fire station, school, gas stations, and competing A&P and Pender’s grocery stores.
Without Pender’s, it is unlikely that early shopping center development would have taken place at the pace it did in Tidewater. In 1901 David Pender, a Tarboro, NC native, opened a grocery store in downtown Norfolk. Over time, it became one of the premier service grocers in the South and survived in various formats for over 70 years. In 1919 Pender began opening branch stores, first throughout Tidewater and Northeastern North Carolina, later throughout most of Virginia and North Carolina. In 1926 Pender sold the chain to a New York holding company, National Food Stores, that merged Pender’s with Atlanta based Rogers Stores. Both the Pender’s and Rogers chains continued to grow into the 1930s, with competition only from local grocers, small local chains, and A&P. In December 1937 Pender’s opened their first supermarket, branded “Big Star”, here in Greensboro. In rapid order throughout Virginia and North Carolina, Big Star Supermarkets replaced Pender’s stores, while in Georgia and South Carolina, Big Star Supermarkets replaced neighborhood Rogers stores. In 1947 all of the self service stores operated by the chain took the corporate name, first introduced in 1940, Colonial Stores and the CS Rooster logo was introduced.

Back in Wythe, the developers of Wythe Shopping Center were courting both A&P and Pender’s, with their existing stores barely two blocks away, and opened their center in, as best as I can determine, early 1938. It opened with the Wythe Pharmacy, Wythe Theater, a beauty shop, Fields 5 & 10, and several other small stores, while construction was underway in what would open in April 1940 as a Big Star Supermarket. Shortly after the Big Star opened, a new A&P supermarket opened just across a side street from the Wythe Theater. Eventually the A&P would be joined by a F. W. Woolworth store, completing a two-block development that has been said to be Virginia’s first shopping center with off-street parking.

Even earlier, in 1936, Pender’s non-supermarket style full service grocery stores had opened one of the largest stores to operate under the Pender name in a small off-street center at 28th St and Colley Avenue in Norfolk. This structure, which still stands as well, is listed only as Pender’s Drive-In Market. Its developers didn’t consider it a shopping center, nor did the public at the time it was built, as it was more a taxpayer block, but from a historical prospective it looks like a shopping center so I am mentioning it here. A replacement store, a full fledged free-standing Big Star opened at Colley & 20th in 1940 and Pender’s abandoned the site, leaving it to later independent store operators.

In December, 1941, another “shopping center” Big Star store opened in the 7500 block of Norfolk’s Granby Street, at Wards Corner in what would be known as Suburban Shopping Center. Other tenants includes the Ben Franklin 5 and 10 franchise that is the predecessor to today’s Dollar Tree stores, a newsstand, a bank, barber shop and beauty shop and other neighborhood stores. Wards Corner, sometimes called Times Square of the South, would develop into a pioneer shopping center mecca that is largely intact today.

Then came World War II and hundreds of thousands of war workers and military personnel found themselves in Tidewater. With acute shortages of housing, several temporary housing complexes were set up quickly in Norfolk (Broad Creek Village), Portsmouth (Alexander Park), and between Hampton and Newport News (Copeland Park). There were other smaller and minority complexes built, but these three largest each contained a primitive shopping center. All three sites were anchored by Pender’s “Little Star” (smaller format) supermarket, and the centers at Broad Creek Village and Alexander Park featured Rose’s 5&10 stores.

I have done extensive research on Rose’s (several generations of my family have worked at Rose’s) and had considered a book someday on the chain. Rose’s was founded in 1915 in Henderson, NC and had built a chain of 118 five and ten stores at the beginning of WW2. Henderson is on the outer edge of the portion of northeastern North Carolina that traded in Norfolk, and beginning in 1933 the Rose’s chain began expanding into Tidewater. In 1941 Paul Rose opened a department store on Norfolk’s 21st Street, which eventually also developed (in 1949) into a multi-store center with off-street parking. After the war Rose’s would open their first shopping center store, #123, at Wards Corner in Norfolk, one of the later pioneer centers I will mention later.

On the Peninsula, late during World War II, adjacent to other privately developed housing projects for war workers, two new shopping centers were built. Stuart Gardens Shopping Center began development at 18th St and Wickham Avenue in Newport News. Anchoring the center was, of course, a Big Star store, along with the Stuart Theater, Bernards 5 & 10, a drug store and other small shops. Southampton Shopping Center was built further east on Kecoughtan Road, nearer Hampton, and opened with a Rich’s Supermarket and other small shops. A second phase, across Kecoughtan Road from the first, included a Pender’s Little Star store, a drug store, restaurants and more.

Along with Pender’s/Colonial and Rose’s, Rich’s would appear frequently in Tidewater commercial development. James E. Rich, Jr., son of grocer James Rich, Sr., was born above his parents grocery store at 25th Street and Jefferson Avenue in Newport News in 1902. He worked in the family’s business for years before, in the 1930s, opening first a gas station and later a small supermarket on opposite corners of 35th Street and Chestnut Avenue on what was then the northern edge of Newport News. Rich would prove himself many years ahead of his time when his stores included such things as 24 hour operation, separate departments for general merchandise (particularly hardware), gas pumps in the parking lots, and eventually small neighborhood convenience store formats. Rich’s also operated a chain of drive-in restaurants as well during the 1960s and early 1970s before national fast-food chains had taken a firm hold.

Anyway, at the end of World War II, Tidewater featured eight developments that would be considered shopping centers by today’s standards. The Peninsula had four, with commercially developed centers Wythe, Southampton, and Stuart Gardens and government developed Copeland Park, while Southside Hampton Roads had four as well, with commercially developed Pender’s Drive In and Suburban and government developed Broad Creek Village and Alexander Park. Still standing on the Peninsula today are Wythe, the south section of Southampton (north side torn down in the 1990s and rebuilt as a Food Lion center), and Stuart Gardens. Copeland Park center was torn down when the rest of the development was disassembled or demolished beginning in 1958. Still standing on the Southside are the Pender’s Drive In and Suburban centers and, badly abandoned but the only building in the development still standing is the shopping center building at Alexander Park. The Broad Creek Village development, including the shopping center, was also disassembled or demolished beginning in 1958.

Another early Virginia shopping center is the 1938 Cary Court Park & Shop, in the 3100 block of West Cary Street in Richmond, VA. Opened with anchors A&P, Safeway, and S.S.Kresge, Cary Court was Richmond’s first shopping center and the center of a revitalized mixed use development today called Carytown.

One other center, arguably the most significant of all early Tidewater centers, is commonly known as Wards Corner Shopping Center, after the intersection where it is located, but was built as Midtown Shopping Center. Wards Corner, the intersection of Granby Street and what is now Little Creek Road (originally Sewells Point Road) takes its name from a Mr. Ward who ran a Texaco station in the northwest quadrant of the intersection beginning in 1926. Family members ran a Texaco station on the site well into the 1990s. After Suburban Shopping Center was developed in the southeast quadrant in 1940, the commercial potential for the site was enormous. Development began with significant input from Paul Rose, whose operations would occupy multiple sites in the center, and construction began as soon as wartime restrictions were lifted. Midtown Center opened in 1947 with a Rose’s 5&10, and other Rose operations including Midtown Furniture and PHR Cradle Shop (baby needs and children’s clothing), as well as the area’s first shopping center branch of Peoples Service Drugs and an enlarged Colonial Store (relocated from across Little Creek Road from Suburban Center). Other smaller shops and an office building rounded out the development. It was enlarged in 1951 when the Midtown Furniture section was rebuilt into the multi-story PHR Center Shops, an early department store operated by Paul Rose. As a child it always fascinated me that their was a hole in the wall between the Center Shops store and Roses, where customers could pass through between the two stores. The center retained its original appearance well into the 1960s, although the Colonial Store later gave way to a branch of Norfolk’s Smith & Whelton Department Store. This center is intact but endangered today and needs historic preservation and recognition for what it was, the earliest “regional” shopping center in the south. If there is anything that you can do to help this center gain recognition and protection, it would be appreciated by many.

After World War II, shopping center development began in earnest throughout Virginia and the Carolinas with this concept of the regional shopping centers. The earliest postwar centers not previously mentioned include Raleigh NC’s Cameron Village, today a vibrant center that retains much of its original form and it seems to serve as a model for today’s “multi-block” type “village” centers and Greenville SC’s Lewis Plaza, an art-moderne gem that hit bottom 15 years ago and is well on its way to reclaimed glory.

Wayne Henderson, Kernersville, NC
Wards Corner, Norfolk, VA
Wards Corner, Norfolk, VA
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