1956 southdale interior garden court Life magazine photo archive
The Southdale Center in Edina, Minnesota in 1956. Life magazine photo archive

When the Southdale Center in Edina, Minnesota opened its doors in 1956, its design was revolutionary.

Southdale was the first modern indoor mall in the US, and eventually became a national symbol of car-centric, consumerist, postwar suburbia.

The shopping mall featured a large central atrium with escalators that led to two upper floors. A pair of department stores anchored each end of the climate-controlled complex, which was surrounded by thousands of parking spaces.

Over the next half-century, thousands of American malls copied Southdale’s layout (which has since gone through several renovations).

While Southdale is still open today, a number of similar malls have died or are being redeveloped to survive, due largely to the rise of online shopping. Check out the history of Southdale, which defined American shopping habits throughout the late 20th century.

In 1956, the Southdale Center debuted in Edina, a growing Minnesotan suburb of 15,000 at the time. Eight hundred workers built the mall, which cost $20 million to construct.

In 1956, the Southdale Center debuted in Edina, a growing Minnesotan suburb of 15,000 at the time. Eight hundred workers built the mall, which cost $20 million to construct.
Minnesota Historical Society

Southdale’s opening year marked the 100th anniversary of the city of Minneapolis. Dayton Development Company (now Target Corporation) announced the concept of the climate-controlled, enclosed mall in 1952.

Source: The New Yorker

The mall originally had 5,200 parking spaces on its lot, though it has since added more with an underground parking garage.

The mall originally had 5,200 parking spaces on its lot, though it has since added more with an underground parking garage.
Minnesota Historical Society

The 500-acre mall stretched three floors. (A fourth was added later.) In this 1956 photo, construction workers are finishing storefronts before the grand opening, which attracted around 75,000 people.

The 500-acre mall stretched three floors. (A fourth was added later.) In this 1956 photo, construction workers are finishing storefronts before the grand opening, which attracted around 75,000 people.
Minnesota Historical Society

”People came in and looked and their mouths opened.” Herman Guttman, who supervised Southdale’s construction, told The New York Times in 1986. ”The impact was phenomenal. There was nothing like it.”

Source: The Guardian

Southdale’s layout —featuring a center atrium under a skylight, escalators, a huge parking lot, air conditioning, and heating — provided a model for many malls that followed. Until that point, most shopping centers were single-level and outdoors, with store entrances facing the parking area.

Southdale's layout —featuring a center atrium under a skylight, escalators, a huge parking lot, air conditioning, and heating — provided a model for many malls that followed. Until that point, most shopping centers were single-level and outdoors, with store entrances facing the parking area.
Minnesota Historical Society

There were precedents, like Seattle’s Northgate Mall and Appleton, Wisconsin’s Valley Fair Mall (which both opened in the early ’50s), but their layouts were partially outdoors.

The mall’s architect, Victor Gruen, designed the building to mimic Vienna’s outdoor squares, with plants hanging from the balconies and plenty of space for people to mingle. In the atrium, there was a fish pond, large faux trees, and a 21-foot cage filled with birds.

The mall's architect, Victor Gruen, designed the building to mimic Vienna's outdoor squares, with plants hanging from the balconies and plenty of space for people to mingle. In the atrium, there was a fish pond, large faux trees, and a 21-foot cage filled with birds.
Minnesota Historical Society

The word “mall” comes from the wide, tree-lined promenade in St. James’s Park, London, dubbed the “Mall” starting in the 18th century.

The Sidewalk Cafe, as seen in this 1965 photo, was an outdoor-themed indoor restaurant, complete with umbrellas.

The Sidewalk Cafe, as seen in this 1965 photo, was an outdoor-themed indoor restaurant, complete with umbrellas.
Southdale Center, 1965. Minnesota Historical Society

Gruen, a socialist refugee from Nazi-occupied Austria, envisioned Southdale Center as a solution to suburbia’s lack of public space. The atrium, called the Garden Court, was the largest indoor public area in the US at the time.

Gruen, a socialist refugee from Nazi-occupied Austria, envisioned Southdale Center as a solution to suburbia's lack of public space. The atrium, called the Garden Court, was the largest indoor public area in the US at the time.
Minnesota Historical Society

The mall was meant to be a town center-type facility in the suburbs. The original plan called for a town hall, police department, and…