On April 21, 1950, a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Bon Marché store that will anchor the Northgate Shopping Mall for decades marks the opening of the celebrated new shopping center at NE Northgate Way and 5th Avenue NE in Seattle. Planned by developers Rex Allison and Ben B. Ehrlichman (1895-1971) and designed by John Graham Jr. (1908-1991), Northgate is the country's first regional shopping center to be defined as a "mall" (although there were at least three predecessor shopping centers). The stores face "a wide shopping walkway, probably to be known as the Mall or Plaza, in which no vehicles will be permitted" (Fussell). The parking lot will quickly be found insufficient for the number of shoppers attracted by the Bon Marché and the various smaller specialty stores that will open in the center through the coming months.
Suburban Shopping Center
Northgate was the brainchild of Rex Allison, president of the Bon Marché. Before World War II, he envisioned a suburban shopping center. The economic boom following Allied victory in 1945 allowed Allied Stores, the firm that then owned the Bon Marché, to involve developers Ben B. Ehrlichman (1895-1971) and W. Walter Williams (1894-1983), who formed the Suburban Co. (later The Northgate Co.). They retained architect John H. Graham Jr. to design the project and announced their plans in February 1948. In 1949, Allied bought out Ehrlichman and Williams and appointed James B. Douglas (1909-2005) to run the project as president.
Northgate was sited north of what were then the Seattle city limits (the city would not annex the area from N 85th to N 145th until 1954) on 62 acres between E (later NE) 103rd Street and E 111th Street and between 1st Avenue NE and 5th Avenue NE. The north end of Seattle was chosen because of its dramatic growth over the previous 20 years and because of the ship canal bridges that fed Aurora Avenue N and Roosevelt Way NE. Northgate is often credited as being the nation's or the world's first suburban shopping center. However, in 1947 two other such shopping centers opened: the Broadway-Crenshaw Center in South Los Angeles and the North Shore Center in Beverly, Massachusetts; in 1949 the Town and Country center opened in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio.
The Bon Marché planned a three-story, $3 million store at the Northgate complex. Other tenants signing on early were the National Bank of Commerce, an A&P grocery store, Ernst Hardware, Newberry's, and Nordstrom's shoes. There was room in the planned center for 80 stores, which could be serviced by an underground tunnel. There would also be a four-story medical-dental center. A five-cent shuttle bus was offered from the end of Seattle Transit System service at N 85th Street.
Northgate opened to shoppers with great excitement at noon on April 21, 1950, when Winifred Hines, a 42-year employee of the Bon Marché, cut the ceremonial ribbon at the flagship department store's entrance, assisted by Bon president Rex Allison. The event was telecast on KING-TV, which had been on the air for less than a year. The Seattle Times reported that from the noon ceremony, the Bon Marché "was jammed with shopping thousands until the closing hour at 9 o'clock" ("Thousands Visit ...").
Northgate was an instant success, even though many retail spaces were still vacant, and indeed parts of the center were still under construction when the Bon opened. (It took until 1952 for all the retail spaced to be leased.) As new tenants signed on, the stores were opened four or five at a time, with great publicity. The parking lot was jammed at peak hours for 10 days following opening. Some shoppers had a tough time adjusting to the design and parked their cars on the mall. The developers used polar bear cubs, a Cadillac giveaway, and a children's play area to attract shoppers. New electric-eye doors in some stores aided shoppers laden with packages.
Northgate took the national spotlight during the holiday season in 1950 when Life magazine featured the world-record 212-foot Christmas tree put up at the mall. In 1952, Bellevue sculptor Dudley C. Carter designed and carved a 59-foot cedar totem pole to decorate the entrance to the mall. The mall area was used for special events such as the 1953 General Motors automobile show.
The opening of Interstate 5 just west of the mall spurred a $10 million, 25-store expansion in 1965, more than doubling the project's size. By that time the mall included a movie theater and Northgate Hospital. Apartment buildings and office developments sprang up in the area. By 1968, some 50,000 cars a day were using Northgate.
The success of the Southcenter Mall in Tukwila spurred Northgate to enclose the complex create a covered mall, to providing a climate-controlled environment, in 1974. By 1980, there were 123 stores. In 1987, the Simon Property Group of Indiana acquired Northgate. In 1992, Federated Department Stores, Inc., a Cincinnati-based company that owned Macy's and numerous other retail chains, acquired the Bon Marché. By 2005 all former Bon Marché stores, including the Northgate Mall anchor, had been rebranded as Macy's.