Photos from the Vault

Shopping in bomb shelters

The Madonna Plaza construction site circa late 1967. Union Oil tank farm is at top edge of photo, below that is Sunset Drive-in. The first park and shop shopping center next to Highway 101 cost $5 million and was said to the the largest between Santa Barbara and Salinas-Monterey.
The Madonna Plaza construction site circa late 1967. Union Oil tank farm is at top edge of photo, below that is Sunset Drive-in. The first park and shop shopping center next to Highway 101 cost $5 million and was said to the the largest between Santa Barbara and Salinas-Monterey. File Photo

Shopping malls give me claustrophobia. They feel like windowless bomb shelters.

Turns out that was intentional.

A recent article on the website Curbed traces the design of the two-story enclosed shopping mall to the Cold War.

In 1956, Austrian-born architect Victor Gruen designed an inward-facing, fully enclosed shopping center in the Minneapolis suburb of Edina. The underground Southside Mall could double as a nuclear bomb shelter.

Talk about a Black Friday.

San Luis Obispo only briefly had an enclosed mall. The Central Coast Plaza was built in 1986 with Gottschalks and what is now Embassy Suites as anchors. The mall developer wanted two retail anchors, but the city wanted a motel.

The indoor mall concept was already beginning to fade, and the facility never rented all the store fronts. That mall has since been bulldozed and redeveloped as an open-air mall. The county no longer has a bomb shelter that doubles as retail space.

Probably a good idea. Those plate-glass storefronts didn’t look as though they could stand up to a nuclear blast or zombies.

San Luis Obispo’s first big park-and-shop shopping center, Madonna Plaza, was not enclosed.

When a horse-drawn plough symbolically broke ground in September 1967, no one knew whether chain shopping would destroy the downtown or just be another choice in the shopping landscape.

At the time, the $5 million facility was called the biggest single shopping center between Santa Barbara and Salinas-Monterey.

There was concern at the time on the part of planners that Santa Maria was drawing retail dollars down the freeway and out of the county. However, both Santa Maria and Lompoc were said to have downtowns “go to seed” when malls were built near town.

It was also noted that neither town had the equivalent of the proposed new Mission Plaza.

Madonna Plaza: one of the first tilt-up construction projects in the county

Planning laws were soon amended to place magnet businesses such as movie theaters downtown, though for a while Madonna Plaza had a three-screen movie theater.

Construction was underway in April 1968, three years after the original developer and the city dueled over various planning items. It was one of the first locations in the county to use tilt-up construction techniques. Reinforced concrete slabs were poured on the ground, cured for seven days and then tilted up with a crane to form walls.

Downtown merchants did not like the idea of competing with 30-odd stores and 1,700 free parking spaces next to the freeway.

Founding businesses included W.T. Grant Co., Singer, United California Bank, Orange Julius, Jay Vee Women’s Apparel, GallenKamp Shoes, Mode O’Day women’s shop, Jordanos Market and Thrifty Drug store.

The cement arches were “inspired by old Spanish Missions,” according to a handout photo.

The first store to open was Thrifty Drug Store in mid-August 1968. The grand opening was scheduled for Nov. 14, 1968.

Leonard K. Firestone bought the leases in October that year.

The son of the famed rubber tire tycoon was in town to lobby local attorney Peter Andre for a Republican campaign contribution.

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