FRAMINGHAM — Ruthann Tomassini was a young girl when Shoppers World opened in 1951.
She remembers going to the shopping mall with her family. It was the first shopping mall “east of the Rockies,” according to the Framingham History Center.
“The kingpin” of the mall was Jordan Marsh, a New England retail mainstay whose store was covered by a dome that many looked at as a grounded flying saucer. The plaza originally had 44 stores in all, including a cinema that could seat 1,432 people, according to the history center.
Retailers included Album, a records and greeting card store; Dorothea’s a ladies’ clothing store; Sears; a Stop & Shop grocery store; Framingham Trust Co. and many more.
WWII had ended and development was booming
“I can remember the excitement of it.” said Tomassini, now a volunteer at the history center. “It really was a family stopping place.”
Shoppers World still exists today but in a much different form. Gone is the shopping plaza’s garden and walking paths, replaced with a large parking lot for big box stores such Best Buy, Marshalls and Barnes & Noble.
In October, the plaza will mark its 70th anniversary.
Frederic Wallace, Framingham’s city historian, said at the time of the shopping center’s arrival in 1951, the city’s population was growing. World War II had ended only a few years before. Development was booming alongside Rte. 9. in what would become known first as the “Golden Mile,” and later the “Golden Triangle” — a commercial area around Exit 13 of the Massachusetts Turnpike that includes the Natick Mall, Shoppers World and Rte. 9.
The shopping center was pedestrian-friendly. Its open courtyard setting allowed for shoppers to enjoy both the weather and the flowers planted at the shopping center.
That said, the shopping center was designed for those coming in by car.
“It became a center for commerce and restaurants,” Wallace said.
In the early 1950s, a shopping mall was a novel concept.
But it made sense to bring the concept to this part of the country, Wallace said. It is said to be the country’s second-oldest mall.
Dana Dauterman Riccardi was the Framingham History Center’s curator in 2013 when it made an exhibit celebrating the history of the shopping plaza. She did a lot of research to understand what Framingham was like in the early 1950s.
“It was growing steadily in the years after World War II it, and poised for further growth. Popular restaurants on Rte. 9 drew locals and travelers,” Ricarrdi wrote on a slide that was included in the exhibit.
From the archive:Framingham History Center mounts fun, nostalgic exhibit about Shoppers World back in 2013.
20th-century town green
Wallace said the mall “was a magnet for people.”
In addition to shopping at stores, it “almost became the 20th-century town green for Framingham and surrounding communities,” he said.
In the center of the mall, there were benches to sit on and flowers to smell. Wallace said it wasn’t uncommon for people just to go to the shopping center to chat.
“They had something going on in that area year-round,” he said. “In the summertime, it was kind of a playground and park area where kids could play.”
During the holidays, the shopping center would also be decked out in décor.
Riccardi knew the carpenter, Harold Purington, who made the iconic wooden soldiers that could be seen at the plaza. He was the official carpenter for the shopping center, she said.
“One year for Christmas, they asked him, ‘Could you make us some wooden soldiers?'”
Purington created multiple wooden soldiers, including a captain, which stood twice as high as the rest, she said. While the toy soldiers are now maintained by the city’s Department of Public Works, it’s been said that the captain soldier is buried under Shoppers World, Riccardi said. A call seeking confirmation of that theory was not returned by the DPW.
Wallace’s wife, Nancy Coville Wallace, remembers going to Shoppers World regularly. Jordan Marsh was a favorite.
“They had the most fantastic blueberry muffin that you’ve ever had in your life, not to be found anywhere else since,” she said.
She also enjoyed going to the stationery store, buying clothes and catching a flick.
As the years went by, the shopping center continued to attract customers as places such as downtown Framingham dwindled, Riccardi explained.
Rte. 9 becomes the Golden Mile
The Shopping Center helped attract new business along Rte. 9, helping bolster the Golden Mile.
“New restaurants included the Monticello, the Chateau De Ville, Giovanni’s, Beacon Terrace, Howard Johnson, Sea ‘n Surf, Golden Eagle, Red Coach Grille and others,” reads a slide from the history center exhibit.
While the plaza was helping attract business to Framingham, it dealt with financial struggles as early as three years after it opened, Riccardi said. The shopping plaza was the brainchild of Huston Rawl, who established the real estate trust that developed the plaza.
“The record number of innovations, shoppers and sales could not save Huston Rawls’ empire from crumbling when poorly written leases, the lack of a second anchor, and a reduction in the loan by the lending agency took their toll on the bottom line of the enterprise,” she wrote.
By the 1980s, with myriad challenges, Shoppers World owners Allied Stores agreed to sell its interest to Melvin Simon and Associates. There were plans to tear down the shopping plaza and replace it with an enclosed mall. That plan was approved by the Planning Board but that faced a legal challenge by the Natick Mall.
Plans to tear down the mall
In 1994, as the shopping center began to show its age, its then-owner, Homart Development Company (Sears’ real estate division), decided to tear down the shopping center. Homart had also bought the Natick Mall, Riccardi wrote.
The original plan was to build a new enclosed mall at Shoppers World and an open shopping plaza where the Natick Mall was.
But that didn’t work out, because Filene’s, a department store that was proposed to be an anchor at the new Shoppers World, had recently remodeled its Natick store and didn’t want to build a new one.
“Homart then reversed the plans. The new Natick Mall opened in late 1994; the original Shoppers’ World in Framingham closed in August 1994, and was scheduled for demolition. It would be replaced by a ‘power center’ consisting mostly of large discount retailers.”
Efforts to save the Jordan Marsh dome
There was an effort to save the iconic Jordan Marsh dome, Riccardi said.
In 1994, just months before the plaza was set to be demolished, Framingham Building Commissioner Lew Colten inspected the dome and found it to be in excellent condition.
“Is there a more recognizable symbol of Framingham than that dome?” he asked, according to Riccardi.
Colten was able to raise about $10,000 in private pledges to save the dome. He had proposed a plan to move the dome and make it a hockey rink He estimated it would cost about $300,000.
There were other suggestions to make it a carousel, a tourist information center or a “theater in the round.”
But efforts to save the dome fell short, Riccardi wrote.
“It was Lew Colten’s understanding that Homart officials would give him until December 15th to come up with a plan to save the dome,” she wrote. “But by December 1st, the outer layer of the dome was being peeled off. Complete dismantling followed, step by step.”
MetroWest Daily News columnist Tom Moroney was among the loudest voices seeking to save the dome, dedicating several columns urging developers to preserve it.
Today, the old Shoppers World is remembered fondly. A Facebook group titled “The Old Shoppers World was Better” has more than 10,000 members. Old advertisements and photos from inside the mall are posted regularly.
Cesareo Contreras can be reached at 508-626-3957 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @cesareo_r.