The Bon Marché anchored the $3 million shopping center, back when it had an uncovered ‘Miracle Mile.’
PERHAPS THE DATE, May 16, 1950, scribbled on the unsigned note accompanying this early portrait of Northgate’s “Miracle Mile,” is off slightly. HistoryLink.org, a nonprofit online encyclopedia of our state’s history, claims the mall opened on April 21, 1950, nearly a month before the photograph’s date.
The view in our “Then” photo looks north from the center of Seattle’s first shopping mall during its, it seems, late work-in-progress. On the far left, a temporary footprint map of the center is propped up to face east across “Main Street” to the Bon Marché, the largest and most polished of the mall’s structures.
Built for $3 million, the Bon was the new shopping center’s anchor retailer. Most of the mall’s lesser (but still large) parts kept to quonsets, one of World War II’s architectural preferences. Quonsets easily could be assembled as prefabricated huts or expanded to the size of warehouses, like the future Nordstrom Shoes, here on the left. Northgate’s superlative Bon was never a quonset.
“Designed by John Graham Jr., Northgate was the country’s first regional shopping center to be defined as a mall,” according to HistoryLink. The mall’s opening was shown on KING TV, which had been on the air for less than a year. A Cadillac was given as a prize. Some of the stores startled shoppers with electric-eye doors. A 212-foot-tall Christmas tree of world-record size — it was claimed — was raised above this part of the mall. The tree was featured in Life Magazine.
The tree was captured with day and night recordings for the Ellis studio’s statewide distribution of “real photo” postcards. Ellis’ other Northgate Christmas card was captioned “World Largest Santa Claus — North Gate Shopping Center — Seattle Washington.” This Santa glorification does not seem as appropriate as that of the tree. Ron Edge, a frequent aid to this feature, remembers, “Kids are still probably having nightmares from Northgate’s oversized Santa. With its menacing eyes, it looked like a maniac.”
The Seattle Times, on Feb. 22, 1948, reported the “curtain of secrecy which has enveloped the mammoth project was pulled aside,” revealing “the biggest suburban development of its type in the U.S.” The term “mall” was most often used for the north-and-south centerline of the development. In the early 1980s, when I first began delivering freshly published “Now & Then” books to Seattle bookstores, I was thrilled to learn that running below the mall was an austere tunnel designed for speedy deliveries to Northgate’s retailers, which included chain and independent book stores.
From its start in 1950, Northgate showed an often-wild popularity that stuffed its surrounding parking lots with thousands of visitors. It was a retail flood that soon would pain the established shops in the University District, Northgate’s competing retail neighborhood to the south. Northgate’s many remodels created a covered and heated expanse of attractions. Its comforts were used by seniors for winter walks, and exploring groups of teenagers practicing consumer — and human — development.