I’m a mall enthusiast. There aren’t a lot of us left these days, but those who remain have enough passion to fill the Mall of America twice over. When we’re not at whatever malls remain within fifty-mile radiuses of our homes, we’re vacationing to more distant malls. And when we’re not doing that, we spend our time frequenting websites and social media pages dedicated to documenting mall history and sharing mall memories. Nobody knows quite what drives us, least of all ourselves.
Last year I wrote a seven-part history of The Great Mall of the Great Plains for this blog, and when I heard that Brad Moore was writing a comprehensive history of Metcalf South Shopping Center (1967-2017), I knew I had to get an interview. Brad was kind enough to grant me one. We chatted for about an hour and he shared his extensive knowledge of the mall’s history with me, along with plenty of other interesting tidbits.
Brad is 56 years old and was born and raised in Overland Park. He’s spent all his life there except for nine years when he lived one block into Prairie Village. He currently serves as the Executive Director of the Overland Park Historical Society, having previously held the positions of Vice President and President. He’s an architect by training, and he joined the society about ten years ago when some architectural models of iconic Overland Park buildings he had put together as a hobby caught the eye of the society.
Now, you might be wondering: What kind of historical society allows a person who spent nine whole years in another city gain such a foothold in their organization? But worry not. For even when Brad was residing many meters outside of the Overland Park city limits, he was still appreciating Overland Park history. “From my bedroom window,” he told me, “I could look right on a ranch house that was on the south side of 95th [which is the Overland Park border]. It always struck me as an odd-looking house, certainly compared to those around it. And it wasn’t until I got a little older that I learned that house used to sit on the Metcalf South property and was physically picked up and moved as part of the redevelopment.”
Truly it was fate that he would become the world’s preeminent Metcalf South scholar.
Growing up so near the mall in its heyday, Brad spent a lot of time there. He said that by the time he was in junior high in the ‘70s, his mom would drop him off there for the afternoon with a pocketful of change to burn. He would meet up with his friends and together they would explore the mall and see if perhaps there were any girls they knew there. He told me that parents generally felt the mall was safe enough and didn’t worry too much about dropping kids off, and that the kids didn’t usually get into too much trouble.
“I would always hit up the two record stores,” he told me, describing an average visit to the mall. “One was called Record Bar, and the other was called Berstein-Applebee, which later closed and became Music Land. Teens would hang out in the record stores flipping through the albums. We would go to the one main arcade that Metcalf South had – it was originally called Red Baron when it opened, and a number of years later became simply Nickelodeon. But it was easy to drop a few dollars there. There was another store that us boys would always go to called Hobby Haven. We were into remote control cars or planes or model railroading and that store had all of that.”
“So those were the big draws for me personally. When I was in high school, I worked at three different businesses there in the mall: Charlie Chan [a fast-food Chinese restaurant], Hobby Haven, and another eatery called – longest store name in history – The Great American Chocolate Chip Cookie Company, which later simply shortened its name to Cookie Company. When I worked there, we had to answer the phone, ‘Hello, thank you for calling The Great American Chocolate Chip Cookie Factory at Metcalf South, this is Brad. May I help you?’”
Brad has a tremendous amount of personal history with the mall, and it was easy to see how that had inspired him to go back and research the place and write his book. He was lucky enough to get to experience the mall in some of its finest years. However, he was only a toddler when it first opened, so to get the full story and find out the early history of the mall, he had to consult old newspapers, city records, original architectural designs, and even conduct interviews.
Brad told me that before Metcalf South was anything, it was farmland. “It was owned by two families. There was a ranch house, there were a couple of lean-tos, but for the most part, it was an agricultural use corner – all four corners at that intersection were. By the mid-1950s, this whole trend of large, enclosed shopping malls was beginning to sweep the country from coast to coast, and it became very clear that that intersection at 95th and Metcalf was perfectly suited to receive such a mall concept.”
In 1955, a Tulsa businessman named Louis Moses proposed a mall to go at the northeast corner of the intersection. Brad told me that local opposition to the plan was fierce. Moses spent five long years battling the Mission Urban Township Board. (Overland Park was not yet incorporated in 1955, and so was under the control of the Mission Township.) The board’s main priority was to protect the merchants in downtown Overland Park, and they felt a mall ten blocks to the south was a substantial threat so they took every opportunity to block Moses’s plans.
Moses eventually took them to court and won an appeal with the state of Kansas to build his mall, but after five years of fighting he was over it, so he sold the northeast corner of the intersection to Frank Morgan, who was the head of a team of local investors. Morgan used that land to build the French Market (1963-2019), which was a variety of shops attached to a very large (for its time) food and drug store.
Shortly after the French Market opened, Morgan and his business partners (which included his uncle, Sherman Dreiseszun) determined that a large, enclosed mall more like what Mr. Moses had proposed was still a highly desirable prospect. They bought the property in the southeast quadrant of the intersection, and the stage was set for Metcalf South.
“By the time [Morgan] proposed what we call Metcalf South,” Brad said, “the city was incorporated. He didn’t have to fight the [Mission Urban Township Board]. He was dealing with the city and they were receptive. They recognized: ‘It’s fate. It’s going to happen.’ So, he had a relatively straightforward and seamless process of getting through the zoning changes and approvals he needed compared to what Mr. Moses went through. The mall ended up in the southeast corner and it ended up being a bigger mall than the one Mr. Moses would have built in the northeast corner, so I tell people, everything happens for a reason. And maybe the Mission Township creating the problems for Mr. Moses actually worked out best in the end, because we got a bigger mall as a result of it.”
As far as what we think of as the “classic mall” today – with everything under one roof and most of the shops accessible from inside corridors – Metcalf South was the first one we had in Johnson County. “Johnson County did have what we call the Mission Mall [at Roe and Shawnee Mission Parkway],” Brad explained, “but it wasn’t a true enclosed mall. It had a Macy’s tenant, and then it had two strips that angled off of that tenant, but it was all outside entrances. Metcalf South was the first opportunity people had to come to a thermally-controlled, 72-degree year-round, humidity-controlled space.”
Metcalf South opened with a boom in August of 1967, benefitting from busy back-to-school and holiday shopping seasons. However, after the holidays reality set in quick and retailers had to compete to survive, just like businesses anywhere else.
The mall boasted two anchors when it first opened in 1967. The first was Sears Roebuck and Company, which at the time was the largest retailer in the world. “Sears was then what Walmart is today,” Brad told me. “It was quite a coup to land a Sears store in Overland Park at Metcalf South.”
The other anchor was The Jones Store, part of a one-time chain of department stores in the Kansas City area “which was a highly-regarded, classy general merchandise store that really catered to women and children’s fashions.”
“The owners were able to court and secure and lease tenant spaces to high-quality stores. The whole idea of an ‘Everything’s $1 Store’ never would have even been considered by Metcalf South in 1967. Instead, you had highly-respected, classy, quality clothiers – stores that, a lot of them had their origins down on the Country Club Plaza. Jack Henry, which was a wonderful store catering to men’s clothing. Other stores like Chasnoff’s, Adler’s, Harzfeld’s. Helzberg Jewelers even made the decision to go into a mall.”
“Another thing that Metcalf South was very proud of originally was it had everything you could possibly need under one roof. So, in addition to a lot of high-dollar clothiers, it had a Woolworth’s, you know, a five-and-dime where you could get a toaster and a lawn chair. [Metcalf South] had a sporting goods store, it had a wig store, and it had a grocery store inside of it. They boasted that whatever you were looking for, you should be able to find it under one roof at Metcalf South.”
The first big change to the mall came in 1972. When the mall opened, it contained a Safeway grocery store which had signed a 25-year lease. Brad said that within six months of opening, Safeway realized they had made a mistake: demand simply wasn’t that strong for a grocery store in a mall. It was rough from the start, but they didn’t officially pull out of their lease until 1972.
“That freed up 25,000 square-feet of space, which the mall owners recognized, ‘Well, yeah, we’ll just create an additional mall in that 25,000 square-feet, chop it up into fourteen new tenant spaces and get more in lease revenue than we were ever getting from the Safeway store.’ So the owners were willing to let Safeway break their lease. And in the end, that’s what gave us the Record Bar and the arcade and Eddy’s Loaf and Stein, just a lot of the more memorable places ended up taking over where that Safeway had been located. That was the first big change.”
The next big change came a couple of years later when they expanded the meager third level to make room for more tenants. “There was always a third level,” Brad said. “The upper level originally was very stunted, it was not very large, and that was by design. It was always envisioned that the third level would be expanded to the south. They just wanted to wait until they – you know everything’s about business and the bottom line – so if the mall performed to the level that they expected, then they would be in a position to go ahead and extend that third level further to the south. All of the engineering was done upfront with that in mind, so they were able to add that third floor extension relatively quickly. That opened in 1974.”
Throughout the 1970s, Overland Park expanded further south and west, and in 1974 Oak Park Mall opened three miles away. It was competition for Metcalf South, but interestingly Oak Park Mall was co-developed by MD Management, which was run by Frank Morgan and Sherman Dreiseszun, who had also developed and owned Metcalf South. Two years later, they opened Metro North Mall much further away in north Kansas City, Missouri.
Brad said that he never met the duo (Morgan passed away in 1993, Dreiseszun in 2007), but has met a lot of people who worked for them or otherwise knew them. “They were uncle and nephew. Sherman was Frank’s uncle, and there’s only four years difference in their ages.” He said peers described Morgan as a busy, no-nonsense kind of guy who was very private, yet cordial, and both men were described as supportive of business owners they believed in. “They were very good at basically allowing people who could not get loans from banks… they could go to Frank and Sherman, and if Frank and Sherman believed in what they wanted to do, they would help them. They would fund them.”
He added that, “they were very private people. They preferred not to be in the paper. You won’t find many pictures of Frank Morgan – they’re out there, but you won’t find many. He didn’t like to discuss money. He didn’t like to share facts and financial figures with anybody if he could possibly avoid it. We know the mall cost about $9 million to build in 1967 – there was no way he could hide that – but for the most part, they were just quiet people. Very, very well-respected.”
Continuing on the history of the mall itself, Brad said that by the late 1970s, the interior of Metcalf South was starting to show some age, so in the early 1980s management decided “to go ahead and do a remodel that basically was new flooring. It originally had polished concrete floors. They decided to put down decorative tile. They put in more planters – just something to make the mall area itself a little more inviting and lively. But the trend in the ‘80s was earth tones, so the mall had a little bit of a homogenous generic look through it. A lot of the color went away, but it reflected the trends at the time… That was what I call ‘the beige era.’”
Brad’s book will contain a full list of tenants and tenant changes over the mall’s lifetime, but when I asked him what stores from the later era of the mall he either remembers best or hears about the most aside from Sears and The Jones Store, he mentioned Jack Henry, Frederick’s of Hollywood, Spencer’s Gifts, Gifts and Accents, Waldenbooks, and B. Dalton Booksellers. He said there was a tremendous number of shoe stores over the years: Thom McAn, Kenny’s, Steve’s Shoes, etc. He also noted a cinnamon roll store called Cinnamon Sam’s.
Business declined throughout the late 1980s due mostly to shifting demographics and southward expansion of the city. “They remodeled again in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, and I think it surprised a lot of people. People interpreted that remodel as the last attempt to try to save the mall. Some would argue that the traffic had already left the mall, and so some were surprised that they were willing to invest the money they did in the remodel. But they brought color back in that final remodel.”
From what I understood, the food court on the east side of the mall by the theater was actually part of that final remodel. I had assumed it was either always there, or that it had at least been in place by the late ‘70s, but Brad explained that food courts were more of an ‘80s concept and came to Metcalf South as part of that late ‘80s/early ‘90s renovation. Before that, eateries like Charlie Chan, Eddy’s Loaf and Stein, L&M Steakburgers, and others had just been scattered throughout the mall.
By the mid-to-late ‘90s, the writing was on the wall for Metcalf South, but Brad told me that “before Sherman passed away [in 2007] he wanted to do a major overhaul of the mall and totally remodel, reconfigure, turn it into the showplace of the metropolitan area.” Dreiseszun died before he could put any plans into action, but Brad said one such plan floated out was to leave the Jones Store and Sears in place, but tear down everything in between and replace it with a Lowe’s. “They explored several concepts for keeping the mall alive, but ultimately I think they just figured it wouldn’t pencil. So now all we have is the Lowe’s.”
After many years of dwindling business, Metcalf South Shopping Center was sold and closed in 2014. The entire structure was slowly demolished over the summer of 2017, except for the Sears, which technically was its own building. Sears remained in business until late 2017, and that building’s future remains to be determined. As of this writing, the former spot of Metcalf South is a Lowe’s, a handful of restaurants, an empty Sears, and a whole lot of parking lot.
There were many reasons for the decline of Metcalf South, but the final nail in its coffin was probably online shopping. Some malls have survived it so far, but with all of the other factors going against it and its decline already pretty sealed by the late ‘90s, online shopping made a revival of Metcalf South even more unlikely. It’s a shame, because it was one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever been in and even as a “dead mall” felt like it was brimming with potential.
“I can still smell Metcalf South,” Brad told me. “I can smell the food tenants. I can smell the water in the ponds and the fountains. With online shopping, it’s just not… unfortunately, we’ve become too invested in the bottom line. ‘Yeah, if I can save seven cents. I’m going to shop online.’ The whole cultural aspect of shopping has been negated. [But it’s] bigger than you and I combined. There’s nothing we can do about it. Just be thankful you and I both lived in a time where we could have that cultural experience.”
To shake off the grim mood that had settled on our Zoom chat as we mourned the mall, I asked Brad to tell me some more about his book. “I’m working on it as we speak! It is a book designed mainly for nostalgic reasons – it’s not a technical book.” He said that he suspects it will be the most definitive history of the mall that will ever be produced, and I suspect he’s right. “I’ve invested six months of my life in researching it so far. I have all the research done. Now it’s creating the book, which will be a coffee table book.”
“When it’s done, it will be a definitive history going month-to-month, year-by-year of everything that happened of interest, really focusing on all the promotional events, some of the quirky things that happened, businesses closing – who came in and who left in any given year. A lot of the original architectural drawings will be in there.”
He talked about how emotionally invested he got during his research, somewhat to his own surprise: Watching all of the excitement surrounding the opening of the mall, reading about the openings of various stores, etc. and then feeling the sadness of the downward trend of the mall as time went on. “I think people who buy the book and actually sit down and start looking through it, they will experience a full range of emotions.” As a fellow mall enthusiast, I’m extremely excited to check it out.
To finish up our interview, I had one more question for Brad. I asked him, “If you could get one ride in a time machine and go back to the mall for four hours, what date would you set the time machine to, and what would you do?”
He smiled wide and said, “It’s gonna sound crazy, but I would love to go back in time and work an afternoon or an evening back at Charlie Chan. There were the friendships I had with the employees, and Dick and Gay the husband and wife owners. They had a prime spot in the mall where we saw people walking by, coming up the escalator, throwing the pennies in the fountains. We were a fast-food place where the counter was right up at the front. We were right there where the action was, so we got to know so many employees that would come by. I just loved working there. I loved the food. I’ve never found an egg roll or a chicken-on-a-stick that tastes anything like Charlie Chan. I’d be willing to go back and work for four hours at Charlie Chan again, it was that much of a good experience for me.”
I asked him if his teenage-self would believe his adult-self’s answer. “If somebody told me in the ‘80s, ‘Brad, 45 years from now, you’re going to wish you were back here working for four hours.’ I probably would have said ‘Ah, you’re probably right.’ I knew a good thing, and that was a good thing.”
Thanks for reading, and thanks to Brad for the great interview and all of the photos! If you’re interested to see some great Metcalf South and Overland Park memorabilia (including many of Brad’s architectural models), be sure to check out the Overland Park Historical Society’s room at the Johnson County Museum at 89th and Metcalf. And if you would like, leave us a comment below telling us what you would do if you had a time machine that would take you back to Metcalf South for four hours.
-Mike Keller, Johnson County Library