When Bergen Mall Was a Real Town Center
A Journey into New Jersey
The Bergen Town Center is a very busy place. With its Whole Foods, Target, Century 21 and more it represents 21st century shopping at a time that many malls have fallen out of fashion.
This "Town Center" is very different than the first generation of shopping on the site.
It was then called Bergen Mall, a shopping center and more that was first planned in 1955 by Allied Stores anchored by Stern’s, the New York department store.
When it first went up in 1957 it was one of the first malls in the nation and the first of its kind in New Jersey (Second oldest), an open-air esplanade of shops. It was considered novel architecturally, designed by John Graham, architect for the Space Needle in Seattle.
Bergen Mall was first and foremost a shopping center. There was Stern’s, which until then had been known as a New York City store (dating back to the 1860’s). There were also the likes of Ripley’s, Wallach’s, Orbach’s and other reputable merchandising names. One also fondly remembers Wolfie’s New York Deli, and Kresge’s Five and Dime, and J.J. Newbury’s.
The Stern’s, like many stores of the time, was a destination unto itself, known, for example, fine dining that drew folks to their upstairs restaurant for lunch or dinner even if they were not shopping.
But beyond the stores the Mall also served as the de facto town center for a sprawling borough lacking a real downtown
Folks where drawn by an amazing array of activities available on site. It had a bowling alley and for a while a skating rink. There was a post office and an auditorium. There was a “Kiddieland” amusement park (outdoors before they put a roof in the Mall in 1973), and even a flea market. There was a mini-bus terminal there, just across the bridge from what was touted as “The Food Center” – home to both Food Fair and Shop Rite in attractive contemporary buildings.
The bowling alley, by the way, was just below a restaurant Tavern on the Mall, a longtime mainstay at the Mall.
It’s 637-seat Playhouse on the Mall thrived under founding producer Robert Ludlum, who later found fame as an author of espionage novels. The mall drew celebrity visitors from Captain Kangaroo to Hank Aaron to John F. Kennedy. It is also widely recalled for a popular upscale Burlesque style revue.
There was a movie theater that specialized in art films and foreign films, often in exclusive Bergen County engagements. The cinema was located facing the outside – there was no marquee. One online bulletin board recalls movies such as Twinkle, Twinkle Killer Kane, The Last Wave, and The Man Who Fell To Earth.
Today,as the case with so much at the site, there is no trace that there was ever a theatre there.
There was even a chapel. Rev Bruce Riordan presided there. His obituary in described Father Riordan was as much a Bergen Mall mainstay as sale days at Stern's. He celebrated Mass and heard confession in the mall's lower-level Catholic chapel from 1982 to 2004 and was chapel director much of that time. Priests from the Order of Carmelites have operated St. Therese Chapel at the Paramus mall since 1970; after the mall's renovation and rebranding as Bergen Town Center, the chapel was relocated to a space above the Marshalls department store.
Bergen Mall was also where John F. Kennedy went to campaign in the 1960 election. Lyndon Johnson returned during his 1964 Presidential campaign. These candidates came there because that’s where folks went.
This notion of the mall as a de-facto Main Street thrust Bergen Mall into the limelight in a 1984 lawsuit . The suit at that time was started by nuclear-freeze advocates who challenged the mall's restrictions on distribution of literature to shoppers. On October 12, 1984, Bergen County Superior Court judge Paul R. Huot ruled that the organization should be allowed to distribute literature anywhere and anytime in a shopping mall, noting that "the Bergen Mall has assumed the features and characteristics of the traditional town center for the citizens who reside in Paramus and surrounding Bergen County towns."
As we fast forward to 2017, in a strange way, there is an irony in the two names of the shopping center.
Clearly, with a Broadway-type theater, foreign movie theater, post office, barber shop, flea market and more, the original Bergen Mall was almost a town center, a place that provided a unique sense of place. To me and others, at the time, it was a let-down from the classic Main Street we had known before the advent of the shopping center in the 1950’s . At the same time, however, it would take years – and the building of a newer, sleeker contemporary, state of the art shopping center called a Town Center for many of us to truly appreciate just what a town center the old Bergen Mall was in fact was to us all.
To some the Bergen Mall was considered a bit “shady” in its later years. To others it was thought of as “quirky” and unique (There’s an entertaining video about the Mall available on the internet).
There are not many signs of what was once there.
Many have moved on to other places or passed away. And, to those on site today, most are too busy running around what needs to be bought.