Sunday, June 20, 2004

Dead Mall Story: Roanoke-Salem Plaza, Roanoke, Virginia

This is one of the "dead mall" stories I sent into deadmalls DOT com. Brian Florence, the nicest webmaster you'd ever want to meet, hasn't gotten around to pubishing this yet, but I'm sure he will soon. In the meantime, enjoy...

Roanoke-Salem Plaza opened in 1962 at the intersection of Melrose Avenue (US 11/460) and Peters Creek Road (Route 117) in the northwest section of the city near its border with the city of Salem. RSP was the third large shopping center to open in two years in the Roanoke Valley, after the enclosed Crossroads Mall, three miles east and two-level Towers Shopping Center, five miles south. Its developer was B.F. Saul. Original anchors were Leggett and Miller & Rhoads department stores, G.C. Murphy and Woolworth’s variety stores, Winn-Dixie supermarket and Peoples Drug. Other stores from the early days include Hofheimer’s Shoes, Radio Shack, First National Exchange Bank, Sidney’s (women’s apparel), Thom McAn, and Lerner Shops.

RSP’s deign was innovative for its time. The Y-shaped center faced Melrose Avenue and featured a long landscaped pedestrian promenade along its main axis. At the bottom end of the Y was Leggett, the mall’s largest store. The east end of the Y featured Miller & Rhoads and G.C. Murphy, which had both street and mall entrances. The west end had Peoples Drug and Winn-Dixie. Peoples had a prime corner position at the intersection of the Y. Winn-Dixie was next door and faced two parking lots on opposite sides of the store which gave them maximum exposure and led to a unique design featuring two banks of cash registers. Woolworth’s was in a prime position midway through the mall, with its large luncheonette visible to shoppers through the plate glass windows.

Despite being an open-air shopping center in a largely residential neighborhood, Roanoke-Salem Plaza was designed in the manner of an enclosed mall. It did not lend itself to a convenient shopping experience. Except for Winn-Dixie and Leggett, the stores at RSP had precious little storefront parking. Shoppers, in theory, would park in the front, rear or west side of the mall and leisurely walk down the promenade past the various shops, leading to uncontrolled impulse buying along the way. The design ideas made sense for a regional shopping center like Crossroads Mall, where shoppers came from as far away as southern West Virginia, but never quite worked for RSP, which had a more “local” tenant mix and customer base. The novelty factor of the mall worked for only about five years, and then the problems started.

By the late 1960s, “white flight” had led to most of the target shopping audience moving away to avoid the blacks that were settling in to the neighborhood. It should be noted that the blacks were displaced from other areas of Roanoke by urban renewal, and Northwest Roanoke was the easiest and least hostile place to relocate. A silent, largely racist, boycott of the center by white middle-class citizens helped cause store closures starting in the early ‘70s. The pace accelerated when the enclosed “state-of-the-art” Tanglewood Mall opened in 1973 and Leggett, G.C. Murphy, and Miller & Rhoads all opened stores there, making RSP less of a regional retail destination.

The writing was on the wall, Roanoke-Salem Plaza was in trouble. As the ‘70s progressed, every aspect of the mall began to suffer. Stores continued to leave, the landscaping and maintenance went to pot, and crime went up. People were afraid to walk down the promenade, especially at night, for fear of being mugged. Extreme heat in the summer and bitter cold in the winter led many to choose the enclosed Crossroads and Tanglewood malls rather than “rough it” at RSP. Were it not for the initial determination of Leggett and Miller & Rhoads to stay at the center (they still did decent business), the mall would surely have been dead by the late ‘70s.

In 1978, developer Henry Faison proposed Valley View Mall, a substantial new shopping center that would be built on a large tract of land at the intersection of I-581 and Hershberger within three miles of RSP. Miller & Rhoads was one of the first stores to sign to Valley View and announced plans to close their Roanoke-Salem Plaza and downtown Roanoke stores when the new mall opened. Valley View was located in the “clear zone” for the local airport and was hotly contested for many years but by 1982, Faison had won approval for his plans and prepared for a 1985 opening.

By the early ‘80s, it was clear that RSP would not be a viable retail location for much longer. G.C. Murphy pulled out in 1981, leaving a 55,000 square foot vacancy that sat empty for half a decade. Not long after, Leggett announced it was moving to Valley View. Many tenants complained that the mall’s owner B.F. Saul was intentionally letting the center go to pot. Saul countered that the mall would be renovated when Peters Creek Road was extended along the west side of the property. Previously, Peters Creek Road terminated at the west end of the mall near Winn-Dixie. The road project, proposed in the early ‘60s, was not completed until the late ‘90s, and Saul never renovated the center, even as substantially all of the anchor and chain tenants pulled out in 1985.

In 1986, Roanoke-Salem Plaza was sold to Walt Robbins, a developer who specialized in distressed shopping center properties. Robbins had renovated a similar center elsewhere in Virginia and turned it into a popular destination. He had a challenge on his hands with RSP, to be sure. Winn-Dixie, Peoples Drug and Woolworth’s were still there, but little else. Robbins renovated the center, adding a clock tower at its main entrance and new signage throughout, bringing in closeout chain U.S. Factory Outlets to replace G.C. Murphy. The name was inverted as well, to “The Plaza of Roanoke-Salem.” He based his renovations on what he thought was the impending Peters Creek Road extension, promising to bring in more new stores and even more enhancements when the road was completed. But the road project continued to stall, Robbins eventually sold the center and the factory outlet store closed almost as soon as it opened. The three remaining anchors were gone by 1991, leaving little more than a shell of a building.

A funny thing happened on the way to obscurity. Roanoke-Salem Plaza became a de facto “power center,” due in no small part to the Peters Creek Road extension which finally happened circa 1998. Now called Roanoke-Salem Business Plaza, it was brought back to relative life by a series of outlet and parts stores which all grouped along the highways for maximum visibility. Around 1995, Office Outlet, a used office furniture store, moved into the former Winn-Dixie. Business was good enough to justify an expansion into the former Peoples Drug a short time later. The former Miller & Rhoads became a fireplace accessory shop and then an appliance parts store. Woolworth’s became a carpet outlet, while Leggett briefly became a business college and then an auto parts warehouse. A series of smaller spaces were combined to create a space for Harbor Freight Tools in 2002, and smaller spaces are occupied by a computer store and a free-distribution paper

Roanoke-Salem Plaza missed out on being Roanoke, Virginia’s first large mall but it certainly became the area’s first dead mall. Even though is partially occupied, all is not well. The area still has crime problems and the promenade is still deserted. The whole east side of the center is empty and looks much like it did in 1981. Even though the Peters Creek extension has turned the site into a high traffic intersection, the neighborhood is too poor and too close to Valley View Mall to justify the development of chain stores. Unless something changes, Roanoke-Salem Plaza’s fate will be to limp along as a shadow of its former self.


  1. Dear Steve, great outline of the history of RSP. I managed the Thom McCann shoe store in the shopping center for three years and dated a girl from the High's Ice Cream parlor across its promenade. In its day, it was a charming center lined with blomming Virginia Dogwoods. I always enjoyed stolling throughout its corridor. If this center would have been built in Roanoke's southwest county it would sill be going strong today with small upscale shops and retailers like Stein Mart and TJmaxx. It was all about location, location, location. Loved the story - brought back great memories. Thanks, Craig Gould, RKE,VA.

  2. Thanks for the comments and memories, Craig. It's nice to hear from someone who remembers Roanoke Salem Plaza.

  3. I remember both RSP & Crossroads Mall very a youngster from Mason's Cove, nestled way back behind Fort Lewis Mountain, they were my two favorite destinations in Roanoke, being the highlight of the weekend when Dad would load up my family with my two brothers and Mom to make it a night of shopping fun.

    As an 8 year old when it opened, I thought Crossroads was tops, with its exotic indoor tree gardens, the block of world time clocks and it's marvelous look and feel of something very big, like something from California or New York had just suddenly dropped into the valley.

    I was 10 when RSP opened. RSP had that wonderfully modern animated neon star sign you could see a long way off from up the hill on the west end of Melrose Ave.

    In later young adult years I would work at that Winn-Dixie and my young wife worked at the Peoples Drug store there...

    During my teen years as a student at nearby Northside High School, I remember the Globe Record Shop close to High's Icecream was a popular place to meet girls from school other it was a favoreite hangout when my buddies and I skipped school...yes, I'll name names,. because some of them you will probably know...They were Dennis Franscisco, Donald Fugate, Duane Gillispie and sometimes Gary 'Poochie' Roop.

    I remember once we had skipped school, just hanging around in J.C. Murphey's and were leaning against the jewelry counter just looking and resting our elbows on the curved anti- theft shaped glass, when one of us one of us leaned a little too hard on it and shattered like a bomb went off! Talk about getting the wits scared outta ya! Surprisingly, the manager ran over and first thing he did was check us all over to make sure we were ok and un cut..that done, he duly chased us out! Fun memeories....

    Thare is another memeory that is tragic. I forget exactly what year it was, or who, but a woman was driving out of RSP parking lot onto Melrose when she was hit by an excessively speeding car (I believe it may have been in a drag race as was common then in the late 60's down Melrose) and witness said the engine block from the car was knocked out of the car almost a block up the street towards the KFC .

    The very last time I remember visiting RSP, radio station K-92's (I think) DJ Bart Prater was emceeing a "KISS" Band look alike contest in the "Y" fork area of the court.....yeah, good ole memories! Tim Beasley Virginia Beach, VA

  4. Thanks for the info, Tim. I didn't know about the indoor tree gardens or the block of world time clocks at Crossroads. I wish you had some pictures of the old days at RSP and Crossroads, but the memories are plenty animated :-)

    Thanks again.

  5. Hi Steve, to elaborate a little FURTHER on the Crossroads Mall details, the "tree gardens" were tropical style palms - fronds situated in the cement planters that had seating on their sides....I think there were 4 clocks, the big round faced types with sweep hands, suspended up in the air near the mall ceilings, and had "Rome," "London," "Tokyo" and our EST displayed. What was a fun joke was the name of one of the more exclusive clothing shops, Smartwear Irving Saks, and we kids joked that's what the clothes were made from, "Sacks."

    Michael's Bakery had a kiosk in front of the Roses store, and Dad would by a six pack of each for us and two for him....I always wanted one of their "cartoon character cakes" so bad! Their baker would decorate them with icing figures of Yogi Bear, Huckelberty Hound and to a kid, those were really something!

    I also remeber that I bought many a mdel car from Crossroads Hobby shop, down the concouras past Roses, and also at J.C. Penney.

    There was a salesman there at J.C. Penney's named Ed Carter that was an absolute look alike to Don Adams of TV's "Get Smart." I also remember that Penney's had those great "Monkee's" trademark shirts and jeans, too! When the Woolco's addition opened on the adjacent higher level ground, (1967) they had the original James Bond 007 Silver Astin Martin there, complete with all of the "secret weapons." Cool times, great memeories...hope someone else will add to this! Tim Beasley
    Virginia Beach. VA

  6. Steve, Tim Beasley here to let you know there is a great web site that has photos regarding the interior of Crossroads's the great old Roanoke radio station WROV's history web site at this link:

    It has wonderful stories and photo illustrations categorized by years, in blocks of early 60's, mid 60's etc...Enjoy! By the way, after reading my past entries, it appears my keyboard misses important vowels! Do you know of any other Roanoke related blogs? I seldom get a chance to return to Roanoke area, but hope to soon with my entertainment shows. Last show out that way was my Las Vegas style "Casino Kings" for Blacksburg Country Club's 50th anniversary in April 2006.

  7. Thanks again for all the info, Tim. Twig Gravely maintains several vintage Roanoke sites including "Old Roanoke" and the Lendy's and Kenney's pages. You might get a kick out of them!

  8. Hi Steve,

    Another great memory of Salem - Roanoke of the mid -late 60's came to me this weekend....As a 7th grader at Mason's Coe Elementary, our class had a banquet at the school year's end at "Yearly Haven," an older log cabin-style special banquet house nestled under a very dark canopy of pines...Really cool place, that had an 1800's motif with the staff dressed like folks of that era.

    Does it still exist somewhat as it did then? Anybody have any photos at all of it? If so, please share them with me....or, any of you classmates of mine who took photos during our school trips to Richmond, etc. These were the years 1964- 1967.


  9. I'd never heard of the place, but apparently Yearly Haven does still exist. I didn't see any pictures or a website, but you can contact them at (540) 384-6588.

  10. Really enjoyed your blog about RSP! Brought back lots of memories and I've been left looking for more info on RSP that I cannot find.

    Does anyone remember the cafeteria that was in RSP? I'm thinking the name of it may have been the Roanoker Cafeteria - however, I don't believe it was associated with the Roanoker Restaurant.

    Someone also told me the cafeteria may have become Duff's Smorgasborg.

    My Mom grew up down from RSP across from All Star Lanes. Going back to visit her family would always include a walk up to RSP when I was a kid.

    Thanks again for the memories!
    Cindy Driscoll

  11. Thanks for the comments on RSP, Cindy. The cafeteria was originally a Roanoker Cafeteria (related to the current restaurant of the same name) and at some point in the 1970s, it became a Duff's Smorgasbord.

  12. Hello, Steve

    I remember RSP quite well. I was born in Roanoke City in '65 and lived a short drive south of RSP off Salem Turnpike near Electric Rd. I seem to remember that my mother shopped exclusively at RSP; groceries @ Winn Dixie, prescriptions etc @ Peoples Drug, clothes @ MillerRhoads etc., lunch @ Woolworth's lunch counter. The other stores I don't particularly remember but I was five years old or younger at the time. I think there may have been a BurgerKing in or at least near RSP. I distinctly remember the converging promenade between two strips of stores which must be the "Y" that you mentioned. One particular episode sticks in my memory is from late 60's (maybe 1970/71). It was a weekend with all of these muscle cars set up in west/south parking area, open to the public, to stroll by, peruse and ask owners questions about said cars. Do you remember that? RSP had a positive vibe (was a happening place, pardon 60's speak) all thru late 60's.

    Oh man, did it change in the 1970's/beyond. My parents were part of white flight that you mentioned. We moved to county north of Roanoke in mid '71; called Botetourt; it had a gnarly pronunciation. As a matter of fact I remember that whole area from Electric Rd (with the Lakeside amusement park on Salem side) all the way down Melrose Ave continuing thru Orange Ave to where I-581 is located, all became a very dicey place thru 1970's. Basically, a little north of Melrose and Orange Aves down south to the Roanoke River was part of this dicey area. There was a K-mart between Melrose and Salem Trnpk down near Orange Ave and although it was a high quality store in likewise neighborhood during 60's, it was being robbed blind by early 70's.

    We did not go to CrossRoads Mall much during 60's but did during the 70's. I thought CrossRoads was nice/okay into the early 80's. I noticed it was in decline by late 80's although I personally did not think it was that bad. I was in military and overseas thru middle part of 80's and when I came back once in late 80's and heard about Valley View Mall just down Hershberger Rd., I could not help but think what was the purpose of that new mall, especially so close to CR's??? It did not bring new stores to Roanoke, just stole them from TW and CR.

    During the 70's my favorite shop was CrossRoads Hobby since I was in my model airplane building/flying phase. I remember Roses on north side with Winn Dixie next to it and across from aforementioned Hobby store, JC Penny's on south side way on other side of open concourse from Roses. I bought a lot of aquarium fish/supplies at Roses, and they had a halfway decent and low cost luncheon counter. There was some theater out back near Roses end of mall but name escapes me now. I always thought JC Penny was so classy; clothes, shoes, sporting goods, electronics etc, just everything. It just seemed that way at the time. Heironimus was/seemed very upscale. I remember the escalator to the upper level and the cafe or restaurant at the top. There was also an upscale restaurant on the upper level near the Woolworths (later K-mart, I think)end of mall, the entrance of which led down a closed stairway. Anyone remember that?

    As far as Tanglewood and Towers Malls, they were generally too far of a drive and were not worth the trouble for me during early 80's when I started driving. In addition to the long drive the portion of I-581 from Roanoke River to Tanglewood exits had very intense traffic from what I remembergradsm. The traffic on streets around Towers was awful and too hectic to navigate. Towers was also fairly cramped into a small space if memory serves right. Tanglewood to me was overkill as far as store selections and prices but I understand it was catering to South West Roanoke crowd and they needed to feel superior to rest of Roanoke Valley, so ....

    enjoyed website, best regards, Thom

  13. Thanks for sharing your memories, Thom. Sounds like RSP was a big part of your life growing up.

  14. Bigger isn't always better. I miss the smaller stores with helpful people working there. I don't like all the traffic and Valley View is a nightmare to get in and out of.

  15. I hear you. I don't think those days are coming back any time soon though. The biggest stores seem to be getting bigger.

  16. Fun information for this nostalgia-buff, indeed!! :-) Yeah I remember RSP in the late-70's ... going into Leggett or Miller & Rhodes.. and thinking it was so PRIMITIVE.. SO-1960's in comparison to the more modern Tanglewood... In later years, I remember an ALL CD based music shop opened in RSP in the mid-late 80's .. The name excapes me.. but it's where I bought my first CD's.. I was in my early teens and I remember the CD's were like $17 or more each.. and were still sold in the tall cardboard sleeves... :) Lastly.. in the 90's.. I remember there was a Pub that opened along the back side of RSP... It had a Beatles theme in it's name (??) and in it's character..

    Anyway.. cool to read all of your memories!! :-)

  17. The Beatles place in 80's RSP was called "Sargent Peppers." Funny how time flies a young guy, about 22, I worked inside the building of Tanglewood Mall, about 1973.

  18. Cafe at Crossroads was "Catawba Emporium", great food and cold beer! The upscale restaurant was"Fisque's".... or something like that.
    I remember the days of RSP, bored while my mom looked at (what seemed like) everything at Leggetts, and being so happy to be able to choose "one thing" at "the dime store" ( G.C. Murphy or Woolco)