NorthPark Center is celebrating its 50th anniversary this week. And we’re taking a look at how the mall became an icon of Dallas. KERA’s Jerome Weeks says it actually starts with NorthPark’s architecture.
There are plenty of other shopping malls that are fancier and newer than NorthPark.
True, their artworks might not match some of the masterpieces owned by NorthPark’s late founders, Raymond and Patsy Nasher. But it’s not simply the Italian fashions or high-end jewelry stores or the Andy Warhols that have drawn crowds to NorthPark since 1965. Actually, all of the stores have come and gone over the years (only Neiman’s has remained). Here, there are attractions humbler and harder to achieve – and more subtle.
Architect Vel Hawes worked on expansions at NorthPark, so he’s had to replicate its interior look. He knows this place.
“One thing that always strikes me about NorthPark is the light,” he says. “These little windows along the edge [he indicates the clerestory windows along the ceiling] plus the skylights always bring in natural light. I think that’s very important. And then it’s uniform, consistent — all that design comes together.”
A major reason NorthPark’s design is so simple, so together, is what’s not here. There are no aggressive store signs, no mish-mash of different styles. Every store entrance, whether it’s Tiffany’s or the Sunglass Hut, is framed the same way. The polished grey concrete floor is always the same in the corridors. The color palette is carefully limited. Architect E. G. Hamilton designed NorthPark.
“Up until then,” he says, “each department store had its own architect, used his own materials, his own style, so visually it was chaotic. But this was a goal of mine — to make this into architecture instead of a stage set.”
One reason NorthPark feels light and harmonious is something basic and old-fashioned and everywhere here: the bricks. They’re often described as white – as white as a modern art gallery. They’re not. They’re a light clay color with a sandy surface. That makes a difference; it adds softness and warmth, which are often rare in sharp, modern, commercial buildings. In fact, to get these bricks just right, they had to be custom-made.
“I went to Henderson Clay Products,” says Hamilton, “and they had a clay source, and I got them to make a brick with a silicone sand finish. It was created for NorthPark.”
As a result, to a first-time visitor, NorthPark’s interior can seem plain, old-fashioned. But it’s meant to stand back and open up — let the colorful cactus plantings, the art works and, yes, the shopfronts do their work. Even the mortar between the bricks, Vel Hawes says, was deliberately left unsmoothed by metal tools so it would match the bricks’ sandy surface. In a 1997 interview, Raymond Nasher said, “I decided when we built NorthPark that it would be built like a piece of sculpture per se. Which it is, single material, both inside, outside. And then put the landscaping and fountains in it to make it work.”
Over the years, through several expansions, preserving that mid-century simplicity, that modernist understatement, has required real determination from the Nashers – Raymond and Patsy, as well the current owners, daughter Nancy Nasher and her husband, David Haimesegger. They’ve had to resist serious financial pressures.
“I’ve flown out to California,” Hawes recalls, “with the manager to make a deal with, you know, some dress company, and they’d say, ‘Well, we’re gonna take all this and make it red brick.’ And we’d say, ‘No, sorry.’ ‘Well, we won’t come!’ And I’d say, ‘Fine. Ray won’t let you come,'” he adds with a laugh.
So, yes, NorthPark has become a symbol of Dallas’ ritzy materialism and its grander aspirations. This is a shopping center with elegant landscaping and floral arrangements. It has a sculpture garden but also a Chick-Fil-A.
It’s too easy for us to cluck our tongues at the price tags or the pretensions. Dozens of enclosed malls have died across America in recent years – malls as upscale as NorthPark. Instead, NorthPark has become the closest thing Dallas has to a European piazza. It doesn’t overpower you the way the grandiose gallerias in Milan or Paris do. After fifty years, the interior still feels clear and fresh. NorthPark is high-fashion, high-art and (often) high-priced but it’s also comfortable and casual.
And it succeeds at this – brick by brick.
NorthPark architect E. G. Hamilton receives a lifetime achievement award
The shopping center offers something to most people, not just the wealthy