by Ann Kessler
I miss the Van Ness Centre Mall. Granted, it only existed for 16 years, but from 1967 on through 1983 it was part of the community and a major convenience for shoppers in the neighborhood. Now, only the original ground floor tenants of the mall remain: Giant Food, CVS (formerly Peoples Drug Store) and Ernesto’s Hair Styling.
The Van Ness Centre Mall at 4301 Connecticut Avenue was DC’s first enclosed mall. It was part of a larger complex of four apartment buildings planned in the early 1960s. The Centre office building, which included the mall, was designed by the architectural firm Berla and Abel.
“Van Ness Centre will be a city within a city, an architectural gem of connecting plazas, courtyards, reflecting pool and fountains,” gushed a January 1965 advertisement in the Evening Star newspaper. “When completed it will contain a number of magnificent buildings, an office building, shopping arcade, the largest underground garage in the city, and a number of other unusual luxuries.”
The site was an 18-acre lot owned by the Chevy Chase Land Company and leased to Van Ness Properties, a company formed by Milton and Howard Pollinger and Robert I. Silverman. Silverman was also the president of the construction company chosen to build the complex, Southeast Construction Corp.
The shopping arcade or mall level was the second floor of the six story office building, accessible by both an escalator and elevators. It was a 70,000 square foot mall, with 20 or so stores. A small mall, but very convenient for nearby neighbors in Forest Hills. The first large tenants of the retail space signed leases in March 1966. Not surprisingly the first tenants were on the ground level: Peoples Drug Store (now CVS), Giant Food, and Hot Shoppes. Peoples Drug Store was the first to open in January 1967. ii
Giant Food Inc., under Joseph B. Danzansky as president, opened its 79th store at Van Ness on March 22, 1967. This new store was 18,345 square feet and was described as deluxe in that it was furnished with red and blue carpeting and featured chandeliers, a notable one over the bakery area. Murals and pop art sculpture also made this Giant stand out as an example of the latest in grocery store design.
In December 1974, when Marriott Corp. announced it was closing its popular 45-year-old Hot Shoppes restaurant at Connecticut Avenue and Yuma Street NW, it tried to appease the neighborhood by saying its regulars could dine at the Hot Shoppes Cafeteria at the new Van Ness Centre Mall. Marriott was finding it hard to compete with the new fast food chain, McDonald’s, and was phasing out its full service Hot Shoppes restaurants and Jr. Hot Shoppes. To challenge McDonald’s popularity, Marriott created the Roy Rogers restaurant chain, specializing in roast beef and the Double R Burger. In an effort to stay competitive, Marriott soon chose to change the Van Ness Hot Shoppes Cafeteria into a Roy Rogers restaurant.
The mall at various times hosted a diverse assortment of stores, catering to every need. Besides Giant Food, Peoples Drug Store and the Hot Shoppes/Roy Rogers restaurant, there was:
Anne Orleans, Bath and Closet Center (the first mall store), Bootery, the Bridge Centre of Washington, Capital City Federal Savings and Loan, Casual Corner (the popular women’s clothing store), Chocolate Moose (now on L Street NW), Elysse Coiffures, Gloria Marshall Figure Salon, Phebe Doan, Ruth Rider, Scan (the trendy Scandinavian furniture store), Sewing Circle, Talisman (an unusual gift shop), Van Ness Barber Shop, Van Ness Book Shop, Van Ness Cleaners, Van Ness Opticians, Van Ness Travel, Villager Cards and Gifts, Young Fair.
Most likely there were even more stores remembered fondly by local shoppers.
The Van Ness Centre Mall was expected to prosper when the location was chosen as stop on the new subway line. In 1977, it was second only to the Watergate in the Washington Post‘s ranking of DC’s “Top 20 Commercial Properties.” However, the mall closed less than two years after the Van Ness Metro station opened in December 1981, despite the new station, or perhaps because of it.
So what happened? According to an October 1983 Post article, Van Ness Centre Mall failed due to a lack of customers.
The Van Ness store proprietors found that Metro allowed people to shop downtown instead of stopping in at the local mall. “It was busier when we didn’t have Metro,” the operator of Ernesto’s salon told the Post. “We were expecting a big boom, but as soon as they put the Metro in, business died out. People are just going downtown.”
It should also be noted that the mall wasn’t thriving even before the opening of Metro. Numerous stores had come and gone, not being able to find the right market because of the unusual demographics of the neighborhood: students at the University of the District of Columbia, white collar office workers, the elderly in the nearby apartment buildings and the professionals from the adjoining residential streets.
After trying to sell the mall and failing, the owners, in an effort to make the space more profitable, decided to convert it into offices in 1983. The Van Ness Centre Mall became an example of how a Metro stop does not guarantee economic success for local businesses. It also became a fond memory for longtime residents.
This is a Forest Hills Connection rerun. The original was published in September 2016.