The back-to-school shopping crowd was raucous on a recent Wednesday at Lenox Square in Buckhead, the Southeast’s temple of retail.
On her way to bringing a broken computer to the packed Apple store for repairs, Meg Strickler stopped across from Banana Republic to look at the wall panels celebrating the 60 years that have passed since Lenox opened.
Pointing to images from the 1980s and 1990s of women in dresses, Strickler reminisced about her years in law school at Emory University, and a shopping trip to The Limited in 1995, when she bought the “interview suit.”
The rules were strict: black jacket, black skirt, shoulder pads, and a cream-colored blouse. She turned to her 13-year-old daughter Hannah Conaway: “And I’m still shopping here.”
There you have the secret of success for Lenox, which celebrated its birthday Aug. 3: An Apple store for the 21st century, an Urban Outfitters for the teenagers and an enduring attraction that keeps shoppers coming back for generations.
Lenox enjoyed a private celebration and toast to its continued health recently, featuring city leaders and the daughter of the original developer. The rest of us acknowledged the occasion by buying stuff.
Lenox began as an 80-acre “equestrian estate,” the home of John King Ottley, chairman of the First National Bank.
Ottley, who was also on the board of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, was among those movers and shakers who had settled on large chunks of land beyond the northern edge of the city. At his estate, called “Joyeuse,” he could ride his horses, enjoy nature, and commute to work down a mostly-empty Peachtree Street.
“Buckhead at the time was a lot of woods,” said Ottley’s great-grandson, James M. Ottley, a real estate attorney based in Smyrna and author of “Atlanta History for Cocktail Parties.”
The Ottley estate attracted the attention of Ed Noble, scion of an oil-rich Oklahoma family, looking to diversify into commercial real estate. His market research revealed that “Atlanta was the only city of close to a million people that didn’t have a regional shopping center,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Noble was 27 years old in 1956 when he began negotiating with realtors and potential tenants. Much of his attention was directed to persuading Richard Rich, of Rich’s department stores, to provide an anchor for the mall. (Davison’s would be the other major anchor.)
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“He had to be a helluva a salesman to get Dick Rich to open up out there,” said former mayor Sam Massell, president of the Buckhead Coalition. “Dick was pretty committed to downtown.”
The preparation of the property involved excavating 560,000 cubic yards of material, including 94,000 cubic yards of granite. The granite had to be blasted out with dynamite, which slowed down construction.
When Lenox Square opened on Aug. 3, 1959, many of the 53 stores in the open-air mall would seem humble by today’s measurements: there was a bakery, a supermarket, a Kresge’s five-and-dime and a bowling alley. But Atlanta was excited.
“My mother worked at Davison’s,” said Lenox general manager Robin Suggs. “It would be a treat for us to spend Saturday at the mall when she was work, and eat at the lunch counter at Kresge’s.” Out front children could climb on the Julian Harris’ sculptures of the critters from the “Uncle Remus” tales, including Bre’r Rabbit and Bre’r Fox.
Suggs spoke about the mall’s old days as she strolled through a busy Lenox this week, passing one of the newest tenants, a Mayor’s jewelry story with a half-million-dollar diamond necklace on display. Attached to the store were boutique shops for Rolex and Audemars Piguet watches, beloved of Lebron James and Jay-Z.
As Buckhead became Atlanta’s prime destination, Lenox geared its offerings toward an ever-wealthier clientele, while not forgetting middle-class shoppers. The mall was enclosed and Neiman Marcus added its own building in 1972, a second and third level were added, and the list of tenant stores expanded to 200.
As Lenox grew, competing malls popped up all over Atlanta: Greenbriar in 1965, Phipps (across the street) in 1968, Perimeter and Northlake in 1971.
But Lenox seemed to work its way into Atlanta’s bloodstream. Runners gathered in front of Lenox for the start of the Peachtree Road Race and families filled its parking lot for the July 4 fireworks show.
In the age of online shopping and zombie malls, Lenox continues to thrive. It has 22 million customers a year and is among the top 20 performing malls in the country, according to Mark Hunter, managing director of CBRE, a Los Angeles-based commercial real estate services firm. Hunter said Lenox’s parent company Simon Malls, “the number one publicly-traded retail REIT (real estate investment trust) in the country,” ensures continued health for Lenox.
But he added that Lenox also “checks all the boxes,” with an excellent location, a regional as well as local clientele, access to rapid transit and a willingness to evolve.
Lenox was ahead of the curve in bringing an office tower and the J.W. Marriott hotel to the property, said Hunter, and today other malls are following suit, creating “live, work, shop” complexes.
And while Lenox still offers more than 6,000 free parking spaces, customers increasingly arrive by way of the two adjacent MARTA rail stations, or by ride-share vehicles and scooters, said Suggs. Consequently, the mall is focused on pedestrian-friendly design and walkability, she said, with sidewalks that directly connect the front entrance with Peachtree Street.
Sam Massell, 91, was at the ceremony when Mayor William B. Hartsfield annexed Buckhead into Atlanta in the early 1950s, and he was friends with Ed Noble and Richard Rich. Their experiment changed Atlanta, he said.
“All three of those guys are entitled to our love and affection for the benefit they brought to the tax coffers of Atlanta, but also to the residents of Atlanta,” he said. “They were people of vision, and they changed retailing forever in this part of the country. (They) made Buckhead the retail mecca of the Southeast.”
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