Thursday , 29 February 2024

Faneuil Hall: America’s First Mall

The people who build and run the world’s malls aren’t much different from theater managers (some of whom I used to know) or probably movie people (whom I don’t) – everything has to be the biggest, the first or the best, and preferably all three. The problem for those of us who’ve reported on the business is that they change their definitions so that theirs, naturally, is the winner.

For example, the folks who own the Mall of America have said for more than 20 years that it’s the largest mall in the United States, and if you count the building it’s sitting in, that’s true. Except a good chunk of that space is actually an amusement park. There are other malls that have more store space – as their owners are more than happy to report.

Another dispute is the first “shopping center” in the United States. Country Club Plaza often is cited, because it was planned and organized in downtown Kansas City, Mo., in the 1920s. Southdale Mall in Edina, Minn., was the first climate-controlled mall in the world (no disputes there). But the oldest shopping center in the United States probably is Faneuil Hall in Boston, which has been an organized marketplace since 1742.

Peter Faneuil, the wealthiest merchant in the city, built Faneuil Hall as a gift to the city. It housed merchants, fishmongers, produce sellers, meat vendors and became a gathering point for the city; its website claims that the 1764 Sugar Act was protested there, and orators over the centuries have included everyone from Samuel Adams to Barack Obama. Daniel Webster eulogized John Adams and Thomas Jefferson there in 1826.

And just like any good mall, it was expanded as the community demanded, adding the Quincy Market building in 1826. So it’s a bit ironic that after World War II, when suburban centers were just beginning to be built, that Faneuil Hall/Quincy Market had fallen into disrepair.

Enter mall developer James Rouse, who partnered in 1976 with architect Benjamin Thompson and then-Mayor Kevin White to renovate the buildings, add more, and create a retail and dining destination for the city, what the industry later called a Festival Marketplace. The complex has gone through a couple of owners since, and the retail now ranges from locally owned souvenir shops to Urban Outfitters. Restaurants, too, include both notable locals such as Durgin Park and national names including Ghirardelli’s Ice Cream Shop.

In fact, this is an unusually diverse mix compared with other malls even in the city, such as the Shops at Prudential Center and the ultra-luxe Copley Place. Faneuil Hall is a bit grittier (much of it is outdoors, after all), and has something for everyone in every income bracket.

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