Cherry Hill Mall celebrates 50 years

Long gone are the days of exotic bird sightings, tropical plants and the township’s junior class dancing to Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” across from the Strawbridge and Clothier.

No, the high schools don’t host their proms at the Cherry Hill Mall anymore like they did in the 60s. But these days, the mall is quite the regional attraction, drawing in shoppers and diners from across South Jersey.

The Cherry Hill Mall has come a long way since Oct. 11, 1961, the day it opened to the public as the first enclosed mall east of the Mississippi River, said Lisa Mangiafico, member of the Cherry Hill Historical Commission and co-author of “Cherry Hill: A Brief History.”

Today, the mall will celebrate its Golden Anniversary with refreshments and a photographic display of the mall’s history.

Before the mall opened in 1961, Cherry Hill, then known as Delaware Township, had already begun to embrace growth and commercial expansion.

In 1941, Vineland businessman Eugene Mori built the Garden State Racetrack at Route 70 and Haddonfield Road, initiating a shift in the township’s commercial culture. During that time, empty fields turned into thousands of homes to accommodate the population boom.

Next up for Mori, Mangiafico and co-author Mike Mathis wrote in the book, was turning 155 acres of land at Route 38 and Haddonfield Road into the Cherry Hill Inn in 1954. This, they said, spawned even further development in the region.

During the late 50s, new challenges arose for Delaware Township, as many flocked from Collingswood, Camden and Philadelphia. The township, Mangiafico and Mathis wrote, was faced with the need to accommodate the growing population in creative ways.

“As sentiment for a post office grew along with the population, township officials realized that it could not have a post office with Delaware Township in the name because a Delaware Township post office already existed in North Jersey,” Mangiafico and Mathis wrote.

Residents suggested “Moriville” as the new name for the township in honor of Mori, but Abraham Browning’s farm near the Cherry Hill Inn and Cherry Hill Estates had increasing appeal in the neighborhood.

His farm, Mangiafico said, had Cherry trees, which inspired the name of the neighborhood.

On Aug. 3, 1961, the township’s board of commissioners called a meeting to see whether residents wanted to change the name of the township.

It was decided that 30 percent of registered voters had to sign a petition to put the name change question on the general election ballot.

The question made it onto the November ballot and received a 5,201 to 3,700 vote, solidifying the new name of the township. The 15-acre mall, located on the former George Jaus farm, had opened just weeks before the official name change, already bearing the new name.

The mall was designed by Victor Gruen, who had designed the Southdale Mall in Minnesota.

“It created a centrally-located business center amidst the suburban sprawl and was supposed to serve as a community center as well,” Mangiafico and Mathis wrote. “Newspaper articles from the period touted the mall’s cleanliness and consistent 72 degree temperature throughout the year. Shoppers traversed a promenade of palm trees, fountains and aviaries with exotic birds; a Boy Scout jamboree camped in the mall under those fountains for four nights.”

Mangiafico said the mall’s arrival was a plus for Cherry Hill, but greatly impacted the rest of the region financially.

“This was really something they had never seen before,” she said. “It was sort of the death of small business. In changed Camden, which was a viable, liveable city at the time.”

Eventually, shoppers from Philadelphia and its suburbs caught on and began to cross the river to frequent the mall.

The development of the New Jersey Turnpike and Interstate 295 in the 50s and 60s made the mall more convenient to regional travelers, as well.

The mall, over its 50 year history, has seen some drastic changes. Stores have moved in and out, the main auditorium was removed, the JCPenny wing of the mall was added in the 70s and an office building was added to the property, Mangiafico said.

The mall has also morphed since its transformation and redevelopment in 2007 by its owner, the Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust (PREIT).

Mangiafico said these changes have greatly benefited the mall.

“My guess as to why people keep coming back is that it has a good location … easily accessible from the eastern side of Philadelphia, and the majority of close suburbs,” Mangiafico said.

“In many respects, it has morphed into the local mall over the years for Cherry Hill and Pennsauken, especially, and with recent changes, has become even more of a destination due to the stores that don’t have a presence in any other local malls,” she said.

Mayor Bernie Platt said he is proud of the impact the mall has had on Cherry Hill and the region over the past 50 years.

“Fifty years ago, the Cherry Hill Mall opened its doors to 25,000 excited shoppers from across our region. The East Coast’s first indoor shopping mall, it drew throngs of shoppers from near and far, signaling the start of Cherry Hill’s expansion and transformation into a destination for our entire region,” Platt said. “Today, the mall remains a retail, restaurant and fashion hub for millions of people in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Its recent growth and renovation attracted major retailers and reinforced the notion that Cherry Hill has become the commercial spine of South Jersey.”

The township, Mangiafico said, is proud to be home to the mall, which has changed, adapted and served the region for 50 years.

“The mall’s development was a double-edged sword. It led, along with other malls and shopping centers that went up in the region during the 1960s to the 1980s, to the death of many small, Main Street businesses in the area, including those in Camden,” Mangiafico said. “But it also provided a real spark to the Cherry Hill community, which, I think, has always been rather proud to have the mall in the community.

“And in some ways, especially after it first opened … it was such a draw and really put Cherry Hill on the map.”