What does it feel like to walk through a dead mall? It’s a complicated blend of nostalgia, sorrow and magnificence. There’s no greater reminder of your own mortality than to see your childhood literally crumbling to the ground. Yet in the case of Sunrise Mall in Corpus Christi, TX, it’s hard to wallow in the loss of a magical era when tropical plants are green and thriving, and reflective surfaces are shining with sunlight.
Sunrise Mall is the very mall where the 1985 classic The Legend of Billie Jean was filmed. Raise your hand if you remember Billie Jean’s backpack filled with marbles in the infamous chase scene?! As Dan Bell notes in his Dead Mall series tour of Sunrise Mall, “There are many, many films that have been shot in malls. The difference between those films and The Legend of Billie Jean, and specifically the mall locations, is either the malls are gone or they’ve been renovated to a point where it’s not even recognizable…This may be the only mall from the ’80s where they shot a film where it looks exactly the same.”
Do yourself a favor and check out Dan Bell’s tour of the mall… he juxtaposes his shots of specific locations with the same locations as they appear in the 1985 film. You won’t believe how little this mall has changed! Since Bell’s tour, there have been a couple of big changes. For one thing, the iconic fountain is no longer running (scroll down for images of this amazing water feature).
Another change: the upstairs is basically closed off (and stifling from the minimal air conditioning in this mall). I managed to get past some signage and snap a shot or two of storefronts, but there are floor-to-ceiling barricades upstairs that make it impossible to get a thorough tour of the mall.
So what was it like walking into this space after wanting to see it for so long? The first thing to hit me when heading through the entrance closest to the parking garage was a wave of cigarette smoke (an employee who’d been smoking out front had recently re-entered the mall). This definitely contributed to the retro feel! The corridors are as sparse as you’d expect from a dead mall, but the main area, with its abundance of greenery and glass, is unbelievably bright and welcoming. In other words, after a few footsteps, I was totally transported back in time to the glory days of this mall. It’s not hard to imagine Sunrise Mall at its most popular.
From the arched skylight windows and wooden railings to the bold angles and curved tile pattern, ’80s flourishes abound in this spectacular space. The mall opened in February of 1981, and its late ’70s/early ’80s roots definitely show. The stone and tile work alone are modern marvels.
And then there’s the fountain…the one Helen Slater runs across in that iconic Legend of Billie Jean chase scene. Many if not all of the fountain plants are now faux, but there’s something about the tile and the remnants of blue paint (not an original feature) that make this fountain seem alive on some level. It’s begging for a starring role in an ’80s fashion shoot!
Moving past the unforgettable main atrium, Sunrise Mall has a LOT more to offer ’80s design enthusiasts. In his tour, Dan Bell points to the amazing chairs and tables that haven’t changed since the ’80s. These are the chairs that were on my patio when I was a kid. I’d completely forgotten about them until I spotted them during my visit:
Other standout ’80s features to fixate on include slanted wood paneling, Deco details and brass trim. There’s also an abundance of geometric windows. Here are more photos to enjoy…
For those of us who spent weekends in the ’80s and ’90s basically living at the mall, the dead mall experience takes on an added weight. Times change and trends change. Columns crumble and chain stores close their metal security grilles one last time. But that doesn’t make walking through a deteriorating past any less bizarre.
A 2015 Washington Post piece by Emily Badger titled “Why no one likes indoor malls anymore” notes that the new city center-style outdoor malls represent a revitalization of the old urban downtowns. There’s a true community center feel. There are refreshing benefits to this format. Badger writes, “The mall that’s dying is, in fact, a specific kind of mall: It’s enclosed, with an anonymous, windowless exterior, wrapped in yards of parking, located off a highway interchange. It’s the kind of place where you easily lose track of time and all connection to the outside world, where you could once go to experience air conditioning if you didn’t have it at home.”
There’s nothing in this article that I don’t agree with, and this interpretation of evolving mall culture is shared by many. It’s nice to have a city center-style downtown feel when you’re stuck in the suburbs. I just wish I could have my cake and eat it too…the rise of the outdoor shopping center AND the revitalization of indoor malls.
To someone who was a kid in the ’80s, the loss of a childhood mall is substantial. There was something magical in going someplace where the outside world faded away. And losing track of time was absolutely blissful. Indoor malls were totally fabricated, but when the design was THAT good and each storefront (and the beautifully designed products inside) represented a brand’s bold vision, the experience was unreal…in the best possible way. To see that glorious vision barricaded and forgotten can be heartbreaking.
But there’s also something undeniably significant about walking through a dead mall, like you’re witnessing an important piece of history in this demise. Sometimes all you can do is visit these locations before they crumble any more, camera in hand, reimagining the space at the height of its impact on shoppers with what memories are left from childhood.