Anyone living in Cedar Rapids or Marion more than likely had to drive to the other and most likely made the trip down First Avenue. On their way, they probably saw an unassuming mall a few minutes from Cedar Rapids past the Marion border: a series of L-shaped shops with a stubby silhouette that climbs the slight elevation of the parking lot. The Town & Country Mall is actually the oldest mall in Iowa.
This margin for “older” is slim – in the 1950s, newly widespread car ownership led to an explosion of shopping malls across the United States. Iowa’s first enclosed mall was the Park Fair Shopping Centerwhich opened in Des Moines, also in 1956. The Lindale Plaza, just a short drive from Town & Country, did not open until four years later.
In 1955, the Martin brothers, Maurice and Matthew Bucksbaum, real estate developers from Marshalltown, decided to buy the land that would become the shopping center. They originally planned to use it for a Sun-Mart, a store similar to Fareway, but expanded the idea to a full mall.
“The advice they got was, don’t just put a Sun-Mart there, why don’t you actually put a mall there?” said Mark Hunter, a Cedar Rapids historian. “I mean, it’s really radical, of course, at that time in American history. Because up until the 1950s, most Americans didn’t own their own automobile… So what really pushes the concept mall is the incredible rate of automobile ownership, that people can actually drive to a place rather than having to walk to a city center, in the case of Cedar Rapids, or use public transportation.
At first, it was feared that the mall would draw business away from downtown, where Smulekoff’s and other department stores were the focus of local commerce.
“The downtown neighborhood of Cedar Rapids was initially a little worried. But when they realized they didn’t do big stores there, there was no cinema there, [they realized] there were no major competitors to derive revenue from downtown Route C,” Hunter explained.
The name of the mall was literal. At the front of the mall, particularly in the late 1950s, as the Collins factory drew workers to this area of Cedar Rapids, residential areas had already sprung up behind the rows of First Avenue businesses. Behind the mall there was still “country”, with an open field and the Old Milwaukee rail line running behind the center well into the 1980s.
In the early 1980s, the mall underwent a renovation that included the addition of a restaurant in the parking lot. Originally it was a Sambo’s, a restaurant chain launched in the 1950s whose name and the vaguely West Asian mascot were, even then, considered insensitive. By 1982, the chain had folded; several tenants later, a Bandana’s Barbecue now sits in this space.
On the other hand, a fixture of Town & Country that has endured since the 80s is the cozy RG Books, a dark and charming cocktail bar with hundreds of books lining the walls, which connects through an open archway to the destination. Italian Vino’s. The books, which patrons can read at their leisure, were obtained at a Cedar Rapids Library book sale when they left the space that currently houses the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art.
The T&C basement has become a local legend. It initially served as a space for area residents to use as community halls, but the best known of the basements was the one that housed the Town and Country Bowl bowling alley until the late 1990s. In the 1950s, bowling became popular after the invention of AMF Automatic Pinspotter in 1946, removing the need to hire personnel to manually reset the pins. The craze hit Iowa shortly after the mall was built, and the space under the original Sun-Mart was turned into a bowling alley.
The bowling alley was literally under the sidewalk – a glass section covered the entire stairway that led down to the alley. It remained open until 1997, when fire code regulations forced its closure. The stairwell leading to the driveway was filled with concrete, but a popular piece of Cedar Rapids lore claims that the driveway itself remained, preserved as it was when it was closed.
The bowling alley would unfortunately be permanently destroyed – save for a wall that is still buried under the mall – in 2017, when the addition of a Fareway in the space that originally housed the Sun- Mart required the destruction and reconstruction of the basement space.
Hunter was able to enter the bowling alley one last time in 2017, just before the lane was destroyed, confirming the legend. “All the bowling alleys ha[d] was removed but it still looks[ed] like bowling. And no one had been there for 15 years – it was really weird there… But you could still see the cafe, you could still see the pro shop and you could still see the staircase. Really, you could climb the stairs, but if you walk too far, your head will hit the ceiling of the sidewalk.
Despite its construction requiring the removal of a piece of Cedar Rapids history, Hunter was optimistic about adding Fareway to the Town & Country Mall.
“I love that it’s come full circle – that we’re back in a supermarket,” he said. “After all these years, you know, he’s really stood the test of time.”
This article originally appeared in Little Village issue 305.