Steven Bennett's Commentary

Posted January 14, 2008 (user submitted)

Buckingham Square was first announced in 1965 when The Denver Business Journal announced that the Joslins Department store chain planned to build a two million dollar store in a fifteen-acre site at Mississippi and Havana streets in Aurora Colorado. The developer Robert Hayutin proposed that the development would include major department stores as well as other retail, offices and restaurants. In late 1970 plans were also announced for The Aurora Mall on East Alameda and Exposition Avenue, which would soon become Buckingham Square's lifetime competitor.

The Rocky Mountain News warned that Buckinham may eventually displace Aurora East Colfax and become Aurora's new downtown. Buckingham Square was sold as a 24-hour a day community where Aurora would live, work and shop. In November 1970 the first of two office buildings was started. Called Camelot I it was eight stories tall and was Auroras fist high rise. The buildings twin was finished in 1973 called Camelot II during this time the Sherwood Apartments were built on the north west side of the mall site.

The mall itself opened on August 5, 1971 The building, designed by architects Kenneth Boyle and William Wilson of Overland Park, Kansas was expected to provide over 1,500 jobs for the community. The mall had the latest technology and elegances available at its opening including 4,000 parking places, living and artificial plants, fountains and acoustical plaster ceilings accented by walnut inlay. Additionally, the mall was climate controlled, allowing shoppers to browse the stores in seventy-two degree comfort. *

Buckingham Square was at 99% occupancy when it opened and to complement the modern styling of the mall itself, the major retailers incorporated the latest innovations into their stores. The Safeway grocery store offered "over-the-counter" shopping carts in an effort speed checkout as well as ready-to-eat and gourmet foods and an in-store bakery. Meanwhile, the Lerner store in the mall offered open fixtures to invite self selection, glare-proof lighting, zone controlled air conditioning, and the ability to make an exchange or receive a refund from any Lerner shop nationwide. Montgomery Wards the malls other major achor store, introduced a new three room concept to their store with hard goods, soft goods and home furnishings each having their own section of the store. Remnants of this design could still be seen when the store closed. In addition, the store offered twenty-two bays for auto service and a "buffetaria."

Probably the most stunning store was the Fashion Bar designed by Richard Crowther. Crowther, a noted Denver architect, who had redesigned much of Lakeside Amusement Park as well as designing solar houses and many businesses throughout Denver is responsible for the bright orange "terre grande" tiles still present on the mall facing façade. The 16 by 12-foot entrance opened into a spacious modern interior, brightly decorated with bold colors and graphics. Each department was a separate color­some purple, red, orange, shocking pink or yellow. Massive white walls add to the spacious effect of the store. The space-modular ceiling, designed on three levels, house the light wells, which gave the store an open atmosphere. In addition, the store included a separate specialty store with "its own special Havana Street entrance" which featured a selection of clothes for girls between the ages of ten and twelve. While the Joslins store probably did not feature the bright colors seen at Fashion Bar, the 135,000 square foot area was the largest Joslins in the United States. To celebrate the opening, the store brought in a display of priceless Spode china including pieces owned by George IV, the Shah of Persia and Queen Elizabeth.

In addition to retail shopping opportunities, Aberdeen Land Company ensured there were many restaurants and entertainment opportunities in their rapidly expanding planned community. For example, the Lancelot Restaurant was in operation a full four months before the mall opened because Hayutin felt a fine restaurant to serve the residents of Village East should be a priority. The building itself, which stood in the parking lot west of the mall, featured a main dining room with seating for 200 people and a large fireplace as well as a separate lounge with leather furnishings and a second fireplace. This building went through several changes through the years including becoming a part of the Broker chain of fine restaurants in the 1980s and a Beau Jo's pizza in the 1990s. Eventually, the building was razed to make way for a McDonald's. In addition to Sir Lancelot's, the mall itself offered many dining opportunities. For example, besides the buffetaria at Montgomery Wards, Woolworth's and Walgreen's each had a lunch counter. Additionally, there was a Round the Corner, an establishment called Bronco Burger, and even a place called Beckett's Pub in the center court area.

In addition to opportunities to satisfy their culinary appetites, the opening of the mall in August, 1971 gave area residents something revolutionary: a multi-screen movie complex. Although common today, American Multi Cinema, Inc. (AMC) opened the first four screen complex in Kansas City in December, 1966; therefore, such a multiplex was still uncommon in the 1970s. AMC president Stanley H. Durwood explained to The Denver Post's readers that such a complex would allow the simultaneous showing of a children's movie, a general audience movie and movies for adults.

It was expected that the merchants at Buckingham Square would make twenty-five million dollars in their first year at the mall. Whether or not the mall reached this goal is unknown; however, the mall commemorated its first birthday in style with a celebration entitled "Very, Very British Birthday at Buckingham Square." Not only did the mall give away a trip for two to London, it also presented shows by The City of Denver Pipe Band, the St, Andrews Scottish Country Dancers, and Irish Music by The Hiberians. In addition, the British Consulate provided its support by providing posters and other assistance in "recognition of British-American accomplishments." In a step which would influence advertising for the mall for decades to come, the mall also introduced their new mascots, Buck N' Ham, two palace guards dressed in appropriate uniforms. Finally, The Out House, a theater that was supposed to recall theaters of the 1800s with its round stage, footlights, burlap, and barn siding was slated to show the 1961 movie Tom Jones which had "shocked propriety" when it originally opened. Incidentally, 1972 also saw the opening of Red Baron arcade in the mall. Though the arcade originally offered pinball machines and children's rides, by the 1980s, this establishment offered the latest video games.

In 1973, it was estimated that between 150,000 and 175,000 people visited the mall during an average week. To celebrate its second anniversary, the mall again offered a trip to London in addition to shows and activities similar to the previous year's celebration. Additionally, the Swiss Colony Shop displayed a 2,155 pound cheese wheel to celebrate its second year in the mall. However, the key word around Buckingham Square during 1973 was "expansion." On June 14th, the Aurora Advocate had announced that work had started on a project known as Buckingham II. This addition added 65,000 square feet and between twenty-five and thirty-five tenants to the east side of the mall at a cost of twelve million dollars. In addition, Camelot II, which was still under construction, had its first tenant lined up: Buckingham Square National Bank. Furthermore, the Aberdeen Land Company had started construction of Buckingham Village across Havana (at Havana and Florida). This outdoor shopping center sat upon forty acres and was expected to contain six restaurants, over 100 specialty shops and four movie theaters. The development was supposed to retain a village atmosphere with each shop having a unique image. The first phase of Buckingham Village opened on July 1, 1974.

At some point during the late 1970s or early 1980s, Safeway vacated their space in the mall. During 1984-85, motorists on Havana were puzzled by stacks of green tubing in the parking lot and watched as a waterslide was erected on the roof over the old Safeway store. Upon completion, the waterslide stayed open for less than a year; however, the waterslide sat atop the mall for over two-and-a-half years after the business that ran it pulled out. Apparently, the slide was listed as an asset in the Salt Lake City bankruptcy hearings of the three entrepreneurs who originally built it. Finally, Arapahoe County District Judge Kenneth Stuart ruled that because the slide violated zoning laws, it could be removed despite the bankruptcy proceedings. Unfortunately for the mall, it would have to reimburse the city the estimated $100,000 it would cost to remove the part of the slide that stuck out of the roof and fix the hole, which resulted. In addition, because the slide was still considered an asset in the Salt Lake City proceedings, it would have to be stored until the bankruptcy was settled; furthermore, the inside portion of the slide could not be removed for the same reason. Fortunately, the estates of the three bankrupt partners in Aurora Waterslides agreed to abandon the Buckingham slide later that same year, allowing the removal of the entire structure. Additionally, an area recreation district agreed to dismantle and move the slide at no cost to the city or mall.

Despite the loss of the waterslide, Buckingham Square was and continued to be known as the "fun mall" and a place where memories were made. For example, in 1972, Buckingham Square played host to the 4-H Festival, which included bands, dancing, singing, a dog drill team and a leather-tooling exhibition. The event was capped by a performance by Fantacia Mexicana on February 23rd. Throughout the years, shoppers at the mall have been treated to memorable events such as classic car shows, dog shows, arm wrestling championships, bridal shows, beautiful baby contests, safety villages for children, and annual public school art shows. In addition, on August 12, 1972, the mall played host to the Miss Colorado Teen Contest. In February, 1998, the mall hosted a sports card show with more than forty-five exhibitors, not to mention appearances by Pittsburgh Steelers stars "Mean" Joe Green and Jack Ham. Furthermore, the parking lot of the mall has served as the setting for numerous circuses and carnivals through the years including a visit by The Big John Strong Circus in 1973. Of course, the mall has also played host to seasonal displays and celebrations such as haunted houses, Easter egg coloring contests, and early visits by the Easter Bunny and Santa.

Despite its history of providing a home to events and, for all intents and purposes, acting as the center of the community, Buckingham Square entered a period of decline as the 1990s began. Early in that decade, a corporate decision was made to close all Woolworth's stores. Woolworth had been a minor anchor at Buckingham Square since its opening and occupied quite a large space in the mall. Despite rumors around the mall that a Ross Dress for Less store was moving into the space, it remained empty until 2005. Then, an unlikely tenant was found in the form of an archery store. This was the first of many long-term vacancies the mall would see in the future.

The Buckingham Square lost another minor anchor in 1999 when Gart Brothers, which had taken over Dave Cook Sporting Goods in the mid-1980s, decided to focus its business on freestanding superstores in the late 1990s. As a result of this decision, the company's mall stores were systematically closed. The Buckingham Square branch closed in January, 2000. In addition, many of the mall's other tenants were in trouble. By 1999, Buckingham Square had the distinction of housing the last Round the Corner restaurant. The chain, which had once had twenty-eight stores in Colorado and surrounding states, had been outpaced by its fast-food spin off Good Times and could not recover as the stores became outdated and their leases expired. By the early part of the new century, the last piece of the once prosperous chain had been broken. The space it once occupied in Buckingham Square was converted to an "all-you-can-eat" pizza restaurant which did not even last a year before it was raided and closed for tax evasion.

In 2000 Montgomery Wards announced it was closing all stores nationwide. On April 21, 2001, the Buckingham Square store closed its doors for the last time after auctioning off the last fixtures and office equipment. Despite the closing of one the mall's major anchors and an article in The Denver Post which alluded to the mall being condemned and torn down which appeared in mid-2000, spirits were still high at the mall due to the fact that Target had acquired the store. This optimism quickly faded when the old Montgomery Wards store was demolished and the Target store that replaced it only offered a minimal entrance to the mall and, rather than fitting in with the rest of the mall, seemed to stand apart.

In September, 2005 Mervyns' parent company announced it was closing ten of its eleven Colorado locations. This decision not only equated to 746 more unemployed Coloradoans, it also meant the second of Buckingham Square's three major anchors would be closing. The Buckingham Square store finally closed its doors in January, 2006.

With the loss of two anchors in less than five years, the prospects of survival for the mall seemed dire. In 1998, the 125-year-old Joslins chain of department stores was sold to Dillards Inc. At the time, this sale had little impact on Buckingham Square other than the Joslins sign being replaced by a Dillards sign. However, in August, 2006 Dillards moved from its Buckingham Square location to a new space near the Aurora mall. With this move, Buckingham lost its last anchor and the mall's younger sibling pounded the last nail in the mall's coffin. On September 5, 2006, a redeveloper announced plans to raze Buckingham Square.

Buckingham Square's few remaining stores received notice to vacate by Feb. 28 2007 the now 900,000-square-foot mall is to be redeveloped as an outdoor retail and restaurant district by Miller Weingarten Realty LLC of Englewood. There also will be a residential component.** The developer has been assembling the mall's 60 acres of land, which had separate ownership, the last few years. Home Depot Inc. bought the former Dillard's building, which was separate from the main part of the mall, in 2006 and plans to build a store there. "We're working with Miller Weingarten very closely," said Aurora Mayor Ed Tauer. "We still have some details to work through, like finalizing the architecture and the financial agreement. We're making good progress, but we still have more work to do." Miller Weingarten hopes to start demolishing the main mall building in July of 2007, a little later than an initial spring target date, and open the retail district in the fall of 2008, said John Loss, executive vice president of Miller Weingarten who's in charge of Buckingham Square's redo. Weingarten is looking to spin off part of the land to Legacy Partners, which would build between 300 and 350 homes. The plan as of late 2007 calls for them to do two-story apartments over retail on Village Street, a section of town homes and a section of luxury apartments with a higher density. Miller Weingarten also is negotiating with such big-box tenants as Home Depot, Dick's Sporting Goods, PetSmart, Staples and Kohl's. The company is talking to smaller stores, as well. Buckingham Square, except for the Target, could start to come down in November 2007, with new stores opening in late 2008. Aurora Mayor Ed Tauer said the urban renewal project would receive $10 million to $12 million in tax increment financing. The redevelopment of Buckingham Square, along with plans for a business improvement district by retailers along Havana Street, will kick-start redevelopment of a four- or five- mile stretch of Havana Street, known as the Havana District. "Clearly, this is the single biggest project along the corridor, and it will serve as an anchor and catalyst," Tauer said. ** "Buckingham Square was built as part of a grand dream of a planned community in what was southern-most Aurora. The developers took a risky gamble that the people living in their planned neighborhood and working in their high-rise towers would want to shop indoors. For twenty plus years, the community embraced the mall and it became the center of the community. However, over time, the communities' values changed and the mall's owners refused to update the mall to keep pace with new trends. This purposeful neglect, coupled with the unfortunate closing of the mall's anchors, led to the eventual downfall of the establishment." Wrote Jeffrey Browning. "I guess in dealing with Buckingham, it's probably time for a rebirth, including a new name. *** *Jeffrey Browning ** The Denver Business journal. ***The Rocky mountain news

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