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Monument to Suburban Life


America was brimming with confidence when Harundale Mall opened on Oct. 1, 1958. Young families were moving to the suburbs, the automobile was king and there was money to spend.

Developer James Rouse astutely saw the trends and figured to give these families the perfect place to shop -- an indoor mall with caged birds and tropical plants on the outskirts of Glen Burnie.

Harundale was the first enclosed shopping mall east of the Mississippi. On the eve of its opening, The Sun described it as "an entirely new concept in retail merchandising, intended to provide the suburban shopper with the maximum of convenience and service in attractive surroundings conducive to relaxation." So many politicians attended the opening that then-Gov. Theodore McKeldin joked it had turned into a political convention.

Thirty-seven years later, both America and Harundale have been tainted by time. The heady faith in the suburbs has turned into a lament for the lost cities.

At Harundale, the birds are gone, the plaster is chipping from the ceiling and the merchants struggle to compete against Marley Station, a fancier mall built in the mid-'80s a mile south with three times as many stores. What was once a symbol of the modern age and American ingenuity now looks dingy and dated.

The Columbia-based Rouse Co. now wants to sell Harundale and concentrate on managing its mega-malls. The store owners at Harundale are understandably nervous, but remain hopeful that the mall can be saved.

They have reason to be optimistic. A number of older shopping centers constructed in the first wave of post-war suburban growth have been given second lives after extensive renovations and new promotional strategies.

One example is Baltimore County's Westview Mall, which opened as an open-air shopping center the same week as Harundale. Although Harundale faces stiff competition along Ritchie Highway, there is no reason that a shrewd developer could not renovate the grand old dame and give it a new market niche.

We hope Harundale is bought by a benevolent owner and returned to prominence. The mall is in some ways an historic landmark just like those majestic colonial edifices that draw sightseers to Annapolis. It deserves to be renovated not only for what it has meant in the past, but for what it can mean in the future.

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