3625 S. Florida Avenue, Lakeland, FL - Merchant's Walk
Happy 2018 everyone! I hope everyone had a nice and relaxing holiday. With the new year now upon us, that means it's time to kick off another great year of AFB! We'll begin this year's adventures in Lakeland, with one of the most storied former Albertsons Florida stores to have existed. I'd say this former Albertsons location has one of the most interesting backstories of any retail establishment I've ever heard among any chain. While we have plenty of Albertsons relics to take a look at later in this post from this store, let's jump back to the beginning to when this store first opened to hear the full story of the Lakeland Albertsons...
As you may know, Lakeland is the home to Publix's corporate headquarters, and has been since 1951. Publix has always had a strong grip over the supermarket scene in Lakeland, and pretty much Polk County as a whole as this is the part of Florida where Publix traces their roots. Albertsons opening a store in Lakeland was a major step for them, even if Publix was still relatively small when this Albertsons opened in March 1978.
Like most Albertsons stores from the 1970s, the Lakeland store was a modern 59,000 square foot marvel with the usual selection of food products and service departments, but also the uniquely Albertsons (at the time for this area) full pharmacy and cosmetics selection in addition to a large selection of general merchandise (like electronics, small appliances, and gardening supplies) - all fantastically innovative concepts back in 1978 to set Albertsons apart from the other grocery stores in Florida. Upon its grand opening in March 1978, the Lakeland Albertsons found huge success in this town ruled by Publix, with the occasional Winn-Dixie and Kash n' Karry floating around as competition. This beautiful new Albertsons store hoped to change the way the people of Lakeland shopped for groceries, however things took a bit of an unfortunate turn for Albertsons in Lakeland only four months after their new store opened...
In the early morning hours of August 14, 1978, the unthinkable happened. The brand new Lakeland Albertsons burned to the ground in one of the largest and most memorable structure fires in the city's history. Thanks to some archived articles from The Lakeland Ledger, I am able to provide everyone with some photos of what I call the "Great Albertsons Florida Fire". It took the Lakeland Fire Department nearly 5 hours to control the massive blaze, and 9 hours total to extinguish the fire. In the end, the new Lakeland Albertsons was a total loss. The fire completely gutted the interior of the building, and the entire roof collapsed. The only portion of the Lakeland Albertsons building to survive the great fire was the liquor store, although that was still heavily damaged by smoke.
Above is an aerial view of the Albertsons as smoke poured from the building. The great fire began in a cosmetics supply room in the back left corner of the building a little after 1 am on August 14, 1978. Due to the highly combustible nature of cosmetics, the fire was able to grow rather fast. At the time the fire began, twelve employees and three shoppers were in the Albertsons, all of whom made it out safely. According to reports from the shoppers and employees in the store at the time the fire started, smoke began to rapidly fill the building once the fire began to engulf the cosmetics supply room. The following is an interesting excerpt from the Lakeland Ledger article about the fire, detailing some eyewitness accounts from inside the building when the fire started:
One of the employees at the store when the fire started said the overhead lights "just started going off a row at a time" as she fled the store.
Other employees followed [Gary] Morris [store manager on duty when the fire broke out] around the burning building. All they could save from the flames were shopping carts lined up in front of the store.
One of the three customers in the store when the fire was discovered said she had an armload of groceries when smoke began filling the building. "I just threw everything in my arms up in the air and ran," Dee Frankel said.
"I thought at first they were fogging the place," she said. "I stopped to buy some shampoo on the way home from breakfast with a girlfriend. I decided to stop and get it now instead of today. I saw the smoke and heard them say fire, and I just ran."
She said smoke from the fire "was already over us" when she managed to get to the front doors. She said the automatic doors "were swinging in and out by themselves."
While smoke was able to infiltrate the building soon after the fire began, the flames remained contained in the back of the store a little longer due to the new store's "modern sprinkler system". However, the sprinkler system later failed due to the way it was installed, according to the Lakeland Fire Chief. Instead of putting the sprinkler heads between the roof and the ceiling (a better method for containing and controlling larger fires), the sprinkler heads were placed on the lower ceiling over the sales floor (which only controls, smaller, more contained fires). When the fire crews first arrived at the scene, the intensity of the fire, along with the mix of cosmetics and chemicals in the storage room where the fire began, made it impossible for them to safely control it from the beginning. About an hour after the fire began, flames made their way out of the backrooms and into the main sales floor. Two hours after that, flames made it to the front of the store. At 5:10 am on August 14, 1978, the new Lakeland Albertsons was officially declared a total loss (as flames still continued to pour from the building). The fire eventually grew so large and so intense, that the Lakeland Fire Department decided the best approach to putting out the fire was letting it burn itself down, then putting out hot spots once the flames began to die off. From that same article I mentioned before, here are some excerpts from how the reporter and firefighters described the Great Albertsons Florida Fire:
Large clouds of smoke escaped from the blaze, the yellow and blue flames danced along the roof as firemen continued to pump hundreds of gallons of water onto the building.
The fire spread from the southwest section of the store to adjoining walls before finally reaching the front of the store at 4:00 am. By 4:15 am, portions of the roof were dropping onto the checkout counters.
Vacuum-sealed cans were exploding as the slow-moving flames consumed various sections of the store. As firemen opened two side doors to the building to check its smoke filled interior, hundreds of gallons of water heated by the fire poured forth. Bottles of shampoo floated from the building as the doors were forced open.
Police kept an eye on the large glass windows along the front of the building in case they exploded due to the heat from the blaze. The windows started to crack around 4:30 am, but most of the glass fell to a curb along the store's front.
The damage caused by the Great Albertsons Florida Fire would later total over $3 million dollars (equivalent to $11 million in damages in 2017 dollars), including damages to the building and all of its inventory. To make things worse, Albertsons had sent extra merchandise to this store just days before the fire in preparation for a large sale in the coming week. After investigation, it was later determined the cause of the great fire was arson, however who set the fire and their motives for doing so are still a mystery to this very day. Interestingly enough, the great fire wasn't the first fire to be reported at the new Lakeland Albertsons since it opened - it was the fifth. Yes, there were four, although much smaller, fires reported at the new Albertsons between its March 1978 opening and the Great Fire on August 14, 1978. Two fires were reported and extinguished behind the store in that time, and two were reported inside the store. One of the fires inside the store, which occurred on July 4, 1978, was set in the paper products aisle, and was also determined to be arson. Either this store was cursed with bad luck from the beginning, or there was someone in Lakeland out to get this new Albertsons. However, the cause of the fires at the original Lakeland Albertsons will continue to be one of the great Florida retail mysteries.
Even with the tumultuous start Albertsons was given in Lakeland, from the ashes they promised to build again. Nearly a year later on August 1, 1979, Albertsons celebrated the grand opening of a brand new (although completely identical to the original) Lakeland store. This is the building that continues to stand to this day, pictured during its grand re-opening celebration in 1979. Unlike the original Lakeland Albertsons, "Albertsons II" as the newspaper article refers to it, had much smoother (and less flame-filled) sailing. Albertsons would spend another 14 years at this site before it was ultimately announced that this store would be closing in August 1993, with the official statement of closure being that the South Florida Avenue store "held little promise" (a sort of vague explanation, in my opinion).
While this store closed relatively early compared to many other Albertsons Florida locations, I don't think this store did terribly (even considering how much stronger Publix was becoming in the early 90's). The increase of Publix stores in the area could have been a factor in this store's closing, but I think another possible reason Albertsons closed this store was fear that the new Polk Parkway freeway (later built along the southern edge of the Albertsons property) was going to cut right through this building. The Polk Parkway is a 24-mile long toll road that forms a loop around Eastern, Southern, and Western Lakeland, connecting with Interstate 4 at both ends. Construction on the Polk Parkway began in 1996, and I'm wondering if some of the preliminary plans for the new road called for elimination of the Albertsons building (or much of its parking lot) to accommodate the interchange between the Parkway and South Florida Avenue, causing Albertsons to close this store early. After the sudden closure of this store in 1993, Albertsons said they were actively looking for sites around Lakeland to build a replacement store.
In 1994, Albertsons announced that they had found a site for a new Lakeland store at the Southwestern corner of US 98 and Marcum Road - 10 miles away from and on the complete opposite side of town from the original Lakeland Albertsons site. Albertsons had serious interest in this site on the northern fringes of Lakeland, saying they had a contract on the property and had begun preliminary site plans for the new store, with a projected opening sometime in late 1995. However, nothing ever materialized at the North Lakeland site. Four years after the deal for the North Lakeland site had seemingly fallen apart, Albertsons was reportedly still expressing interest in putting a new store Lakeland. In 1999, it was reported that Albertsons was now interested in a different Lakeland site, located at the Southwestern corner of South Florida Avenue and CR 540A. The supposed Albertsons site is where the surgical center stands today, just south of the Home Depot. This site was only 4 miles away from the original Albertsons, but much like the North Lakeland site, nothing ever materialized with the South Lakeland site either. I don't know the details of why neither of the planned Albertsons sites in Lakeland fell apart, but Albertsons certainly had a strange relationship with this town.
Anyway, as far as store #4322 is concerned, after Albertsons closed, this building was divided into three smaller spaces in 1994. The three new tenants were Books-A-Million on the far left side, Ben Franklin Crafts in the middle, and Gold's Gym on the right side. Books-A-Million left this building in 2005 when they relocated to the new Lakeside Village "Lifestyle Center" one exit to the west on the Polk Parkway, with their space later becoming home to a Deal$ store. Deal$ was converted into a Dollar Tree in 2015 when the Deal$ name was retired following Dollar Tree's acquisition of Family Dollar. I'm not sure when Ben Franklin Crafts closed, but it's been gone for a long time. True MD now occupies that space. Gold's Gym managed to hang in until just after my visit to this store. The Gold's Gym franchisee in Polk County decided to convert all of their area locations into Just Move Athletic Club in September 2017.
While this former Albertsons store has been through a lot over the years, the building still retains many of its Albertsons characteristics, especially on the exterior. The only part of the exterior to receive any major modifications was the part of the building Books-A-Million took over. Books-A-Million remodeled the exterior to match their usual prototype, which included this boxy, rectangular exterior design. The front was altered quite a bit, however...
...Books-A-Million hardly did anything to the left side of the building! Other than their slight modification where Dollar Tree's logo currently resides, this side of the building is still very Albertsons! That river rock is still going strong to this day!
Looking toward the back left corner of the building. It was in this area where the great fire started in the original building back in 1978.
The Albertsons liquor store and side entrance were located in this portion of the building. The stuccoed-in portion where the emergency exit is located was the home of the side entrance and liquor store entrance (still with the original ramp from Albertsons leading to it), while the stuccoed in area to the left of that was home to windows that looked into the liquor store.
Close-up of the old side entrance area.
Turning the corner to look along the front walkway of the building. A lot of the river rock survived up here, but much of the front was reconfigured when the space was subdivided for the new tenants.
Going inside the Dollar Tree, there really isn't much to see from Albertsons. This 360 degree photo from inside of Gold's Gym/Just Move also shows no obvious Albertsons relics in that portion of the building, and it's probably safe to say the same holds true for the interior of the medical offices between the two. The above photo was taken from just inside Dollar Tree's main entrance, looking down their main right side aisle. While there wasn't much to see from Albertsons in this place, I do have to say this was one of the largest Dollar Tree stores I've ever been to!
The left side of the building that Dollar Tree occupies was once home to Albertsons' Health and Beauty sections as well as the pharmacy, in addition to some of the grocery aisles. Gold's Gym takes up the section of the former Albertsons where the service departments (Bakery, Deli, etc. and Produce would have been). The above photo looks down the wall that separates Dollar Tree from True MD.
Looking toward the store's back wall. It was somewhere in this area where the pharmacy counter would have once been located. When Albertsons remodeled many of these older 70's and early 80's locations, they moved the pharmacy from the back of the store to one of the front corners. The original Florida Albertsons in Clearwater managed to keep its pharmacy in the back for it's entire 41 year run.
Looking toward the left side wall in this photo. I was told by someone a while back (either in a comment or e-mail, I can't remember right now) that this Albertsons kept its original 70's Stripes interior from when it reopened in 1979 until it closed in 1993.
A look down the back wall of the store.
Dollar Tree's main left side aisle, looking from the back of the store toward the front.
Looking up the left side wall toward the front of the store, into the area where Albertsons' liquor store would have been located.
So that's all from inside Dollar Tree. Let's head back outside where things are a bit more interesting...
Exiting Dollar Tree and turning to the left, this is the view looking toward the front of True MD and Gold's Gym. The wall to my left would have once been all windows looking into Albertsons' front end, and would have bowed out slightly in this area (out to where those columns are now).
While Books-A-Million did a fair amount of remodeling to the exterior of their half of the building, Ben Franklin (and later True MD) as well as Gold's Gym never did much to their portions of the exterior. The portion of the facade where the exterior signs are is mostly original to Albertsons, in fact!
The one exterior modification Gold's Gym made to their portion of the building was covering over the river rock panels over here.
The exterior right side wall has never been touched (or power washed) since Albertsons was here. This side of the building faces a small swampy area with a bunch of trees and a drainage pond. Due to the obstructions (including the trees and some (illegally?) parked cars along the curb over here, as well as me not wanting to trudge through the mud), this was the best photo I got of this side of the building. Here's a Google Streetview link to an image of this side of the building if you'd like to see a wider view.
This is the building's main road sign facing traffic on South Florida Avenue. Notice something interesting about it? The frame around Dollar Tree's sign is Albertsons blue! I'm actually not sure if the road sign is original to the Albertsons days (as the sign could have been installed when the building was split up, and Books-A-Million could have painted the frame blue), but wouldn't that be neat if that frame escaped getting repainted over the last 25 years? It's certainly the right shade of blue that Albertsons used...
Anyway, now it's time to take a look at some Bird'e Eye aerial images, courtesy of Bing Maps:
Front - Other than Deal$ still being open, the rest of the building still looks the same as in the previous photos.
And now for some historic aerial images, courtesy of Google Earth and historicaerials.com:
Former Albertsons #4322 - 2017 - Pictured here is the Albertsons (bottom right corner of the image), with the rest of Merchant's Walk plaza behind it. The Albertsons building predated the rest of the shopping center by 9 years, with the larger shopping center behind it constructed in 1986. From the bottom left of the image to the top right, Merchant's Walk contains anchors Ross Dress for Less, Marshalls, Stein Mart (formerly Phar-Mor), Party City (was something else prior called ______ Barn, but I can't make out the first word of the store's name at the source I found), and Hobby Lobby (formerly the AMC Merchants Walk 10 movie theater, torn down for the Hobby Lobby building).
Former Albertsons #4322 - 2012
Former Albertsons #4322 - 2006
Former Albertsons #4322 - 1999
Former Albertsons #4322 - 1994
Future Albertsons #4322 - 1971 - The Albertsons and Merchant's Walk shopping center would later be constructed on the large empty plot of land at the bottom of this image. At the top of this image is the long gone Lakeland Zayre store, which was torn down for a new Walmart in 1994. I figured including the old Zayre would be more interesting than staring at a large image of an empty lot.
So that's the long backstory of the Lakeland Albertsons store. It was quite the interesting tale, that's for sure, although quite the bumpy ride for Albertsons.
Not long after I made my own visit out this way, AFB contributor Kristin C. also passed by the old Lakeland Albertsons store. She took this photo of the building from out on South Florida Avenue, and I figured I'd include it with the rest of my pictures of this store.
I think the tale of Albertsons #4322 and the Great Albertsons Florida Fire was a good way to kick off 2018 on AFB. Lakeland has a lot of interesting retail, and I wish I had a chance to explore more of it the day I was out here. However, I still got to see a lot of interesting places in my time out this way, including the place that will be the subject of our next post. Look forward to that in two weeks!
So until the next post,
The Albertsons Florida Blogger