Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Most Famous Shopping Center in Florida

Southgate Shopping Center
2515-2633 S. Florida Avenue, Lakeland, FL

     Even if you're not a retail fan, Florida historian, or architecture buff, you've probably seen this famous arch before. The arch you see in the photo above is the famous Southgate Shopping Center arch in Lakeland, Florida, a Florida icon since the plaza was first constructed in 1957. The great arch rises 70 feet tall at its peak, and is comprised of 67 tons of steel. Yes, this thing is massive! (But still pales in comparison in size and weight of this other very famous arch.)

     The Southgate Shopping Center, designed by Donovan Dean (an architect who did multiple projects for Publix in the 1950's), gained a fair amount of notoriety just for its arch and architecture alone. However, Southgate's fame was solidified in Florida history as well as pop culture history when it was featured in the 1990 movie Edward Scissorhands, in this scene. The arch, and much of this shopping center, still look like something out of the 1950s as well (the retro architecture was much of the reason why this plaza was chosen as a filming location for Edward Schssorhands, which was set in the 1950's). While the Southgate arch seems like an unusual architectural detail in a shopping center these days, arches like this were not uncommon in 50's retail buildings (especially in Florida). Publix especially loved giant arches in the 50's, as can be seen in this classic photo of one of the early Wing Store Publix locations. Publix is actually the reason behind the Southgate arch as well...

     In the mid-1950's, the extent of development in Southern Lakeland didn't go much past the extents of downtown, about to where Florida Southern College and Ariana Street are now. South of town, it was mostly farms and orange groves, all land that would eventually become prime for the development of new homes and shopping centers (a relatively new, but increasingly popular concept for the 1950's). In the mid-1950's, Publix's founder George Jenkins learned about the great potential that shopping centers had for his chain of grocery stores. In this time period, much of a town's retail district was still concentrated in downtown areas, including supermarkets. In downtowns, parking was hard to come by, especially as the 1950's progressed and automobiles became increasingly popular with the growth of post-war suburbs. George Jenkins knew that shopping centers were the keys to Publix's success going into the future, seeing how they would allow Publix to build new, large stores with plenty of parking surrounded by other major retailers in areas that were about to sprout new suburbs. Instead of just opening stores in shopping centers though, Publix would eventually take the concept one step further. In 1956, Publix would build and develop their first shopping center, the Midway Shopping Center, in Largo, FL. From there, Publix then constructed shopping centers in Sarasota (Ringling Shopping Center), Winter Haven (Northgate Shopping Center - the current location of Publix #1), and then Southgate Shopping Center in Lakeland. To this day, Publix is still very much active in the development and purchase of shopping centers in which their stores are located, something many supermarket chains shy away from. Currently, Publix is landlord for over 330 shopping centers, with that number always growing as Publix develops and buys more properties.

     Anyway, back to Southgate. The site of the Southgate Shopping Center was a former orange grove with not much else around it at the time. George Jenkins carefully selected the sites for his new shopping centers (including Southgate), locating them in areas where he knew massive development would soon follow. Southgate Shopping Center opened to much fanfare on November 11, 1957, with anchors Publix (of course), a Publix Danish Bakery (the first of its kind - this would later evolve into the modern in-store Publix Bakery), Woolworth, W.T. Grant, Friendly Hardware, Horton's Furniture, Fremac's Men's Clothing store, Rexall Drugs, Thom McAn Shoes, a "Beauteria" (that sounds very 50's, whatever it was!), a toy store, and a few other small stores whose names I can't make out in the old pictures. Speaking of old pictures, here's an overview photo of the plaza taken on its grand opening day. Yes, a full parking lot can be seen there! 700 cars showed up for the grand opening festivities, in fact. I'll sprinkle in a few more links to old photos of Southgate as we continue through this post and take a closer look at the stores currently in this plaza.

Publix #36 / Publix #1270
2515 S. Florida Avenue, Lakeland, FL - Southgate Shopping Center

     Starting at the northern end of the Southgate Shopping Center, we find the plaza's Publix store. From this store's opening in 1957 until 2008, most of the major work on this store came from facade upgrades and expansions into neighboring storefronts (and possibly a small addition to the right side of the building). By 2008, Publix, in their constant desire for modernization, determined the original Southgate Publix to be outdated. In 2008, Publix announced that they would demolish their Southgate store and build a new one in its place. These demolition plans made some locals a bit uneasy, as they feared the demolition would include the removal or altering of the famous arch. However, Publix stated they appreciate the arch's historical significance and it would remain as-is during and after construction. During the reconstruction of the Publix store, Publix further embraced the plaza's architecture and history by installing a new road sign that compliments the plaza's 1950's design (which we'll see later in this post). On October 1, 2009, the new Southgate Shopping Center Publix (pictured above) held its grand opening celebration.

     The current Southgate Publix isn't anything too special anymore. It looks like every other modern Publix inside, as can be seen in the few decent interior photos posted to Google. I didn't bother going inside this Publix for that reason. I felt it was better to spend my little bit of time out this way documenting some of the more interesting Publix stores in town (which will make their way to the blog and/or my flickr page sometime in the future). However, after the new store opened, this display was set up inside, featuring the Southgate arch and a photo of the original store. I don't know if that display was kept after the grand opening days, but it was cool nonetheless!

Woolworth / Belk-Lindsey / Office Depot #2363
2527 South Florida Avenue, Lakeland, FL - Southgate Shopping Center

     Immediately to the left of Publix, you find Office Depot. This space was originally home to Woolworth (or as the original sign said, "Woolworth's"). Woolworth left this location by 1969, as that's about the time when a news article I found said Belk moved into this space. At 20,000 square feet, this would be a rather tiny Belk store, but it served its purpose. In 2004, Belk announced they were building a newer, and much larger, store at the Lakeside Village "lifestyle center" about three miles away from here. That new Belk would open in late 2005 and serve as a replacement for the Southgate store. However, the Southgate Belk closed on August 31, 2004 when their lease at this location expired, about a year prior to the replacement store opening. You can read more about Belk's closure and the replacement situation in this article, which also includes a photo of the Southgate Belk while it was still open. Once Belk left, Southgate's landlord already had Office Depot lined up to take over this space, and they opened here in 2005.

   Here's a photo of this space back in the Woolworth days (featuring the next door Publix and the arch as well).

     Looking from Office Depot toward the arch. We'll take a closer look at the arch again in just a moment.

     This is the view along Southgate's front walkway from in front of Office Depot, looking toward the arch and the courtyard. I'd have say there were many more windows over here back in the Woolworth days than there are now!

    Just beyond the Office Depot is a small courtyard, created to accommodate the back support for the Southgate arch behind me. This photo looks into the courtyard, with the arch's back support beam coming down in the middle of it.

     Overall, the Southgate Shopping Center has a very good occupancy rate and is doing quite well. The only exception to that is here in the courtyard area, where every single storefront was vacant upon my visit. There are a total of four storefronts back here, all of which range from 1,000 to 2,000 square feet. I've seen many shopping centers with courtyard areas or little tucked away corners that are almost always vacant, probably caused by poor visibility from the road and the parking lot. This one was no exception, however it does seem that all four of these spaces were occupied going into the early 2010's. It may be tough to attract retail tenants to spaces like this, but these four spots seem like a nice place for some small offices amongst the busy shopping center. In the movie Edward Scissorhands, Edward's salon is located in one of the storefronts back here in the courtyard (as can be seen in the scene here, the same clip I linked to earlier).

     Here's a perspective that is rarely ever photographed - the Southgate arch from behind! Here you can see the large beam that provides support to the back of the arch, surrounded by the neatly kept plants in the courtyard. The plaza's 1950's vibe seems to grow much stronger when you walk back here, as this is one of the few parts of the plaza that has seen minimal change since its opening.

     Coming out of the courtyard, here's a close-up of the famous arch. Not a single thing about the arch has been altered from its original look from the plaza's early days. The paint color schemes are the same from day one, as is the style of the Southgate Shopping Center signage on the arch itself. This photo shows the arch back in the plaza's early days, where you can see that not much has changed about it over the last 60 years! Here's another photo I found of the arch itself when it was still under construction. That photo was spotted in a Publix historical photo collage, a staple of their Classy Market 2.0 and Classy Market 2.5 decor packages. That linked photo of the arch under construction was taken at the new Southgate store not long after it opened. I've seen a good number of those photo collages at other Publix stores, and I don't remember the arch photo, so that must have been a special photo included specifically for this store.

     Looking down the front walkway of the plaza to the left of the arch, with the base of the arch visible to the left. The first storefront to my right in this photo was originally Fremac's Men's Clothing store. I'm not sure when Fremac's closed, but it's certainly been a while. This space has been home to a few different Asian restaurants in recent years, with the current occupant being Tokyo Steakhouse.

     Looking down the left side of the plaza. The Tuesday Morning store and the large empty storefront immediately to the right of it once comprised the W.T. Grant store, which has been gone since the 1970s. The Tuesday Morning store had just opened at this location upon my visit here in August 2017, occupying a space that was most recently home to medical offices. The large empty space to the right of the Tuesday Morning store appears to have been sitting empty for a while, and is the largest vacancy in the entire plaza as of this writing.

     Close-up of the Tuesday Morning store, sporting the company's new logo introduced in late 2016. If you look closely you can see the "Now Open" banner hanging on the front window. Tuesday Morning was once located 2 miles south of here in the Palm Center shopping plaza, until closing mysteriously "for remodel" in mid-2016. This store would open about a year later as a replacement for the original store.

     The last store we'll take a look at in the Southgate Shopping Center is Crowder Brothers Ace Hardware. Like Publix, this hardware store is also an original tenant to the Southgate Shopping Center. I'm not sure if the hardware store has been with the same owners through the years, but it has been in the same spot. Originally, this store was called "Friendly Hardware", later becoming a True Value affiliate, and now an Ace Hardware affiliate. Over the years, the hardware store expanded into the storefront to its left (the left corner spot of the plaza), which was originally home to a Rexall Drug Store. While the store has some 50's-esque signage on the exterior, the interior is very reminiscent of a modern Ace store (and packed with merchandise - they sure were able to cram a lot into this tiny store!).

      The Southgate arch has become such a local (and state) icon, that the plaza even had their parking lot row signs custom designed to include a representation of the arch! These signs are not original to the plaza, and are a more modern addition to pay compliment to the famous arch.

     Lastly, the main road sign for Southgate Shopping Center. While this sign looks like it would date back to the 1950's, it was actually installed in 2009 during Publix's demolition and rebuild of their store. The design of the road sign compliments the arch and the plaza's 50's vibe very well. This sign replaced a plain but classic Publix trapezoid-shaped road sign, which stood here for many years prior.

     Courtesy of Bing Maps, here is an aerial image of the entirety of the Southgate Shopping Center, the famous arch front and center. Compare this aerial to the aerial I linked to earlier taken on the plaza's opening day.

     Now let's take a trip back in time (via Google Earth and, although this method of time travel would certainly be much more fun!):

Southgate Shopping Center - 2017

Southgate Shopping Center - 2010

Southgate Shopping Center - 2009 - The original Publix building is still standing here

Southgate Shopping Center - 1999

Southgate Shopping Center - 1994

Southgate Shopping Center - 1971

     We will conclude our little overview of the Southgate Shopping Center with one last photo of the famous arch. No trip to Lakeland is complete without a stop by the Southgate Shopping Center to take a look at the great arch, and maybe take a picture or two (or even a selfie!) while you're there. When it comes to classic Florida retail (or just classic Florida in general), this is one of the many great examples of it to see out there! I covered many of the highlights of the Southgate Shopping Center in this post, but this is one of the more popular articles on the plaza's history in case you want to read more.

     Well that's all I have for now. I hope everyone enjoyed this look at Florida's most famous shopping center (and arch, for that matter - I can't think of too many other notable arches in Florida off the top of my head besides this one!).

So until the next post,

The Albertsons Florida Blogger


  1. Publix increased its pharmacy count by replacing Publix #36, a non-pharmacy store, with Publix #1270, a pharmacy store.

    Publix has 103 non-pharmacy stores out of 1,169 stores. The number of non-pharmacy stores is decreasing as Publix Pharmacy locations open in non-pharmacy Publix stores, or non-pharmacy stores are replaced by new stores with Publix Pharmacy.

    Publix #11, Grove Park Shopping Center, 1617 US Highway 98, Lakeland, Florida 33801-6585, currently the oldest Publix store in operation, added Publix Pharmacy in 2017.

    1. Publix #11 was one of the other Publix stores I visited while I was out this way. The new pharmacy at that store was just a little box built between the front entrance and the bakery. It actually looks a bit odd walking into the store, seeing hit is sticks out from the wall. I'm surprised Publix bothered adding a pharmacy to that store considering how old it is, rather than putting store #11 on the list for replacement in order to get a pharmacy in there. The store is kept up well, but you can tell it's an old one when walking around inside, and it's pretty clear it was expanded a few times as well.

  2. Awesome post! I love the design of this shopping center, how it embraces its history, and all the fun links you included showing how others have featured it in the past. I've been to the St. Louis arch - this one is now next on my "list of arches to visit someday"!

    1. Thanks - glad you liked it! The Southgate arch has certainly found is place in history! It's nice to see a place embrace its history for a change rather than trying to wipe it all away. Hopefully you'll get to visit Southgate someday, much like hope to cross the St. Louis arch off of my own "list of arches to visit someday"!

  3. Neat! I find it interesting that a Tuesday Morning just opened up by you-- around the same time, we got one in the old Kmart up here in Quakertown, PA! :)

    1. A very neat place indeed! Tuesday Morning has been opening many new stores recently, as well as replacing older ones. It's all part of how the off-price retail industry is seeing a lot of growth of late.

    2. Yeah. Do they have Ollies Bargain Outlets down there? I haven't been in Florida for a few years now; but hope to return for a long awaited trip!

    3. Northern and Central Florida have Ollie's Bargain Outlet, as well as parts of the west coast. We don't have any on the east coast yet, or in South Florida, however I suspect Ollie's will make their way into the rest of the state before too long. They're expanding like crazy too.

    4. Yeah, Ollie's takes over whatever they can get... they've taken over A&P's, Circuit Cities, and other older supermarkets. It's surprising, honestly.

  4. Albertsons Florida Blog
    do you remember the publix at 8815 N Florida Avenue Tampa, FL 33604
    northgate plaza/shopping center tampa, FL Publix #30 195?-1996