Merle Hay Mall in Des Moines, IA – Navigating the Mall’s Past, Present, and Exciting Future

Introducing Merle Hay Mall

Merle Hay Mall in Des Moines, Iowa, is an enclosed super-regional shopping mall with a rich history. Established in 1959, it proudly stands as Iowa’s oldest regional shopping center.

It was also the largest mall in the state in terms of the gross leasable area before the opening of Jordan Creek Town Center in West Des Moines in 2004. Notably, Merle Hay Mall was the site of the deadliest fire in Des Moines’ history, claiming the lives of eleven people in 1978.

Merle Hay Mall is anchored by Kohl’s, Target, and Ross Dress for Less, with two vacant anchor stores that Younkers and Sears previously occupied. On its outparcels, you’ll find Applebee’s, IHOP, and Starbucks. Other major stores within the mall include Old Navy.

Most of the mall is situated in the northwest part of Des Moines, with the wing containing the former Younkers, Kohl’s, and the food court located within the city limits of neighboring Urbandale. The Merle Hay Mall Limited Partnership independently owns and manages the mall, with Chicago-based company Urban Retail Properties handling leasing.

A Historical Overview

Before the construction of Merle Hay Mall, St. Gabriel’s Monastery occupied the site from 1921 until it was demolished in 1958. Chicago-based developers Joseph Abbell and Bernard Greenbaum purchased the site from Passionist monks in 1956.

The developers chose Des Moines for their mall due to its reputation as a model urban area in middle America. Initially planned as a strip mall called Northland Shopping Center, the mall was renamed Merle Hay Plaza after the first Iowan killed in World War I, following the suggestion of Younkers executives.

Merle Hay Plaza opened on August 17, 1959, with 31 stores, including its first anchor, Younkers, and a bowling alley that is still operational today. When it relocated from downtown Des Moines later that year, Sears became the second anchor store.

Early mall tenants included a Safeway supermarket, Kresge, Bishop’s Buffet, and Walgreens. The addition of a movie theater and a six-story office building took place in 1965.

Enclosure and Expansion

In 1972, Merle Hay Plaza was enclosed and became Merle Hay Mall. Two years later, as Valley West Mall and Southridge Mall were under construction, Merle Hay Mall completed a significant westward expansion that doubled its size.

During this expansion, Montgomery Ward and Younkers Store for Homes were added as anchor stores. By 2000, Merle Hay Mall attracted an average of 35,000 shoppers daily.

Iowa State University economist Kenneth Stone stated in a 1994 interview that Merle Hay Mall successfully adapted to changing lifestyles in the 1960s and 1970s by offering longer shopping hours. This helped the mall remain popular as downtown Des Moines merchants began restricting their hours.

Tragedy and Change: The Younkers Fire

On November 5, 1978, the original Younkers store at Merle Hay Mall was destroyed in a fire that resulted in an estimated $20 million in damages and the loss of eleven lives. The store remained closed for nearly a year to rebuild.

Inquiries determined the fire was caused by a hydrogen buildup from alkaline water leaking from the store’s heating and cooling system. In 1981, court documents filed by prosecuting attorneys stated that an electrical malfunction caused wires covered in polyvinyl chloride to overheat, releasing hydrochloric acid.

Younkers and the victims’ families sued over 20 companies associated with polyvinyl chloride, including Monsanto Company and Underwriters Laboratories. Most lawsuits were settled out of court in 1984, during the last suit against B.F.

East entrance of Merle Hay Mall
“Merle Hay Mall in Des Moines” by Iowahwyman is licensed under Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.

Anchor Tenant Turnover

In 1991, Merle Hay Mall experienced its first anchor loss when the Younkers Store for Homes closed, with Kohl’s replacing it in 1993. Then, in 1998, Montgomery Ward faced eviction from the mall during its first round of bankruptcy, leading to its closure in early 1999.

In August 2000, Famous-Barr assumed the space while the mall experienced a $20 million refurbishment. Younkers relocated to the former Famous-Barr space on July 18, 2004, and the old Younkers was demolished to make room for a new Target store that opened on July 19, 2005.

Over the years, various retailers have come and gone from the mall. In 2017, MC Sports filed for bankruptcy and was replaced by a bouncy-house arena. In addition, the mall’s upper level became a Flix Brewhouse movie theater in mid-2014, quickly becoming a popular destination for the greater Des Moines area.

Ross Dress for Less occupied the former Staples location in October 2017. However, more anchor losses followed, with both Younkers and Sears closing in 2018.

Des Moines Aerial
Des Moines Aerial” by formulanone is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Modern-Day Redevelopment and Challenges

Merle Hay Mall has undergone several renovations to remain a viable shopping center. In 2008, the Des Moines city council rezoned the area around the mall into a tax increment financing district to help the owners fund future renovations.

The redevelopment led to relocating and renovating of various retailers, including Old Navy, Shoe Carnival, and Ulta. In 2013, Dunham’s Sports left the mall and was replaced by MC Sports.

However, the mall faced challenges in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced many retailers to close for extended periods. By August, several prominent retailers, including Helzberg Diamonds, Victoria’s Secret, and Justice, had closed their locations in the mall.

Des Moines Buccaneers
Des Moines Buccaneers” by spedrcr76 is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In October 2020, it was announced that the vacant Sears building would be demolished for future development. In November 2020, the Des Moines Buccaneers hockey team revealed plans to build a new sports facility in the old Younkers space and adjacent areas.

The project will include a 3,500-capacity arena for the Buccaneers, three additional ice rinks for tournaments and community use, and a 150-room hotel, set to be completed before the 2022-23 hockey season.

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I'm Spencer Walsh, a professional traveler who loves to help people discover new places and learn about different cultures. I've traveled worldwide, from Europe to Asia and Africa to South America. My favorite thing about traveling is getting lost because it allows me to discover unexpected gems—finding a hidden museum or stumbling upon a beautiful park in the middle of the city.

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