Looking back on...Stonewood Center

DOWNEY - During the mid-20th century, Huntington Park was the place to shop.Adorned with high-end department stores, popular auto dealerships and first-rate cinemas, Pacific Boulevard, a swanky, Beverly Hills-like thoroughfare in Huntington Park's downtown district, offered fine merchandise to a constant stream of working-class locals in the 1940s and early 50s. With few national fashion retailers available in southeast Los Angeles County at the time, Pacific Boulevard became what the New York Times referred to as an "apotheosis of the postwar California dream." Eager to live out their middle-class aspirations, working-class families from the neighboring cities of South Gate, Bell, Cudahy and Downey often found themselves shopping in the busy downtown commercial district. However, with community leaders always striving to elevate Downey to the forefront of innovation and quality of life, Mr. and Mrs. William Lansdale took on the task of establishing Downey as the next mecca of fashion, entertainment and retail business. In February 1953, the couple announced their intentions to construct, design and develop a nearly 63-acre shopping center near the corner of Firestone and Lakewood boulevards. The almost $12 million venture, known today as Stonewood Center, would eventually become the largest commercial and professional development in the community's history, one of the first regional shopping centers in Southern California, and the seventh shopping mall facility built in Greater Los Angeles. Though it may be difficult to imagine the large acreage as anything but a shopping center, Stonewood was at one time a forested tract of land, filled with gourds and sugar beets, owned by one of Downey's pioneer families: the Jenisons. It was 1877 when John E. Jenison, co-founder of a thriving general merchandise business, arrived in Downey, purchasing extensive plots of land throughout the newly-formed community, including more than 100 acres from Florence Avenue to Firestone Boulevard, between Lakewood Boulevard and Woodruff Avenue. By the early 1950s, the majority of the Jenison land had been subdivided into residential developments, while the original Jenison Ranch, acquired by Jenison's daughter-in-law, Jewell, in the 1930s, sat undeveloped for years. However, in 1953, after spending years declining numerous offers for the prized land, Jewell Jenison signed a 99-year lease agreement with the Lansdales, a young, Downey couple, who immediately envisioned a large, open-air retail business center on the property. Following the example of newer retail centers, like the Lakewood Shopping Center, which opened in the city of Lakewood in 1951, Lansdale and his partner, E. Morris Smith, began designing the Downey mall, originally referred to as the Lansdale Shopping Center. Later, the name changed to Stonewood, an abbreviation of the shopping center's location - Firestone at Lakewood, once one of the busiest intersections in the world. In February 1956, construction began with a 24-hour coffee shop and restaurant, which was eventually named Stonewood Restaurant. The $750,000 eatery was followed by the addition of Downey Stonewood Community Bank and a 40,000-square-foot Shopping Bag supermarket. When the 390,000-square-foot, open-air shopping center opened on Thursday, October 9, 1958, it featured nearly 40 stores including a new J.C. Penney, W.T. Grant, F.W. Woolworth's, Thrifty Drug Store, Hardy Shoes, Miller and Miller West Men's, Downey Music and Hollander Cafeteria. By 1966, Stonewood Center was being advertised as a "city within a city" as the number of stores jumped to nearly 65 with the addition of Farrell's Ice Cream Parlour, Showcase Cinemas, a small twin theatre, Radio Shack, and a 3-level, 143,400-square-foot The Broadway, which opened in 1965. The Broadway also originally featured a restaurant, coffee shop, but was later closed and utilized as additional shopping space. In the 1970s, Stonewood continued to grow consuming more of the original 63 acres, offering almost 80 stores at the shopping center. In 1981, Stonewood constructed a new 2-story Mervyn's on the north side of its lot, adding yet another nationally-recognized anchor to its list of competitive stores. Stonewood, which slowly took the place of Downey's once vibrant downtown, eventually played host to Hollywood. With its classic 60s architecture and ambiance, the shopping center proved perfect for an early episode of the TV show "The Wonder Years," which filmed inside Stonewood Center in 1988. Nevertheless, the late 80s proved to be a transitional period for the still open-air mall, which was becoming less appealing as new, fully-enclosed venues were increasing in popularity. In December 1986, the property was sold to Newport Beach-based Hughes Investments, which promised a completely remodeled and expanded Stonewood Center. Hughes' $100 million proposal came to fruition during the fall of 1990 when a fully-enclosed, Post Modern shopping center opened its doors. Along with it came a brand new 2-level, 150-square-foot May Company, 40 to 50 other new stores and two popular eateries, Acapulco Restaurant and Olive Garden. Despite the extensive remodel, Stonewood maintained many of its original tenants, but soon trendier stores began to emerge including Foot Locker, Wherehouse Records, Charlotte Russe and Champs Sports. With more than 150 stores inside, Stonewood Center had garnered nearly 940,000 square feet by the mid 1990s. In 1993, the May Company became Robinson's-May while The Broadway, Stonewood's first major anchor store, folded in 1996; Sears acquired the location and later constructed a freestanding Sears Auto Center nearby. In August 1997, Santa Monica-based Macerich Company purchased Stonewood after buying Lakewood Center almost 20 years prior. Macerich acquired Los Cerritos Center in 1999. Today, Macerich markets the three malls as a regional group of unique yet related shopping experiences. When Robinson's-May folded in 2006, Macy's soon replaced it. In September 2009, Kohl's opened at Stonewood after the Great Recession tanked retail giant Mervyns. Today, Stonewood caters to a much younger, trendier consumer base than ever before. The 21st century has brought with it new names in retail such as Aldo, Aeropostle, Hollister Co. and Forever 21. In 2009, the shopping center welcomed BJ's Restaurant & Brewhouse and expects to offer even more entertainment and dining options this year. Moreover, William Lansdale's simple business idea has become just what he envisioned: a modern shopping convenience, a hub of entertainment and dining options, and a valued regional staple that brings back treasured memories for generations of Downey natives.

********** Published: January 13, 2011 - Volume 9 - Issue 39