Anyone living in Cedar Rapids or Marion has more than likely found themselves needing to get to the other, and, most likely, has made the trip by way of First Avenue. On their way, they’ve probably seen an unassuming strip mall just a couple minutes into Cedar Rapids past the Marion border: an L-shaped series of shops with a squat silhouette that creeps up the slight rise of the parking lot. The Town & Country Shopping Center is, in fact, the oldest shopping mall in Iowa.
That margin for “oldest” is slim — in the 1950s, newly widespread car ownership led to an explosion of malls across the United States. Iowa’s first enclosed shopping mall was the Park Fair Mall, which opened in Des Moines, also in 1956. The Lindale Plaza, only a couple minutes’ drive from Town & Country, opened only four years later.
In 1955, the brothers Martin, Maurice and Matthew Bucksbaum, property developers from Marshalltown, decided to buy the lot that would become the shopping center. They initially planned to use it for a Sun-Mart, a store similar to Fareway, but expanded the idea to a full-on shopping mall.
“The advice they got was, don’t just put a Sun-Mart there, why don’t you actually create a shopping center?” said Mark Hunter, a Cedar Rapids historian. “I mean, this is really radical, of course, at this time in American history. Because up until the 1950s, most Americans didn’t own their own automobile … So what’s really pushing the concept of the shopping center is the incredible rate of automobile ownership, that people can actually drive to a location rather than having to walk to a city center, in Cedar Rapids’ case, or use public transportation.”
At first, there was concern that the shopping center would pull business away from the downtown area, where Smulekoff’s and other large stores were the heart of local commerce.
“The downtown Cedar Rapids area was initially a little bit concerned. But then when they realized that they weren’t doing department stores there, there were no movie theaters there, [they realized] there were no major competitors to pull revenue away from the downtown C route,” explained Hunter.
The name of the shopping center was literal. To the front of the shopping center, especially in the later 1950s as the Collins factory drew workers to that area of Cedar Rapids, residential areas had already sprung up behind the rows of First Avenue businesses. Behind the shopping center was still “country,” with an open field and the Old Milwaukee rail line running behind the center until the 1980s.
In the early ’80s, the shopping center underwent a remodel that included the addition of a restaurant in the parking lot. Originally, it was a Sambo’s, a chain restaurant started in the 1950s whose name and vaguely West Asian mascot were, even at the time, considered insensitive. By 1982 the chain had folded; several tenants later, a Bandana’s Barbecue is now in that space.
On the other hand, a Town & Country fixture that’s lasted since the ’80s is the snug RG Books, a dark, charming cocktail bar with hundreds of books lining the walls, which connects through an open archway to the Italian date night destination Vino’s. The books, which patrons can read at their leisure, were obtained from a Cedar Rapids Library book sale when they moved from the space that currently holds the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art.
The basement of the T&C has become local legend. It initially served as space for area residents to use as community rooms, but the most well-known of the basements was the one that hosted the Town and Country Bowl bowling alley until the late ’90s. In the 1950s, bowling became popular after the invention of the AMF automatic pinsetter in 1946, removing the need to hire staff to manually reset the pins. The craze got to Iowa shortly after the mall was built, and the space underneath the original Sun-Mart was turned into a bowling alley.
The bowling alley was literally underneath the sidewalk — a glass section covered the set of stairs that led down into the alley. It stayed open until 1997 when fire code regulations forced its closure. The stairwell down to the alley was filled with concrete, but a popular piece of Cedar Rapids lore asserts the alley itself stayed, preserved as it had been when it closed.
The bowling alley would, unfortunately, be permanently destroyed — except for one wall that still lies buried underneath the mall — in 2017, when the addition of a Fareway in the space that had originally held the Sun-Mart required the destruction and rebuilding of the basement area.
Hunter was able to go into the bowling alley one last time in 2017, just before the alley’s destruction, confirming the legend. “All the bowling lanes ha[d] been removed but it still look[ed] like the bowling alley. And no one had been in there for like 15 years — it was really eerie down there … But you could still see the cafe, you could still see the pro shop, and you could still see the staircase. Really, you could walk up the staircase, but then if you walk too far, your head would hit the ceiling of the sidewalk.”
Despite its construction necessitating the removal of a piece of Cedar Rapids history, Hunter was optimistic about Fareway’s addition to the Town & Country Shopping Center.
“I’m loving the fact that it’s coming full circle — that we’re right back to a supermarket again,” he said. “After all these years, you know, it really has stood the test of time.”
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 305.