On April 21, 1950, the Northgate Shopping Mall opens at NE Northgate Way at 5th Avenue NE in Seattle. Planned by developers Rex Allison and Ben B. Ehrlichman (1895-1971) and designed by John Graham Jr. (1908-1991), it is the country's first regional shopping center to be defined as a "mall" (although there were at least three predecessor shopping centers). The stores face "a wide shopping walkway, probably to be known as the Mall or Plaza, in which no vehicles will be permitted" (The Seattle Times). The parking lot is quickly found to be insufficient for the number of shoppers attracted by the Bon Marché and 17 other specialty stores.
Northgate was the brainchild of Rex Allison, president of Bon Marché. Before World War II, he envisioned a suburban shopping center. The economic boom following Allied victory in 1945 allowed Allied Stores, the firm that owned Bon Marché, to involve developers Ben B. Ehrlichman (1895-1971) and W. Walter Williams (1894-1983), who formed the Suburban Co. (later The Northgate Co.). They retained architect John H. Graham Jr. to design the project and announced their plans in February 1948. In 1949, Allied bought out Ehrlichman and Williams and appointed James B. Douglas (1909-2005) to run the project as president.
Northgate was sited outside the Seattle city limits on 62 acres between E (later NE) 103rd Street and E 111th Street and between 1st Avenue NE and 5th Avenue NE. The north end of Seattle was chosen because of its dramatic growth over the previous 20 years and because of the canal bridges that fed Aurora Avenue N and Roosevelt Way NE. Northgate is often credited as being the nation's or the world's first suburban shopping center. However, in 1947 two shopping centers opened: the Broadway-Crenshaw Center in South Los Angeles and the North Shore Center in Beverly, Massachusetts; in 1949 the Town and Country opened in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio.
The Bon Marché planned a three-story, $3 million store at the south end of the complex. Other tenants signing on early were the National Bank of Commerce, an A&P grocery store, Ernst Hardware, Newberry's, and Nordstrom's shoes. There was room for 80 stores, which could be serviced by an underground tunnel. There would also be a four-story medical-dental center. A five-cent shuttle bus was offered from the end of Seattle Transit System service at N 85th Street.
The new mall was officially opened on April 21, 1950, when Winifred Hines, a 42-year employee of the Bon Marche, cut the ceremonial ribbon, assisted by Bon president Rex Allison. The event was telecast on KING TV, which had been on the air for less than a year.
Northgate was an instant success, even though many retail spaces were still vacant. (It took until 1952 for all the retail spaced to be leased.) As new tenants signed on, the stores were opened four or five at a time, with great publicity. The parking lot was jammed at peak hours for 10 days following opening. Some shoppers had a tough time adjusting to the design and parked their cars on the mall. The developers used polar bear cubs, a Cadillac giveaway, and a children's play area to attract shoppers. New, electric-eye doors in some stores aided shoppers laden with packages.
Northgate took the national spotlight during the holiday season in 1950 when Life magazine featured the world's record 212-foot Christmas tree put up at the mall. In 1952, Bellevue sculptor Dudley C. Carter designed and carved a 59-foot cedar totem pole to decorate the entrance to the mall. The mall area was used for special events such as the 1953 General Motors automobile show.
The opening of Interstate 5 spurred a $10 million, 25-store expansion in 1965, more than doubling the project's size. By that time the mall included a movie theater and Northgate Hospital. Apartment buildings and office developments sprang up in the area. By 1968, 50,000 cars a day were using Northgate.
The success of Southcenter in Tukwila spurred Northgate to enclose the covered mall in 1974 to provide a climate-controlled environment. By 1980, there were 123 stores. In 1987, the Simon Property Group of Indiana acquired Northgate.