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New Mexico’s own Rockefeller Center

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Most New Mexicans have probably heard of the rich and influential Rockefeller family but most probably don’t know that one of Albuquerque’s largest landmarks has ties to the powerful family.

The Winrock Shopping Center opened March 1, 1961 to much fanfare and was named for the man who helped make it a reality – Winthrop Rockefeller.

bright spotRockefeller was the son of John D. Rockefeller Jr., who developed Rockefeller Center in midtown Manhattan, and the grandson of family patriarch and oil magnate John D. Rockefeller.

Singer Glen Campbell, left, receives a carved-wood trophy as a distinguished Arkansan in a presentation made in Hollywood on Jan. 30, 1970, by Arkansas Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller. The trophy is a likeness of Campbell. (Harold Matosian/ Associated Press)

Although Rockefeller hails from a family that is an American dynasty, he himself had an impressive résumé. He was born in New York City on May 1, 1912, the year New Mexico was busy becoming a state. He was admitted to the prestigious Yale University in 1931, but was ejected for misbehavior in 1934, before completing his degree. Perhaps he already had some of the defiant free spirt of the West in his blood.

He joined the Army during WWII, earning both a Bronze Star and Purple Heart. He fled New York life and moved to Arkansas in the early 1950s, where he bought a large plot of land – where he is now buried – atop Petit Jean Mountain and named it Winrock Farms.

He became governor of Arkansas in the late ’60s and it was during his tenure that he completed the integration of the state’s public schools. He fought for the state’s first minimum-wage law and was the only southern governor to hold a public memorial honoring Martin Luther King Jr. after his assassination.

The $10 million, 450,000-square-foot, open-air shopping center had more than 40 businesses on opening day, anchored by large department stores J.C. Penney and Montgomery Ward, which even offered engineering and planning assistance for people doing home improvements, something handled almost exclusively now by private firms and government officials.

This 2017 photo of Winrock Center shows how it looks today. The pyramid structure in the background was part of the original mall. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

America was certainly a different place back then. Newspaper stories and advertisements give a glimpse into the cultural setting that provided the backdrop for the mall’s opening.

Winthrop Rockefeller, 21, arrives in Newark Airport, Newark, New Jersey, Aug. 19, 1933, from Houston, where he studied the oil business. He is the son of John D. Rockefeller Jr. (Associated Press)

Raymond Burr, who played Perry Mason, was the celebrity entertainment for opening day. Home builders were touting the proximity of their neighborhoods to the new project. Walgreen Drug Store, reflecting the sexist hiring practices of the times, advertised for a “waitress for Grill Room, women for food and Counter service, women fry cooks and steam table” for its new location near Winrock.

Opening in the new center was a bakery, bank, grocery store, music and book stores, several clothing shops and places selling shoes, including Paris Shoe Store run by three generations of the Matteucci family, the eldest of which came to Albuquerque as a cobbler from Italy.

Rockefeller began discussing the idea of a shopping center with then-University of New Mexico president Tom Popejoy in 1956. The university had purchased the land where Winrock now stands in 1920 to use as a vegetable garden. By the 1950s, portions of Albuquerque’s east side, including the lot, were still in their untouched, natural state – and by natural state, I mean dirt and tumbleweeds.

Rockefeller chose the location because of its proximity to the planned opening of Interstate 40. A March 12, 1957, Albuquerque Journal article announced that Rockefeller had leased 160 acres from the University of New Mexico for his proposed $7 million shopping center that he told the regents he hoped would open “about the same time the freeway does.”

Rockefeller had to apply to change the property zoning from residential to commercial. The September 1957 hearing before the city’s planning commission was held in front of a packed room that burst into applause when the change was approved. But not everyone was enamored with the project or swayed by the Rockefeller name.

Two commissioners voted against it, with commissioner Robert Nordhaus saying the project was not compatible with the city’s comprehensive land-use plan.

“I have a feeling we have not gotten an impartial appraisal of this whole project from our departments,” he said. “Everybody has been hypnotized by the name of Winthrop Rockefeller.”

Hypnotized they would remain. The city commission (now the city council) unanimously approved the zone change the following month and so began the development of Winrock Shopping Center.

America’s infatuation with malls begin to wane in the 1990s and Winrock’s decline began. Goodman Realty Group purchased the property in 2007, and demolished the old structure. It has been replaced by free-standing restaurants and national retail shops with storefront access.

This undated photo shows crowds inside Winrock after its 1961 opening but before its 1975 enclosure. (Courtesy of Winrock)

Darin Sand, vice president of development for Goodman Realty Group said people now want mixed-use areas where they can live, shop, play and eat.

“Malls were supposed to be community spaces,” he said. “They kind of killed downtowns. The trend now is back to the downtown concept. Densely populated areas where you can walk and amenities are at your doorstep.”

Grouping stores together in one location is not a new concept. At its essence, that’s what a downtown offered – a place to get everything you need. Going even further back – before automobiles, the Internet and large urban cities – people had town markets, to which they traveled miles, probably walking or by horseback, to visit.

In fact, architect Victor Gruen, who designed Winrock and is considered the father of the modern shopping mall, said he initially came up with the concept to mimic the communal gathering spaces he experienced growing up in Vienna, Austria. Gruen fled Austria in 1938 to escape the Nazis. He would come to hate what he created.

This photo shows Winrock Shopping Center under construction probably some time in 1960. (Courtesy Goodman Realty Group)

“I am often called the father of the shopping mall. I would like to take this opportunity to disclaim paternity once and for all. I refuse to pay alimony to those bastard developments. They destroyed our cities,” Gruen said during a speech in London in 1978.

But Rockefeller doesn’t seem to have regretted the project. During a 1972 interview on the floor of the Republican National Convention, he said building the shopping center was a wise decision and contributing the growth of Albuquerque made him “mighty happy.”

Curious about how a town, street or building got its name? Email staff writer Elaine Briseño at ebriseno@abqjournal.com or 505-823-3965 as she continues the monthly journey in “What’s in a Name?”

 

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