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ABQ retail transformed by Winrock Center

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

An undated photo of Winrock Center, which had everything from a bank to a bakery to a barber shop, in addition to major department stores, when it opened in 1961.

An undated photo of Winrock Center, which had everything from a bank to a bakery to a barber shop, in addition to major department stores, when it opened in 1961.

“The center will be a ‘regional’ type – in which persons can buy almost everything they might need, except homes and automobiles.”

Albuquerque Journal describing plans for Winrock, Jan. 4, 1959

The city had never before seen anything like Winrock Center.

When it opened on March 1, 1961, it represented a vast new commercial frontier for the growing city.

A 565,000-square-foot shopping mecca developed by Winthrop Rockefeller and Winrock Enterprises, the center pulled together national retailers, such as Montgomery Ward, J.C. Penney, Fedway and Kresge’s, with a host of established local businesses, including Paris Shoes, H. Cook Sporting Goods, Peter Polly, Stromberg’s, and Cooper’s Western and Casual Wear.

The center – a first-of-its-kind for Albuquerque – seemed to have it all, from banks to a bakery to a barber shop. In need of some Aspirin? Visit the Winrock Walgreens. Picking up some ground beef for tonight’s meatloaf? There was a Safeway, too. Within a couple of years, the property also had a hotel and movie theater.

Built on a vacant swath of land leased from the University of New Mexico, Winrock – originally constructed with an open-air design – cost about $10 million to build. It required 50,000 tons of concrete and 2,800 tons of steel, according to Journal archives.

It was billed as the “largest shopping center in the Southwest” and boasted parking for nearly 5,000 cars.

Winrock Center thrived in its early years, but had grown mostly quiet by the early 2000s.

Winrock Center thrived in its early years, but had grown mostly quiet by the early 2000s.

“It was gorgeous and important – a signal that Albuquerque was on the rise,” recalls Roberta Cooper Ramo, whose father, David Cooper, and his namesake Western-wear shop were among the inaugural tenants.

Thousands of people converged on Winrock on its first day, according to a Journal account, eager for a look at the next big thing and clamoring for a host of grand-opening giveaways that included a 1961 Corvair from Ed Black’s Chevrolet, a pair of White Sewing Machines, eight In-Sink-Erator disposals and a year’s supply of candy from Thelma Lu’s Sugar Bowl.

But in the years preceding that day, some doubted the prospects of such a place. Although similar centers had cropped up around the nation, Winrock sounded somewhat outlandish to some locals, who were more accustomed to having retail concentrated in Downtown and Nob Hill.

Bob Matteucci Jr., whose family operated Paris Shoes for nearly 100 years, said his grandfather was reluctant to be part of it.

“When they approached him, he said ‘Hell, no, I don’t want to go to Winrock,'” Matteucci Jr. said. “It was a gutsy move (to make); the rent was really high – relatively – (but) then my dad was a young buck, and he pushed and pushed and pushed, and they opened a store.”

Leba Freed, whose uncle, Sidney Hertzmark, spearheaded Winrock’s leasing effort with partner Hannes Parnegg, said even her own family was divided on the idea – particularly given Winrock’s then-remote location.

“My uncle told my father that he was going to do Winrock and it was going to cost about $7 million to do Winrock (and) my father burst into tears,” Freed recalled of her father, who ran the Freed Co. in Downtown. “He said, ‘Sidney, that is so far out of town. It will never work.'”

But it did work – quite well, in fact. And it gradually pulled retail away from Downtown. Montgomery Ward, for example, announced plans to close its Downtown Albuquerque store about seven months after Winrock opened.

“(Winrock) was pretty much the end of Downtown,” Freed said.

Business boomed at the center, according to Matteucci Jr., who spent much of his boyhood there, working as a stock boy in the family store and learning the perils of the Winrock fountains by watching many kids – including his sister – fall into the shallow ponds.

By the mid-1970s, he said Winrock represented at least half of the three-location Paris Shoes’ estimated $6 million in annual sales.

“You couldn’t do bad in that mall,” said the now-lawyer.

Winrock served as a sort of community gathering place, hosting frequent special events and bringing together many of the city’s premier, locally owned stores. Freed still remembers “oohing” and “aahing” at the fancy women’s fashions on the racks at Jordan’s, making regular trips with her mother to Winrock Bakery and roaming the kids’ paradise that was Toys by Roy – all independent merchants.

“It was a day when there were (privately owned) and wonderful and fascinating businesses,” she said.

Winrock, like its Northeast Heights setting, continued to grow and evolve.

It landed Dillard’s – the only anchor still in place today – in 1972, enclosed the mall in 1975 and added an upper level in 1984. It also changed hands, with Prudential Real Estate Investors acquiring it from Rockefeller’s group.

And by then, it wasn’t the only mall on the block. Coronado Center had opened up literally down the street in 1965.

The malls operated successfully in such close proximity for decades – even with some of the same retailers – though Coronado snagged one of Winrock’s primary tenants, J.C. Penney, in 1990. Despite the loss, Winrock maintained momentum, getting an estimated $50 million in upgrades in the early 1990s, a period that saw the addition of many new restaurants and retailers, including Garduño’s, Macaroni Grill and Border’s.

Matteucci Jr. opened his own shoe store there in 1990 – Shoes on a Shoestring – but remembers the mall growing quieter as the decade progressed.

“It was always a ghost town (on the second level); we always said we could shoot a cannon down there and wouldn’t hit one person,” said Matteucci Jr., who moved out of the mall in 1996. “By that time, it was definitely losing out to Coronado. Coronado became the premier mall.”

The bankruptcy and closure of Montgomery Ward in 2000 dealt Winrock a major blow and stores gradually started closing shop. More followed suit as Prudential, which finally purchased the Winrock land from UNM in 2001, introduced various redevelopment strategies in the early 2000s. They included a $100 million “Winrock MarketCenter” approach that would turn the property into an open-air center and incorporate residences, a new movie theater and offices. Announced in 2005, the plan ultimately fizzled. In the meantime, ABQ Uptown grew up across the street, opening in late 2006.

Goodman Realty Group acquired Winrock in 2007 and established its own ambitious redevelopment plan. The transformation has now begun.

As someone who watched Winrock’s original development, Freed said she’s eagerly awaiting its results.

“We’re thrilled to see what happens,” Freed said. “We’re happy for every success that (developer Gary Goodman) can have.”

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