The History of Winchester Mall

The Winchester shopping center at Avon & Rochester roads is now in the process of entering its third incarnation as a retail development. Earlier this year, the owners sought approval from the City of Rochester Hills for another makeover of the site. An Art Van furniture store will occupy space that has been vacant since the K-Mart store closed in December 2014. The plan also calls for new outbuildings to house an Aldi grocery and a restaurant, as well as a complete redesign of the parking lot. 

Construction site fenced off

Winchester Redevelopment July 2018 – Photo By Deborah J. Larsen

In suburban areas, it is no surprise to see shopping centers appear on former farmland lying along major roads. But the Winchester property didn’t transition directly from tractors to shopping carts; it took a couple of interesting “almost” turns on its way to becoming the retail center that we know today. 

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the property on the southwest corner of Avon & Rochester roads was part of John J. Snook’s Overlook Fruit Farm, which straddled both sides of Avon Road. Snook was a Civil War veteran who survived wounds received at the Battle of Chickamauga. After the war, he built up his Overlook farm by employing modern farming methods, and was active in several agricultural associations. Locally, he was known as “Snook of Overlook” or the “poet laureate of Rochester,” because he had published several books of verse. 

Old photo of a farm house with people sitting in chairs outside

Overlook Farm at Rochester and Avon Roads – Photo Courtesy of the Rochester Hills Public Library

Snook died in 1923 and most of Overlook Farm was sold to William A. Fisher, who owned a summer residence on the property adjoining Overlook to the south. Fisher, one of the brothers of Fisher Body fame, employed a superintendent and laborers to farm his property. 

In 1951, the Mount Elliott Cemetery Association bought the former Overlook land as a prospective cemetery location. The cemetery association owned the land for almost two decades, but never built a cemetery – or anything else – at the site.  

By the close of the 1960s, the community’s population was growing exponentially and the property on the corner of Rochester & Avon was destined to leave behind its agricultural roots. An odd chapter in the land’s history unfolded in December 1968, when the Department of Defense announced that three area properties were under consideration to host a Sentinel anti-ballistic missile base. The Army Corps of Engineers conducted test borings on the land at the southwest corner of Rochester and Avon, as well as at Squirrel and Featherstone and at I-75 and Wattles. The tests evaluated the suitability of the three sites to accommodate underground missile silos. At the time, the Sentinel system was under development to guard against aggression from China. Sentinel missiles would carry nuclear payloads, something that the local population found unacceptable. 

As analysis of the system suggested that it posed a threat to populated areas, formidable opposition to its deployment mounted. Critics of the plan included Mayor Jerome Cavanagh of Detroit, members of Michigan’s congressional delegation from both sides of the aisle, Oakland University, and Chrysler Corporation. The Nixon Administration gave up on the program in March 1969 in the face of resistance over the threat of civilian exposure to nuclear fallout and the ballooning price tag of the project. 

With the missile base off the table, Winchester Associates bought the land in 1969. The company announced a 63-acre retail development that would be built in three phases. The first phase opened in the fall of 1972 with a K-Mart and a Farmer Jack supermarket. The second phase came along in 1976, when the mall area opened with retail space for approximately 40 stores. The final phase was the twin-screen Winchester Mall Cinema, opened in June 1980 (and later expanded to eight screens when it became part of the Loek’s Star Theatre chain).  

Inside photo of Winchester Mall Cinema's entrance

Winchester Mall Cinema – Photo found on a public site, credit unknown

The Farmer Jack store at Winchester Mall made history in 1975 when it became the supermarket chain’s first location to offer electronic price scanners at its checkout registers. 

Winchester was the first of three enclosed shopping malls that were built in Avon Township (now Rochester Hills) during the decade of the 1970s. Meadowbrook Mall at Walton and Adams quickly followed Winchester’s first phase in 1975, and Great Oaks Mall opened at Walton and Livernois in 1978. 

Snowy entrance shot of an outside door for Winchester Mall

Winchester Mall Cinema Outside – Photo Courtesy of The Oakland Press

Among the Winchester tenants were a Big Boy restaurant, a Foland’s catalog showroom, and a variety of apparel shops and eateries. For two decades, the mall was both a popular hangout and source of employment for high school students. 

By the mid-1990s, the enclosed mall retail concept had fallen out of favor. In 1993, Winchester’s new owners decided to “de-mall” the property and transform it into a retail strip. Big-box retailers with separate, outside store entrances replaced the indoor mall configuration. The Star Winchester movie theatre closed in January 2000.

About Deborah J. Larsen

Deborah J. Larsen recently retired after 34 years as local history librarian at Mount Clemens Public Library. She currently serves as the research chairperson for the Rochester-Avon Historical Society, and writes on a wide range of local history topics.

Comments

  1. Ben Schmittdiel says:

    Well written little historical piece adding interest to the development news. Is that house shown in the picture still standing somewhere?

    • Deborah J. Larsen says:

      Thanks for the kind words – I’m glad you found the story interesting. As to the house, it disappeared from the landscape long ago.

    • BT Irwin says:

      Otis Gatewood, the first president of Rochester College, bought the house and moved it across Avon Road to be his private residence after he left the college. The house belonged to the Gatewoods until after Otis died in 1999. The family held onto to it for several years and it fell into disrepair. It was sold and demolished to make way for a storage business (next to Lifetime Fitness).

      • Ray Henry says:

        I also heard that the house had been moved. A friend remembers J.J. Snook’s grandson (Art Snook?) talking about how the house was put on rollers and moved and that they had a party inside during the move.

  2. Donald Worrell says:

    Another fine article by Ms. Larsen. The photo of
    the Overlook farmhouse is a gem—with two flags
    flying! Clearly this article was the result of a lot of
    intense research for which Ms. Larsen is noted far
    and wide.

  3. I really loved Winchester and Meadowbrook Malls. I couldn’t afford Great Oaks but it was nice too. I really dislike the new concept of the strip malls with outdoor entrances. It’s difficult to park and when it rains you get wet! Call me stuck in the 70s/80s if you will.

    I enjoyed the article very much though. I remember how exciting it was when Winchester just opened and I could ride my bike there. Fond memories. Thanks

  4. Cliff Dabrowski says:

    We spent a lot of time at Winchester mall between shopping and midnight movies before we headed to either Denny’s or Rams Horn.

    Great history and story.

    • Lois Golden says:

      Denny’s used to be the site of an Albert Kahn residential masterpiece prior to Denny’s and the apartments.
      RIP Rochester history.
      RIP Parke Davis Barns – a tremendous loss for SE Michigan history. Property owners SMASHED and destroyed every last architectural element in the darkness of night, rather than face an historic designation movement by the public. The responsible elected officials are long gone, but the developer remains alive and well – still active in destroying the character of the city.

    • Good Times. $2 midnight movies. Coffee under a dollar. Back when cell phones were attached to the car.

  5. Cindy W. says:

    Great tribute to history of that mall. Grew up in the area and spent a lot of time there and even worked in the mall and at Kmarts. Many, many fond memories on that property for me!! Glad to see it won’t be empty for much longer!

  6. Rita White says:

    I loved Winchester Mall. Since I worked for the city in offices near by, I often had my lunch at the Coney Island and shopped at some of the stores. My family enjoyed going to the movies there and really missed them when they closed. Also attended 4th of July fireworks from the Winchester parking lot set off from the adjacent fields (now developed with condominiums).

  7. June Hopaluk says:

    Thank you for a wonderful article with interesting information and rich history.

  8. Michelle says:

    The last movie I saw at the theater was Toy Story 2 and the lights never turned on. The theater closed about a month or two laterm

  9. Barbara Vandewater says:

    Thankyou, for printing the article. We moved to Rochester in 1971, so it was there when we arrived. I like the mall concept, rather than having to go outside to reach another store.. We have been wondering what was happening to the K-mart building,

  10. Maureen Thalmann says:

    As a transplant from NJ in 1981 I spent many afternoons at that mall while my husband was on a business trip and I was eager to find an adult to chat with. Thank you for an interesting and well written piece.

  11. Lois Golden says:

    Charles Fisher of the Fisher Brothers owned a home nearby. The house was moved west. There is more history.
    The Fisher Brothers and early car interiors depended on Michigan hardwood, Avon Township provided some until they moved north for a ‘harvest’.

  12. Very interesting … I remember that the Leader Dog property on the SE cornery used to have fruit trees years ago. Wonder if this was part of the original property? Also, never realized that the Otis Gatewood House was now gone. Been awhile since I have traveled back along Avon Road. I also wonder who decided that strip malls were better than inside malls! I too miss Winchester and Meadowbrook malls. You know you are old, when you have seen so much history come and go!

  13. Cindy Nicholson Raymond says:

    Thank you for sharing the history of this portion of land in Rochester Hills which became Winchester Mall. Every Often on Saturday mornings my mom would drop me off at the K-Mart store and after exploring that great store especially the yarn, and fish and pet department I would walk the short distance to the mall where my mom was getting her hair done at the Merrill Norman salon located at the front entrance. I would browse in the Hallmark store, and the store up the few steps behind the cafe that sold interesting gift items. When I thought my mom would be finished at the salon I would go there to say hello to the hair stylists Sally, Cindy, and others. I always enjoyed having lunch at the Coney Island with my dear mom. It was there that I tasted my first Greek salad. Good memories! I really appreciate you writing your article.

  14. Lois Golden says:

    “Mr. Fisher was a member of the Recess Club, Bloomfield Hills Country Club, Detroit Golf Club, Detroit Athletic Club, Detroit Club, Old Club and the Gross Pointe Yacht Club.
    IN addition to his business interests, he was a gentleman farmer, having bought “Overlook farm” near Rochester in 1926. He was a yachtsman and in 1928 launched his 106-foot $250,000 yacht “Lura M. IV.””

    http://genealogytrails.com/mich/oakland/obitfisherbros.html

  15. I had no idea there was ever a mall at Walton and Livernois (just up the street from where we live now). Would love to hear a little more about the Great Oaks mall. Was it where the Kroger plaza is?

    • I believe it was just across the street from Kroger, on the north side of Walton. I vaguely remember a Kitchenaid store being there when I was a little kid.

    • Terri Downs says:

      It was the more upscale of the 3 malls mentioned in the article. Jacobson’s was it’s anchor department store, and I think they added a Lord & Taylor. There was a Sydney Bogg Chocolate store, a San Francisco water globe store, and a little open restaurant “in the round” in the middle with a carousel theme. I think it was a Machus-owned restaurant. It was really quite lovely.

    • Terri Downs says:

      No, not Kroger. It was on the Northeast corner. The strip mall with the Red Olive.

    • Amy Whipple says:

      Great Oaks mall was where the two strip malls are located on the northeast corner of Livernois/Walton (Buffalo Wild Wing’s, etc.) It was a great mall…Swatch, Jacobsen’s, Foxy’s, Victoria’s Secret etc. It was torn down around 2002. It was a sad day…I remember Meadowbrook, Winchester and Great Oaks. Even with all of the changes over my 40 years, I still believe Rochester Hilld is the best community!

    • Dave Raetz says:

      Great Oaks Mall was where Buffalo Wild Wings is now.

    • Michael Kautz says:

      Hi, Sharon.
      Great Oaks was across the street (University Drive) from Kroger, where Buffalo Wild Wings and other shops now sit. Jacobson’s was the anchor store.

  16. Lois Golden says:

    Deborah J. Larson,
    Your article is entertaining, informative and correct but missing some intriguing facts. As former Chair of the Historic Districts Commission in RH and now a resident of Mt Clemens, I am looking to share personal papers and official records regarding Rochester Area history. Much of it is not proud. Many in Rochester are not free to share the history.
    Even undesignated properties are under attack by stealth rezonings and a work-around of the master plan with ‘overlays’. The character and charm of the downtown and surrounding areas are in jeopardy.
    I will contact you via the library.

  17. Brad Przymusinski says:

    Very well written. I would go to Winchester as a kid in the 80’s and 90’s and It holds a special place in my heart. The sports card shop on the left at when you came in off of Rochester. Going to Joe Weider’s with my Dad when he would work out. The book store in the middle of the mall and also playing the Simpson’s arcade game at the movie theater. The day wasn’t complete without dinner at either Hardee’s or Ponderosa who shared a space in front of the mall.

    Are there more pictures or film available or the inside of the mall? My mind’s eye is fairly strong especially remembering the Coney Island but I would love to see more pictures. Thanks again!

  18. Glenda Byers says:

    Deborah…Thank you for a wonderful article filled with historic fun facts that many newcomers had no idea existed. I served on the Historic Districts Commission for several terms and was always delighted to see developers work with the Commission to modify and incorporate historic structures into their developments. My late husband was a life-long resident and most of our historic collection was donated to the Museum for safekeeping for the future generations. Rochester Hills has been a friend of preserving our local history. Pat McKay is one of our City’s treasures.

  19. Patrick McKay says:

    The Rochester Hills Museum has the diaries of JJ Snook. Of course they are available to anyone to see. We also have several copies of his books of poetry.

    This is an excellent article – we are so lucky to have Deborah Larsen and her writing and research skills.

  20. Will Hanson says:

    I believe George’s started at the Winchester Mall before moving to Main and Tienken when the mall remodeled. Winchester Mall was an intesting place. Oceana had a real nice restaurant with an aquarium and Sunday buffet. The mall also had a toy store, Bombay furniture, and Frank’s Nursey was attached. We used to shop the mall quite a bit and grab lunch at the deli. I was sad to see the mall close.

    • Terri Downs says:

      I think you’re thinking of Meadowbrook Mall at Walton and Adams, not Winchester. Meadowbrook had the Oceana Inn owned by Dr Tan, and the Frank’s Nursery attached.

  21. So, how many years until the strip mall concept goes out and the indoor mall returns. When it does, and it will, I hope to see Winchester and Meadowbrook Malls reconstructed as they were. Who knows, with retro things making a comeback, maybe they would be successful in reconstructing the old Winchester Mall and moving all the strip stores back inside???

    • Deborah J. Larsen says:

      The return of the enclosed mall doesn’t seem likely any time soon. The open-air “lifestyle center” is ascendant right now, and that model has been described as a throwback to the Main Street shopping districts that the enclosed malls helped to kill in the 1970s and 1980s. According to recent news reports, a mixed-use lifestyle center is under consideration for the redevelopment of Lakeside Mall in Sterling Heights.

  22. Loren Mannino says:

    My only”urban explorer” experience was in the late 80′ or early 90’s finding my way into the empty mall and going in and out of the store spaces, fun and creepy.

  23. Mary M Watson says:

    Thank you for your interesting stories of Winchester Mall! I too enjoyed the ‘closed mall’ concept where you could go and shop regardless of the ever changing Michigan weather!!
    Regarding my memories of Winchester Mall, I remember before it was built when my friend Ann Haden and I would travel over the property on her family’s tractor spotting fox and other wildlife as we bumped along! At that time, her family farmed much of the property south of Avon Road (a dirt road) and west of Rochester Rd.
    Some of you may also remember an after (mall) hours reunion for all people who attended or worked for Rochester Community Schools. There were hundreds of people who showed up for the celebration which was a centennial (?) celebration for the school district and a reunion for all classes. Class sign in posters were taped to store front windows (in case you missed seeing a classmate), a band (and dancing) took place in the center of the mall, and people enjoyed seeing each other and celebrating the evening together. It was a fun and memorable evening!

  24. Georges Coney Island did originate there. They still use the same Greek dressing for there salads .there about to remodel soon

  25. Yvonne Verschueren says:

    Wow! This dialogue really brought back some memories. Thanks to all, I thoroughly enjoyed all the comments.

  26. What was the total store there in the 90s/early 2000s that had small shopping carts for the kids?

  27. I spent many weekends in elementary school watching double features ar Winchester Mall. I especially loved the bookstore and Cinderella’s Attic. I used to perform concerts with my flute teachers other students also. Some of my favorite chidhood memories were there. Good to see some memories shared!

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