Gulf Freeway and Woodridge Street
Houston, Texas

What was first shopping mall in the Lone Star State? Most sources might cite Houston's GULFGATE SHOPPING CITY, which was dedicated in September 1956. However, more thorough research turns up another contender. PALMS CENTER, on the southeast side of the city, opened for business in September 1955...a full year before the dedication of the GULFGATE mall.

PALMS CENTER encompassed a modest 250,000 leasable square feet and had a small-format J.C. Penney as its anchor. GULFGATE sported two large anchor stores and was three times the size of PALMS CENTER. With this said, we could conclude that, while PALMS CENTER indeed came first, GULFGATE SHOPPING CITY was the Bayou City's first major shopping mall.

The complex was located adjacent to the Gulf Freeway, metropolitan Houston's first expressway, which had opened to traffic in September 1948. Initially open-air, the 20 million dollar shopping facility consisted of a retail level and service basement. It was designed by Seattle's John Graham, Junior and Houston's Irving R. Klein and was developed by Boston-based Theodore W. Berenson & Associates.

The mall was built on a 70 acre site, located 5 miles southeast of downtown Houston. It comprised 802,700 leasable square feet and housed sixty-two stores. A 3-level (208,000 square foot), San Antonio-based Joske's was dedicated as part of the center's September 20, 1956 grand opening. Houston-based Sakowitz Brothers' 3-level (92,500 square foot) store opened for business October 21, 1956.

Junior anchors at the complex were a 3-level (69,400 square foot) J.J. Newberry 5 & 10, 2-level W.T Grant variety store and single-level Weingarten's supermarket. Inline stores included Flagg Brothers Shoes, Chandler's Shoes, Baker's Shoes, Lerner Shops, Gordon's Jewelers and a Merle Norman Cosmetic Studio.

GULFGATE also featured Texas' largest Walgreen Drug and the first shopping center-format Piccadilly Cafeteria. At the southern end of the main corridor was a pedestrian bridge, which eventually connected to the General Cinema Corporation Gulfgate Cinema I & II.  This venue was dedicated April 14, 1965.

In the late 1960s, the Interstate 610 / South Loop expressway was completed. It passed beneath the pedestrian bridge and provided additional access to the shopping center from the surrounding area.

In 1968, the fully-enclosed and air-conditioned ALMEDA MALL {6.2 miles southeast, in Houston} opened for business. To remain competitive with its up-and-coming competitor, GULFGATE had been enclosed and air-conditioned in 1967.

A name change to GULFGATE MALL, replacing the rather out-dated "shopping city" moniker, helped keep the center current through the 1970s. This remarketing was somewhat thwarted by the completion of a second retail rival, BAYBROOK MALL {13.5 miles southeast, in Houston}, in 1978. A third competitor was PASADENA TOWN SQUARE {5.6 miles east, in Pasadena}, which was dedicated in 1982.

By the late 1980s, GULFGATE was in decline. Sakowitz had shuttered their GULFGATE location in November 1985. The store space was never retenanted. Joske's was converted to a Dillard's Clearance Center in July 1987 and closed for good in 1997.

J.J. Newberry morphed into a Baton Rouge-based H.J. Wilson Catalog Showroom which was rebranded by Nashville's Service Merchandise in 1985. The Weingarten's grocery became a Culver City, California-based Pic-N-Save closeout retail outlet, which was converted to the MacFrugals brand in 1991.

Houston's E.D. ("Ed") Wulfe, under the auspices of Wulfe & Company, purchased the GULFGATE property in 1998 as part of a joint venture with the City of Houston. A redevelopment got underway in May 2001, when the entirety of the mall was demolished.

Its replacement was GULFGATE CENTER, a 450,000 square foot power-format shopping hub, which housed twenty-three stores relocated from the original mall. The first phase of the 74 million dollar complex was dedicated May 24, 2002.

The new power plaza included a 1-level (162,200 square foot) Lowe's, (30,700 square foot) Marshalls, (20,700 square foot) Old Navy and a (81,300 square foot) H-E-B supermarket. Subsequent construction added retailers and restaurants such as as Chuck E. Cheese's and Foot Action.

Sources: Branch Store.doc
Chet Cuccia and KLDE Tower commentaries / Houston Architectural Info Forum /
"Sakowitz" article on Wikipedia
"Joske's" article on Wikipedia
Houston Business Journal / May 17, 2002 / Nancy Sarnoff /bayou city history (post by "ISureDid")


The photograph from The University of Milwaukee-Milwaukee Library Digital Collection illustrates a key moment in the mall's history that is described in the article. The image is not replaceable with free-use or public-domain images. The use of the image does not limit the copyright owners' rights to distribute the image in any way. The image is being used for non-profit, informational purposes only and its use is not believed to detract from the original image in any way.