Northgate Beginnings: Jim Douglas Remembers the First Year

  • By Jim Douglas
  • Posted 1/01/1999
  • Essay 2289

In this People's History, Jim Douglas (1909-2005), president of Northgate Centers Inc. from 1949 to 1976, remembers the opening of Northgate Shopping Center on April 21, 1950, the new development's first tumultuous year, and its spectacular Christmas celebration. Northgate, located in Seattle, was the country's first shopping center designated as a mall. Douglas was Northgate's first president. He participated in many other important Seattle projects such as the Century 21 Exposition (1962), and the creation of the United Way.


The Bon Marche at Northgate opened April 21, 1950. The store had a total of 200,000 square feet and had beautiful fixtures. The merchandise was all new and as a consequence was very attractive to the customers. There was parking for approximately 750 cars, which proved inadequate for the early rush of customers.

For several days after the opening, all streets leading to Northgate were filled with cars waiting to get into a parking lot that was already full. The more customers found they couldn't get into the parking areas of the department store, the more they wanted to shop there. This early reception confirmed Rex Allison's opinion of the success of suburban shopping if the customer was provided with large floor space and a wide selection of merchandise. [Rex Allison was Northgate's founder. He first had the idea for a suburban shopping center near Seattle before World War II.]

Throughout the summer we had a series of openings of the specialty stores surrounding the Bon Marche. We attempted to schedule four or five of these openings on the same day in order to get the impact of the opening promotion of several stores rather than one.

As the stores opened a few at a time, the mall presented a very spotty picture. There would be a tenancy with windows decorated, lights on and activity in the store, and then as you would walk down the mall you would pass two or three vacant spaces before coming to the next store that was in operation. Some of those blank spots were leased but not yet fixtured and ready for opening. Other blank spots were yet to be leased. This was not as unfortunate as it sounds.

The loyal customers that would come to Northgate would be constantly looking for the new openings of stores and would increase their interest as each new opening occurred. There was one space, directly across the mall from the Bon Marche ... that was still unleased. This was the space that had been originally assigned to Rexall Drugstore. In this Rexall area we put in a kiddy land, an area with a small merry-go-round, and several other kiddy attractions.

We were able to find a good carnival operator for this operation and picked up some revenue as well as providing a traffic generating attraction. This area was later leased to Edison Shoe for a Leed's unit on the mall side and the space on the parking lot side was leased to Friedlanders. Both tenants paid handsomely for their reluctance to come into the project at its inception.

Leasing went much better as prospective tenants realized the pulling power of the Bon Marche and other stores that had opened. Our leasing team also became more proficient in selling the "New Religion" of regional shopping centers.

In later years, many times merchants who had turned down the opportunity of putting stores in Northgate would tell me what a great mistake they made. Each time, I would tell them how close they came to being right in predicting the failure of Northgate. Many times when the going was rough, I came close to calling it quits, but then realized there was no place to retreat to.

Big Christmas

As fall approached, a meeting was held between the Northgate Company and the Bon Marche organization to formulate plans for a Christmas promotion. The month of December in the department store business represents sales volume of two and a half times the volume of the other months of the year ... In talking about the Christmas promotion of 1950, there were the usual ideas of garlands and large artificial candles, the type of decorations that one would expect to see in Ballard or the University District in Seattle. Obviously this was not enough to support a project as big or new as Northgate.

For two or three years before 1950, various towns around the western part of the state were competing for the world's tallest Christmas tree. One year, the world's tallest Christmas tree would be 60 feet. The next year, some other town would beat that by 20 or 30 feet. By Christmas of 1949, some town had gotten up to the great height of over 100 feet for a Christmas tree.

This had been well publicized throughout the United States. The suggestion was made that Northgate should put to an end to this contest for the world's tallest Christmas tree. We were to put up a Christmas tree so tall that no one would ever again attempt to beat the record that would be established by Northgate.

Good Idea, Now What?

None of us sitting in that meeting had had any experience with putting up tall Christmas trees. We assumed we were talking about an investment of possibly two or three thousand dollars. The promotion department of the Bon Marche was given the assignment of finding a logging contractor who would supply the tree and bring the tree to Northgate. It was important that the tree be secured as near to Seattle as possible since the job of transporting a very large tree would be a monumental one.

A logging contractor was secured and the contractor reported back that he had a tree spotted that was 212 feet tall. It was located approximately 20 miles from Seattle and adjacent to a major highway so that transportation would not be too difficult. Trees of this height have branches only at the very top since the sun doesn't get at the lower part of the tree.

The contractor was to supply a large quantity of the branches that were to be attached to the trunk of the tree to give it an impression of a real tree. There were to be several thousand lights installed. An electrical generator was to be installed adjacent to the tree since there was not sufficient power to light several thousand lights and still keep the shopping center fully lit.

Someone in the meeting suggested that Life magazine usually ran a Christmas story and if this tree was large enough and spectacular enough, the store might get in the magazine ... In 1950, Life was the number one magazine in the country. Life was contacted and the editors were told the importance of this Christmas tree -- the world's tallest. They stated they were interested in doing a story on such a tree and arrangements were made for the photography and the news story, if and when the tree was installed.

Headaches on the Highway

The transportation of a 212 foot tree present major problems. The highway patrol was contacted and arrangements were made for the patrol to escort the tree from the forest to Northgate. Several problems developed with the transportation plan. For example, where the tree would be coming up on a hill and then the grade would turn sharply downward, the center of the tree would be hung up over the high point of the roadway. This necessitated bringing in equipment to lift the center of the tree and move forward as the truck moved until the crest of the hill was negotiated.

With minor delays, the program moved forward remarkably well. The route of the tree transportation had been laid out in advance and it had been concluded that there was only one major ninety-degree turn. This was at the intersection of Lake City Way and 125th Street. Fortunately, the street widened out for approximately a block at this point.

The driver arrived at this intersection at a busy time in the evening and at a time when there was a traffic policeman at the intersection. The truck driver with the tree signaled for a left turn and the traffic patrolman told him to keep going straight ahead. The next opportunity for a left turn was at 145th Street but the highway was not nearly wide enough to make the ninety-degree turn. Two days were spent in clearing the intersection and in other maneuvers to make this turn, all because one patrolman told the truck driver to "keep going!"

The tree finally arrived at its proper location and with the use of equipment was raised to its 212 foot height, directly across the Northgate mall from the Bon Marche. Heavy guide wires were installed in four directions to hold the tree upright. At this point, we had already spent considerably more than the 3,000 dollar budget. There was nothing to do but keep going because much publicity had already been generated as a result of the transportation of the tree. Also, there was still hope that the Life magazine story might be printed.

Logging crews were brought in to scale the trunk of the tree and install branches by spiking them to the trunk and wiring the outer end of the branch to an upper portion of the tree. This sounds simple ... but there were hundreds of branches to be installed. Obviously near the top, the branches were short. As the loggers moved down on the trunk toward the base the branches were lengthened out to give the impression of a real Christmas tree. This was a monumental job, but it was completed very satisfactorily.

Then came the job of installing the thousands of white lights on the tree. This was done well ahead of the lighting ceremony so the tree was a great success at that point.

But Then, the Winds Came...

Each year in Seattle, it seems that we have two or three very big wind storms. Shortly after installing the tree with its branches and lights, a 60 mile-an-hour gale arrived. The winds started late in the day and continued on through the night. Several of us stayed through the night watching but helpless to do anything if one of the guide wires had failed. Fortunately the three stayed upright, but there was much repair work to be done the next day, replacing branches and lights. The final cost of installing the tree was $27,000! That was quite an overrun.

The Life magazine photographic crew had been on the scene, taking pictures all the way from the forest through the transportation problems and to Northgate. They had also very carefully photographed all of the steps in installing the branches and the lights. And then came some alarming news. There was a major story about to break and the magazine notified us that if that story broke, we would be eliminated from the magazine. Fortunately, that didn't happen. We made the front page in full color, and a four-page story, all the way from the tree in the forest to the final installation of the last light bulb.

With that kind of publicity, no one worried about the cost. We could not have purchased such publicity for hundreds of thousands of dollars, and it was given to us for free. No one ever challenged the record of 212 feet thereafter. We purchased several hundred copies of Life and sent these to prospective tenants, so that they would know Northgate was very much alive and recognized by such an important publication.

The first Christmas was tremendously successful. Downtown, with its inadequate parking and difficult traffic congestion, was no match for Northgate, with extensive parking and many big attractive stores filled with Christmas merchandise. That Christmas was the turning point for Northgate. Thereafter, no one questioned the future success of the project.


Jim Douglas was president of Northgate Centers Inc. from 1949 to 1976.

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