A four-block trip to the bakery, three blocks to the hardware store, two to the florist, three more to the bank, five to the optometrist, three to the butcher – and 7 miles to downtown's department stores.
Life in central Ohio before shopping centers required a good deal of walking, biking, bus rides – and driving, if one could afford a car. Across the country, post-World War II suburban sprawl created neighborhoods far from cities' urban retail cores. That meant long drives and bus rides became the only practical means of accessing the goods and services necessary in modern life.
In this shift to life in the deep suburbs, form followed function, and the retail industry adapted the modern strip shopping centers. They began to dot maps near major cities in other states in the 1940s, including some in California, New Mexico, Washington and North Carolina.
Among the first was Whitehall's own Town & Country Shopping Center, dubbed the "Miracle Mile of East Broad Street." It not only served suburbanites with a whole new convenience added to the mid-century lifestyle, but it also helped alleviate a scarceness of parking spaces downtown, where shoppers had to park in front of establishments that were built right on the streets' sidewalks.
Columbus developer Don M. Casto envisioned Town & Country in 1947, and, having convinced major retail giants such as J.C. Penney, F.W. Woolworth and S.S. Kresge to participate in the venture, broke ground Nov. 11, 1948.
The new center was built just inside Whitehall's western border at the Toledo and Ohio Central Railroad tracks, adjacent to what's now called Defense Supply Center Columbus.
While Town & Country was among several such developments that sprang up around the country at the time, it was Casto's second foray into such ventures. In 1928, he opened what might be considered the first of such suburban retail/commerce centers: the Grandview Avenue Shopping Center – also known as the Grandview Avenue Bank Block.
Serving new neighborhoods that Casto had developed nearby, it included 30 shops and parking for 400 vehicles behind it.
Town & Country's design, however, was consistent with other strip centers of the era in that its parking lots were placed in front of the shops instead of behind them.
According to a press release at the time of its opening March 6, 1949, there was "space for 1,500 cars and six lanes of 'easy flow' parking in front. A special lane allows 'window shoppers' to cruise in front of the stores. This is probably the only place in Ohio where shoppers may inspect windows of merchandise safely without getting out of their auto."
Among other businesses in the initial east, west and central sections' "complete community of large beautiful stores" were Gray Drug, Kroger, Moore's Hardware, Swan Cleaners, Jay's Jewelry, Monaco's Restaurant and Cocktail Bar, Carroll's Furniture, Schiff Shoe, Albers Super Market, Zettler Hardware, the Boston Store, Club Carry-Out and Neuron Photo.
Columbus-based department store the Union opened in 1950, soon after JCPenney the same year. Others were added as the center expanded in subsequent years, including those on the south side of East Broad Street at Robinwood Avenue.
Aside from being a shopping destination, the wide, open parking lots became a natural fit for large outdoor events, including square dances, carnivals and boxing and wrestling matches. The Casto organization frequently allowed such activities to occur for fundraising, such as a "good old-fashioned hoedown" in October 1949 featuring square dancing to nationally known Whitehall band the Georgia Crackers.
The event was staged to help raise funds for a community center that would "give the children of the new Village of Whitehall better places to play."
By 1968, the center boasted around 75 shops, services and other businesses.
In the late 1970s, Lazarus opened its budget-oriented Capri in the center after a general remodel of the numerous stores' facades gave it a facelift needed to update its appearance – and to help retain customers who'd been drawn to a newer concept introduced to central Ohio in 1960s: the enclosed shopping mall.
Parking lots nevertheless remained full, and another extensive remodel in the 1990s gave the center a more individualized look to storefronts than before.
The center remains a convenient and evolving destination for shoppers, with the addition of new shops that include the construction of a Target department store on its south side and extensive demolition at its west portion, where a Kroger store is planned.
Town & Country continues to provide what its promoters promised more than 70 years ago: "A shopping experience that was conceived, planned, designed, built and dedicated to the people of Columbus and Central Ohio for their shopping comfort and safety, where the whole family may shop with pleasure, free from traffic hazards. We believe it to be truly – America's Finest Drive-In Shopping Center."
Steve McLoughlin is past president of the Whitehall Historical Society.