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Kevin Riordan: Can Cherry Hill's shopping spot show life begins at 50?

The mall and the mecca

A fountain of the Cherry Hill Mall's youth gushes in this 1963 photo. The mall became a "real nucleus" of South Jersey life, a local historian says.
A fountain of the Cherry Hill Mall's youth gushes in this 1963 photo. The mall became a "real nucleus" of South Jersey life, a local historian says.Read more

A "wonderland of eternal spring" blossomed in Cherry Hill on Oct. 11, 1961.

Ballyhooed as a "tropical paradise," the enclosed shopping center at the old Jaus Farm on Route 38 was among the first of its kind in America.

"The Cherry Hill Mall," longtime resident Dan Cirucci recalls, "changed this region forever."

The promotional fervor (or fever) was understandable. With a snazzy array of indoor stores, acres of free parking, and "Golden Aviary" of exotic birds, the mall siphoned shoppers from downtown Camden and Philadelphia. And it helped put the freshly renamed township, which will mark its golden anniversary as Cherry Hill this year, on the map.

Cirucci, who grew up in Camden, says the mall "lent a luster" to what had long been called Delaware Township. "People wanted to be in Cherry Hill. Everything was new."

Nearly a half-century after 25,000 people streamed through the doors on opening day, the iconic mall and the quintessential suburban township are planning events to celebrate their mutual milestone.

"We're hoping people will donate artifacts for an exhibit," says Sandra Ragonese, the township's director of historic properties and programming. "A lot of newer residents aren't aware of the history."

Perhaps they've heard the legend that Cherry Hill takes its name from the mall.

"I hear that all the time," says Lisa Wolstromer, the mall's senior marketing director. "It's not true."

Both the mall and the municipality are named for the Cherry Hill Farm, which once commanded the hill where the AMC Loews movieplex stands. Delaware Township was founded in 1844, and in 1961 voters supported renaming it Cherry Hill.

Less felicitous suggestions included Deltown, which "would have been blah," observes Mayor Bernie Platt, who moved to the township with his family in 1966. "The name Cherry Hill gives you an up. It's been very good for the township."

The west side of Cherry Hill was certainly swinging in the early '60s. The Latin Casino featured top-name entertainment, the Cherry Hill and Rickshaw Inns offered high-octane glitz, and the Hawaiian Cottage capitalized on the "Polynesian" cuisine craze by erecting a giant pineapple to catch the eye of Route 38 motorists.

At the nearby mall, busloads of tourists - some in their Sunday best - disembarked to partake of the "dancing fountains, thousands of exotic trees and shrubs . . . and waterfalls" promised by publicists.

"Postcards offered souvenir views of wonders such as the Court of the Islands, home to 'five families of rare duck and macaw.' " A ubiquitous radio jingle, heard as far away as Baltimore, extolled the joys of climate-controlled indoor strolling and shopping.

Or dancing.

"We swirled around the Grand Court in our spaghetti-strap dresses, with our bouffant hairdos," recalls Marlton resident Sherry Wolkoff, whose junior prom was held at the mall in 1962. "I can see Parklane Hosiery in the background of my photos!"

Lisa Mangiafico, coauthor with Mike Mathis of Cherry Hill, A Brief History, says the mall became a "real nucleus" of South Jersey life.

Locally owned stores such as Armand's Records, Lillian Albus, and Mr. Dunderbak's (which would become a chain) gave the mall a community, rather than a corporate, feel.

"People in Cherry Hill were proud to have the mall," says Mangiafico, a historian.

But by the time I arrived in Cherry Hill in the 1970s, malls were everywhere and tourists nowhere in evidence. The birdcages were smelly, the fountains were swampy, and the foliage was so overgrown I felt I was shopping in a terrarium.

"It needed a face-lift," Platt recalls.

Successive makeovers expanded and brightened the mall, and in 2007 its new owner, the Philadelphia firm PREIT, poured in $220 million to reinvent it as "South Jersey's Fashion Destination."

The new slogan is certainly more realistic, if less entertainingly grandiose, than the claims the mall made on the public imagination in 1961.

But after a thoroughly unacceptable winter, I'm about ready to buy a "wonderland of eternal spring."