By Mia V., Summer Student
Hi all! I’m very glad to be back for my third summer here at the Oshawa Museum. Over the past two months or so, I have been continuing to research and work on the upcoming exhibit, Leaving Home, Finding Home in Oshawa: Displaced Persons and Stories of Immigration. If you or someone you know have any connection to this period of post-World War II immigration, we would love to hear from you! Additionally, as you might know, we have an online exhibit where you can see some of the stories, documents, and photographs that have been shared with us so far: https://oshawaimmigrationstories.weebly.com/
The uncertainty of the past several months has made familiar places very strange! While running some errands at “the” mall – that is Oshawa Centre (or the OC) – for the first time in a while, I found myself wondering about its history, as one does…
Construction of the Oshawa Shopping Centre began on July 22, 1955, when the mayor “turned the first sod.” Doors opened on November 1, 1956, and eager anticipation was in the brisk morning air. The crowds waiting, apparently numbering 10,000 in all, were in for a day filled with fun prizes and gaining a glimpse of what this new construction – a “mall” – was all about.
While we have very much gotten used to waiting in lines for stores to open as of late, malls have seemingly always been the primary institution of North American consumer life. At this time however, in the early 1950s, they were a very recent innovation by Austrian Jewish architect Victor Gruen. Inspired by the quintessential European experience, where one strolled casually from shop to shop, Gruen invented the outdoor shopping mall with the intent of encouraging a more slow-paced and social experience.
One of the developers of the Oshawa Shopping Centre, John P. van Haastrecht, made similar connections between the necessity of the mall and a post-war society which had seen rapid changes – especially noting the impact of the suburbs and widespread ownership of cars. Oshawa was considered to be the perfect place for a mall – car ownership and average household income were both reportedly quite high in the city with a population just nearing 50,000. For that reason, the mall often boasted of being “one of the five outstanding Shopping Centres on the North American continent” when it first opened.
Over the years, we’ve all gotten quite used to the Oshawa Centre changing its face! If you’re like me, spending a lot of time at the mall growing up, you probably have quite a few memories attached to certain iterations of it.
In 1968, the mall was enclosed – a roof added over the existing stores – and Sears joined Eaton’s, Hudson’s Bay, and Loblaws as anchor stores. Three years later, in 1971, an office tower was added, along with Famous Players cinemas (both of which you can see in the above photos). Seven more years after that, the south end of the mall was added and a second level as well. In 1989, there were 125 new stores added and the theatre was renovated. Four years later, in 1993, the food court was transformed with a 1950s theme – its signature black and white checkered tiles and overall design calling back to the decade when the mall was built. Finally, most recently, there was the 2016 renovation. A whole wing was added with several dozen new stores and the overall look of the mall was redesigned as well.
Of course, in very recent weeks, the social aspect imagined by the Oshawa Centre’s original developers is lacking, with all seating areas being closed off to encourage social distancing. Moreover, the impact of technology – or, more specifically, of online shopping – has also changed the reality of the mall as a social space. In any case, what becomes clear is that a building is never just a building – but rather more like a reflection of the society that built (and repeatedly changed!) it.
 Ian Bogost, “When Malls Saved the Suburbs from Despair,” The Atlantic (February 17, 2018), https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2018/02/when-malls-saved-cities-from-capitalism/553610/.