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Greengate Mall is dead, but will not be forgotten

| Thursday, June 28, 2012, 9:08 p.m.
Greengate gone by Hundreds of people thronged Route 30 around Greengate Mall in Hempfield for the Hands Across America event in 1986. Submitted photo
The Hempfield Area Marching Band spread holiday cheer to spectators as part of Santa Claus' annual arrival at Greengate Mall. This photo was taken by Greg Moyer in the 1990s and can be found at the Greengate Memories website. Submitted photo

Greengate Mall has been gone for nearly a decade, but it's gotten new life through digital media.

In the summer of 2003, Gary Nelson stood with others in the mall parking lot and watched the demolition of the structure, which opened on Aug. 18, 1965 and provided a shopping experience Westmoreland County had never previously known.

“Some (people) were crying, some were watching and remembering,” said Nelson, 25, a student and employee at Westmoreland County Community College in Hempfield. “I thought maybe I should do something. I have a lot of childhood experiences there myself.

“I just wanted to create an outlet. Greengate was such a significant part of people's lives,” he said.

Jake Zelmore, 20, of Jeannette, shopped at Montgomery Ward during its final days, and said the only other sign of life was the fountain in front of the Lazarus store.

“As I looked around from the top floor, I saw the plants rotting, the floor starting to crumble and burned-out lights,” Zelmore said. “I knew its fate was sealed.”

In 2004, Nelson founded Lost Westmoreland Media Group, an independent volunteer organization dedicated to history, and built the website, Greengate Mall Revisited.

Greensburg's Main Street Memories followed three years ago, and another site, Civic Arena Revisited, is under construction.

“I try to focus on things most people don't touch,” Nelson said. “These places disappear and nobody talks about them again.”

Nelson's sites get an estimated 100,000 hits a year, and he has contributed content to deadmalls.com, a site that lists dead and dying malls throughout the United States.

Greengate Mall Revisited features a comprehensive history, with a picture of the farmland along Route 30 where the mall was built, upper- and lower-floor plans dated December 23, 1964, and details about the unfulfilled 99-year lease signed with anchor tenant Joseph Horne Co.

There's a flier announcing an early closure in 1967 in preparation for hosting Hempfield Area High School's prom, pictures of the annual Christmas displays and an image of people lined up under the mall sign on May 25, 1986, when 7 million people participated in Hands across America. Nelson writes that The Rouse Co., the mall's owner, chose not to invest in further development when Sears, Roebuck and Co., and Kaufmann's came to call.

When Westmoreland Mall opened on Feb. 28, 1977, about 5 miles to the east, its 1.3 million square feet of leasing space had plenty of room for both.

“That had a big impact,” Nelson said. “But hard-core customers stayed loyal to Greengate until it didn't have any chance of surviving.”

Ryan Retone, 24, of Greensburg, administers an ever-growing Greengate group page on Facebook that has more than 3,200 members.

Hempfield native Penni Walker, 46, talked about how she learned to polka with her father on Saturdays in the courtyard.

Pamela Stoltz, 49, of Greensburg, sat with her father's Corvettes during car shows and camped in the parking lot with her grandparents and the National Campers and Hikers Association.

Darlene D'Amato, 59, of Mt. Pleasant, went on dates with her husband-to-be and got pre-engaged at Greengate, and later took her daughter there to see the Easter Bunny.

Natalie Shannon, 36, of Hempfield, spent weekends at the mall and enjoyed the dance bashes. When workers used explosives during the mall's demolition, her nearby apartment would shake.

They talk about Terry Ranieri, self-appointed mall greeter who was a constant at Greengate and now frequents Westmoreland.

They share “Terryisms” — “I'm jammin' like Route 30,” or “I'm sharp as a pencil,” or “I'm cool as a cucumber.”

“He's so well known that Hempfield High School Marching Band recognized him at one of the school functions,” Nelson said. “He goes to pretty much every Hempfield function from high school football games to Kennywood for the school picnic.”

Dawn Law is a freelance writer.

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