Remember When: Heights Plaza Mall Changed the Way Alle-Kiski Valley Shopped

Retailing took a dramatic turn in the 1950s, and the Alle-Kiski Valley was one of them.

Heights Plaza Mall opened on November 10, 1955 and changed shopping habits.

The plaza was built by brothers John P. and Alex Marino, who saw similar facilities erected elsewhere.

The first mall in the Pittsburgh area was Caste Village in Whitehall, built in 1951. Next came the Northway Mall in 1953 on McKnight Road in Ross, later known as Northway Mall in 1962. In 1954, the center Miracle Mile shopping opened in Monroeville, a year after the Parkway East was completed.

At that point, the Marino brothers felt it was time to get in on the action.

The Heights Plaza replaced the traditional shopping districts of the riverside towns of the Alle-Kiski Valley.

The new commercial area – built on the edge of what was former airport property – quickly took hold. Instead of searching for curbside parking and feeding the parking meter in old towns, Heights Plaza shoppers had free and adequate parking.

Perhaps the most popular store was anchor tenant Joseph Horne’s department store, affectionately known as “Horne’s on the Heights.”

The square was also known for its fountains and the clock at the entrance to Freeport Road. The water changed color at night with spotlights below the surface.

Besides Horne’s, other popular stores included GC Murphy’s, Klingensmith Hardware, A&P Supermarket and a Howard Johnson’s restaurant.

And don’t forget the one in Isaly.

In addition to regional and national chains, small private companies have flourished. Some were the menswear of Herbert, Princess Pastries and Ken Kamera.

Among young people, no place was more popular than the National Record Mart. Not only could music fans buy their favorite vinyl records, but the regional channel was the place to buy tickets for the big concerts coming up in Pittsburgh.

People lined up to pick up tickets for acts such as Led Zeppelin, The Doors, James Brown and many more in the days before e-tickets were purchased.

Adjacent to the plaza’s main strip were activities for the whole family, such as miniature golf, bowling at The Plaza Lanes, and slot cars at American Family Raceways.

Co-founder Alex Marino died in 1979 and John P. Marino in 1992.

With rumors that a closed mall was on its way to the Allegheny Valley Corridor, the Marino family sold the place in 1986 to Terra Enterprises.

The first crack in the Heights Plaza armor came in 1994 when Horne’s was purchased by Federated Department Stores and merged with its Lazarus division. Then Lazarus was renamed Macy’s in 2005.

A spectacular fire on December 18, 2012 caused nearly $10 million in damage to Heights Plaza.

Ultimately, Wild Blue Management, which operated the place, defaulted on its mortgage and New Jersey-based Pretium Property Management took over in 2018.

Allegheny County reassessed the value of the property and reduced it from $17 million to $6.6 million.

The square, like most malls of its kind, is struggling in the age of online shopping – a shake-up similar to how malls changed public habits in the 1950s.

George Guido is a contributing writer for Tribune-Review.