Thursday, May 29, 2008

Eleven Hours At A Mall

It used to be that the notion of spending an entire day at a mall was totally preposterous to me. That was before I encountered the work of Rick Caruso, a visionary Los Angeles developer. A few years back he created The Grove in the Fairfax area, adjacent to the old Farmer's Market. No ordinary shopping center, The Grove incorporated quality shops, a good cinema, some really good eating options, and built them all around a beautifully designed outdoor space that is a pleasure just to be in. The shops are arranged along a pedestrian cobblestone street, with beautifully designed buildings along either side, with a side "street", a large sculpture in the center, and opening up to a grand fountain and landscaped area at one end. A trolley runs along the street, which combined with the fantasy-European feel of the buildings, gives the place a Disneyland-like charm (without the Disneyland admission price). Great care (and expense) was taken in the design, with quality materials like stone and tile in the buildings and street, and attractive landscaping including a number of mature trees. A couple of nice restaurants, one Italian and one French bistro/steakhouse, flank the entry with balcony dining and tables that spill into the outdoors at the ground level, adding to the European city feel. It's really a lovely place to shop and dine and spend a day, and it's no surprise that we often see stars here.

Now, just a few weeks ago, Caruso's newest development, The Americana at Brand, opened in nearby Glendale. This one has embraced the fashion of retail/residential development, with condos and apartments above the shops. The Americana is organized around a "village green" center, with a couple of lagoons, large grassy areas, a signature statue, and even a small playground. The lagoons include fountains that "dance" to music (like the famous ones at the Bellagio in Las Vegas), and which are quite beautiful. In the center of one lagoon is a large gilded statue reminiscent of Rockefeller Center. The gilded bronze of a muscular young man leaping upward in art deco splendor is a recreation of "The Spirit of American Youth", a statue at the Omaha Beach Memorial in France by Donald Harcourt DeLue, an early 20th century master of the heroic sculpture movement. Caruso actually tracked down an apprentice of DeLue's, to recreate the statue using some of the original casts. This is just an example of the quality and attention to detail that Caruso puts in to his developments. A brick street runs through the development, the architecture is classic American in style, and the overall feel is part Norman Rockwell, part Walt Disney. There are other great details, like a large classic-style clock on a pole, gas lamps, and large street lamps with craftsman-style stained glass and hanging flower balls.

On my first visit to the Americana, we met some friends for lunch at the Granville Café, a nice restaurant serving American fare with market fresh ingredients. We then spent several hours exploring all the shops, an interesting collection of boutiques and new brands. We discovered fun shops like Custo, a colorful designer from Barcelona; Ruehl, a version of Abercrombie & Fitch for people more our age (ahem); and Martin+Osa, an upscale version of American Eagle. (Since the Americana is adjacent to the existing Glendale Galleria, they intentionally avoided having the same shops. The Galleria was opposed to the new development, fearing competition, but I think they may find that it's a compliment that brings in more people to Glendale.) We took a break at one point, and went up to the deck of the three-story Barnes and Noble, where their café overlooks the village green. After a few hours of window shopping, we refreshed ourselves with gelato at the charming Caffe Primo, and then caught a movie at the new Pacific Theatres. After the film, we watched the dancing fountains which are particularly spectacular at dusk and later, when the water is uplit. We then did some shopping in earnest (the afternoon was to survey everything, the evening was for making some purchases) until the shops closed at 9pm. The wait at the Cheesecake Factory was still crazy, so for dinner we just grabbed some chicken-apple sausages from Jody Maroni's, and enjoyed the park-like feel of the village green and watched the fountains some more. The place was filled with people just enjoying the scene, and it felt festive, like the 4th of July or something. Finally after being in The Americana for nearly eleven hours, we headed home, having thoroughly enjoyed the day. And in less than two weeks, we've been back three more times, for more movies, shopping, and checking out all the restaurants (including Katsuya and Frida's). Well done, Mr. Caruso!

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