Hey, did you hear that?
Whatever it was, it sounded like a noise a ghost might make.
“It’s quite eerie down here,” Chris King said.
“When you turn the lights off and you’re by yourself, you can hear a lot of noises.”
When King said that, he was standing near the entrance of a cavernous area he calls “the dungeon.”
Once upon a time, it was the lower level of Tulsa’s first fully enclosed shopping center.
Many Tulsans fondly remember Southroads Mall, which opened in 1967.
The multi-level indoor mall vanished when Southroads was converted into a “power center” in 1997.
Shoppers now frequent a string of accessible-from-outdoors stores (Barnes & Noble, Mattress Firm, Michaels, Ross, Petco, Verizon Wireless, Ulta Beauty) where the indoor mall used to be.
Used to be?
This may qualify as one of Tulsa’s best-kept secrets, but the old mall is still there, if you know where to find it.
Southroads Mall once was described as a city within a city, where shoppers could find everything from high fashion to housewares. Now there’s a “ghost city” amid thriving businesses on the property.
When Southroads was reconfigured, the design was such that huge pockets of the mall, including a sprawling lower level, were rendered unfit for retail use. Those areas remain mostly abandoned, and they rarely get visitors.
The property manager — King — served as a tour guide for Tulsa World visitors who wanted to go exploring.
King said this about the trip back in time:
If you shopped at Southroads Mall, you’ll recognize some things. King, who grew up in the Owasso area, said he used to accompany his father to the mall to get fishing equipment at Looboyles.
But if you didn’t visit Southroads back in the day, you probably won’t have any idea what you’re seeing. There are few visible clues — remnants of a fountain, a lone patch of restaurant wallpaper — regarding the property’s former identity.
But it’s cool that the old mall space still exists, right?
“Absolutely,” King said.
• • •
Before the tour began, King talked about how one of the abandoned mall spaces is located above Barnes & Noble. He was told an optical illusion must be involved because it doesn’t seem possible for anything to be above the book store. (You’ll be curious enough to size up the storefront the next time you see it from the outside.)
Regardless, the tour of the old mall began with King unlocking a door to access a stairwell, which leads to the hidden space above Barnes & Noble. He opened the door, and it was so dark that you hoped his flashlight-carrying nephew, Austin, had a firm grip.
The space has been gutted (a hole was cut in the wall to send rubbish down a chute and into a trash bin), but King draws attention to mall reminders: a non-functional elevator. A “ring” of brickwork where a fountain used to be. Yellow caution tape surrounds a covered-up area where an escalator once was located.
The floor of the vacant space isn’t the Barnes & Noble ceiling. Shine a light through a crack in the floor and you’ll see there is ample space between the roof of the book store and the floor of what was once Southroads Mall’s highest level.
“For many years, I have racked my brain trying to figure out something that we could utilize this for,” King said.
Among obstacles: In 1997, the AMC Southroads 20 movie theater opened. It was constructed in a detached building on what once was the north parking lot of the mall. Because all the changes left no egress out of the area above Barnes & Noble, King described it as “just totally wasted” space.
King hatched a plan to salvage the space by turning it into a 30,000-square-foot loft apartment/office.
“I was actually going to pay for it and redo everything myself and live up there,” he said.
The apartment was going to have a skylight. A big projection-screen TV was going to hang there. An aquarium would look perfect right there.
“It was going to be incredible,” he said.
King said he had gotten the go-ahead from MD Management Group, which owned the property. But the property was sold in 2014 to a real estate investment trust in New York and the apartment idea had to be scrapped.
Here’s another idea: Because this is so dark and spooky, wouldn’t it make a great haunted attraction?
“We looked at doing that, putting a spook house in here, because it would just be a fantastic place,” King said.
“What we wanted to do was take out the elevators and put a spiral slide going down, so when you ended your tour, you could slide down and walk out.”
The idea got serious consideration, but King said it would have cost a million dollars to install a fire suppression system.
“That’s why we can’t use it for anything,” he said. “That’s one of the biggest hurdles.”
Another suggestion, King said, was to turn the space above Barnes & Noble into corporate offices “for people who don’t really want to be out in the public, or maybe like a phone center. Those places want to always stay hidden or they don’t care about exposure, so something like that would have worked out real well.
“Again, because of the cost to build this out, it was just not feasible to do anything like that, and, even if it was, nobody wants to take the risk of doing something like that. That’s a lot of money. It just takes a lot of work, a lot of money to keep these places up and remodel them — unbelievable amounts of money.”
• • •
In addition to the “dungeon” and the space above Barnes & Noble, “old” Southroads mall exists behind stores that face 41st Street.
Those stores take up only about half the space of the old mall. That was the way the property was redesigned because stores didn’t need the enormous floor space from the southern border to the northern border of the old mall.
Some of the vacant space (it’s well-lit) is used for storage. King said there are five still-functional elevators.
Visitors caught a whiff of make-you-hungry smells from a Coney I-Lander restaurant at the east end of the property.
Let’s check out the lower level.
• • •
Walking between the AMC Southroads 20 and the mall property, King pointed out a door that was sealed long ago.
“I don’t know what’s behind there,” he said.
King also passed a sealed-with-bricks former entrance before accessing the dungeon through another door.
Why does he refer to the lower level of the mall as a dungeon?
“Because it reminds us of a dungeon,” he said.
“It’s just a closed-off area of the mall that’s dark and damp and creepy, so we call it the dungeon.”
There’s a sealed-off staircase in the dungeon and, if you’ve ever seen a horror movie, there’s no way you want to get too close. The same holds true with a hole in a wall, which seems just big enough to crawl into, if you’re brave enough.
Much of the old mall is free of clutter, but there’s rubble on the floor of the lower level. Someone left a type of QT cup which, according to QT, was sold in stores from the late 1990s until 2003.
Steer clear of the water pits. There are two square water pits on the lower level. King said he has checked records and structural plans and he still can’t figure out exactly what they are.
“The only thing I can think of is maybe they used to hold water because there were several fountains out here in the mall and it recirculated through the fountains,” he said.
The pits still hold shallow water. You wouldn’t want to walk around in the dark and fall into the pools.
It’s easier than it once was to explore the old mall. King said there were no lights in the basement area until a few months ago.
“It used to be real scary walking in there where there were no lights because it was so long,” he said. “You are walking 100 or 200 yards in the dark and just a flashlight.”
Lights help with hints that this once was a shopping center. Restroom entrances (there are no paper towels in the dispenser) are painted in shades of blue. Red and yellow stripes decorate a stretch of the wall. The walls are mostly gray and bare except for a speck of restaurant wallpaper.
“I was told it was Diamond Jack’s,” King said.
Not many people know the old mall is still around, but King said it’s interesting when people send him pictures or other items that help him put the puzzle (which tenants were in which spots?) back together.
Maybe it was just a trick of the light, but it appeared an unaccounted-for shadow moved while King was giving the dungeon tour.
If the old mall had been transformed into a haunted attraction, the lower level and the space above Barnes & Noble all would have been a part of it, according to King.
“It was going to be like a 30- or 45-minute trip through a spook house,” he said.
“You don’t find many spaces this large that you could actually utilize for something like that.”
The tour ended with a ladder climb and a trip to the roof. You could see almost the entire city from up there. But the city isn’t looking back because who knew the old mall still existed?