The opening of the May Company department store on February 18, 1952 filled every available parking space at Lakewood Center and brought 200,000 customers crowding into the store during the following weeks.
At 345,000 square feet, the Lakewood May Company was the largest suburban department store in the country. The building was a windowless, rectangular concrete box in the International Style topped with four, 16-foot-high Ms that lit up in yellow neon at night so brightly that the Ms could be seen for miles.
“I remember that when we would go to San Pedro to visit the relatives, we could see the big M for miles around,” recalled long-time resident Linda Kay Gahan in 2003. “That was really a big thing, because you could say, ‘Well, I live near the big M for May Company.’ It was very, very impressive.”
The groundbreaking for the May Co. in 1950 marked the start of California's first regional shopping center.
Inside, the four-level store featured a tearoom, a small clinic with nurses on duty at all times (and a physician at certain hours), and an auditorium available to Lakewood organizations for meetings.
Each department was decorated in its own color scheme to complement the merchandise. Among the departments was “the West’s largest youth department … planned deliberately on the basis of the vast number of children in this family community.”
Promoted as “the 154-acre ‘shopping heart’ of Lakewood” (260 acres if the parking lot acreage was included), Lakewood Center was nearly a city in itself, or as Joe Eichenbaum called it, a “shopping city.”
In addition to commercial tenants, Lakewood Center eventually included office buildings, a 250-bed hospital, a county library, a post office, banks, a bowling alley, county offices, and Lakewood’s first city hall. It also included an automobile service center, a bowling center, a garden center, restaurants, and supermarkets.
By 1954, Lakewood Center was so big that a free shuttle transported shoppers between the mall and the adjacent Faculty Shops, a block-long row of specialty shops next to Faculty Avenue.
The Faculty Shops were aimed at local businesses and smaller chain retailers. Among the 36 stores were an Orange Julius lunch counter, Taylor’s Quality Meats, Ranger’s Chow Mein to Take Out, Choats Famous Do-Nuts, Jacqman Paints and Wallpaper, Lakewood Center Stationers, Sav-On Family Shoes, Lakewood Center Tastee Freeze, and De Cannis Hair Styling.
The Faculty Shops were eventually demolished to enable the building of a Bullock’s department store. In 1993, Bullocks closed after 29 years in Lakewood Center. The building was demolished in 1995 to make way for a Home Depot and a supermarket.
The four giant Ms on the top of the May Co. were a beacon for shoppers.
Lakewood Center also was Lakewood’s community hub. The Lakewood Center Businessmen’s Association (LBCA) sponsored Easter egg hunts, annual visits from Santa Claus, Dollar Days (during which a helicopter dropped pie plates, redeemable at Boys’ or Hiram’s markets for a frozen fruit pie), Mother’s Day gift drawings, Halloween carnivals featuring television celebrities, and teen dances (for which the LCBA donated records as prizes).
Linda Kay Gahan, whose first job was working at Butler Brothers department store, recalled her visits to Lakewood Center as a child: “One of the first things I remember is my grandmother taking a stroller with my sister in it, and we walked down to Lakewood Center to watch them build it ... I also remember polio vaccines ... We would all line up at the mall to take the sugar cube.”
Lakewood Center also was a point of pride for Lakewood’s residents, as Dennis Lander recalled, “I remember my parents would talk to other relatives and that would be kind of a bragging point ... we live in Lakewood and by the way, we have the largest shopping center in the world.”
In 1961, the center became the birthplace of another trend – corporate headquarters locating in shopping centers – when the Purex Corporation moved its international headquarters there.
Lakewood Center’s development took off between 1964 to1965, when Buffums, Bullocks, and Desmond’s department stores opened, followed by JC Penney’s opening in 1967 to anchor of the southern wing of the mall. That year, Lakewood Center became one of the first shopping centers to in the nation to feature motion-picture entertainment with the opening of the Lakewood Center Theatre, a 1,200-seat Cinerama theater.
See Lakewood Center grow in this collection of historical photographs.
Today, Lakewood Center remains one of largest regional shopping centers in Southern California and one of the busiest. More than 60 years after the center’s first stores opened, “shop Lakewood” is still good advice for value, quality, and convenience.