The life and death of the Phillipsburg Mall, in photos

EDITOR’S NOTE: A version of this story was originally posted in January 2020, when there were still some stores left and the future of the Phillipsburg Mall was more ambiguous. It has been updated to reflect its imminent demolition, giving a certain end to the mall’s story.

The Phillipsburg Mall opened on a Sunday. Seven thousand people were waiting.

The crowd was almost too much for it to handle on Sept. 24, 1989, the grand opening of the $40 million project. A ribbon was cut on the mall as a whole, but individual stores had to abandon their own ceremonies as shoppers waited to get inside.

“It’s a little too crowded to shop,” Marilyn Rogers, of Bethlehem Township, remarked that day to The Express-Times.

Things were different toward the end. The crowds dwindled. Businesses were evicted. Anchors were torn down. Now, the mall is an empty, dystopian shell due to be demolished any day to make way for a warehouse, completing Long Island-based owner Namdar Realty Group’s plan to “re-purpose the property.”

But for 30 years, this was a place where holiday shoppers bustled for last-minute gifts, where children met Santa, played with toys or had story time. This is where the circus came to town, where fledgling businesses and large chains each staked a claim, where young employees made their first buck, where lovers went to rent prom tuxes or even propose marriage.

As it fades into history, the photos and stories from our archives below provide one final reflection on this mall, the promise it represented, the memories it made and its slow descent into irrelevance.

Phillipsburg Mall through the years

An Express-Times front-page story on Monday, Sept. 25, 1989.Express-Times microfilm via Easton Area Public Library

In a front-page story on Monday, Sept. 25, 1989, The Express-Times reported the Phillipsburg Mall was swarmed by 7,000 people during its grand opening the day before. New shoppers said they preferred it to the Palmer Park Mall — which had the same owners — and the Lehigh Valley Mall.

“We now don’t have to go across the river to where America doesn’t really start,” Pohatcong Township Mayor James Redd III told The Express-Times, jabbing at Pennsylvania’s new slogan at the time: “America starts here.”

Phillipsburg Mall through the years

The Phillipsburg Mall on opening day.Express-Times microfilm via Easton Area Public Library

Phillipsburg Mall through the years

K-Mart was one of the first stores in the Phillipsburg Mall.lehighvalleylive.com file photo

Phillipsburg Mall through the years

The early days of the Phillipsburg Mall.lehighvalleylive.com file photo

Phillipsburg Mall through the years

The early days of the Phillipsburg Mall.lehighvalleylive.com file photo

The Phillipsburg Mall was a hub of activity. Children rode the carousel and listened at storytime. The circus came to town (and, sometimes, so did protesters to denounce it). Sears, one of the early anchors, expanded.

But stores open, stores close. Another early tenant, K-Mart, was gone in 2007, perhaps a sign of more trouble to come.

Phillipsburg Mall through the years

Sally Walz, a customer service supervisor, is hidden among the Halloween masks on display in a Phillipsburg Mall costume shop in 1997.Steve Klaver | nj.com file photo

Phillipsburg Mall through the years

Meghan Carroll, 4, of Lopatcong Township, plays with wooden trains at a Phillipsburg Mall toy store while her mom does last-minute shopping on Christmas Eve in 1997.Steve Klaver | nj.com file photo

Phillipsburg Mall through the years

Alyssa Fischbach and her friend Erin Ally, both of Lopatcong, ride the carousel in the Phillipsburg Mall in September 1998.Steve Klaver | nj.com file photo

Phillipsburg Mall through the years

Circuses stopped at the Phillipsburg Mall many times over the years but were not welcomed by all. Kathy Aquinato, a Palmer Township and member of the Lehigh Valley Animal Rights Coalition, protests a show in May 2000.Bruce Winter | lehighvalleylive.com file photo

Phillipsburg Mall through the years

Aeropostale opened at the Phillipsburg Mall in May 2002. The store was reported to be the chain’s 300th location.Bill Adams | lehighvalleylive.com file photo

Phillipsburg Mall through the years

Sears, one of the Phillipsburg Mall’s original anchors, expanded in 2003. Cashier Tiffany Ford, left, of Easton, and assistant store manager Sue Swisher, of Phillipsburg, stand inside the new addition.Lisa Massey | lehighvalleylive.com file photo

Phillipsburg Mall through the years

Members of Showcase Studios’ kickline class perform in November 2003 as part of the celebration welcoming Santa Claus to the Phillipsburg Mall for the holiday season.Lisa Massey | lehighvalleylive.com file photo

Phillipsburg Mall through the years

Easton Catholic choirs perform at the opening in of Kohl’s in the Phillipsburg Mall in April 2004.Sue Beyer | lehighvalleylive.com file photo

Phillipsburg Mall through the years

Professor Kno-Y (Roy Dietrich) prepares for a show at the Bon-Ton Court in June 2004. As an advance clown, he arrives ahead of the Cole Brothers Circus to build interest. The circus made many stops at the Phillipsburg Mall over the years.Ben Hasty | lehighvalleylive.com file photo

Phillipsburg Mall through the years

Back-to-school shopping in 2004: Sarah Kolonia, 10, shops outside JC Penny with her grandmother Joan Kolonia, both of Holland Township. It was their annual tradition before the new school year. On this day, they had their nails done and got lunch together.Sue Beyer | lehighvalleylive.com file photo

Phillipsburg Mall through the years

Michael Guttermann, of Fort Lee, New Jersey, and Zane Pysher, of Easton, look through cards at the Sports Card & Collectable Show at the Phillipsburg Mall in October 2004.Sue Beyer | lehighvalleylive.com file photo

Phillipsburg Mall through the years

3-year-old Monica Ferguson, of Easton, rides a “plasma car” in front of the Learning Express toy store in April 2005 as part of TV Turnoff week.Bill Adams | lehighvalleylive.com file photo

Phillipsburg Mall through the years

Tricia Telmosse reads to kids during the weekly story time at the Phillipsburg Mall in July 2005.Sue Beyer | lehighvalleylive.com file photo

Phillipsburg Mall through the years

Brian Ilg, of Clark, New Jersey, proposes to his girlfriend Cathie Pereira during a performance by Tickles the Clown at Phillipsburg Mall in August 2005. Ilg spent three weeks planning the proposal. Unsuspecting, Pereira stopped to watch the show with Ilg as they walked through the mall. The couple was called out of the audience to help with the next trick which turned into a reenactment of the Cinderella story with the proposal at the conclusion. Pereira accepted.Matthew Villano | lehighvalleylive.com file photo

Phillipsburg Mall through the years

Alexis Ziarkoski and her boyfriend Jake Martinez wait to see what the cost will be after Jake was fitted for a prom tuxedo at After Hours in 2006.Steve Klaver | nj.com file photo

Phillipsburg Mall through the years

Shoppers make their way through the Phillipsburg Mall during the 2006 holiday season.Sue Beyer | lehighvalleylive.com file photo

Phillipsburg Mall through the years

Santa, accompanied by the Phillipsburg Middle School band and choir, stops to high-five 5-year-old David Cromin, of Phillipsburg, in December 2006.Joe Gill | lehighvalleylive.com file photo

Phillipsburg Mall through the years

Stores open, stores close. A big sign on the Big K in March 2007 announced the K-Mart, one of the Phillipsburg Mall’s first stores, would soon be gone.Sue Beyer | lehighvalleylive.com file photo

Phillipsburg Mall through the years

Employee Ashley Brown, of Alpha, arranges Phillies merchandise at Schuylkill Valley Sports at the Phillipsburg Mall following the team’s 2008 World Series win.Joe Gill | lehighvalleylive.com file photo

Phillipsburg Mall through the years

Santa and Mrs. Claus walk greyhounds from Pocono Greyhound Rescue through the Phillipsburg Mall during the 2009 Christmas in July parade.Bill Adams | lehighvalleylive.com file photo

Phillipsburg Mall through the years

Musti Senca, an employee at a kiosk that sells remote-controlled vehicles at the Phillipsburg Mall, demonstrates a car that can drive on walls in November 2009.Matt Smith | lehighvalleylive.com file photo

Things continued much the same for a few more years. But by the end of the decade, the circuses stopped. Anchor stores closed and were demolished, signaling the mall’s ultimate fate. Some found creative uses for the empty space as vacancies outnumbered active storefronts. It gradually turned into a ghost town and never recovered.

Santa greeted children in December 2019, but that holiday season was not joyful for store owners who were given eviction notices.

Phillipsburg Mall through the years

Flowers and mulch are added to the patio garden constructed inside the Phillipsburg Mall by Timber Rock Landscape and RC & Sons of Easton in March 2010.Bruce Winter | lehighvalleylive.com file photo

Phillipsburg Mall through the years

Santa arrives at the Phillipsburg Mall in November 2011 and greets Brielle Walker, 4, of Easton.Sue Beyer | lehighvalleylive.com file photo

Phillipsburg Mall through the years

Misty and JoAnne Sokolowski, of Pohatcong Township, go shopping in November 2010.Sue Beyer | lehighvalleylive.com file photo

Phillipsburg Mall through the years

Spin Me Round manager Jody Barboza picked out an album cover as one of the more unique ones at the record store, which opened at the Phillipsburg Mall in 2015.Sarah Peters | lehighvalleylive.com file photo

Phillipsburg Mall through the years

A tiger jumps through a ring of fire during a Cole Bros. Circus performance at the Phillipsburg Mall in June 2015. The following year, the mall, under pressure from animal rights groups, banned animal shows including circuses.Sue Beyer | lehighvalleylive.com file photo

Phillipsburg Mall through the years

The Sears store in the Phillipsburg Mall, one of the mall’s original anchors, was among 18 nationwide to close in late January 2018.Steve Novak | For lehighvalleylive.com

Phillipsburg Mall through the years

Two Rivers Roller Derby needed a home and the struggling Phillipsburg Mall needed a tenant. The former Old Navy storefront provided a lot of room as the team runs drills, in their new, rented practice space in May 2019.Steve Novak | For lehighvalleylive.com

Phillipsburg Mall through the years

Empty stores outnumbered occupied ones in the Phillipsburg Mall nearly 2-to-1 as of August 2019.Steve Novak | For lehighvalleylive.com

Phillipsburg Mall through the years

A major vacancy at the Phillipsburg Mall is inadvertently advertised on one of its entryways in August 2019.Steve Novak | For lehighvalleylive.com

Phillipsburg Mall

Crews demolish what was once Sears, one of the Phillipsburg Mall’s original anchors in August 2019.Steve Novak | For lehighvalleylive.com

Phillipsburg Mall through the years

The Bon-Ton at the Phillipsburg Mall is demolished Oct. 23, 2019, the second vacant anchor at the struggling mall to be torn down in a year.Steve Novak | For lehighvalleylive.com

Phillipsburg Mall through the years

The demolition inside Bon-Ton was visible through the doors that once welcomed customers. Steve Novak | For lehighvalleylive.com

Phillipsburg Mall through the years

Santa Claus greets fans at the Phillipsburg Mall upon his arrival for the 2019 holiday season — which was not a cheerful one for mall merchants. Just before Christmas, the mall’s remaining locally owned stores were given notice they would be evicted in January 2020.Kurt Bresswein | For lehighvalleylive.com

The COVID-19 pandemic kept a lot of people at home, but they stopped going to the Phillipsburg Mall years ago. The mall that opened to thousands of people ended quietly as the last storefronts were vacated, either through evictions or expiring leases. Some were able to relocate.

When the wrecking ball comes, it will level all but a single, independently owned store. The rest will be leveled and replaced with a warehouse: One big-building business model replaced with another.

Phillipsburg Mall as evictions take effect in January 2020

Some locally owned businesses were being evicted from the Phillipsburg Mall in January 2020, leaving the handful left wondering how much longer they have.Steve Novak | For lehighvalleylive.com

Phillipsburg Mall as evictions take effect in January 2020

A handwritten note outside Spin Me Round record shop in January 2020 says it will relocate to the Palmer Park Mall.Steve Novak | For lehighvalleylive.com

Phillipsburg Mall as evictions take effect in January 2020

Bruno’s Pizza was no longer serving in January 2020.Steve Novak | For lehighvalleylive.com

Phillipsburg Mall as evictions take effect in January 2020

The interior entrance to The Bon-Ton, demolished the prior fall, is just a wall in January 2020.Steve Novak | For lehighvalleylive.com

Phillipsburg Mall as evictions take effect in January 2020

Someone left a note outside Men’s Wearhouse in January 2020.Steve Novak | For lehighvalleylive.com

Phillipsburg Mall as evictions take effect in January 2020

The Phillipsburg Mall is mostly empty in January 2020.Steve Novak | For lehighvalleylive.com

A look at Phillipsburg Mall on Feb. 25, 2021

What the Phillipsburg Mall looks like on Feb. 25, 2021, in its final days before demolition.Saed Hindash | For lehighvalleylive.com

A look at Phillipsburg Mall on Feb. 25, 2021

What the Phillipsburg Mall looks like on Feb. 25, 2021, in its final days before demolition.Saed Hindash | For lehighvalleylive.com

A look at Phillipsburg Mall on Feb. 25, 2021

What the Phillipsburg Mall looks like on Feb. 25, 2021, in its final days before demolition.Saed Hindash | For lehighvalleylive.com

A look at Phillipsburg Mall on Feb. 25, 2021

What the Phillipsburg Mall looks like on Feb. 25, 2021, in its final days before demolition.Saed Hindash | For lehighvalleylive.com

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Steve Novak may be reached at [email protected].