Retail shopping took a dramatic turn in the 1950s, and the Alle-Kiski Valley was part of it.
The Heights Plaza Shopping Center opened Nov. 10, 1955, and changed shopping habits.
The plaza was built by brothers John P. and Alex Marino, who saw similar facilities going up elsewhere.
The first shopping center in the Pittsburgh region was Caste Village in Whitehall, built in 1951. Next was the Northway Shopping Center in 1953 on McKnight Road in Ross, later known as the Northway Mall in 1962. In 1954, Miracle Mile Shopping Center 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 in the Alle-Kiski Valley’s riverfront towns.
The new shopping area — built on the edge of what was a former airport property — caught on quickly. Instead of searching out a curbside parking space and feeding the parking meter in the old towns, shoppers at the Heights Plaza had adequate, free parking.
Perhaps the most popular store was an anchor tenant, the Joseph Horne department store, affectionately called “Horne’s on the Heights.”
The plaza was also known for its fountains and the clock at the entrance off Freeport Road. The water turned colors at night with spotlights beneath the surface.
Besides Horne’s, other popular stores included G.C. Murphy’s, Klingensmith Hardware, A&P Supermarket and a Howard Johnson’s restaurant.
And don’t forget Isaly’s.
Besides regional and national chains, privately owned small businesses thrived. Some were Herbert’s menswear, 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, the regional chain was the place to buy tickets for big concerts coming to Pittsburgh.
People stood in line to seek tickets for acts such as Led Zeppelin, The Doors, James Brown and many more in the days before electronic ticket-buying.
Adjacent to the main strip of the plaza were activities for the whole family such as miniature golf, The Plaza Lanes bowling alley and slot cars at American Family Raceways.
Co-founder Alex Marino died in 1979 and John P. Marino in 1992.
With rumors that an enclosed mall was on its way to the Allegheny Valley corridor, the Marino family sold the plaza in 1986 to Terra Enterprises.
The first chink in the Heights Plaza armor came in 1994 when Horne’s was bought by Federated Department Stores and merged into its Lazarus division. Then Lazarus was rebranded Macy’s in 2005.
A spectacular fire Dec. 18, 2012, caused nearly $10 million damage to the Heights Plaza.
Ultimately, Wild Blue Management, which operated the plaza, defaulted on its mortgage and New Jersey-based Pretium Property Management took over in 2018.
Allegheny County reassessed the property’s value and dropped it from $17 million to $6.6 million.
The plaza, like most shopping centers of its type, struggles in this era of online shopping — an upheaval similar to how shopping centers changed the public’s habits in the 1950s.
George Guido is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.
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