By Jalaane Levi-Garza and Louis Pauls

At the turn of the century, former Austin Mayor Lewis Hancock took a jaunt to Europe and discovered the game of golf. He decided to import the game to Austin and consequently purchased 90 acres on the outskirts of town, just north of his estate, Sunnyridge. The City rezoned the back nine or East 40 as commercial in 1959. Safeway Food Stores made the first offer of $300,000 for the land, however it was declined. In the same year, the City held an open bid hearing in which Homart, the development arm of Sears Roebuck and Company offered $800,000 and unveiled plans for a $8 million regional shopping center with 28 stores.

The sale was approved but a lawsuit was filed by local residents led by Robert Zabel who voiced many concerns, not the least of which was the sale of Public Park land without a referendum. The suit held up development for several years until a judge ordered that action on the lawsuit be taken and the issue was brought before the citizens of Austin.

Austinites voted 5-to-1 in favor of the sale. An appeal was denied and within seven months Sears had opened as the first store in Hancock Center. At the same time, Sears closed its Congress Avenue store, which marked the beginning of a decline in downtown retail. Local protest continued during the construction of the rest of the mall. A compromise victory was reached when 250 trees were planted and fountains installed where shoppers could move about in a veritable garden of flowers, shrubs and trees indigenous to the Southwest.

It was a bright and sunny day in October 1963 when Crowdus Baker, the president of Sears, was present at the ribbon cutting ceremony. Austin Mayor Lester Palmer, Miss Texas and local radio celebrity Cactus Pryor joined him. One year later, the entire center opened with 34 stores. As the brochure read, "Hancock Center is a place where convenience makes shopping an unforgettable

pleasure in an atmosphere of unsurpassed beauty that is truly out of the ordinary."

At the time of opening, Hancock Center was the state of the art in retail in America and a sure sign that Austin was growing up as a city. Austin now had its first major mall, the first Dillard's store in Texas and a Sears more than double the size of its original downtown store. Shoppers came from all over Central Texas.

Hancock Center anniversary celebrations became cultural events and were delivered in style. In 1971, the Hancock-Goes-Hawaiian celebration lasted a week and 10,000 orchids, flown in from Hawaii, were given away to customers. Another year it was Viva La Fiesta! held in September as a celebration of Mexican Independence Day. This was the time of console color televisions, stereo component systems that included three speed turntables, and washers with Roto Swirl Agitators. The well-dressed man shopped at Merritt, Schaeffer, and Brown and women who wanted to be fashionable shopped at Snyder Chenards, Leon's, and Merle Norman Cosmetics.

Of course, men still wore pajamas, flared double knit slacks and women's fall coordinates were advertised as 100% polyester. It was a time when Hancock Center stores used words such as "groovy" in the ads and one store attracted teenager customers by saying that it was "a place where a young man can choose a color coordinated wardrobe that's turned on and tuned in from the top of his turtleneck on down".

One feature of Hancock Center that seems unique today was a Town Hall facility that was used as a meeting place and showroom. It had a capacity of 350 and during the 1960s was hosting 30,000 people a year for events which included The African Violet Show, The UT Law School Wives Style Show, and various exhibits from the Laguna Gloria Art Collection. Ten years after it opened in 1964, Town Hall was still one of Austin's favorite places to gather. In August 1973, an ad in the Austin American-Statesman read, "The fall season will again find Town Hall at Hancock Center a busy community facility with Back to School parties, fashion shows, and yes! classroom sessions too!"

The decline of Hancock Center could be traced to the opening of the fully-enclosed Highland Mall in 1970. However when Homart sold Hancock Center an 1977, it was still 95% occupied. The buyer, Kingsmere Corporation, was based on the East Coast and represented a Dutch pension fund. Kingsmere sold out an 1990 the same year Dillard's closed at Hancock Center. By that time, the Center seemed to have become the ghost of malls past, its former glow a passing memory an the minds of early baby boomers.

The Center was sold again an the 1990s. With developers giving it one more go, they announced plans to invest $11 million in remodeling which included a roof to cover the entire center. More than once, this proposal was called the sure thing to revitalize Hancock Center. Yet, tenant turnover continued. The southeast building was demolished and the fountains were torn down. One developer even said "That mall has what you call functional obsolescence."

Pacific Retail Trust acquired the mall in 1996 and unveiled H.E.B.'s plans to construct a new grocery store with 94,000 square feet, almost three times the size of the original store opened in 1964. H.E.B., a perennial Hancock Center success story, now has new space that glorifies the mundane in everyday life. From the international flavor of prepared foods to the pasta specials freshly prepared by a resident chef in the Cucina Italia, shopping has been transformed from a chore to an enjoyable experience.

Everything old is new again at Hancock Center. The addition of Old Navy, Petco, Hollywood Video, Boot Town, General Nutrition Center, new restaurants and plans for more retail including a new music store have helped create a commercial renaissance in a residential neighborhood, which in itself has been reborn in recent years. Hancock Center may no longer compete with Barton Creek Mall, Lakeline Mall or even the aging Highland Mall, but it has a life all its own. One with a steady pulse and regular heart beat. Just ask the guys who run Hancock Barber Shop, John Cornejo, Landis Powell, Cliff Smith and Joe Simcik. They have served the neighborhood for more than thirty years, quietly going about their business. They have in their own way helped to create a stabilizing force in Hancock Center. "It had its days," Cornejo recently said of the mall, "but we are still here." They have seen all the peaks and valleys and now they bear witness to the most recent revival of Hancock Center as it carves cut a new piece of history and reputation as a survivor.

Those who grew up with Hancock Center in the 1960s and 1970s have many fond memories of a first pair of shoes, a new lawnmower, a daughter's wedding dress or a diamond anniversary ring. Now they can combine that storied past with an opportunity to provide their children with a chance to write a new chapter for the 21st Century.

Additional information provided by The Austin-American Statesman and The Austin History Center.