Franklin Mall

Site of ICD HQ from 1970-2009. Photo is of the interior mall street decorated for autumn.

My son-in-law bought a 1970 postcard of the Cafe Tiffany in the Franklin Mall for my daughter as memento of a place she came to know well for several years as a child. I knew that building from about the same starting point, age 7, but to age 55. So seeing that postcard unleashed a flood of memories for those 48 years.

Above: The postcard my Doctor Daughter sent me shows the north front that was less seen as Franklin Street was one way, northbound. Since the exterior of the building gave no hint of how remarkable the interior was, in 2000 we made a giant 3D “collage” of shop fronts to attach to the south exterior visible from the highway traffic.

The false fronts with lights in the windows and silhouettes were later added by the artist Lane Henson who had a shop in the mall.


The store fronts we aded coordinated with the newspaper ad art (above) with the small shops theme. On seeing the finished fronts, the city said that the now-built false fronts were not allowed because they had type on them, making it a “sign” so we had to paint over the word Cafe, Shops & Franklin Travel Agency to conform to the city’s maximum sign size regulation.

From receiving a single postcard, I am writing this rambling post on how Franklin Mall was the location of our ICD Wargame Club and my personal memories of the building from 1961-2009. The latter may be of nostalgic interest to Decatur folks. But the former will relay the advantage of having a public space for a club that is very accessible. So, the caveat is that some of this post will be boring or puzzling to one group or the other, alternatively. And I do go on and on. As I get older some of this I may forget and so this will be aid to my own memory.

Franklin Mall was the first covered mall building in Illinois, built in 1967. Unlike the huge mostly character-less shopping malls that later sprung up on the edge of town, Franklin Mall was filled with fifteen spaces of varying sizes ideal for a person to open a specialty store, small offices or services. Really it was a private business incubator that did not have lease requirements yet had a lot of features that one couldn’t take for granted in the central business district, most importantly: free parking. All without a dime of government money, oversight or boondoggles. Isn’t it amazing when free people somehow manage to get worthwhile things done without commissars?

1) About 1972 exterior view from the southwest shows the travel-themed silhouettes my father cut out. 2) Can you see the typo in one of the sign boards? My father had only one letter of each in the alphabet and so used a similar sized “L” for the second “A” and then traced and filled it in. We decided to leave it that way because people love to correct others. Tiring of re-painting signboards that were getting warped, we replaced the sign with a metal panels that slid in after a sign company attached vinyl letters (seen at extreme right in false-front photo above. 3) The basement window of the ICD HQ is barely seen to the left of the tree.

Wargames maneuver uptown from my house

I first played in an Avalon Hill wargame, Afrika Korps, at age 11 with my brother, Bruce, and his friend, Don. Their club was called The Hustlers for pool playing (that also feature APBA baseball). With my brother gone to college, my friend Mark and I (ages 14 and 13) started a wargame club, ICD, had started in 1968 and in 1970 our family moved from the house on Dickinson Avenue, to an apartment above Cafe Tiffany. This was part of the retrenchment from the closing of the toy stores and starting Franklin Travel. My last two years of high school were at Stephen Decatur High School, just a few blocks north of the mall.

As we got more people playing wargames, Mark and I hosted a function in the mall’s “street” on a Sunday afternoon (when the mall was closed) for several friends featuring PanzerBlitz by James F Dunnigan. This was a big hit and I asked my father if we could clear out the basement of the mall to use as our wargame clubhouse. He said sure, if you paint the walls and the floor. Plus carry out all the extra items left over from the mall building. Having carried every heavy piece of wrought iron railings many times already, that was fine with me.

And I asked him to build a 6×10′ sand table which he did. Perhaps they figured it kept me off the streets—or under the street in this case. I lived in the same building and so I really didn’t appreciate the uniqueness of as my niece Nicole said, “Grandpa built his own little town to live in.” This convenience meant that I might notice coming and goings of club-members and so the club house was staffed nearly full time. This was good for club “relations”. The most important benefit was how the club was located in a public building so people could come and go without calling first and popping by as convenient. Not needing to schedule meetings or send out invitations meant that wargames could “erupt” spontaneously.

Besides game stores (which are fewer now and mainly fantasy related), the closest that I can relate this to his how many English gamers have an arrangement in a pub to use the upstairs as a facility and store games, miniature and terrain perhaps. Likewise, we could leave up the charts for a complex ruleset like GRT/Tractics on the wall (below), make up sand table terrain at a convenient moment and be ready for (usually) Saturday miniature games.

A bad photo but otherwise we only took photos of the game table (foreground) or gamers’ Tractics’ charts covered the wall and I memorized most of them—the advantage of youth and focus.

We also had tournaments, multiple “linked” games or the subject might be anniversary-related. Typically these were quite involved to set-up and so having a place set them up ahead meant no time wasted “on the day” as people are standing around.

In the days before Desktop Publishing, we had the resources of the Toy Stores to make signs (at left, below, sign made with wooden block type, rolled on ink), mimeograph or Hektograph printed pages. The mimeograph was messy but the Hektograph (gelatin in pan, fanzine cover shown at right, below) could only produce one page per day.

Security was an issue that we did not think about until one day I walked downstairs and was reading a copy of the Avalon Hill General when a person just sort of appears. I asked what he wanted so he said he was waiting for someone and I suggest he wait up in the mall. He started to head to the stairs when Mark came down with a giant tray of food from his job in the Cafe. Mark is more observant about reading people and must have gave him a “look” that unnerved him. The guy started running up the stairs and Mark put down his tray saying “The Tanks!” running after him. I got up to look in the other room where are full collection HO scale (mostly 2″ long and carefully painted) tanks were parked on a big table in a Chevy Car Lot formation, bumper to bumper. Sure enough, as I heard the long footfalls of people running across Highway 51, I saw that the table was empty! I thought to myself, “I suppose we could collect ships.” Then I looked down and saw on the floor several paper grocery bags of tanks neatly packed into them. I had interrupted the robber. I realize now that I had seen the “lookout” who anxiously was “reading” travel brochures, upside down (which is odd), but approached the basement from a different way than they were expecting. So we put a padlock on the door.

The “Chevy Car Lot” formation of HO scale tanks

So why is “public access” important? Gaming groups are subject to attrition, people lose interest, move away or die. So growth of gamers helps to limit the impact of attrition and may allow you to play games that require more people. Having a game at your or a friend’s house is fine but there is a natural hesitancy that some people have about an invitation to come to an unknown person’s house. Having the public access allows people more comfort zone to “just stop by” and see if they like the “feel” …the welcome, the dynamics of the other people and indeed they may run away then. Or they might stay longer after all. Or they may come back another time.

Another bonus modifier to your Attendance roll is predictability of schedule. Having a regularly scheduled game, that is reliable, allows people comfort in knowing that if they block out time then they won’t be frustrated by the game not happening. Nowadays, we have free blogs (like where you can publish game dates/times/details so someone can check that. Another free (or low-cost) option is to send an email, text or instant messenger reminder or cancellation as necessary. We used to send out a newsletter or postcards.

A few more things. The free parking helped too. In days before cell phones, some people had “Teen Phones”, a separate line to keep the kids off he main line. Only my Teen Phone was hooked up in the basement. That phone number later became the business phone of Judges Guild. So accessibility by phone may be less of an issue now.

So for the nostalgic Decaturites, here’s more about the Franklin Mall & how it came to be via Hobby House Toyland

The Franklin Mall building was built originally as a Ford showroom and repair facility in 1927. It went through various owners and renters through the years, as a bakery, Barger’s Garage (adjacent to Tommy House Tire & Company; some people that my dad’s last name was House like Tommy’s was—from the Hobby House store he started in 1946).

The Hobby House’s first families, my Aunt Juanita (missionary nurse to India and Nepal), Aunt Aletta and Uncle Bill (holding Carolyn) and my mom, Julie, holding Bruce and Lucie is standing in front of her. Hobbies were a hit with the returned GIs who had tromped all over the world and now came home to war brides and families and had to “stay home”. In the wee hours my mom found my dad making a model and I guess she figured that the business was a foregone conclusion. My grandfather tried to talk him out of it because of the risk involved.

So when our family’s hobby store expanded to include toys, Hobby House Toyland was the new name and as they added new stores locally and around the state of Illinois (plus one in Memphis TN where he’d send the semi-truck to buy Murray bikes), he needed a warehouse. So he bought the Bargar’s Garage building in 1961 at 304 S Franklin St. and eventually the rest of the block which has several houses on it. That was needed for customer parking when the Franklin Mall was opened in 1967.

Hobby House Toyland was a regional hit with the kids. I found that went ex-Governor Edgar came to Rotary Club and said that now he’s a private citizen he has a hard time finding places he had been before—because he no longer had a car and driver. But he said one place he still knows where it had been was the Hobby House Toyland. Coming from a small town, it was a big hit for him. And indeed for many kids.

My father had some new ideas for the toy store that we may take for granted now. And may have been part of his success. Back when I was a kid, it still was normal for stores to be made up of showcases staffed by ladies in sweaters with Kleenex stuffed in the folds. If you wanted to see something, you had to ask and point at the item in the showcase and they would bring it out to show you. The last places that had that approach was Bolay’s Hobbies and Ben Franklin Five & Dime. His approach was to advertising and reassure moms and dads “That our toys are touchable” so that he would encourage them to take them out of the box and let junior try them out. Also, the prevailing approach used to be to put products on display by manufacturer whereas, he put all the toy trucks together in one section and all the dolls in another, mixing manufacturers so you could more easily compare side-by-side. He had a Tot Lot that was like a small walled-in area for infants and toddlers to play with some toys while mom could browse about. One of the big hits were the life-size Steiff stuffed animals from Germany. With giraffes towering at the entrance, plus lions, tigers and bears, to little kids this was awe-inspiring. He bought a Steiff gorilla in California and I spent some time sitting in its lap on the way back to Illinois—we got lots of double-takes from other drivers.

The Prairie Street store was the pinnacle store that Governor Edgar was still talking about. Two giant slot car tracks were in the basement with one so large you lost sight of your race car at points. One whole room was built to look like 3/4 scale Caboose and was filled with Lionel Trains. Across the basement wall was a giant HO scale layout that my Aunt Jean painted the backdrop for. This is now a restaurant called Gin Joint and I wonder if bits of the painting is still on that wall. When it was Striglos, I asked to go down stairs and found a bit of the mural that the employee hadn’t noticed and he said, “I always had wondered why they called this the train room.”

I spent a lot of time in the car as my parents drove from store to store hearing them talk about problem managers, advertising and other issues. I don’t know that it was expected for me to work my way into the business but I just assumed that’s what families did. I helped to demonstrate various toys for the sidewalk sale days and I my father called me Young Legs—which meant that I had to run and get something for him.

At left, I am demonstrating a very nice kiddie car for a sidewalk sale. At right is an ad for the sale where we sold actual silver dollars for 88¢ along hundreds of toys for only 88¢. My dad had a trunk full of silver dollars ready to sell but very few were sold—people thought “if it sounds too good to be true” so they didn’t even ask for them. Later he said, I should have saved them: the silver value was worth much more.

Toys had become a difficult business because Discount Stores like Shoppers World and KMart used toys as “loss leaders”, selling them below cost, to get people in the door to buy other things at Christmas time. So their toy departments would expand. But my dad’s business was open year around and he said half his volume came in December and all the profit, if any, the week before Christmas. So if there was a blizzard then it could make a difficult situation worse. I will write a separate post about the Hobby House. Suffice for now that family involvement in Toys explains some of why I felt comfortable getting into a “fad” toy like Dungeons & Dragons by starting Judges Guild with Bob Bledsaw (officially on July 4, 1976, America’s 200th Independence Day).

I roamed through testing them—-very carefully. My title then at age 11 was Vice President of Toy Testing! I had my own tiny desk in the office (that later became the Café’s main room, with popcorn balls in it). When trapped in the corner by a salesman chomping a cigar who came into talk my dad, I escaped through a window in that corner into the warehouse area.

So back to 1967. My father designed the Franklin Mall at night on his drafting board (he had trained as an engineer at Millikin University graduating in 1940) and during the day he directed Dick Highcock and sons to build the little shops throughout the mall.

My father drew the plans for each of the shops at night and then they built that the next day. Just before opening the building, the city asked to see the plans so he showed them. And they said “no, we mean a licensed architect’s plans” and so he had to pay Charles Dutz to redraw the entire project after it was built.

With the difficulty of the Toy business, he said that it was “Inspiration born of Desperation”. He had closed each of dozen-plus Hobby House Toyland locations (northern Illinois’ Niles and Homewood, Central Illinois’ Springfield, Bloomington Champaign, Mattoon, Lincoln, Danville, three to four locations in Decatur plus another I’m forgetting). There was a fourth location in Decatur at Christmas time in the Hobby House Bargain Store which because my mom ran that, my dad called it Jovial Julie’s Juvenile Junk Joint—yes we were into alliterations (and puns) long before Judges Guild!

An artistic conception which exaggerates the space. Actually it felt more intimate and like old European narrow streets. The back street behind the statue narrowed continually to give the impression that it was bigger than it was. The building was only 80×100′ and real estate people were amazed at how much rentable space there was. Partly that was because of the 2nd level and spaces over the mall’s “street”.

The inspiration for the Franklin Mall was Disneyland’s Main Street USA, a nostalgic look at turn-of-the-century (1900) Ameria. Using antiques as decor was coming into vogue in the late 60s and my father drove the semi-trailer around buying “junk” to most people then in remote sections of the state. Or seeing an old house torn down in Decatur, he would pick up the “gingerbread” from the front yard in as complete sections as he could for decorating the various shops. Much of the wrought iron came from New Orleans—the south was filled with the iron brought  from England as the ships came to pick up cotton and so trade was established.

One farmer had a chicken coop with colored glass in its door and carved wood, so my dad bought it and the farmer asked “Now what am I going to do for a door?” Another family had a beautiful Tiffany-style lamp that must have looked old-fashioned to them: they had spray painted it silver. So we got out the turpentine and found that it was beautiful green leaded glass underneath. He had found a full-sized saddle-maker’s horse dummy, a three-quarter suit of armor from a local collector, a small round table from the Cafe de la Paix in Paris and a true Tiffany glass shade. True Tiffany could be discerned by the big number of very small intricately-fitted pieces of glass. I think I made him nervous watching me mop the floors in the Cafe Tiffany with the long wooden handle going over and back up. He told me he sold the soon-to-be priceless shade before I poked a hole in it. The statue of Justice (left, below) came from off the top of the courthouse in Tyler, Texas and my dad traded an MG sports car for it. The cigar storage cabinet (below, right) had several locked compartments that we’d never opened; I always wondered what was in those.

Above, entrance to the Cafe Tiffany

In addition to chipping mortar off antique bricks, pushing cars out of the snow, one job we got was very fun. My dad was going to have the houses in the future parking lot torn down so he said, “He said if you promise to get it out of your system today, and never do it again, I will let you throw rocks through all the windows.” Deal! Frequently he would need manpower to do various grunt work and he ask me to “Get some your buddies to (fill in the blank) and I’ll pay 50 cents an hour.” Which was great money to us. A few times when our work ethic was lacking, he’d relay what his father said to him, “One boy’s a boy, two boys are half a boy and three boys ain’t no boys at all.” Another time we were to tar the roof of the mall which was rounded. We were working away apparently with the enthusiasm of Soviet Gulag prisoners when my father climbed up the long ladder to check on us. “This is the way you do it,” as he tarred with gusto, slipped and started to roll off the roof! My mouth was hanging open and he put his arm out to stop the roll, got up and walked by me quietly saying “Give them all a dollar an hour raise.” And we didn’t see him again that day.

In 1967, perhaps there wasn’t so much to do around Decatur so the opening of the Franklin Mall was a big event and hundreds of people came streaming through to marvel at the antique look, check out the little store’s merchandise, have an ice cream (run by my sister, Martha) or have a thin-sliced roast beef sandwich (on toasted bun) in the Cafe Tiffany. Just to cut down on the crowd he sold admission for a dollar that went to a charity.

Before that the last toy store, Hobby House Toyland, was in the back where the travel agency later was. I had a magic department where we gave a Magic Show on the first Sunday of the mall’s opening. Just to show how little there was to do in Decatur perhaps, I remember what seemed like 100 people jammed into that area (actually incorporated more shops than when you saw it) watching the Magic Show that Marko the Magnificent put on. He had trained with Blackstone (who made an entire audience disappear at the Lincoln Theatre—-he said that it was his greatest trick and cried afterwards) and after he made a birdcage (with bird in it disappear, I had to go on do another trick because he was in the backroom pulling the collapsible birdcages out of his coat sleeve. The first photo shows Marko holding the birdcage. The articles tell about Marko and Blackstone’s unique Decatur trick.

The photo at below, left was the first travel agency location and access to the basement. He started in travel with an experienced manager from Chicago who asked how late the buses ran in Decatur and he said 6:00 P.M. She got on the next bus back to Chicago. He is shown in a larger office at the back of the mall in below, right photo.

There were as many as 15 different spaces. Frequently fewer businesses were represented as a given shop or office would expand into adjacent spaces. This is one of the Business Incubator benefits. Franklin Travel started in #3, moved to #1 and then added #2 and then #3 again. Later on it moved to #7 and the whole front was pivoted to the west to allow it to incorporate #8 and the back room called #7 expansion plus upstairs areas). The basement was underneath #1-3 only. The upstairs #13 was my family’s apartment which expanded to #12 when my sister, Martha, graduated from college and moved in with Frodo and Scheherazade.

I mentioned Martha’s cats in the above caption but we also had Tiger Cat living in the mall. The problem was that he would like to blast out of the apartment and once jumped on diners’ table with me hot pursuit grabbing him away and I whipped off saying “Sorry!” He was allowed out to roam the mall when the cafe closed; Mrs. Flora (who was age 95) invited him to tea.

Back before the mall shops were constructed, the warehouse had Cleopatra as mouser. She slept in one of the stuffed toys’ boxes and June Lindsten was filling orders for the toy stores and it appeared that one the stuffed toys came to “life” as she grabbed Cleo who flew out of the box! My brother Bruce wore a plastic German helmet while filling orders the toy because a bird had buzzed him. Later on we had dozens of chimney swifts sneak in through the furnace and light all around the mall. We barred the secret passage (a box to light the furnace was left open) round them all up and put them out the front door. During the warehouse days, Slot Cars was the hot “fad” toy and kids wanted to break in and steal them. So my dad got a German Shepherd named George to patrol. But George had the habit of chewing up toys and he decided that he was destroying more than were likely to be stolen. Bouncing back to the mall period, the Joanne and Jerry Winters ended up renting much of the mall for the their gift items and paintings. They had a toy poodle, Mon Petit Ami. Joanne was born in Decatur but later became a top salesman in the Mary Kay Cosmetics empire and married Jerry who was a cruise director and artist. They had stores in Carmel, California now have a store in Arthur.

In 2000, the travel agency after a major American Express style renovation. The floor raised to let computer cables and electrical conduit throughout.

A big benefit of the “small town” feel is how shopkeepers could help each other watch each other’s store as necessary, plus share ideas, promotions and capabilities. Unfortunately it did not always work out so harmoniously as there would some who resisted ordinary courtesy and factions could develop. At times I felt like the mayor of a dysfunctional town. But this was mostly not the case.


It was an unique place, quaint in its own way but special also because it was my home twice from age 15-17 and again in about 1985.

I ate at the café literally thousands of times, made their daily menu each morning for a dollar of my lunch for years. After typing that out and making the 4-up to a page daily specials, I made a database to make a menu for new operators in later years. Later after my parents retired, we had a weekly family lunch in the middle room of the Cafe which had been the daily haunt of “Skinny” Taylor the head of the Republican party in Macon County.

I know when the postcard was printed by the name of the café operator who Mark Whitehead worked for when we were in high school, about 1970. The mall & café had opened in 1967. It was just a soup and sandwich place then with disposable cups and plates. But the roast beef sandwich was much better than Arbys and every morning I would smell it cooking. Later on it became a full-service restaurant which required the addition of commercial dishwasher and other equipment. The mall owned the equipment and the cafe operator leased the space, the name Cafe Tiffany (until the last operator changed it to a Mexican Restaurant called Tita’s Cafe) and the equipment.




In 2008 at the depth of the housing crises (born of government pushing home ownership regardless of ability to pay), with businesses moving out, we had to sell the Franklin Mall. It hurt a lot to sell it and have it torn down to be a parking lot. If it had continued under new ownership, I would’ve felt much better about selling it. But it was like flattening a unique and charming little town

Here Ralph is building the first of 35 condominium units at Lake Shore Club, his most successful business yet. On retiring from the travel business, he led a group to Hawaii and upgraded their room to a suite at the top of the Sheraton Waikiki overlooking Diamond Head and the beach. There he designed the condominiums, Inspiration Born Of Possibility this time. But not certainty. He still did not have the last lot, the lakefront strip owned by the Post Estate so he said “sometimes you have to step out in faith.”

In 2008 at the depth of the housing crises (born of government pushing home ownership regardless of ability to pay), with businesses moving out, we had to sell the Franklin Mall. It hurt a lot to sell it and have it torn down to be a parking lot. If it had continued under new ownership, I would’ve felt much better about selling it. But it was like flattening a unique and charming little town.

But the “handicap law” made continuing the mall as “small rental space” impractical. Even though my father had put in ramps for wheelchairs (which was thoughtful for 1967), the bathrooms were not handicap accessible—and we would have paid that expense but there were rules about minimum width and requirement for an elevator for the second floor. We were “grandfathered” and so did not have to make these changes but if we sold even half-interest, the entire place would have had to be brought up to code. So no one could figure how to make all that expense pay even though the mall was profitable even when about half of the stores were vacant. And so a work of art was demolished by the new owners and the land turned into a parking lot that the city and county had needed but took them twenty years to get around to producing (even though they require it of private buildings immediately).

As it is, the mall lasted 42 years which is 41.5 years longer than the Telephone Company thought it would. When my dad complained about them stringing a wire through the middle of the open area (rather than attaching it to wall where it would’ve been less noticeable, “the phone company, said “What’s the difference? It will be closed in 6 months.” I suppose he thought, “Thanks for the encouragement, buddy.”

I know a lot of other Decatur people missed the Franklin Mall too.


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