Plenty has changed in the world since Highland Park Village opened more than 86 years ago. Billed as “America’s first shopping center,” the Mediterranean Spanish–style collection of approximately 70 shops and restaurants has served not only as a retail destination but also a town square of sorts for Park Cities residents.
“At its heart, the village has always been about the community, even though certain elements may have changed,” chief marketing officer Mia Meachem said. “It’s a magical place. I’ve lived in New York, D.C., and LA and there is nothing like it.”
While today’s high-end boutiques are a far cry from the feed store, drug store, and arcade that operated in bygone eras, memories of yesteryear’s businesses still resonate with many.
A few years ago, property management team members began receiving unsolicited photos and memorabilia. People started sending letters in the mail and leaving packages at the front desk.
Among the donations was a decades-old photo of a local baseball team sponsored by the Village Theater. Other pictures showed football legend Doak Walker shopping for jewelry and fine china with his wife. Aerial shots showed mid-20th-century cars driving through the same basic building footprint that exists today.
They also received old business documents, including some involving Edgar Flippen and Hugh Prather, the men who originally conceived the shopping center based on other examples they had seen around the world.
“It seems like when people are going through things or have family members pass away, they just run across great things,” Highland Park Village public relations manager Hendrika Rhoad said.
In 2010, businessman Ray Washburne and his wife Heather Hill Washburne, along with her sister Elisa Summers and Elisa’s husband, Stephen, became the shopping center’s fourth owners. The Washburnes and Summers have deep ties to the area, and grew up going to the Village.
Stephen Summers has told his co-workers stories about running across the street to get a newspaper there. Ray Washburne proudly shows off a picture of him and his sister riding bikes across the property as children. Both have made maintaining the area’s unique charm one of their top priorities.
“So much of it is a labor of love for the families,” Rhoad said. “They want to maintain the feel they had in their childhood.”
Washburne has contributed to the collection, too. He purchased old promotional material on eBay for an art contest that was sponsored by an early incarnation of the La Fiesta organization.
Village officials are not sure what they are going to do with all of the historic materials they have collected. They have discussed having a public display at some point, but there are no definitive plans yet.