Shopping malls are everywhere these days. Outwardly, they all appear to be the same; huge buildings chocked full of a variety of stores and dining options. Some have movie theaters, others have amusement park rides. But rarely does a mall have history. OK, true, every mall has a past, but I mean history, as in the mall itself has historical significance or houses historical memorabilia. Most shoppers don’t realize it, but Neshaminy Mall in Bensalem happens to be one of these rare and special malls.
Neshaminy Mall was opened on August 19th, 1967 and was the sixth interior mall constructed in the greater Philadelphia area and one of the largest malls of the time. Sears, Lit Brothers and Strawbridge & Clothier were the malls anchor stores. Strawbridge & Clothier is responsible for creating the first piece of history at Neshaminy Mall. George Strawbridge, Sr. was a noted philanthropist and was very interested in the histories of both Bucks County and Philadelphia. As part of the construction of his family’s new store at Neshaminy Mall, he commissioned the building of seven window dioramas depicting milestones in American history, which he call the “Freedom Wall”. These milestones included the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Washington crossing the Delaware, Washington at Valley Forge, Benjamin Franklin, and William Penn shaking hands with a Neshaminy Indian. There were buttons below each window which, when pressed, would set the characters in motion and a narration describing the scene would play. Today, the windows are still there in what is now the Macy’s department store. Sadly, the animation and narration stopped working years ago and the displays are in need to restoration. Luckily, Hal Aaron, a former Bensalem resident and mall employee and taken it upon himself to see the dioramas restored. Hal is asking for people to sign his online petition so he can show mall management and Macy’s owners how much restoring the Freedom Mall means to us. Click here to sign Hal’s petition.
Located right next to the “Freedom Wall” is another historical treasure in Neshaminy Mall. It’s a coin-filled fountain with a huge statue of a Leni-Lenape Indian at the top overlooking the mall. The fountain and statue were sculpted by Henry Mitchell and were donated by Strawbridge & Clothier when the mall opened in 1967. The Leni-Lenape tribe were the area’s original inhabitants and the name “Neshaminy” means “double drinking place”, hence the idea of constructing a fountain to go with the statue. The statue of the Indian is actually crouching next to the water and scooping up a handful to drink. The fountain and statue have been refurbished over the years, but the original look remains the same.
The final piece of history at Neshaminy Mall that I’d like to share with you is something that is still present and just as visible as it was the day it was built, if not more so. But its modern transformation to an non-traditional look, has caused many of us to ignore its existence. I’m talking about the Neshaminy Mall Totem Pole. The original totem pole was erected in 1973 when the mall’s first sign was damaged by a storm. Going back to the Leni-Lenape roots of the Neshaminy area, the mall owner decided to construct an elaborate totem pole that would rise high above the mall itself. The totem pole, with it’s Native American motif which included wings, arrow heads and traditional totem pole face, became a beacon in the distance as you approached the mall. It was a thing of beauty and unlike any other structure in the are. Unfortunately, when the mall underwent a renovation in 1995, the totem pole was stripped bare and re-built to match the new décor of the mall. The new totem pole included the name of the mall in huge letters, blue neon lights and wavy lines to represent running water, which was the new theme inside the mall. Many members of the community were angry with this modern change, but were unable to keep it from happening. It was just one more thing of beauty turned into a neon eyesore.
Nonetheless, history still abounds at Neshaminy Mall. Next time you head over there to shop, check out the “Freedom Wall”, toss a few coins in the fountain for luck and sit for a moment and enjoy the surroundings. All too often, we rush though the mall, and life for that matter, and miss some pretty cool things that have been right in front of us all along.