Once upon a time, an enclosed mall found a home in West St. Paul: Signal Hills Shopping Center. It started as a strip of stores and later became an enclosed mall. Signal Hills Shopping Center existed for half a century until competition from the Mall of America and changing economics forced a shift back to a strip mall and standalone K-mart. The strip mall still exists today, but the K-mart and former bank building were torn down for the Hilltop and Legacy Commons apartments.
Despite the changes, Signal Hills mall stood for nearly half a century and is firmly rooted in West St. Paul’s nostalgia.
The Evolution of Signal Hills
Let’s look at how Signal Hills has evolved over the years. Oddly enough, photos of the Signal Hills mall are hard to find, but we’ve scoured our sources and shared as many photos as we could find (have photos of Signal Hills? Let us know).
Here’s a look at aerial imagery showing the evolution of the Signal Hills site between 1957 and 2021:
Hills and a Lake (Pre-1955)
Initially, Hurley Lake and hills occupied the land, with some romanticized stories that the Dakota used the hills for smoke signals.
Early stories of West St. Paul talk about kids sledding on the hill in the winter.
Signal Hills Shopping Center (1955-1999)
Brothers John and Joseph Hurley were early settlers in West St. Paul and claimed a lot of land, including what would become Signal Hills. In the 1950s, John’s grandson Eugene A. Hurley formed a construction company with his brother-in-law Jad Asfeld and future Mayor Robert Callahan and built Signal Hills. They leveled the hills and filled in the lake to create an initial strip of 20 stores that opened on October 26, 1955.
During the early 1960s, an addition to the north added a new anchor, the Emporium department store, and enclosed the mall.
This questionable ad from the 1960s shows the apocryphal name, but more importantly gives a good overview of what the mall layout looked like:
Later in the 1960s, the separate Signal Bank was built on the northeast corner of the property.
The original Red Owl grocery store was replaced with a movie theater in 1982.
Here’s an incomplete list of stores that were in Signal Hills Shopping Center at some point in time:
- JC Penney
- Emporium; later Herbergers
- Red Owl Grocery Store; later Signal Hills Movie Theater
- B. Dalton’s Bookstore
- United Stores
- Pets Unlimited
- Post Office
- Great American Music Company
- Schaak Electronics
- Foot Locker
- Chess King
- County Seat
- Hickory Hut
- Pier One
- Shangri La
- Saint Paul Book & Stationary
- Comic store
- Barber shop
- Hot dog stand
- Ice cream stand
(Thanks to Carolyn Swiszcz and her zine.)
The opening of the Mall of America in 1992 meant the end of the Signal Hills mall. Here’s a glimpse of the end of the enclosed mall in 1998 (black and white photos courtesy of Dakota County Historical Society, color photos courtesy of John Ramsay):
K-mart Era (2000-2020)
By 2000, the anchor Herbergers and the enclosed portion of the mall were demolished, with a new standalone K-mart constructed to the northwest of the old mall.
Signal Bank closed in 2001 and stood empty for 20 years. Multiple rejected proposals came along, including a funeral home, youth shelter, banquet hall, and combined restaurant/dog park. None had serious backing or fit with long-term plans for the site.
K-mart filed for bankruptcy in 2002 and the local store struggled for years. It eventually closed in 2016 along with more than 130 K-marts nationwide. The building briefly housed a Halloween store and local auctions. In 2017, the City Council rejected the idea of a shooting range. Go-karts and mini-golf were also proposed, without serious support or backing.
Here’s a view of the former K-mart and Signal Bank buildings in 2020 just before they were demolished for the Legacy Commons and Hilltop apartments.
Apartment Era (2022- )
Here’s Signal Hills today. The original strip mall still exists to the south, but we enter a new era with the Legacy Commons and Hilltop apartments, which opened in 2022, dominating the northern end of the property.
Legacy Commons is a five-story, 247-unit senior apartment building located on the east end of the property. Hilltop is a four-story, 146-unit apartment building located on the west end of the property. Both buildings are in affordable housing programs and income limits apply.
Experience Signal Hills
While photos of Signal Hills are hard to find, this shaky camcorder video from 1988 recently resurfaced.
This video was originally shot by the late Mike Fischer and shared with the permission of his sister, Helen Ballinger.
Captured in a Local Zine
Perhaps the best way to experience Signal Hills is with the zine by local artist Carolyn Swiszcz. In 2020 she created the “Signal Hills Shopping Center” zine with the support of the Minnesota State Arts Board. Swiszcz recounts the history in this little booklet, making wry observations and sharing unique anecdotes. The zine also includes a map and list of the stores that used to be in the mall. You can buy a copy of “Signal Hills Shopping Center.”
Watch Swiszcz read her “Signal Hills Shopping Center” zine.
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