TOPEKA (KSNT)- What was once a Topeka treasure has now been turned into rubble, making room for something new to possibly take its place.

On Dec. 29, 2020, a fire broke out in South Topeka inside the historic White Lakes Mall. The fire was the starting point for its demolition on March 8, 2022.

How did the once-thriving mall become an eyesore that sat empty on Topeka Boulevard? Was it a lack of interest in going there? Was it the newer mall on the other side of town? Or, was it built to just eventually end in this fate? To answer that, let’s take a look back at the mall’s history.

Photo Jason Pickerell

If you grew up in or around Topeka like Jason Pickerell and Patty Lanum, you know what it was like hanging out at White Lakes in the 70s and 80s.

“I mean, we liked everything,” Lanum said, recalling her time at the mall as a teen from Netawaka, KS. “It was just like the place to go.”

“It was always a…fun to get out of the small town and come cruising here in Topeka back when I was a teenager,” Pickerell remembers about the mall.

It meant a lot to these two who came down to Topeka on the weekends from their small towns. Lanum fatefully met the love of her life, her husband Burt, in the mall’s parking lot on Jan. 22, 1983. She said it was a cold day when she and a group of friends came down to Topeka to Cruise the Boulevard, a tradition where car enthusiasts ride down Topeka Boulevard in front of the mall. Back then, the tradition ended with people going into the mall to shop and hang out when they were done watching the cars.

“They [Patty’s husband and a group of friends] were supposed to be meeting somebody there and they thought we were them and we weren’t. So we started talking,” Lanum said about meeting her husband. The two have been married since 1985.

Oh, and of course, no one forgets the Orange Julius stand.

“It was always a treat when I was a little kid in the 70s,” Pickerell said who is from Valley Falls. “That was one way my mom lured us to go shopping because I hated shopping. But I would get my Orange Julius and it made everything better.”

Lanum and Pickerell frequented and made memories at the mall two decades after it opened. At this time, it was still being looked after and taken care of.

White Lakes Mall officially opened on Oct. 15, 1964. It was a pretty big deal then. So much so, that the founder of J.C. Penney stopped in Top City to check out his latest store and meet the customers. Sears, Walgreens and Woolworths also joined Penneys at the “Mall of Tomorrow”. Not to mention, there was a Falley’s Supermarket there as well. But really, the cherry on top, it was all local people who made the vision of the mall come to life.

Keith L. Meyers was the developer of White Lakes Mall. He was responsible for many different developments around the city, including Fox Theatres. Don Chubb, a Topeka historian, said a group of golfers from the Shawnee Country Club talked about how great it would be for a mall to come to Topeka, and how great it would be for the city. Chubb said they didn’t know how to actually build the mall, which is how they found Keith Meyers who knew how to wrangle a group to make the vision happen. But first, the mall needed anchor tenants.

“Keith Meyers was able to get Penney’s and Sears to be the anchors,” Chubb said, a Topeka historian. “And they actually owned the land under their buildings. Each had 150,000 square foot, roughly, so that they had enough skin in the game that showed that the national folks thought this would work, so the local folks could borrow the money they needed.”

For a while, South Topeka was booming. Then it was, “Go west, young man”. The west side of Topeka was starting to take shape the way we know it now. Businesses, housing developments and more were opening on the other side of town, as well as a new mall, West Ridge.

Chubb said this mall was different because it was actually built by people in the mall industry. With careful consideration of how malls should look and be successful, people started to move on from White Lakes, and so did the businesses. J.C. Penney and Sears, the two national retail stores, said goodbye to White Lakes, and hello to West Ridge. Chubb said, even though people were taking their business west, this didn’t mean the immediate end of White Lakes Mall.

“Westridge didn’t kill off the mall,” he said. “It just hurried the end of White Lakes.”

The mall went through multiple owners, some who tried everything to keep it viable. Renovations and expansions were happening during the 70s and 80s. There was even hope for the mall after it survived in the 2008 recession. As the stores started moving out, businesses like Blue Cross Blue Sheild turned spaces into offices. In 2004, Mainline Printing occupied the former Sears space.

But, it wasn’t enough. The once loud and vibrant space went silent.

“It was just dead quiet,” Emily Cowan said. “The only sound that I could hear was dripping water from one of the ends near Mainline Printing.”

Now, 50 plus years later, in 2020 the mall is still standing, however, empty and abandoned. Homeless camps occupied spaces they could safely be in where there wasn’t water taking up space. Emily Cowan is with Abandoned Kansas, a non-profit organization that works to preserve abandoned spaces in Kansas.

Cowan visited White Lakes Mall back in January of 2020 and documented what it was like inside the mall. The roof was damaged, moss was growing in certain areas and things were thrown around. On top of that, hazards like asbestos and black mold were prevalent.

The city couldn’t knock it down since it was owned by KDL Inc., which was run by Kent Lindemuth. He bought the mall back in 2009. The last owner of the building. Lindemuth had a deadline to sell it before the city took over. He didn’t sell it by then, which meant the city was in control.

In August of 2020, the building was condemned which meant the Topeka Fire Department could not go inside for safety reasons. This is important to note because once the fire hit in December 2020, they couldn’t go inside. Only working outside the building to put out the flames.

On Dec. 31, 2020, Topeka Fire investigators arrested a teen and two minors for arson charges. Investigators found arrested Joel Sink, then 18, and two minors. The mall suffered $100,000 in damaged after the fire. An anonymous tip to the Shawnee County Crime Stoppers revealed a video on Snapchat of the people inside the building starting the fire.

Cowan doesn’t think the fire was the straw that broke the camel’s back to get rid of that building for good. It was only the starting point for people to realize how dangerous and unkept the building was once it was abandoned.

“I don’t necessarily think it was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” she said. “But I do think it was what spearheaded them demolishing it. Yes.”

Even while the mall was being demolished, trespassers reportedly tried to enter the premises, disrupting work crews. Now, the mall has been split in half and will soon be nothing but an empty lot.

“Things come and go and our interests come and go and White Lakes Mall…we weren’t interested anymore,
Chubb said. “We voted by not being there, that it wasn’t viable.”

Today, the mall is going through a demolition that started in March of 2022. Leaving behind 58 years of memories, in the hopes to start over, and make a new beginning for another 58 years.