Hidden history on display at Neshaminy Mall

  • Each marker depicts a milestone in American history.

  • Local history: Hal Aaron stands in front of historic displays inside the Neshaminy Mall. Each marker depicts a milestone in American history. JACK FIRNENO / TIMES PHOTOS

Back when it opened, Ne­sham­iny Mall made his­tory and cel­eb­rated it. Now, loc­al mu­si­cian Hal Aaron wants it to do both again.   

While work­ing part-time in the mall last year, Aaron dis­covered some old treas­ures seem­ingly hid­den in plain sight: large, de­tailed win­dow dis­plays just out­side the Macy’s. Each de­picts a mile­stone in Amer­ic­an his­tory: The Sign­ing of the De­clar­a­tion of In­de­pend­ence; Wash­ing­ton Cross­ing the Delaware; Val­ley Forge; and oth­ers. The scenes are cre­ated with painted back­ground, props and 10 to 20 ex­pertly rendered fig­ur­ines.

“They’re beau­ti­fully craf­ted,” he said. “A lot of ef­fort went in­to it — there’s quite a bit of de­tail.”

But the set­tings are dark, and the fig­ures in them frozen in the same spot they’ve been in for years. When Aaron found out that wasn’t al­ways the case, he de­cided to make 2014 the year they’d be re­stored to their former glory. 

Ac­cord­ing to Aaron’s re­search, there used to be a but­ton for each win­dow that, when pressed, would make the an­imat­ron­ic fig­ures in­side move as re­cor­ded nar­ra­tion ex­plained the scene. The win­dows were com­mis­sioned by Straw­bridge and Clothi­er, the store that ori­gin­ally oc­cu­pied the spot when the mall first opened. The store’s found­ing fam­ily, par­tic­u­larly George Straw­bridge Sr., was a noted phil­an­throp­ist with an in­terest in the his­tor­ies of Bucks County and Phil­adelphia.

That makes Ne­sham­iny Mall the per­fect place to cel­eb­rate these events. “People in Bucks County and Phil­adelphia are very proud of their his­tory, and our role in his­tory,” Aaron noted.

Aaron counts him­self as a his­tory buff, in­spired by the late Harry Sil­cox, the vice prin­cip­al when he at­ten­ded Ab­ra­ham Lin­coln High School who later wrote columns about the area’s his­tory for years in the North­east Times.

“I thought, ima­gine if I could tell him about these,” Aaron said.

And, the mall it­self is something of a land­mark: When Ne­sham­iny opened in 1967, it was one of the first malls in Amer­ica, and the largest at the time. 

Renov­at­ing the win­dows would be pos­it­ive re­in­force­ment.

“It can bring even more com­munit­ies back to the mall. Teach­ers could bring classes,” he sug­ges­ted. 

It could also be good for busi­ness, with more traffic and in­terest.

“Maybe there’d be less va­cant stores here, too,” Aaron said.

Busi­nesses in the mall would be cent­ral to Aaron’s plan. His ball­park es­tim­ate to re­store the win­dow scenes and up­date them with new elec­tron­ics and re­cor­ded nar­ra­tion would cost between $5,000 and $10,000, and he hopes the shops at Ne­sham­iny would see the price as an in­vest­ment that could bring more shop­pers to their stores.

It’s the kind of work that in­volves cre­ativ­ity, re­source­ful­ness and net­work­ing — qual­it­ies he’s bring­ing to his res­tor­a­tion pro­ject. Along with his hopes of class field trips and more busi­nesses, Aaron en­vi­sions a kiosk near the win­dows selling his­tor­ic­ally themed T-shirts and oth­er items to com­ple­ment the dis­plays. He’s also got a run­ning list of Phil­adelphia-area celebrit­ies to ap­proach about lend­ing their voices to the new nar­ra­tions.

His next step, he said, is to con­vince Macy’s that the pro­ject is worth­while. Last month, he star­ted a Face­book page to get in­form­a­tion out about the pro­ject, and also to gauge and cul­tiv­ate pub­lic in­terest. 

“I’m just one guy, they’ll prob­ably blow me off,” he ex­plained about why he wants to ap­proach them with proof that oth­ers are in­ter­ested in the pro­ject, too. 

But so far it looks like he’s not alone. His “in­form­al polls” of mall shop­pers points to more people who would ap­pre­ci­ate the dis­plays in all their glory.

“People’s eyes light up when they see them,” he said. 

If enough eyes bright­en, goes his the­ory, then he can get the win­dows to light up as well — and Ne­sham­iny Mall can “make” his­tory once again. ••

For in­form­a­tion, vis­it www.face­book.com/win­dowsof­his­tory 

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