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Davidson County's "ultra-modern" suburban shopping complex, Madison Square Shopping Center, began its life in July 1954 when the ground was broken on 30 acres of former farmland along Gallatin Pike, just south of Neelys Bend Road. Designed by Nashville architectural firm Marr and Holman, the L-shaped complex consisted of two buildings and a 2,300 space parking lot, costing over $2.7 million and requiring over two years to construct. The complex initially featured 170,000 square feet of retail space, besting the recently opened Green Hills Center by 40,000 square feet. It was the largest shopping complex in Davidson County at the time.
When it opened on Thursday, Nov. 29, 1956, Madison Square featured 26 tenants, with the first J.C. Penney store in Davidson County as its primary anchor. Other major retailers included a Kroger grocery store, McClure's Department Store, Walgreens Drug Store, Woolworth variety store, and Three Sisters and Levy's Men's and Boy's clothing shops. Opening day activities included an army of "Santa's Helpers" dressed in red suits to guide shoppers and answer questions. A hovering helicopter over the parking lot would periodically "bombard" shoppers with candy.
From the beginning, Madison Square proved to be a hit with shoppers, as it attracted customers from throughout Davidson and surrounding counties. The idea of suburban shopping was still new then. Still, with the rapid growth of suburbs in the 1950s, the convenience of shopping centers (and their soon-to-follow sibling, the indoor shopping mall) quickly began to supplant urban shopping districts. In 1959, the first Shoney's Big Boy drive-in restaurant in the country opened at the northeast corner of the Madison Square parking lot, and an adjacent miniature golf course was also added.
In January 1962, Madison Squares' first large expansion was announced. Harvey's Department Store had ruled Nashville's downtown shopping district for almost two decades. The store's plan to open its first branch location in a new, purpose-built 60,000 square foot space in Madison Square was major news. Completed in eight months, the new Harvey's opened on Sept. 24, 1962. In addition to the largest indoor aquarium in the state of Tennessee at the time, the store featured three floors with one of the largest record departments in Nashville and a full-service bakery that would fill the store with the odor of fresh-baked pastries each morning.
By the 1980s, Madison Square was facing rocky times. J.C. Penney moved their location to Rivergate Mall in 1977, and Harvey's closed in 1988 after the chain was sold to the Peebles department store. Over the next three decades, businesses came and went at the venerable retail center while different plans to renovate or rejuvenate the property failed to find traction. With the current plans for Madison Station park, "The Square" may, at last, be facing a bright future.