NorthPark Center is an anomaly. Opened in August 1965, it’s one of the country’s oldest surviving enclosed malls. In an industry of giant chains, it’s still run as a stand-alone center by its founding family. It has no marble floors, no carts or kiosks exploiting every inch of leasable space, no carousels or rubberized play areas for the kids. It doesn’t even have a sign out front. The closest thing to a NorthPark marker is Beverly Pepper’s earth-and-steel sculpture Dallas Land Canal and Hillside.

I’ll admit that the first time I visited NorthPark, during a Dallas house hunt in the spring of 2000, I was unimpressed and more than a little confused. After living in Los Angeles, I was used to urban malls with compact footprints, lots of light, and plenty of places to hang out. NorthPark seemed old, rambling, and dark. It had no food court and only hard benches to sit on. It seemed like a place to buy things, nothing more—not a community center and certainly not a model of smart management and good design.

I’ve changed my mind.

For starters, it’s hard to argue with success. NorthPark opened a long time ago, back when the Beatles were still together and there had never been a Super Bowl. American suburbs are dotted with once-thriving centers that now attract visitors only at www.deadmalls.com, a site where enthusiasts chronicle the lives, deaths, and lingering illnesses of shopping malls. Not many malls make it to their 40th birthdays.

Yet NorthPark has not merely endured; it has prevailed. In an industry where sales of $400 per square foot are considered good, NorthPark does more than $700 per square foot—despite leaving all that corridor space free of sales-generating micro-businesses. Duck ponds, planters, and Hammering Men don’t produce revenue, but NorthPark isn’t suffering.

“There’s no question that it has been a trophy property,” says James C. Bieri, a Detroit-based retail consultant. Bieri grades shopping centers around the country. Locally, he gives NorthPark an A, along with the Galleria and Stonebriar Centre.

Besides, NorthPark’s $200 million expansion, with a grand opening next month, addresses all of my complaints. The mall’s layout is now an easy-to-navigate square, with a 1.4-acre central garden that invites guests to linger. There’s a beautiful food court, with custom-designed chairs and banquettes surrounding a glassed-in central area open to the sky. This area features four planters with 25-foot-high black bamboo to provide “an outdoor experience in the middle of an indoor space,” says architect Mark Dilworth, a principal at OmniPlan, the firm that designed both the original NorthPark and its expansion.

Throughout the expansion, natural light spills from skylights and tall clerestory windows. In the coming months, fixtures and skylights in the older sections will get an update—and a good cleaning—balancing the light.

The expansion is just the latest and most dramatic phase in NorthPark’s history of adaptation. Both Dallas and retailing have changed a lot since NorthPark opened on what had been 88 acres of cotton fields in Far North Dallas. And that brings me to what’s most impressive about the mall: its ability to balance flexibility and planning, serendipity and a fierce attention to detail.

Take the tiled planters in front of Neiman Marcus. Their sloped sides were au courant in 1965, adding a gentle curve to the rectilinear geometries of mid-century modernism. Nobody saw them as sliding boards—except the kids, who find them irresistible. Long before malls were installing play areas, NorthPark created one accidentally. Instead of worrying about wear and tear or lawsuits, or taking a hint to install traditional play equipment, NorthPark embraced children’s spontaneous use of its space.

“It was not designed for that. It just happened,” says Nancy Nasher, who was 5 when her father, Ray Nasher, started working on NorthPark and turned 11 just as the mall opened. “It’s an amazing thing. Even a child who’s never been in this center and has never seen another kid do it, they just see it and take off and run and just do it.”

Nancy and her husband David Haemisegger run NorthPark and own half. In 2004, they sold the other 50 percent to the Macerich Co., a Santa Monica-based real estate investment trust. The deal is an unusual one, because Nasher and Haemisegger maintain operational control. (Their company, not Macerich, financed and executed the expansion.) They have a personal stake, beyond their business interests, in how the mall evolves.

NorthPark, says Nasher, “represents my mother, my father, my grandparents, but it’s also now something my husband and I have grown up professionally on. It’s something we have worked on since college.”

Just as the little girl serving cookies to her dad’s business associates turned into the executive negotiating leases and juggling architectural plans, NorthPark also developed during the decades. A mall whose original tenants included JCPenney, Woolworth’s, Singer Sewing Center, and Wyatt’s Cafeteria has gracefully evolved into a home for the likes of Barneys New York, Tiffany & Co, Apple, and Juicy Couture. Stores come and go, but NorthPark remains NorthPark.

The mall has a strong, yet restrained, architectural identity. Buildings of NorthPark’s mid-century vintage tend to fall into two problematic categories: cheap, disposable boxes that use “modern” geometry as an excuse to cut costs or architectural showcases so tightly designed that they don’t tolerate adaptation. Malls, meanwhile, tend to finish their interiors to reflect the latest styles and, if they’re prosperous, to remodel frequently to keep up with changing trends.

NorthPark reflects a different philosophy. It uses understated materials—white Texas brick and dark, polished concrete floors—and simple forms to create a serene, consistent backdrop for the busier, more fickle designs of tenant stores. Its modern architecture is neither disposable nor rigid. Rather, the mall environment provides a fundamental stability that creates a continuing sense of place. Within this structure, tenants are free to come and go and reinvent themselves. “The notion was not to be of the moment but to be enduring, and to let the stores be of the moment,” Dilworth says.

Every storefront is framed in NorthPark’s white brick with the center’s logo in relief at each top corner. “Framing each store, no matter what it was—Woolworth’s or Neiman’s—consistently, uniformly in the white brick ties it all together. It lets the stores be the artwork,” Nasher says.

The Nashers have always worked hard to get just the right mix of store personalities. Recently, that has meant attracting new retailers to develop strong luxury, fashion-forward, children’s, and teen sections. In the early 1960s, when Ray Nasher was developing the center, he knew he needed Neiman Marcus as an anchor store. But Stanley Marcus wasn’t easy to convince. In addition to its main store downtown, Neiman’s already had a suburban store at Preston Center East. Marcus didn’t want to make his customers drive the extra two miles to the new mall.

Persuading him “took a long time, a long time,” says Nancy Nasher. To lure Neiman’s to the newfangled property, her father had to buy the Preston Center store. And, even then, Marcus didn’t really believe in the mall.

He assumed his customers would come directly into the store through the side garden he and his wife designed, avoiding the mall. And he certainly didn’t expect mall shoppers to enter Neiman Marcus. That’s why the Neiman’s mall opening is still relatively narrow for a department store. Moral of the story: even a brilliant merchant like Stanley Marcus can be surprised.

Over the years, however, the mall has missed some opportunities. NorthPark’s layout and tenants limited its chances to go upscale. In the late 1980s, Nordstrom wanted to open a NorthPark store, but there was no room. General Cinema’s movie theaters blocked expansion to the northwest, while an oversized and underperforming JCPenney occupied the prime space in the northeast corner. “At our Penney’s, you could have passed out in front of the sales counter and nobody would have asked for any help,” Haemisegger says.

Finally, for reasons of its own, General Cinema closed its theaters in 1998. JCPenney left the mall in 1999, allowing construction of a new Foley’s (soon to become Macy’s). NorthPark drew up plans for an expansion that would move Lord & Taylor to a northwest corner slot, sharing a garage with a new Nordstrom between that store and Neiman’s. Then, in late 2003, Lord & Taylor suddenly announced that it would close, throwing those plans into utter disarray.

NorthPark scrambled to buy out the Lord & Taylor contract. “Our goal was to get control of Lord & Taylor’s space, so that they did not put something in that we didn’t want in here,” Haemisegger says.

Like Ray Nasher paying to relocate Neiman’s, it was a wise investment. Now Barneys New York and Robb & Stucky will occupy the old Lord & Taylor space, and Nordstrom is in the northwest corner—a far better result than the original expansion plan.

The expansion brings more than 125 new stores, more than two dozen places to eat, and a 15-screen theater. It also includes some long-deferred maintenance, most of it done at night. For example, you’ll never see  another rain-catching bucket. Now that the mall’s configuration is certain, NorthPark will finally get a new roof.

During the next few decades, many of the mall’s new stores may disappear. But the expansion’s design is built to last, says Nancy Nasher, “for the next 20, 30-plus years.” She, her husband, and the architects are proud that the new NorthPark preserves the center’s now-classic atmosphere, even as the mall upgrades its amenities.

The expansion consumed a million hand-laid white bricks, enough to stretch to Houston. (Ray Nasher chose white brick because, he said, all of the world’s most important buildings, from the Taj Mahal to the U.S. Capitol, are white.) Unable to match the ceramic tiles that lined the original floors, the architects searched the world for an alternative with the same color and texture. Before they would approve the new limestone tiles, Nasher and Haemisegger sent a representative to the quarry in Tunisia to check out the stone.

Nasher also insisted that the new corridors be 38 feet wide, the same as the original mall and two feet narrower than the 1973 expansion that added Lord & Taylor. The original width, she says, “has always felt right.”

And, of course, NorthPark wouldn’t be a Nasher property without fine art. Hammering Men will return, most likely near the children’s stores. Nasher and Haemisegger will add new pieces from their own collection. And to celebrate its 21st-century makeover, NorthPark is getting a new touchstone sculpture: a bright red steel ensemble by Mark di Suvero, who will install the work this month.

Approximately 50 feet high, it will sit in the new NorthCourt between Nordstrom and Macy’s. Visitors on the first floor will be able to walk in and around its beams, while the second floor provides a top view no sculpture garden can offer. It will be visible up and down the mall’s northern and western corridors.

Called Ad Astra, the sculpture was first displayed last year at the Storm King Art Center in upstate New York. Nancy Nasher read about it in the New York Times, where art critic Benjamin Genocchio called it the “apotheosis” of di Suvero’s work: “The artist’s recent sculptures also have a structural purity and conceptual clarity that is astonishing,” he wrote. “It is called refinement, and I guess that is what you get from 40 years of banging away at the same idea.”

That’s not a bad description of NorthPark itself.

Photos Courtesy of Northpark Center