Phoenix’s “Cunning” Shopping Center: The Magical Mall Called Chris-Town
When Eugene “Jim” Cunning passed on in 2020 at the age of 86, the sad event did not garner much local attention. But it should have.
Cunning was a shopping center executive and planner extraordinaire who was instrumental in the operation and development of many mid-century malls and shopping centers in the Phoenix area. But it was his decades of work at the legendary Chris-Town Center, currently called Christown Spectrum Mall, that will be most fondly remembered by local nostalgists and shopping center historians alike.
Billy Horner, publisher of Arizona Contractor & Community magazine, and I had the privilege of meeting with Cunning at his home one autumn afternoon in 2012 to capture his thoughts and insights reflecting back on the Chris-Town years. We were warmly greeted by him and Donna, his wife of 55 years, and the man immediately embarked upon a remarkable series of reminiscences about the old mall.
Born on an apple ranch in Wenatchee, Washington, Cunning served in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War, after which he met and married Donna in Seattle while working for Boeing. In 1957, the Cunnings moved to Phoenix, where Jim found work as a display ad salesman for Phoenix Newspapers Inc., which produced The Arizona Republic and Phoenix Gazette.
Builder Del E. Webb hired Cunning on at Chris-Town in 1961 as a promotion’s director. After original mall manager Charlie Richer moved on to a job in California the following year, Cunning became general manager of Chris-Town. He remained in that position until Webb sold the mall to Grossman Properties in 1966, at which time Cunning became an executive vice-president.
Webb accepted Grossman’s offer to purchase Chris-Town, but on the condition that Cunning would stay on to manage things. “The contingency on the sale was that Jim went with the center,” Donna Cunning recalled. “Sam [Grossman] didn’t know squat about shopping centers at that time.”
The Del Webb Corporation had built Chris-Town in 1961 on 80 acres of farmland leased from local Swiss-born farmer Chris Harri, a fascinating character for whom the mall was ultimately named. “Chris Harri wouldn't leave the property, and in fact, he never did come up and look at the shopping center,” Cunning said. “He told me, ‘You just screwed up a good piece of farmland.’” Harri continued to farm what remained of his land until he died in 1971 at the age of 94.
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This article originally appeared in the bimonthly Arizona Contractor & Community magazine, Jan/Feb 2022 issue, Vol. 11, No. 1.