Bridging Lakeland’s past and future

photography by Tina Sargeant

The Southgate Shopping Center, its trademark parabolic arch now freshly painted, is a landmark in Lakeland. Not only does it house the Southgate Publix, it’s also a cinematic icon. Its appearance in Tim Burton’s 1990 movie Edward Scissorhands cemented the shopping center and its arch as a Lakeland landmark and a cultural icon.

The shopping center was built in 1957 and housed Publix’s flagship store. The concept of the shopping center was still relatively new at the time, and Publix founder George Jenkins saw immense potential in the style. Southgate wasn’t the first shopping center to be built in Florida, but it was certainly the first to be built in Lakeland — and it remains a thriving center today.

Architect Donovan Dean, who was chosen to design and build the center, was a local architect who had also built other mid-century modern buildings in the area. In a fall 2001 article in the SCA Journal, author Kim Hinder noted that supermarkets in the 1950s tended to favor an Exaggerated Modern style, which was marked by “colossal canopies, parabolic arches, sign pylons, or pyramidal roofs.” Southgate Publix was no exception, and an invitation to the grand opening of the shopping center invited attendees to “make plans now to rocket on down to help us celebrate the ‘blast off ’ of this 16-store galaxy.”

A 2009 article in The Ledger notes that, at the time the Southgate center was built, Lakeland didn’t extend much farther south than the borders of the Dixieland area. Jenkins’ decision to build the $1-million Southgate center on the edge of town created a stir among Lakeland residents. An ad placed by the City of Lakeland congratulating Publix on the opening of its newest store said, “The completion of this modern shopping center is another giant stride in the continued growth and progress of Lakeland.” The center eventually paved the way for other businesses to start expanding south of the downtown area. Although the shopping center was built with the future in mind when it was erected in 1957, the center represented a slightly different ethos in Edward Scissorhands. When Burton chose Lakeland and a nearby community, Lutz, as locations for his movie, he said they were chosen because they represented “a kind of generic, plain-wrap suburb” that they made even more featureless during production. The center’s Exaggerated Modern style fit nicely with the film’s overall aesthetic of a boring but tidy suburban neighborhood in the 1950s.

To today’s Lakeland residents, the Southgate Shopping Center isn’t an exciting glimpse of the future, nor is it an emblem of boring suburbanism.

In the film, the shopping center houses Edward’s hair salon, which marks the peak of his meteoric rise to fame just before his subsequent fall from grace. The arch looms ominously over Edward and his friend Peg as she takes him to the salon for the first time, and the salon is where Edward’s innocence is first tested by Joyce, another local housewife. The salon plays a relatively small role in the movie, with Edward fleeing the shopping center after his encounter with Joyce and becoming caught up in other issues shortly thereafter.

Southgate Shopping Center may have been chosen to play only a small part in Edward Scissorhands, but the movie itself is actually a remarkably important film in several actors’ careers. It was the last big-screen film in which horror legend Vincent Price made an appearance — he played Edward’s eccentric creator who died of a heart attack while creating Edward, leaving him without hands. The movie also marks the first movie in which Tim Burton and Johnny Depp worked together; the two got along so well that they went on to work together on seven other films together (for now!). Tim Burton and the film’s composer, Danny Elfman, both count Edward Scissorhands among their favorite films, and the movie was nominated for multiple awards. To today’s Lakeland residents, the Southgate Shopping Center isn’t an exciting glimpse of the future, nor is it an emblem of boring suburbanism. The center and its trademark arch have become a beloved landmark, a symbol of the city’s history, growth, and, yes, its small claim to fame as the location of a major motion picture. When the Southgate Publix closed for renovations in 2008, many local residents were worried that the arch would be taken down. They needn’t have worried; the arch still exists today and is carefully cared for by Publix Supermarkets.

When it was built in 1957, the Southgate Shopping Center marked the city’s southward expansion past the borders of the Dixieland area. Today, the city looks much different than it did then; houses and businesses sprawl far south (and north!) of the landmark, and South Florida Avenue, once a lightly used street with little traffic, is now a major artery in the city. Many businesses have come and gone since the parabolic arch was first raised, and more are being developed every day. But, regardless of the hustle and bustle of Lakeland’s development, the Southgate Shopping Center’s history has cemented it as a landmark that will be preserved for many generations to come.