Twin Lakes area back in the swim

By Joe Stumpe | November 1, 2021

The east and west Twin Lakes can been seen in this photo from the 1960s. Black and white photos courtesy of Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum.

As a shopping center, you could say Twin Lakes is older than the city of Wichita.

Jesse Chisholm, the early trader for whom the Chisholm Trail is named, established a post at the present location of Twin Lakes Shopping Center in 1864, six years before Wichita was incorporated. Chisholm used the site between the Big and Little Arkansas Rivers to cater to Native Americans and the U.S. Army.

When Twin Lakes Shopping Center opened nearly a century later, it was considered the city’s first suburban mall and premier shopping destination. Now, after decades of ups and downs, Twin Lakes and the adjoining area around 21st and Amidon seem to be bustling again, with an emphasis on food. Indeed, it’s the only intersection in the city with supermarkets on all four corners, in addition to numerous restaurants.

“I was up there the other day, and there’s a lot going on,” said Martha Clothier, who worked in the shopping center toward the end of its heyday in the late 1970s and early 80s.

The area didn’t originally feature lakes. The Twin Lakes — one on either side of Amidon — were formed by the pumping of sand from the earth to pave city streets, creating pits that filled with groundwater. 

Plans for Twin Lakes Shopping Center were first announced in August 1963 when Lakeview Development Co. said it would build a shopping center at the southeast corner of 21st and Amidon, along with apartments on the shore of the lake just to the south. According to an article in the Wichita Eagle, the Ritchie Brothers construction company bought the property in 1946 and started pumping sand from it, deliberately leaving land around the resulting lake that could be developed. 

Renters moved into the first 44 apartment units in the spring of 1965, and the shopping center opened that summer with 155,000 square feet of leasable space, enough for 30 shops. Sears and Hinkel’s were the first tenants to open their doors, followed by Safeway. That same year, construction started on Twin Lakes State Bank — now Southwest National Bank — across Woodrow Street from the shopping center.

The next year, Henry’s announced that it would build a $1 million store at Twin Lakes. Other popular stores in the mall included Charles Roberts, Orr’s, Cricket Alley, Colonial Ice Cream Parlor and Swiss Colony. A nightclub overlooked the lake.

In 1968, Twin Lakes Theatres I and II opened showing “The Odd Couple,” with Kansas-born Miss America Debra Barnes in attendance. It was the city’s first new indoor theater since the 1950s (and perhaps an indication that drive-in theaters were losing popularity). Three new buildings were added to the Twin Lakes apartment complex. Plans to expand Sears and the mall’s upper and lower levels were announced in 1970, and construction of Twin Lakes Office Park to the south of the center began two years later.

Most of the western Twin Lake disappeared in 1972 when a New Jersey company announced plans for the Marina Lakes shopping center, to be located at the southwest corner of 21st and Amidon. According to a newspaper article, a Texas dredging firm filled in the lake with sand pumped out of the Arkansas River. The developer paid the state two cents a ton for the sand. The westernmost portion of the lake was not filled in and is today bordered by the Marina Point and Pelican Point apartments. Woolco, a discount retail chain, opened as the new shopping center’s anchor in 1973. The center is now known as New Leaf Plaza, home to A-OK Pawnshop, Planet Fitness and more

Further development took place on the northwest corner of 21st and Amidon, where Elizabeth McLean, daughter-in-law of a former Wichita mayor, owned the property that became Sweetbriar Shopping Center. Building permits for were issued for it in 1966, and Mr. D’s supermarket opened there later that year.

The Twin Lakes area thrived as the city’s old downtown shopping district, which featured department stores such as Innes, Buck’s and Montgomery Ward, were in decline and the city’s west side was growing. 

“Henry’s was probably the most popular store in Wichita at that time,” Clothier remembered. But she worked at and was partial to Charles Roberts, which she called a “really progressive, cool place. They had Le Creuset and Dansk (cookware) and stuff you didn’t really see in Wichita at the time.”

But the opening of Towne East Square in 1975 and Towne West Square in 1981 drew away many shoppers. Ritchie Enterprises sold its shopping center to a group of California investors in 1980, having done the same with the apartment complex the previous year. 

Twin Lakes Apartments, which advertises itself as “Wichita’s best kept secret,” remains a favorite with tenants who appreciate views of the lake and its Eagle’s Nest Island. Meanwhile, commercial buildings at 21st and Amidon have seen many vacancies and comings and goings by businesses (not to mention sales, foreclosures and lawsuits) since Twin Lakes Shopping Center was the city’s newest, brightest retail spot. A 2020 newspaper reported the mall was being offered for sale for $5.1 million and was 64 percent occupied.

There’s been growth as well. Cooks can now choose between Dillons, Aldi, Walmart and Super Del Centro supermarkets that flank the intersection. Diners have the option of five Mexican restaurants, Chinese take-out, American homestyle and at least nine fast-food joints, while cars in line for Starbucks snake through the Twin Lakes parking lot. You can get a haircut, prescription, cell phone, oil change, thrift shop outfit, storage space, gasoline and plenty more at the intersection. However, some residents are mourning the flattening of the neighborhood dive bar, Penny’s Caravan, to make room for a car wash, clean vehicles apparently being in more demand than cheap beer.