CategoryHampton

Remembering Rice’s Fossil Pit in Hampton, Virginia

My daughter, Rory, is a fifth grade Alexandria public school student with just a few months left before making the big jump to middle-school. Recently she had a field trip with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in order to study, first hand, the plant and animal life of the bay. Thinking about this called up memories of school field trips I took when I was her age. Growing up in the Hampton Roads area, many of my field trips were related to the bay and its wildlife. But the one field trip that stands out as my favorite of them all was to a rather unique treasure of Hampton Roads: Rice’s Fossil Pit.

I had been a student at Hampton Roads Academy only a few months when the trip happened as part of Mrs. Sailor’s sixth-grade science class, as I recall. We were told ahead of time to bring in a digging implement of some sort. I remember going to A&N with my mother and finding a military-style collapsible shovel / pick, which I still have today.

We bussed out there, down Fox Hill Rd. to Harris Creek Rd. ( map ), and as we pulled up to park all I could see was trees. As I approached on foot, however, the pit revealed itself. It was a striking sight — 70 feet deep and a huge distance across with terraces along the edges winding down at different heights. I remember feeling amazed and awed at the site of it.

Jan Rice, daughter in-law of the man who brought this pit to the public (more on that in a moment) recently described the experience of the pit in a manner with which I completely agree.

“To me, it was always like walking back through time into the prehistoric era,” says Rice, who accompanied her mother-in-law into the pit almost every day for an evening stroll.

“When you looked around, it was almost unbelievable. It was like being in a different world.”

We wound our way to the bottom of the pit and began digging. The prospect of finding something ancient was extremely exciting for me. The day was a scorcher but that didn’t slow down our digging.

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Remembering Coliseum Mall

coliseum_mapI guess it’s a cliché, kids hanging out at the mall for fun, but so it was with me. I grew up in Yorktown and remember my (stay-at-home) mom (what was then called a “housewife”) going to the local mall several times a week in the summer and bringing me along. I loved it. I have very specific memories of the toy stores and department stores as far back as when I was five or six years old.

For us, the “local” mall was Coliseum Mall in Hampton, VA (it was actually a good little hike from home). I feel like I grew up there, in a lot of ways. When I think of my youth and the fun I had in the ’80s, my thoughts often take me to those large orange and brown floor tiles and water fountains, the zig-zag ceiling window arrangements, and the overall feel of the place. Early on it was the toy stores I was most interested in and, of course, and as I headed towards the teenage years, electronics and books stores came into the mix. I loved that mall and the experience of walking around in that thick ’80s atmosphere I remember so fondly.

Coliseum Mall was built by Mall Properties, Inc. (MPI) and opened on Halloween Day in 1973 along Mercury Boulevard in Hampton.  It was the largest and busiest shopping area on the Virginia Peninsula. It’s original anchors were Korvettes, JC Penny, and Nachmans. In 1976 another wing was added, perpendicular to the original, bringing with it Smith & Welton and Thalhimers. Sometime in the early nineties the Cinema I & II movie theaters (I saw Return of the Jedi and Space Camp there!) were replaced by a food court with, as best I can put it together, an overall re-styling of the mall following soon after. (Bye-bye seventies-style orange tiles, hello boring white.)

As these renovations were underway the mall was in decline, not due in small part to the opening of Crown American’s Patrick Henry Mall in the Oyster Point area of Newport News in 1987. (At the time I lived in walking distance to the new mall and that, along with changing interests, marked the end of any frequent trips to Coliseum.) Coliseum Mall continued its slow decline until it closed its doors in January of 2007 for demolition the following month. It was replaced by an open-air shopping area known as Peninsula Town Center which is, at the time of this writing, on its third owner and doing rather poorly.

coliseum_mall_collage

Click above for photo gallery.

Over the past year I have been on the search for photos of the mall as I best remember it, with its original decor. There is almost nothing on the Internet showing the mall at that period. Having come up with little in the way of a photographic history, I contacted MPI (now Olshan Properties) in hopes they could help me. They gave the name of a contact in the City of Hampton who I was told might be able to help, as the city had prepared “a wonderful collage of photos” of the mall for former owner, Mr. Olshan. Happily, my city contact was able to provide me with a number of scanned photos, schematics, and newspaper clippings showing Coliseum Mall in its early days. Unfortunately, these photos are black and white, but a single color photo of the interior of the mall as it once was (that orange!) can be found in a post about the Peninsula Town Center Information Pamphlet (the collage that Olshan spoke of) at the That Mall is sick and that Store is dead! website. It’s the upper-right photo at the top of the page. (The owner of that website has requested I not use her scanned image on my site, unfortunately.)

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