A HIGHLY REGARDED PROTOTYPE for the suburban shopping center when it opened in 1956, Old Orchard center outside of

Chicago has grown and evolved into a new type of mall to serve the shopper of the 1990s and beyond.

Old Orchard never declined, but it did languish as lifestyles and shopping habits changed in the 1980s. Its new incarnation has struck a chord with shoppers. Today, Old Orchard is more successful than at any earlier period, and it has given its surrounding area a destination, serving functions similar to that of a downtown or village square.

After six years of planning, Old Orchard opened in October 1956, signaling the beginning of the suburban retail revolution on Chicago's North Shore. "Old Orchard was the first of its type - the open regional shopping center," says Donald Hackl, whose firm, Loebl, Schlossman and Hackl, was the original architect as well as the architect for the major 1995 renovation and expansion. "In its original version, Old Orchard appealed to a suburban context, with buildings and materials familiar to suburban dwellers. It took on a life very different from urban counterparts."

Shopping revolution Old Orchard changed the shopping habits of the suburbanites in Chicago's northern suburbs during the 1950s and '60s. No longer was it necessary to travel to downtown Chicago to frequent top department stores, especially Marshall Field's. In addition, the specialty shops available in the traditional downtowns of Skokie and surrounding suburbs paled in comparison to the offerings and the atmosphere at Old Orchard.

The center was known as one of the most beautiful suburban malls, with a garden-like setting, including a Japanese garden and 100,000 tulips in the springtime, and an unusual design that encouraged strolling through a series of outdoor rooms that turned storefronts inward.

The original architect, Richard Bennett, had come from Yale University to work at the Loebl architectural firm on developer Philip Klutznick's planned community of Park Forest. "Phil Klutznick rightly observed that regional shopping areas would develop to serve the expanding suburban population," says Hackl.

The Marshall Field Co. owned the 100-acre site, which had easy access to the newly constructed Edens Expressway. Old Orchard's developer, KLC (which stands for Klutznick, Loebl and the Crown family of Chicago) and its successor companies went on to develop Oak Brook, River Oaks, Hawthorn Center, Stratford Square and Water Tower Place.

Changing times, changing needs "As enclosed malls like Woodfield in Schaumburg, Ill., became the standard, Old Orchard began to wane in its ability to attract major tenants," says Hackl, who joined the Loebl firm in 1963.

"The assumption then was that enclosed was more desirable," he says. "But even as we were planning Old Orchard's expansion in the 1990s, that perception began to change as shopping habits changed."

Enclosed malls can become uninteresting to frequent customers because their elements never change. And from a tenant's financial point of view, CAM charges in enclosed malls became very high and rents became increasingly non-competitive, Hackl explains.

Shopping center as urban village Within the 10-year time frame that led to the newest redevelopment of Old Orchard in 1994-95, these changes influenced the center's owner, Urban Shopping Centers Inc., to redesign Old Orchard as a contemporary interpretation of the "village square" concept. "In the new generation of retailing, shopping centers have to be more destination-oriented than comparative- shopping-oriented," explains Hackl.

The new design was accomplished by the Loebl firm and Development Design Group of Baltimore. In its new, $120 million incarnation, Old Orchard has become a popular destination, and not only for shopping.

In its most centralized area, the new design offers welcoming places to sit, read, talk or sip coffee. Additionally, the center offers a variety of popular, well-regarded restaurants, a Barnes & Noble bookstore that encourages browsing, and movie theaters located right in the mall rather than a parking lot away.

The redevelopment nearly doubled Old Orchard's size, to 1.8 million sq. ft., including new Bloomingdale's and Nordstrom stores. The redeveloped Old Orchard maintains its famous garden motif, but it is interpreted more lushly, with a series of individually designed courts in a variety of styles, including a water garden, and a children's interactive "serpent garden" with crawl tunnels.

The changes at Old Orchard have brought more success to the center than at any other period in its long history. Old Orchard attracts more than 18 million visits a year. Average annual gross sales are now more than $400 million, according to Urban Shopping Centers.

The center is so busy, parking is at a premium. At peak evening hours, some of the center's restaurants offer valet parking - just like they do in popular city neighborhoods.

* Location: Skokie, Ill.

* Owner: Urban Shopping Centers Inc., Chicago

* Opening: October 1956

* Trade area population: 837,893 (1997)

* Average household income: $73,847 (1997)

* Current GLA: 1.8 million sq. ft.

* Number of stores: 140

* Current anchors: Marshall Field's, Lord & Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale's, Nordstrom

* Original anchors: Marshall Field's; The Fair Store; later, Montgomery Ward

* Fun fact: In 1958, a Ford dealership occupied a showroom at Old Orchard where it sold Edsels.