Detroit has long been wiped of many of its historical, boom-era anachronisms. Generations have come and gone, and with them, legendary sites and relics of Detroit’s record industrial growth and world status in the 20th century have left without a trace. Among them, Detroit’s legendary J.L. Hudson Company had an especially important place in Detroit’s history, helping foster much of the city’s former glory.

The Hudson’s department store (formerly on the streets of Woodward and Gratiot) stood at a towering 29 stories. For the majority of its existence, it was the tallest retail space in the world, and for the entirety of its existence it was the second-largest department store in the United States by square footage — only bested by Macy’s Herald Square in New York City. At its peak in the late ’50s to early ’60s, it boasted 12,000 employees and 100,000 customers coming through its doors every day. Hudson’s was a cultural behemoth at a time when the United States was experiencing vast societal transformations. As important as it was for Detroit, it was equally important for merchandising and fashion for all of the United States.

“You could go to Hudson’s and get everything on your shopping list,” Sally Gell, former Detroit resident and Hudson’s shopper, said. “It had everything imaginable.” Gell used to frequent Hudson’s during the store’s peak, recounting how it was the quintessential destination for all types of goods. The store was often peddling up to 600,000 items from 16,000 different vendors from across the globe.

Humble Beginnings

Born in England, but a product of years in Ontario and Michigan, Joseph Lowthian Hudson and his family lived a meager lifestyle, putting bread on their table by selling personally crafted clothes wherever they lived. While living in Michigan, Hudson quickly became a helping hand in his father’s small clothing shop in the town of Ionia, Mich., learning the textile trade while helping run his father’s enterprise. However, what was a stable stream of work for his family came to an abrupt halt after the Panic of 1873 plagued much of the country. With shuttered textile mills and a dearth of customers, Hudson was thrust out of the business and forced to declare bankruptcy. His father died soon after.

In a bout of ambition, Hudson brushed himself off and transplanted his family from Ionia to the then bustling city of Detroit. With what small funds and supporting creditors he had behind him, he established a storefront in the old Detroit Opera House — the humble precursor to Hudson’s vast department store empire. Finding himself immediately successful thanks to Detroit’s meteoric growth, Hudson paid off the creditors from his previous bankruptcy and moved his store to a larger, grander location. After years of sustained success, what became the J.L. Hudson Company (colloquially “Hudson’s”) made its eventual move into the famous J.L. Hudson Building on Woodward Avenue in 1946. It didn’t take long for Hudson’s to quickly embed itself in Detroit’s local culture, its name famously being synonymous with Christmas shopping and the latest in haute couture.

Making Its Name Known

On the back of his business’ success, J.L. Hudson quickly established himself as one of Detroit’s leading culture patrons. Hudson sponsored Detroit’s first Thanksgiving parade, paving way for Detroit’s long and beloved annual tradition of America’s Thanksgiving Parade, the second oldest parade of its kind (sharing that title with New York’s own Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade). Hudson’s fireworks display quickly became a part of every Detroit family’s Fourth of July celebration. Hudson opened up satellite storefronts and shopping malls all across the Detroit metro area — Southfield’s location being among the most noteworthy for providing parking for 10,500 cars and having 53 storefronts (including a Hudson’s location) — all the way back in 1954. 

Detroit flourished in the early part of the 20th century, largely due to businesses like Hudson’s and their presence in the city.

Hudson’s was “more than just a department store … It was one of a kind,” Gell said. In addition to creating one of the most notorious retailers in the country, Hudson leveraged his success toward Detroit’s own well-being. Arguably, Detroit reached its peak thanks in part to the contributions of men like Hudson.

“Hudson’s was the place to work and shop in the 1950s,” Elsie Vasich, a former patron of the store and resident of the Detroit metropolitan area, said. Vasich’s sister was once employed at Hudson’s Detroit location. “Many women wanted jobs at department stores like Hudson’s, because the work and pay was quite good.”

Of the shopping experience, Gell said. “It was very comforting for anyone who wanted to shop there.”

Hudson’s embodied an approach toward shopping that has been long forgotten by U.S. retailers. On the graces of the experience, it crafted for its shoppers and employees alike, Hudson’s became the quintessential destination for elegance, class, reliability and service — acting as both a cultural and commercial cornerstone of Detroit during the height of its existence.

End of an Era

Stripped away for parts — such was largely the essence of Hudson’s’ demise. With the rapid growth of suburban communities in Metro Detroit in the ’70s and ’80s, Detroit’s population began dwindling. Those who were wealthy enough planted themselves in the various affluent communities on the outskirts of the city. Changing waves in Detroit’s demographics versus those of the outerlying suburbs led to the eventual closure of Hudson’s flagship store in Detroit.

With the closure of its Detroit storefront came the disappearance of Hudson’s fundamental identity. As time went on and the retail industry became saturated with extraordinarily successful nationwide enterprises, companies like Hudson’s couldn’t keep up with competitors and conceded to closure and consolidation with larger corporations. After a series of corporate hand-offs, Hudson’s former Detroit storefront was demolished in 1998; additionally, what eventually became Macy’s, Inc. gutted and swallowed what Hudson’s property was left.

To some extent, Hudson’s fall from grace was cruel foreshadowing for what was to come for Detroit. People who once called Detroit home ended up fleeing at the slightest indications of trouble; Hudson’s felt as if it was only logical to follow suit. The domino effect of demographic shifts swept Hudson’s, along with everybody else, away from the city. As much as Hudson’s was a part of Detroit’s strength as a city, its end was also one of many symbols of the city’s eventual undoing.

It’s vital to remind ourselves of stories like Hudson’s. After being blighted with its fair share of misfortune, the grand stories and characters associated with Detroit’s glory are slowly dwindling. Though Hudson’s had as unceremonious a send-off as a cultural staple could, the legacy of J.L. Hudson and his stores mustn’t go forgotten.

With recent rising tides in Detroit, remembering the individuals who made Detroit the city it once was, and the city it’s once again trying to become, is important. How fitting is it to revitalize a city without taking into account the culture and history that made the city as grand as it used to be? Is blanketing a city with a completely new identity the same thing as reviving it? No matter how you feel, reading the stories of individuals like J.L. Hudson is earnest fuel for the betterment of Detroit.

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