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The past, present, and future of the Hudson’s site

A deep dive into a historic block in downtown Detroit

The corner of Woodward Ave. and Gratiot showing the J.L. Hudson Company and Sallan Building
| Courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

Dan Gilbert’s Bedrock will break ground December 1 on an ambitious development on what was once the home of an icon of Detroit retail, the J.L. Hudson Co. Curbed digs into the block’s history, starting long before Hudson’s arrived.

Before Hudson’s

After Detroit completely burned in 1805, Judge Augustus Woodward designed a plan for the metropolis he was sure would rise from the ashes. Canadian surveyor Thomas Smith was hired to stake out the new city on a meadow where livestock had grazed since the time of Cadillac. Hudson's future home was in Section 7 of the plan, of lots 33-39 and 72-78—most of which were given as “donation lots” to Detroit residents at the time of the fire.

Photo via Flckr/Library of Congress

Development crept northward from Jefferson Avenue as the city grew. By 1853, a structure was located on every parcel on the block except one.

One early landmark of the block was the First Presbyterian Church, built in 1855 on the northwest corner of Gratiot and Farmer. The congregation moved in 1891 when Hudson's first store on this block took its place.

First Presbyterian Church circa 1880.
Courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library
The home of Alanson Sheley on Woodward Avenue in 1867, where Hudson’s would later stand.
Courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

The first department store to open on this site wasn’t Hudson’s, but the Newcomb-Endicott Co., in 1881. Founded by Cyrenius Newcomb and Charles Endicott in 1868, the retailer outgrew its location in the Detroit Opera House building and moved to the five-story Ferry Building on Woodward Avenue.

The Ferry Building on Woodward Avenue, constructed 1879.
Courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

The Rise of an Icon

Born in England in 1846, Joseph Lowthian Hudson eventually came to Detroit in 1877 to work for retailer C.R. Mabley. He opened his own business in the Detroit Opera House space vacated by Newcomb-Endicott in 1881, then relocated to Woodward six years later. In 1889, Hudson hired architects Mortimer L. Smith & Son to design the first store on the block that his company would eventually dominate. The eight-story brick building, completed in 1891, stood at Farmer and Gratiot. “The building is undoubtedly the finest business structure in Michigan and one of the finest in the country,” reported the Detroit Free Press, “while few, if any in the world, can surpass it.”

J. L. Hudson Co.’s first store on the block.
Photo courtesy of Detroit Free Press Archives, September 16, 1891

An addition was made to this structure in 1907, seamlessly expanding the store northward along Farmer Street by 33 feet.

Competing for space on the block was Hudson's rival, Newcomb-Endicott. The photo below shows the block’s last wooden structures before they were cleared by Newcomb-Endicott. “The collection of unsightly buildings,” reported the Free Press, “will give way to a beautiful square of brick and stone housing two of the city’s great industries.”

Southwest corner of Farmer and Grand River circa 1906.
Courtesy of Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library
Detroiters shopping on the Hudson's block in 1910.
Courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

Hudson’s gained access to Woodward Avenue with a new addition designed by architects Smith, Hinchman & Grylls. Every floor of the original building except the first was connected to the 10-story annex via cantilevered floors bridging the alley. The Woodward annex opened its doors on October 17, 1911, Hudson’s 65th birthday.

This was the last expansion that Hudson oversaw. He died from pneumonia on July 5, 1912, while vacationing in his native England.

Hudson’s 1911 addition.
Photo from Detroit Free Press Archives, May 14, 1911

Four of Hudson's nephews assumed control of the company, which continued growing rapidly. An 80-foot extension of the Woodward facade, designed to match the 1911 annex, was completed in 1914.

Four years later, another matching building was erected, but on the opposite side Himelhoch’s department store.

Hudson’s filled the gap when it purchased and replaced Himelhoch’s by 1923. Hudson’s need for space was insatiable. Not even its original Romanesque 1891 building (with matching 1907 addition) was spared the wrecking ball. Half the building was torn down and replaced with a 16-story annex in 1924, and the process was repeated for other half in 1925. Rather than repeat the design of the Woodward additions, Smith, Hinchman & Grylls gave the new annex an updated look. To top it all off, two stories were added to the existing Woodward buildings.

Woodward Ave. along the Hudson's block, circa 1918.
Courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

Newcomb-Endicott, Hudson’s competitor, was also growing. In 1918 the company announced the construction of a 12-story addition on the block’s northwest corner. The 100,000-square-foot building, designed by Harry S. Angell, was completed by 1921.

Hudson’s rivalry with Newcomb-Endicott ended once and for all when the former bought out the latter in 1927. More shockingly, Hudson’s announced it would demolish all of Newcomb-Endicott’s buildings, including the practically new 12-story annex, in order to double its footprint. Hudson’s now owned the entire block except a small building on the southwest corner.

The design of the 1924-1925 annex was simply repeated up Farmer, around Grand River, and down Woodward. The colossal addition included a tower standing 410 feet high, making Hudson’s the tallest department store in the world.

Hudson's as seen from Woodward and Gratiot, circa 1930.
Courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

The final piece of the block to be acquired by the retailer was the Sallan Building on the northwest corner of Woodward and Gratiot. Hudson’s purchased the building in 1945 and replaced it with a 12-story addition the following year. Two floors were also added to the north end of the building, bringing the total floor to 2.2 million square feet. By comparison, Somerset Mall’s retail floor space totals less than 1.5 million square feet.

End of an Era

The decline of downtown shopping forced Hudson’s to close its flagship store on January 17, 1983. The last remaining office workers were transferred to its Northland Mall location in November 1986, and the building was sold three years later. The property was seized by the State of Michigan for unpaid taxes in 1996 and transferred to the city of Detroit’s Downtown Development Authority (DDA). Ignoring the pleas of urbanists and preservationists, the DDA spent $12 million to raze the structure. On October 24, 1998, the former retail palace earned a final distinction in its ultimate moment, becoming the largest urban building ever imploded.

Between 2000 and 2001, the city constructed a $39 million, 1,023-space underground parking garage below the Hudson’s block. Although designed to support an 18-story building, the space has remained conspicuously vacant.

When billionaire Dan Gilbert was looking to relocate Quicken Loans, the DDA encouraged him to build a headquarters on the site by transferring development rights to him in 2007. Although Quicken ultimately moved elsewhere, Gilbert never relinquished control over the block. Gilbert announced a design competition for the site in 2013, and the winning submission was quickly forgotten.

2017. The Hudson’s site in the foreground, with the Shinola Hotel under construction the next block over.
Photo by Michelle & Chris Gerard

Last February, after many delays and design changes, Gilbert announced a Dececember 1, 2017, groundbreaking for what will be Detroit’s tallest skyscraper. In May, the Michigan legislature passed incentives that could generate up to $1 billion in subsidies for the billionaire by allowing him to keep state income tax paid by construction workers, employees, and residents of the project for up to 20 years. Gilbert is also exempt from paying an estimated $60 million in sales tax on construction materials.

The final design by New York-based SHoP Architects, with Detroit’s Hamilton Anderson Associates, actually consists of two structures: a mid-rise containing offices and retail space, and an 800-foot tower containing 330 residential units, exhibition space, and an observation deck. The existing underground parking deck will be partially demolished in order to build the tower’s foundation and additional parking. The yet-unnamed project is expected to cost $900 million.

The future tower and podium at the Hudson’s site
Courtesy of Bedrock

The first tenants are expected to move into the building in late 2020, 34 years after Hudson's administrative staff left. This is the longest the block has been without any residential or retail occupants since surveyor Thomas Smith staked out these 14 city lots in 1805. Let's hope that the time and money spent on the new project are worth it in the end.

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