Christmas at Hudson's

Detroit's greatest department store decked the halls on a grand scale that's unimaginable today.


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Crowds gather on Thanksgiving Day outside Hudson's to kick of the 1949 holiday season.

Photograph Courtesy of Detroit Historical Society

Angelic figures soared above the first floor’s cosmetics, leather goods, and gift items. Colorful lights glimmered all around. The Christmas trees — abstract, space-age coils — spiraled around solid cones at least 10 feet tall. This scene could only be from one place in Detroit: Hudson’s department store.

For decades, a huge effort had gone into decorating Hudson’s for Christmas. And the payoff was commensurate. Around 1,500 wreaths were hung throughout the store, which at its peak spanned more than 2.1 million square feet of space. Every yuletide season, as many as 450,000 people visited Santaland and Toytown on the 12th floor, and after Santa had ascertained who’d been naughty or nice, families often headed for the 10th-floor Yuletide shop to look at ornaments imported from Germany and Poland.

Joseph Lowthian Hudson had opened his store on April 2, 1881, occupying space in the Detroit Opera House building and, soon thereafter, the public’s mind. He possessed $60,000 in capital and a “build it and they will come” mentality. Being “too far” off Jefferson Avenue to succeed would not prove to be an issue.

Born in England in 1846, Hudson built an empire along Woodward Avenue. The steel frame of the 25-story tower that went up in 1928, some 16 years after the founder’s death, was not the last expansion. The pastiche of buildings — its demolition crew would tally 12 different construction phases — was completed in the founder’s centenary year of 1946 with a 12-story addition on the footprint of an overmatched five-story structure at Woodward Avenue and Gratiot. It was the last obstacle Hudson’s overcame to occupy the entire block.

In the 1890s, the department store’s annual sales exceeded $2 million, a staggering sum at the time. The founder lived at 14 Madison Street with his sister, who kept house. “He has won, as a merchant, the most enduring and the most eminent distinction,” a contemporary historian wrote.

As Hudson organized and chaired the Associated Charities, a precursor to the United Way, his perspicacity extended to other areas of commerce. When a niece’s husband and three other veterans of Oldsmobile asked for help in launching a low-priced car, Hudson backed them with $90,000. Soon after, Hudson Motor Car Co. occupied an 80,000-square-foot factory at Mack and Beaufait, and in short order produced 4,000 units of the 1909 Model 20. 

It daunts the imagination to consider specifics of the Hudson’s retail empire. There were more than 500,000 items offered in at least 200 separate departments, authors Michael Hauser and Marianne Weldon noted. The display department, housed on the 15th floor, spent the better part of the year planning Christmas decor that included “mechanical windows,” or ground-level 3-D dioramas that housed everything from marching Santas to autonomous, industrious bears.

When Life magazine published a cutaway drawing that showed the intricacies of the enormous department store in 1958, it looked like the craziest ant colony imaginable. The cutaway couldn’t show that the store’s interior was crisscrossed by 48 escalators and punctured by at least 51 passenger elevators that traveled a combined 459 miles daily.

The magazine also highlighted the 14th-floor infirmary, where four doctors and six nurses saw 185 patients a day. In the age of pop-up retail stores and online shopping, it’s almost too much to comprehend.

Of course, nothing lasts forever. The store closed in 1983, and on Oct. 24, 1998, the monstrosity was ignominiously pancaked by 2,728 pounds of explosives. The demolition chief called the job “the greatest dynamic structural control challenge” his company had ever faced.

What didn’t go down with the bricks and steel are the warm memories. The nine-story, 50,000-watt tree of lights that adorned the store’s facade every Christmas is emblazoned in hearts and minds forever. db

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