During the holiday season in the late 1950s, the marquee at Crowley, Milner and Co.’s downtown department store proclaimed “Detroit’s Friendly Christmas Store, Where it’s Easy to Shop.” Along the store’s main entrance on Gratiot Avenue, fir trees were clustered above the entrance and corner display windows. If you were arriving for Lunch with Santa, which had its start in 1951, you would leave with a souvenir mug (a pair were recently offered for $34 on eBay).
From its beginning, Crowley, Milner and Co. made a special effort at Christmas. The Detroit Historical Society says it was “one of the first stores to offer souvenir photographs of a child posing with Santa Claus.” In addition to the store’s Lunch with Santa attraction, the annex’s seventh-floor auditorium hosted a holiday festival with real carnival rides.
Crowley’s tenure at 120-136 Gratiot Ave. had its beginnings in the Knickerbocker Crisis of 1907, when an attempt to corner shares of the United Copper Co. led to bank runs across the country. Pardridge and Blackwell had built their six-story, Beaux Arts department store building (designed by Field, Hinchman and Smith) just before the panic. As the store struggled, Central Savings Bank — which had backed the loan — offered a takeover opportunity to dry goods wholesaler Joseph Crowley, who had early turnaround experience as credit manager for another wholesaler. Crowley enticed his brothers, Daniel and William, into the project, along with Toledo retailer William Milner. The four partners assumed control in July of 1908, and renamed the store the next year.
Implementing strict financial controls and innovations like a return desk, the partners suc- ceeded. They expanded the building upward and outward, then added an 11-story annex across Library Street. At first, only a tunnel connected the two buildings, but in 1923 a five-story bridge was built over the street. In the same year, a car accident claimed the life of Milner. Along with the loss of his expertise, his 42-percent stake ended up in other hands. Jo- seph Crowley would also die before the decade’s end, succeeded by his son, Daniel.
Crowley’s, as the store became known, had a home furnishings department, sold a huge volume of linoleum, and stocked 125,000 rolls of wallpaper. It also claimed to house the nation’s largest record department (including listening booths), and offered afternoon tea and a gourmet Saturday-night dinner in the store’s restaurant. A wooden escalator was installed in 1928, when annual sales hit $39 million and 275,000 customers visited on one special-sale day.
The Great Depression was a struggle, but by 1946 Crowley’s spanned 800,000 square feet and employed 1,450 sales clerks. Neva-Split fur coats — strong at the seams and with dovetail joinings — were available in women’s sizes 10 to 44 for $110, plus a 20-percent federal tax.
In the late 1960s, some women still dressed in white gloves and high heels to go shopping, but the trend was changing to informality with the spread of suburban malls. Crowley’s opened 10 satellite stores. But after a $700,000 corporate loss in the third quarter of 1976, the main store closed in 1977 and was demolished. Offering menswear specialty shops and Sunday hours at its mall locations didn’t save the company. It capitulated in the late 1990s, acquired by the Value City chain. Three Crowley’s Value City stores operated until 1999, but then the ornaments dropped off the trees forever.