Society of Architectural Historians

27 January 1998

Brian Conway, SHPO
State Historic Preservation Office
Michigan Historical Center
717 W. Allegan Street
Lansing, Michigan 48918

Dear Mr. Conway,

As president-elect of the Society of Architectural Historians and someone who for the past fifteen years has focused on the history of commercial architecture in the United States during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, I am writing personally to express my grave concern over the proposed demolition of the former J.L. Hudson Company department store in Detroit.

The circumstances of this case are remarkable in the extreme. After decades of failed clearance practices in inner cities, it is hard to believe any governmental body can advocate destruction of a sound and usable building without a concrete and eminently preferable new project ready to being in its wake.

Under these circumstances, it further stretches the bounds of credibility to have serious alternative proposals dismissed. Finally, what sort of commentary is it on us as a society when we are incapable of putting venerable buildings such as this to good use, when we insist upon destroying things we cannot afford to replace today?

This case is particularly tragic given the stature of the building in question. Hudson's is rightly a celebrated local landmark, but it is also of extensive amount of material on the subject for a book, tentatively titled The Department Store Transformed, which is to be published by Johns Hopkins University Press. I have examined a wide array of period sources and visited numerous examples in cities coast to coast. This research enables me to discuss the significance of the Hudson store from a national perspective with a very solid base of information at hand.

The argument can be made for the building's national significance on two, closely interrelated factors. For much of the twentieth century, it was the principal quarters of a retail firm that ranked among the most prominent in the industry. Hudson's was long considered a leader. During the nineteenth century, it was one of the fastest growing and most successful emporia in the country, epitomizing the meteoric rise of large-scale retailing and, with it, the rapid transformation of dry goods houses into palatial stores carrying an unprecedented spectrum of goods and services.

Hudson's growth continued, of course, during the twentieth century. By the 1920s, analogies were made between Hudson's in the department store field and Ford Motor Company in the automobile industry. The succession of five expansion companions from 1911 to 1946 that resulted in the current building made the store one of the largest in the nation, second only to the Macy store in Manhattan. Hudson's then became a national leader in the development of regional shopping centers. Northland, in particular, was a major model during the pivotal years of the 1950s, influencing real estate developers and retailers alike.

As Northland was for the postwar ear, Hudson's downtown emporium is an exceptional building in its enormity, but size alone is far from what renders it among the most distinctive examples of its kind. The strength, clarity, and cohesiveness of its expression on the exterior is perhaps the most striking aspect, to which a number of facets contribute.

The unity of Hudson's exterior is unusual, particularly since, like many other downtown department stores in the first half of the twentieth century, it was the product of incremental construction. A few large examples such as John Wanamaker in Philadelphia were designed at the start of a major building campaign to be erected in multiple stages at a grand enough scale to preclude unforeseen, less harmonious, additions (by 1930, even Wanamaker's had to erect another building, half a block away, to fulfill its expansion needs).

On the other hand, most stores were like Hudson's. Their executives found that despite ambitious building programs, the facility was operating at capacity within a decade of less of completion and additions that were not part of the existing plan had to be initiated. Sometimes these additions were designed to replicate or nearly replicate earlier sections. Far more often, however, the results were more a patchwork, as with the now demolished Crowley-Miller store in Detroit or Herpolsheimer's in Grand Rapids.

The additive nature of the Hudson's block is clearly visible, but it is not the dominate quality. With great skills the designers in the Smith, Hinchman & Grylls firm who contributed to this project developed variations on a theme. The result is a fine balance. The differences in each section help enliven the elevations and preclude a sense of overwhelming bulk or uniformity that is difficult to avoid in a work of these extraordinary dimensions. At the same time, the overall effect is one of unity and cohesiveness, achieved through harmonious relations in composition, motif, material, and scale.

The massing is also an important contributor to the building's sense of order. The great tower is the key component in this regard, for it gives an otherwise immense expanse of wall surface focus and hierarchy. The recessed attic stories on the west side of the tower and also important to the overall effect. Neither component was necessary from a utilitarian standpoint and both are rare for major downtown stores of the period. Both were clearly conceived to enhance the building's public presence.

The tower is in fact unique among examples of the type, but may well have been inspired by the example of Sears, Roebuck, whose contemporary large stores, erected in outlying areas (two opened in Detroit in June 1928, less than five months before this last major addition to Hudson's), sported towers as signature elements -- beacons to attract motorists and also to conceal the rooftop water tower then a common fire-control device for commercial and industrial buildings of this size. (Period accounts do not discuss the tower's function at Hudson's, and I have yet to expose if it had a comparative concealing role to those of Sears.) The size of Hudson's was much greater, of course. Here was a unique example of a retail emporium rising as a major addition to a great metropolitan skyline.

Hudson's stands out among twentieth-century department stores for not just coherence, but also the strength given its exterior expression. The architects, by than among the leading large commercial firms in the country, achieved a rare balance between having the expansive glazed area that was considered essential for admitting natural light at that time and making the store rise like a great, sculptural cliff of masonry. Part of Hudson's imposing character us, of course, due to its great dimensions, but most of it stems from the expressive character its designers were able to develop. The scheme further attains an unusual fusion of elements derived from the classical tradition on one hand and a variety of medieval sources on the other. This integration of seemingly disparate expressible attributes imparts a feeling of modernity far more than historicism. Hudson's has not just the height and bulk, but also the energetic character of a new, twentieth-century building.

For all their size and importance to the economic and social lives of their respective communities, many downtown department stores were not striking works of architecture. Hudson's is an exception. Its function as a landmark in the popular sense is not simply due to its venerable standing in Detroit, but also because of its unusually powerful physical presence.

Among major downtown department store buildings constructed between around 1900 and 1930 that housed firms of national stature, Hudson's is among the most architecturally distinctive still standing. Filene's (Boston) belongs in this category; so do B. Altman, Lord & Taylor, and Saks Fifth Avenue (New York); Bamberger's (Newark); Wanamaker's and Strawbridge & Clothier (Philadelphia); LaSalle & Koch (Toledo); Marshall Field and Carson Pirie Scott (Chicago); and the May Company (Cleveland and Los Angeles). This is not to suggest that there are not many additional examples that warrant our attention and should be preserved, only that those that clearly are of national significance from both the physical and associational standpoints are few.

Unfortunately, I have not had the opportunity to inspect the interior of Hudson's since it closed, but gather the long vacancy has taken its toll. As regrettable at this state may be, I do not consider it a consequential drawback to the building's significance. As with most examples of the type, Hudson's interior experienced almost continuous remodeling over its many years of active use. The floor plan was designed to enable maximum flexibility to allow for such change. As a result, I suspect little about the interior as it was in the early 1980s remained largely intact from the 1910s, 1920s, or even the 1930s and 1940s. This situation is endemic to many commercial buildings and should not be seen as an impediment to according them high levels of historical significance.

Hudson's is a truly extraordinary building, a moment to one of the great episodes in American retailing and commercial enterprise generally. It is also a monument to a city when it was becoming the capital of a new industry that has profoundly transformed landscape and life worldwide. How can any society possibly have such low regard for achievements of this stature as to turn their testaments to dust even before the act of creating them passes from loving memory?


Richard Longstretch
Professor of American Civilization
George Washington University

Society of Architectural Historians