For over 100 years Christmastime meant one thing to legions of Detroiters: a trip downtown to J.L. Hudson’s Department Store on Woodward Avenue.
The elaborate window displays, the 9-story tree made of 5,000 lights on the exterior of the building, a journey to Toyland and Santaland were annual traditions that live in the memories of Baby Boomers who grew up in the area.
Maybe that’s why the Detroit Historical Society chose December to feature the 1998 documentary, “The Hudson’s Building,” in its monthly film series at the Detroit Historical Museum in the Cultural Center.
Through interviews, reminiscences, historical footage and photos the movie taps into the nostalgia for Hudson’s, support for its preservation, and reasons for its demolition in 1998.
You can catch the 42-minute flick at 1 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, December 11-12 in the museum auditorium; it’s free with museum admission.
Stop at the museum shop to stock up on gifts for Hudson’s fans. You’ll find a 2011 calendar based on the book “Hudson’s: Detroit’s Legendary Department Store” as well as copies of that 2004 title, and a second, newly released book, “Remembering Hudson’s: The Grand Dame of Detroit Retailing.”
Our kids can’t fathom the likes of Downtown Hudson’s in the Detroit they know. When the massive structure came down in October 1998 Paige was only 5 and Graham was almost 10.
We weren’t among the 20,000 folks who went downtown to watch its implosion, but we saw it on TV. At the time I wrote about the late, great J.L. Hudson’s in the then-print version of the Great Lakes Gazette.
Detroit added another dubious distinction to its brag sheet in October 1998 when J.L. Hudson’s, the legendary 2.2 million-square foot downtown department store, became the largest building ever to be imploded.
In less than a minute the 25-story landmark, once the heart of a bustling shopping district, was reduced to a mountain of rubble. While clearing the way for hoped-for redevelopment it erased an irreplaceable part of Detroit’s history.
At its peak in the 1950s Hudson’s employed more than 12,000 people who catered to 100,000 shoppers each day, and the store’s seven restaurants served 10,000 diners daily. Men and women in suits and hats and dresses shopped, lunched, or browsed one of the nation’s important retail centers.
I remember my final purchase from Detroit’s last downtown department store: a glass percolator stem and basket for our vintage glass Pyrex coffee pot.
On a lunch break in 1983 I wandered over from work in the Renaissance Center to the Hudson’s housewares department and asked the sales clerk for the pieces. She knew exactly what I needed and where to find the box. The last one on the shelf. It was a melancholy shopping trip.
Long before Hudson’s closed its doors the once-grand emporium was as obsolete as my stove top percolator pot.
Why watch the coffee perc when you can program a brew machine to drip?
Why rely on 59 elevators with operators to announce each floor, when at a sprawling Maxi-Mart you can follow signage pointing to piles of pajamas and stacks of soup cans?
Why have a Hudson’s truck deliver a purchase to your door when you can push your stuff in a plastic cart across acres of Maxi-Mart parking lot to your vehicle?
And who needs their gift purchases wrapped in tissue and placed in a shiny white box, a sturdy container with the monogram-style “JLH” on the lid? What’s wrong with the paper-thin pieces of cardboard that require you to fold along scored lines to fashion a sort of box—the kind of packaging that tends to collapse, like an imploded building?
(A version of this story first appeared in Great Lakes Gazette, October-November 1998)