Historic Detroit

Crowley's Department Store

Crowley’s was one of Detroit’s Big Three of downtown retailers and Hudson’s fiercest rival in the department store business. Generations of Detroiters glided down its famous wooden escalator and suited themselves in the latest fashions within the gorgeous building.

The building’s story began in 1901, when Willard E. Pardridge and Henry Blackwell teamed up to open a department store bearing their names. Pardridge & Blackwell - note that the name is often misspelled as “Partridge” – occupied a small store in the Majestic Building on Campus Martius, but quick success and a hunger for more led to grander plans. The company hired the architectural firm Field, Hinchman & Smith (predecessor to the legendary Smith, Hinchman & Grylls) to design them a new department store as beautiful as it was huge. Its new six-story Beaux Arts building opened in 1906 and covered part of the block from Gratiot to Monroe and extended from Farmer Street east for half a block. On the store’s roof were huge heart shapes with the initials “P&B” in them. Their size and the height of the building itself served as a beacon to let Detroiters now where the fashions were at. Inside, Detroiters could peruse floor after floor of luxurious clothes and other merchandise imported from Europe. Unfortunately for P&B, it built at the wrong time: A year after opening, the Panic of 1907 struck, and the firm’s enormous new store proved to be more than the partners could manage to keep afloat. The company’s struggles were chalked up by many at the time to poor management.

Rising from the ashes

One of P&B’s largest creditors was Crowley Bros. Wholesale Dry Goods on West Jefferson and Shelby Street. Central Savings Bank was set to lose a lot of money if P&B folded, so it offered Joseph J. Crowley, president of the wholesaler, a loan to reorganize the floundering department store. Crowley asked William L. Milner - who owned the William L. Miner Department Store in Toledo, Ohio - to take an equal controlling interest in the business. Milner’s store also was a customer of Crowley Bros. Also investing in the venture were two of Crowley’s brothers, Daniel T. Crowley, general manager of the Peninsular Stove Works, and William C. Crowley, general manager of the family’s dry goods store. Crowley and Milner took over the business on July 13, 1908, with Milner made president and Joseph Crowley vice president and treasurer. They set out to bring a new way of doing business, tighter organization and spending and aggressive promotion to what had been a languishing business.

The men reorganized the office’s management and accounting systems to get the financial mess under control. The store’s horse-drawn delivery system – which was popular but mismanaged – also got a shake-up and made more efficient. Crowley and Milner introduced the idea of a dedicated returns desk - not a first in the nation but an idea new to Detroit – which proved immensely popular. Various departments were relocated within the store and others – such as the barber shop and the grocery, meat and liquor departments – were eliminated completely. Noting that most of its shoppers were women, more women’s restrooms and lounges were added, as was a “sick room for the use and care of any woman who may be taken suddenly ill while in the store,” a newspaper advertisement said. A restaurant also was added.

The store’s name did not change until almost a year after the ownership change, when a large ad was taken out in May 1909 in the Detroit Free Press proclaiming “a new name for an old firm.” It said the switch had been made “in order that we may sail under no false colors” as both Pardridge and Blackwell had been bought out of the last of their interests in the old store. The ad also chalked up “the circumstances under which we were invited to identify ourselves with this prominent retail enterprise … to the disastrously strenuous times of 1908.” But more noticeably, the ad let Detroiters know that things were going to be different under new management. “The business will be run with courage and aggressively up to our highest conviction … we assure you,” the ad said. “Equal attention and consideration will be given all alike, be they rich or poor; old or young; elegantly or plainly clad. It will be as heretofore a democratic store.” It would serve everyone from those buying knitted shawls to those buying suits and dresses imported from Paris - and it vowed that service was not based on the size of the customer’s pocketbook.

The ad continued: “It is our earnest desire to run this business as to please you best; to make this in truth the one great family store of Michigan; to build up here, in this beautiful city, such a retail enterprise as shall command the enthusiastic pride of every Detroit citizen.”

And it would be a mission accomplished.

Boom times

While the Panic of 1907 sank Pardridge, an event the following year would make Crowley-Milner a carload of cash: Henry Ford introduced his Model T, sending Detroit on an economic and population boom. Coupled with aggressive leadership by Crowley and Milner, the store grew rapidly. Within a few years, the building’s magnificent cornice was stripped and two more floors were added onto the top. In 1917, the building was expanded to take up the entire block, making it the largest department store in Michigan at the time. What had been a floundering business became a booming enterprise by the 1920s, billed as “the store in the heart of Detroit.” The blocks of Woodward and Monroe near Campus Martius became the retail hub of Detroit, with Hudson’s and Kern’s department store making fortunes of their own.

In 1920, Crowley-Milner bought the three-story Goldberg Brothers store that was located across Library Street. The store was razed, and an 11-story tower was erected on the site in late 1920. Like many other firsts at Crowley’s, the addition was heralded as an innovation. “Realizing that in the future more money will be spent on the home and less on luxuries than in past decades, Crowley, Milner & Co. … erected a … building for the exclusive sale of home furnishings,” The Grand Rapids Furniture Record wrote in January 1921. “This is a radical step n furniture merchandising by department stores, this being the first exclusive store of the kind to be started by a department store. It should prove an inspiration to furniture merchants and force them to the realization that unless they awake to a full cognizance of their opportunities, the department stores will pass them or replace them.”

The new tower had 100,000 square feet of floor space and was billed as “The Store for Homes.” The basement was filled with the china and kitchenware departments. The first floor was dedicated to draperies, “a welcome sight to shoppers because of its beauty, which is augmented by the many colored fabrics on display,” the Furniture Record wrote. The second was home to what Crowley’s advertised as the largest record department in the country, not only stocking albums but phonographs, too. There were soundproof record booths along the walls that allowed customers to try before they bought. This floor also carried lamps and electric sewing machines. The third and fourth floors were for domestic and oriental rugs, a necessity in the pre-carpet era of hardwood floors. The fifth floor housed the linoleum department, and the Furniture Record said Crowley’s had the reputation of selling the most linoleum anywhere in the country. Wallpaper, paintings and pictures filled the sixth floor, with the wallpaper department eating up 7,500 square feet of floor space. The store carried 125,000 rolls of the stuff at any one time. The furniture department occupied the seventh through ninth floors, and they were “kept clean as a hospital,” with two employees running around dusting and polishing the furniture. The Morris Industrial Bank - which built what is now the Industrial Stevens Apartments - had a branch of the seventh floor. Because Crowley’s sold all its merchandise for cash in the early days, the bank would lend customers money to buy their new couch or armoire. The bedding and mattress department, the largest in the state, was on the 10th.

At first, the annex was connected to the main store by a tunnel in the basement, but in 1923, the Detroit Common Council allowed for a bridge to be constructed across Library. The bridge, an elaborate arched structure that spanned five stories, was built in 1925. That same year, the company opened its Basement Store in the complex.

While the 1920s saw tremendous growth, they also saw the end of leadership under its founders. Milner died in an auto accident in 1922, and Joseph Crowley followed three years later after suffering a fatal heart attack. Milner’s interests were sold to Willard P. Emery, the store’s general manager, who flipped his interest to the three combined Crowley families in 1927. Daniel T. Crowley ascended from secretary and director - posts he had held since 1908 - to president. It was under his leadership that the store saw its highest and lowest peaks. In May 1928, Crowley’s had 275,000 customers on a single day turn out for a sale. But he also led the store through the Depression years, which saw Crowley’s accepting scrip from city employees. The store also was a community leader at the time, not only employing hundreds of people, but also helping the city wither those tough times. In 1932, during the Depression, Crowley’s advanced $100,000 – the equivalent of $1.6 million today - of its taxes so the city could meet payroll. The same year, the store floated a bond issue and reorganized to ease the tight situation.

Over the years, the company would introduce a number of firsts to Detroit: its first escalator (in 1909), layaway (in 1920), charge-plate system (the fore-runner of credit cards), and it was the first Detroit retailer with gas-fueled delivery vehicles instead of horse-drawn wagons. Ask most people who lived in Detroit during Crowley’s heyday, and they’ll tell you about its wooden escalator, which was installed in 1928. Its Toyland was a huge hit with kids, of course, and was one of the first places to offer souvenir photos with Santa Claus. In 1951, Crowley’s started offering a lunch with Santa event, at which good girls and boys could take home a souvenir mug. Another popular feature was the children’s play center on the sixth floor in the eastern building. Its nursery was staffed by trained teachers where kids 3 to 10 years old could be dropped off while their parents shopped.

The store’s food service proved popular, with many businessmen and housewives stopping by for lunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. or afternoon tea from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. It also offered a formal dinner from 5:30 to 8 p.m. on Saturdays. In the 1950s and ’60s, the building’s seventh-floor auditorium hosted a holiday festival with carnival rides and a snack bar.

By 1946, Crowley’s downtown store sprawled across 800,000 square feet and employed 1,450 people. The Free Press noted in February 1958, as the store was preparing for its 50th anniversary, that “it is a policy to stock most items which are nationally advertised so that when a housewife decides to buy something, she knows she can find it at Crowley’s.” The department store had “a group of buyers who scour the United States market for good merchandise, unusual buys and products they feel will be in demand.”

The store continued its emphasis on customer service. Deanna Lapuszewski, a 20-year-old blond who staffed the stationery counter in 1958, talked to the Free Press while helping find the correct size lead for a customer’s mechanical pencil. When asked what she thought of Crowley’s, Lapuszewski said: “I like working here, it’s a friendly place.”

Beginning of the end

By 1950, Crowley’s ranked second – behind Hudson’s - among metro Detroit’s department store for both sales volume and size, clocking in at 750,000 square feet. But by the 1950s, suburban shopping malls were coming into fashion as more of the city’s residents moved out. Freeways helped to bleed the city’s population, and giant surface-level parking lots meant shoppers didn’t have to fuss with finding parking downtown. Crowley’s – now doing business under the slogan “Crowley’s: the friendly store where it’s easy to shop – had seen its business lag, and it started opening up suburban stores to serve those customers. This took business away from its downtown store and left it with extra space in its sprawling complex.

The Veterans Administration had taken over the former Detroit Museum of Art building on East Jefferson. What is now the Detroit Institute of Arts had left the 1888 landmark when the current museum in Midtown opened in 1927. In February 1957, it was announced that the old museum would be razed for the Hastings Expressway, today known as Interstate 75, the Chrysler Freeway. When the structure was leveled in 1960, the veterans agency was left looking for a new home. Crowley’s offered to rent the agency the first six floors of its eastern building for $198,000 a year ($1.47 million today). The department store kept the top five floors of the tower and all 10 floors of the original building.

By late 1964, Crowley’s focus was firmly fixed on its suburban stores, with locations at the Westborn Shopping Center in Dearborn, the Macomb Mall in Roseville and the Livonia Mall in Livonia. The chain also operated a store on Grand River and Greenfield on Detroit’s far northwest side. The growth of those suburban shopping malls killed downtown retailers, as more customers opted to skip on the trouble of public transit or finding parking amid the hustle and bustle. Crowley’s had 10 branch locations by the early 1990s. In the early 1970s, Hudson’s reduced its selling space downtown by up to 20% to combat losses. Crowley’s curtailed its showroom, too.

The downtown location continued to struggle, and, while America was in the throes of the Watergate scandal, company officials announced in May 1973, that its flagship store was obsolete and steps would begin that would lead to its closure. “The building’s life has been spent,” Crowley-Milner President Robert Winkel told the Free Press that month. “We are negotiating for another, smaller downtown location. … There is a place for a downtown store. But it should be run as a branch rather than a central organization.” The store would limp along for a couple of years, although at a scaled-down capacity. But the downtown store was primarily responsible for the $700,000 ($2.5 million today) loss that the chain suffered in the third-quarter of 1976. Just how bad was it? By 1976, the store’s sales slid to levels even lower than those during the Depression.

On Jan. 4, 1977, company President Robert Winkel told employees at a meeting that the venerable store would finally be shuttered. “The continuing decline in sales downtown has resulted in an operating loss that we in no way could continue,” Winkel said. Most of the 650 Crowley’s workers employed downtown were transferred or offered jobs at the company’s headquarters.

The store chose not to renew its lease on the property and was told that the building must be torn down by July 1, 1978. Complicating matters was the fact that the west building was owned by 40 separate people; Boston-based Real Estate Investment Trust of America owned about 70% of it. A spokesman for the trust had told the Free Press in May 1973 that Crowley’s request for a multimillion “top to bottom” renovation of the building was impractical. And “with its rickety-sounding wooden escalators … and its cavernous sales floors, the store was considered just too old and too big to renovate, especially in view of dwindling sales there,” the Free Press wrote at the time of the announcement. So Crowley’s executives reached a decision and handed down their verdict: At age 70, the Crowley’s store was sentenced to die.

The end

The store’s last day was July 2, 1977. The office tower and warehouse building were shuttered the following year. The chain’s offices then relocated to an office building on West Lafayette Boulevard. In December 1977, wreckers from All State Wrecking of Mt. Clemens, Mich., began smashing into the store.

Reporter Rick Ratliff wrote in the Free Press the following month that “If buildings had rights, the death of Crowley’s downtown store would be unconstitutional - an obvious case of cruel and unusual punishment. … Slowly, Crowley’s has been flayed of its intricate white brick and sandstone skin. Its glass eyes have been broken. Its girder bones burned. Its floors mangled. Its woodwork splintered and stripped. Perhaps it would be one thing if all this happened quickly and behind closed doors. But Crowley’s suffers in public, and the process is slow.”

All State Wrecking’s owner, a cigar-chomping man named Bill Stramaglin, told the Free Press in January 1978 that “this building would have stood another 100 years, or 50” because it was so strongly built. Couple that with its location in the heart of downtown, and dynamite was ruled out. Stramaglin’s boys had to hack the landmark apart chunk by chunk, “chewing off the top and sides until the whole structure had been mechanically masticated, spit into trucks and dumped on a Detroit landfill,” Ratliff wrote. Because of the hustle and bustle downtown, the wreckers had to wait until nightfall to tear into Crowley’s. A 6,000-pound wrecking ball dangling from a 110-foot crane was swung into its exterior. A Bobcat was hoisted to the top and scooted around knocking out walls and clearing debris. “Wood and brick fell seven stories, crashing on a pile below. The noise was the moan of a dying building,” Ratliff wrote.

As Ratliff wrote, it was a long, slow process. It took three weeks to demolish just the top two floors, and was more or less done by May, nearly half a year after the razing started. Winkel had told the Free Press in 1973 that “Downtown will never again be THE marketplace, the kingpin of marketplaces in the community.” He was right.

There was some talk of trying to convert the gorgeous building into a parking garage, but structural studies showed the building - then more than 70 years old - would not be able to hold the weight. Over the course of three years, the Crowley’s complex was slowly erased from the skyline. On Sept. 21, 1980, the tower at Monroe and Randolph caught fire during demolition when a wrecker’s torch set the building ablaze.

This was the third giant vacant lot on Campus Martius at that time, joining the locations where the Kern Brothers department store – which closed in December 1959 and was razed in 1966 - and the old Detroit Opera House once stood. Hudson’s, the king of downtown’s retailers, closed in January 1983. There was no plan in place for the site before the building came down other than a surface level parking lot. The site remained an undeveloped site for nearly a quarter century, until 2000, when a parking garage for the Compuware world headquarters went up.

Crowley’s continued to do business in the suburbs, raking in $105.9 million in 1996 dealing in moderately priced apparel and home furnishings. In 1995, it acquired the Steinbach chain, which had stores in the Northeast. But the move backfired, and Crowley’s found itself floundering. On Feb. 8, 1999, Crowley’s filed for reorganization under Chapter 11 bankruptcy and liquidated its remaining stores and, much like the massive marvel it once ran downtown, disappeared into Detroiters’ memories.