Historic Detroit

Grinnell Brothers Music House

Among the empty commercial buildings lining Woodward is what was once a grand department store of music housed in a structure designed by Detroit’s maestro of architecture.

The Grinnell Building was built in 1908 on Woodward Avenue and designed by Albert Kahn. It was covered in a white-glazed terra cotta. He used the same effect on the Woodward Building, built in 1915 on the southwest corner of Woodward and Clifford, and the Kales Building, built as the S.S. Kresge Co. Building on Grand Circus Park in 1914. Grinnell Brothers was a giant music store that carried everything from guitar picks to organs topping $15,000. The business was founded in Ann Arbor in 1879 by Ira L. Grinnell, who started off by selling sewing machines in 1872 before adding musical instruments. Along with brothers Clayton and Herbert, Ira Grinnell opened a store in Ypsilanti before setting up shop in 1881 in an old wooden house on the east side of Woodward below Cadillac Square, 219 Woodward. The brothers added the line of Ann Arbor and Etsey organs to their stock of sewing machines. Over the years, Grinnell’s went from selling parlor organs to grand pianos to spinets. The piano business was a hit and before long, the company had outgrown their shop and moved into the Kahn-designed building up the road in 1908.

Grinnell opened a large piano manufacturing plant in Holly in Oakland County. It was billed as the world’s largest piano factory and became the world’s largest piano distributor by the mid-1950s. The company had the pianos that were made in Holly shipped to its warehouse near Tiger Stadium, at 2003 Brooklyn. Today the warehouse is known as the Grinnell Lofts. The pianos were sold only its own stores and were considered a top brand for decades.

A piano catalogue touted the company’s wares: “The Grinnell Brothers Piano is the product of our large factories in Detroit, Michigan, and Windsor, Ontario. These manufacturing plants are second to none in equipment and class of workmen employed. Every facility and mechanical appliance that would tend to promote further excellence in the production of this piano is provided. Our workmen are experts, each skilled in the highest degree in the work receiving his attention. A rigid inspection is maintained at all stages of construction, and the thorough test to which each piano is subjected before it is permitted to leave the factory, makes certain that the high standard of quality adopted shall be fully maintained in every instrument we produce. Thoroughness is the predominating feature—no part is too minute, no detail too insignificant to be considered good enough until it cannot be further improved. “This instrument represents the concentrated experience of more than 30 years in the handling and manufacture of high grade musical instruments. Correct application of the knowledge thus acquired, combined with the natural creative ability of the men at the head of this manufacturing establishment, could not result in other than a magnificent production. The Grinnell Brothers Piano is a perfect instrument in all that the term implies; embodying all that is artistic in tone and design and representing the extreme of value in durability.” The store also carried band instruments, guitars, amplifiers, drums and sheet music. Over the years, the chain also dabbled in selling records, turntables, radios, televisions and household furniture.

The Grinnell family sold the company in April 1955 to WKC Inc. Its president, Jack Wainger of Pontiac, also bought Detroit jeweler Wright, Kay & Co., that same October. Wainger took the company on a course of rapid growth, opening new locations in the suburbs and acquiring other piano manufacturers.

In 1960, Grinnell’s bought a music store in Rochester, N.Y., following that up with acquisitions in New York state and Pennsylvania. In July 1962, Grinnell’s acquired the Shackleton Piano Co., a 90-year-old firm based out of Louisville, Ky. Grinnell’s was already the world’s largest retail music company at the time, so the move made the Detroit company even bigger. Shackleton continued to operate as a subsidiary. By 1963, Grinnell’s had 35 stores in Michigan and Ohio and five subsidiaries in Kentucky and New York state.

In April 1963, Grinnell’s bought the eight-story Sanders Building next door, at 1525 Woodward. The music company had leased the upper five floors of the Sanders Building since 1948, when the Fred W. Sanders Co. bought it. Sanders continued to lease the first three floors of the building.

“Downtown Detroit is coming back as a place to shop. The new buildings of National Bank of Detroit and First Federal Savings & Loan Association on Woodward show others share this feeling,” Grinnell’s President Jack J. Wainger told the Free Press at the time. Wainger also owned Wright & Kay Co. jewelers at the time.

By the mid- to late 1960s, Grinnell’s was the country’s largest music merchandiser with more than 40 stores in the U.S. and Ontario. And in 1966, Wainger took the company public as American Music Stores Inc.

But Wainger didn’t see the riot of 1967 coming.

From that year on, Grinnell’s meteoric rise turned into a meteoric collapse thanks to a series of events.

After the riot, families started fleeing to the suburbs in droves, taking much of the retailer’s business with them. The rise of shopping malls and the growing popularity of stores like Sears & Roebuck Co. began to eat away at its business. The world’s musical tastes were changing and more young people were picking up electric guitars instead of sitting behind a piano. Japanese piano makers like Casio started selling electronic keyboards in the United States, a widely popular novelty at the time. In 1968, two years after going public, American Music Stores filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The workers in Grinnell’s Holly plant went on a long strike lasting nearly half a year in 1969, costing the company not only business but adding bad press in an intensely pro-union region.

As things were going go south for Grinnell’s, the company pulled the plug on what had become an annual tradition in Detroit. Starting in the 1930s, Grinnell’s started supplying pianos and organs for the annual Michigan Music Festival – which claimed to be the world’s largest piano recital. The young performers practiced for the event in Grinnell’s store on Woodward. After all, they had to be perfect: The festival attracted more than 1,000 participants for decades. The kids’ families often filled the State Fair Coliseum, Olympia Stadium and later Cobo Hall. The event was stopped in 1973.

In 1976, American Music unloaded the declining Grinnell’s brand on David S. Rose. He would file a lawsuit a year later charging American misrepresented Grinnell’s assets at the time of the sale. He paid for a symphony but got only a song. The suit was settled in 1978 for $400,000.

In August 1977, a year after Rose had bought the chain, Grinnell’s filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy once again, listing more than $5 million in debts. The move let the company stay in business as it tried to restructure and figure out arrangements to pay creditors. A plan was approved in May 1978 that called for Grinnell’s to repay creditors at the rate of 59 cents for every $1 of debt. Creditors include General Electric Credit Corp., Hammond Organ Co. and Hitachi Sales Corp. of America. Grinnell made payments in 1978 reducing its debt to $4 million, but still owed creditors $2.3 million by the end of that year.

In an effort to shed costs, Grinnell’s started shuttering its locations. By 1977, many of its stores had closed, leaving only a handful open. The company’s fortunes did not change course, and Grinnell’s finally closed its flagship location on Woodward in 1981, nearly 75 years after opening.

In April 1981, Michigan’s largest and oldest music company was declared bankrupt and ordered liquidated by Judge Harry Hackett of federal bankruptcy court in Detroit. He ordered Grinnell to “cease operation at all locations” at the close of business April 6. At the time, the mighty Grinnell empire had been reduced to only 13 Grinnell’s stores in Michigan and one in Toledo at the time.

Hackett ordered the liquidation because of Grinnell’s “failure to comply with the terms” of a ruling he made that March 26 requiring the company to post a $50,000 bond by last April 5. Hackett said the bond was necessary because Grinnell’s had defaulted on a plan to repay creditors the $2.3 million they were owed since December 1978.

The ruling noted that Grinnell’s fortunes had gone into negative territory and had a negative net worth in 1980. During that time, sales dropped 21% from $10.8 million to $8.5 million.

The music had stopped, more than 100 years after Ira Grinnell started the venerable company.

“Those whose marketing couldn’t adjust or hadn’t seen (the trouble) coming began to have problems,” Musician magazine said in an April 1981 issue about Grinnell’s folding. “Both old recognizable names and new ones, too. It was economic Darwinism at work.”

Fifteen years later, in 1994, Joseph Marras Sr. of Dearborn Heights started the Grinnell Bros. Piano Co. The new firm sells pianos built to the old company’s standards and specifications.