Historic Detroit

People's Outfitting Co. Building

The 12-story Detroit Commerce Building is perhaps best remembered as the building knocked down for the Book-Cadillac’s parking garage.

But before Detroiters parked their cars on its grave, the site was home to the People’s Outfitting Co. department store - a place where generations of Detroiters went to shop.

People’s was founded by Leopold Wineman in September 1893 in a five-story building at Michigan Avenue and Shelby Street in Detroit. The store’s motto: “It’s easy to pay - the People’s way!” - allowing shoppers to buy everything from cameras to jewelry to furniture on no-interest credit. Signs and advertisements proclaimed People’s as “Detroit’s largest home furnishers.” In addition to the usual tables and chairs, the store also sold carpets, draperies, stoves and other items with which Detroit’s increasingly wealthy families could decorate its homes.

As Detroit’s fortunes - and its population - grew, Wineman decided to go grow his operations. The original store was torn down and replaced with a 12-story terra cotta-sheethed skyscraper designed in the Chicago School style by renowned architect Albert Kahn and his associate, Ernest Denby. In the meantime, People’s temporarily relocated to 113 Michigan Ave., at the corner of Cass Avenue. A large banner was hung from the west side of the building advertising a “rebuilding sale” in all capital letters: “Down comes our building. $200,000 stock will be sold regardless of cost.” It was a heck of a sale considering $200,000 in 1915 is the equivalent of $4.4 million today.

The new, 175-foot-tall, steel-reinforced structure opened on May 11, 1916.

The move proved to be a success, and the chain spread to Cleveland, Indianapolis and other cities.

In 1955, Wineman’s grandson Henry, then the company’s chairman, told the Free Press: “No matter how big People’s grows, there will always be the same warm-hearted atmosphere as of old. For People’s will never be too big to be human.”

But it was too big to stay in business.

In 1959, People’s merged with the State Sample Co. department store and closed its downtown store. The company filed for bankruptcy 10 years later. Plans to resurrect it never panned out, mostly because of People’s debts.

Starting in the early 1960s, the downtown building became home to various government and institutional offices, including the Greater Detroit Chamber of Commerce. It was at this point the building was renamed the Detroit Commerce Building. But as budget belts tightened as the city’s population shrank, the building was closed in 1997. Its last tenants included the Detroit Historic Commission and the offices of the Detroit People Mover. For the next nine years, the building sat unused other than large advertisements being hung on its eastern wall. Yet the building remained mostly intact, with the scrappers and vandals that attacked so many of the city’s landmarks largely leaving People’s alone.

Demolition began in November 2006 and was finished by March 2007. Detroit’s Downtown Development Authority paid about $1.4 million to demolish the building using state money.

Today, the parking garage serving the reborn Book-Cadillac stands on the site of the old department store. The building’s demise was necessary so that another Detroit landmark could rise.