Historic Detroit

Every building in Detroit has a story — we're here to share it

Polk Directory Building

For nearly 70 years, this building was home to the world's largest directory-publishing company and one of its largest direct-mail advertising organizations. The work of this company continues to be one of the most vital resources for historians and genealogists around the country. Indeed, the work on this website would not be possible had it not been for the R.L. Polk Co.

And long before Google or Facebook was peeking at your personal data, R.L. Polk was snooping around, perhaps not pioneering targeted mailings and advertising, but certainly mastering it. And Polk did it all long before computers or the Internet were invented.

From the Civil War to the Advertising War

The R.L. Polk Co. was the brainchild of Ralph Lane Polk, who was was born Sept. 12, 1849, in Bellefontaine, Ohio, and the son of a Presbyterian clergyman. Polk was educated at a seminary in Pennington, N.J., and then, at age 15, enlisted in Company G of the 40th New York Volunteers to fight in the Civil War. After eight months, he was honorably discharged and mustered out in August 1865.

After the war, Polk began selling patent medicines door-to-door near his native home of Bellefontaine. Though that venture failed, Polk met another man who was compiling names for a city directory, and soon went to work for him, earning $2 a day. He got into the directory publishing business in Indianapolis in 1869, but he decided to give the business a try himself and moved to Detroit a year later, where he started publishing the Michigan State Gazetteer and Business Directory. It was there that Polk worked with and befriended James E. Scripps. Polk encouraged Scripps to publish what would become The Detroit News.

Polk, meanwhile, became the publisher of the Detroit City Directory - the Yellow Pages of the day - and by the 1950s, the R.L. Polk Co. was the largest company of its kind on the planet. More than 100 years after its founding, the R.L. Polk Co. was still headquartered in this building Detroit, and was pulling in $275 million a year, the equivalent of $698 million in 2022 dollars, when adjusted for inflation.

A new longtime home

As the 1920s roared, Detroit and other cities saw their populations roaring, too. This was all excellent for the R.L. Polk Co., which made city directories that listed the names and addresses of all the residents of these municipalities. (The 1923-24 edition was a bound book of 3,329 pages.) It also published the Michigan State Gazetteer and Business Directory, as well as trade and city directories for other municipalities. Polk data could also be used to help companies lay out territories for door-to-door salesmen - a big business in the day - and sold mailing lists that targeted the type of prospective clients advertisers sought to reach. Polk also would handle those bulk mailings for clients, for a fee.

But the big moneymaker for Polk started in 1922, Polk got into the auto data business when it began generating data on cars for General Motors to help settle a feud between auto tycoons Alfred P. Sloan, the chief of GM, and Henry Ford, the founder of Ford Motor Co., over which automaker had the most vehicles on the road. That led to a major change in direction for the company. Though it still published city directories and handled bulk mailings, the company also sold mailing lists, which could be arranged by streets - or even makes of their cars. The auto boom coupled with the population booms meant a huge boom in business for Polk.

Meanwhile, Ralph Lane Polk died of pneumonia in St. Paul, Minn., while on a business trip on Aug. 21, 1923, just a few weeks ahead of his 74th birthday. His son, Ralph Lane Polk Jr., was general manager of the company at the time and took over for his father.

These booms meant that Polk, and its growing number of subsidiaries, needed a new home. In 1923, Polk hired architect Richard H. Marr to design this nine-story, steel-and-concrete building on Howard Street just west of Cass Avenue.

"The growth of a little known business, entitled to rank among the greater industries of Detroit, is emphasized in this building," the Detroit Free Press wrote Feb. 24, 1924.

At the time, Polk published 500 directories for cities large and small across the United States, and had 70 branch offices, all of which would report to this headquarters. The building also housed extensive research libraries - one department alone handled 15 million names of automobile owners each year. Polk subsidiaries - including the Bankers Encyclopedia of New York and the Motor List Co. of Des, Moines, Iowa - were also headquartered in this building.

The Polk building had some 80,000 feet and leased floors to other clients. Marr's design allowed for interior offices to have natural light. Two passenger elevators and garage services added to the amenities.

The general contractor on the project was Martin & Krausmann Co., a Detroit firm based in the Vinton Building.

Polk continued to survive and evolve.

A forgotten Detroit giant

In 1956, the R.L. Polk Co. was the largest directory-publishing firm in the world, serving more than 3,500 municipalities, and was the largest direct-mail advertising organization, sending some 2 million pieces of advertising every day.

A Detroit Free Press profile on the business from Dec. 26, 1988, said that Polk had data on more than 80 million of the nation's 90 million households. The firm's directories now encompassed 6,500 communities across 1,200 directories. "Such lists are the lifeblood of the increasingly sophisticated direct mail advertising industry," the paper noted.

In 1996, they expanded to include such data as why those customers bought what they did, what else they're likely to want, and what type of car they'd be likely to buy next time. In 1996, Polk boasted it had a national consumer database of 101 million households.

But Polk decided to go hard on autos, and in the 1990s, Polk acquired Carfax and sold its non-auto-related assets to Equifax in the early 2000s.

Polk left its longtime home on Howard Street in April 1990, moving into Brewery Park, an office development built in the late 1980s off Gratiot on the site of the former Stroh's Brewery. The Howard Street headquarters was demolished in early 1994 to be replaced by a 64,000-square-foot headquarters for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. The company remained headquartered in Detroit at Brewery Park until moving to Southfield in 1997.

As testament to Polk's legacy, in 2001, the company's former president Ralph Lane Polk II was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame for his work turning vehicle registration data into direct-marketing tools.

On March 7, 2013, R.L. Polk put itself on the market for potential buyers. At the time, it had 10 operations in 10 countries and 1,250 employees around the world. On June 9, 2013, IHS Markit announced its intention to buy R.L. Polk, including Carfax, for $1.4 billion Polk is now part of S&P Global Mobility.