Historic Detroit

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Summerfield & Hecht

Summerfield & Hecht was once billed as Michigan's largest furniture store. At its peak, it had several branches, but this location on Michigan Avenue and Washington Boulevard, was its flagship store.

This four-story building was built in 1893 for R.W. Allen, replacing "three unsightly structures on Michigan Avenue," the Detroit Free Press wrote on Jan. 29 of that year. It was designed by Detroit architect A.C. Varney & Co. and made of stone and pressed brick. It cost about $30,000 ($876,000 today, when adjusted for inflation) to build. The ground floor was home to three storefronts; the upper floors were finished to serve as either apartments or offices for the retail tenants.

In March 1894, R.W. Bromley & Co. moved into the building, opening one of the largest furniture stores in the city at that time. This mean that, almost from the building's beginning to its fiery end 35 years later, it would be home to a furniture store.

"The Bromley House Furniture Co. is only one of the many new business houses who have pinned their faith to Michigan Avenue, and if The Free Press is anything of a prophet," the newpaper prophetized in the March 25, 1894, edition, "they will make a marked success of their new enterprise."

The Free Press was not a prophet. At least, not this time. A little less than a decade later, however, the next tenant would, indeed, have "marked success."

Summerfield & Hecht strike out on their own

Samuel Summerfield was born in St. Louis on July 1, 1873. He entered the furniture business there with May Stern & Co., who sent him to Detroit when he was 22 to open and manage the new firm of Weil & Co. After eight years, in 1903, he left to organize his own firm with his co-worker Alfred H. Hecht, a Chillicothe, Ohio, native who had come to Detroit with his brother Charles in 1897. Summerfield brought 16 years of experience in the business to the venture; Hecht has been 10 years in the furniture business

Summerfield & Hecht set up shop in R.W. Allen's commercial block, setting out to succeed where previous furniture and carpet retailers had failed. The Free Press, once again, prophetized success.

"The new store will bring to Michigan avenue another large business which will not only enhance the business beauty of the street, but will also add much to its growing mercantile reputation as a seat and center for solid enterprises," the Free Press wrote Dec. 14, 1902. "There is not the slightest doubt of the success of the new house. ... No expense will be spared by Mr. Summerfield and Mr. Hecht to make the new store one of the finest in the city, and there is little doubt that but a short time will elapse before it is fully established as such in the hearts of its patrons."

The men took over all three of the storefronts and set out to completely renovate the building, installing new electric elevators, a new heating plant, plate-glass display windows and that spiffy still-rather-new invention called electricity.

On Feb. 16, 1903, Summerfield & Hecht opened its doors. "Young blood, pluck, energy, enterprise and hustling ability, combined with fair dealing and a determination to please every customer, are bound to make this store one grand success," an ad proclaimed in announcing the grand opening.

Items were priced at what seem like yard sale prices today. Couches ranged from $5.50 to $8.95, with leather ones priced at $32.50. Iron beds could be had for $1.69. English dinnerware sets were $9.75, and cloverleaf center tables were just 29 cents. At Summerfield & Hecht, you could get four rooms completely furnished for $95 (about $2,700 today): "We'll furnish for you in a most complete and handsome manner, a parlor, bedroom, dining room and kitchen," a 1905 store ad said.

A growing business for a growing Detroit

A little more than a month after opening, on March 29, 1903, the upstart furniture retailer took out an ad in the Free Press under the headline, "Detroit is all right." The two men proudly wrote of their success: "When we first contemplated giving to Detroit a great modern furniture and carpet store, run on a broad gauge plan, we received nothing but discouragement from the 'wise ones.' We were told that Detroit was slow - that the people wouldn't appreciate our policy of selling dependable goods under the usual prices - that our location was 'out of the retail section' and that we couldn't bring the people to our store on that account. The warnings of the croakers failed to shake our faith in Detroit and we went forward with our plans. Every prediction made by those advising us proved wrong. Instead of our empty store, the people of Detroit and vicinity crowded our magnificent salesrooms to overflowing, giving the most substantial proof that they appreciate what this store is doing."

They catered to the blue-collar workers who were beginning to flock to the city to work in the factories. A new city and a new home meant a need for new furniture. That's why their installment plan system was more important to their success than their styles and wares. "Many people who have not all the means desired, or those just starting in life, feel the necessity of this mode of payment more than any others, and the installment business works a benefit not only to the proprietors of the house but to the general public," the Free Press wrote Dec. 14, 1902. The public can get furniture now that they couldn't afford upfront, and the retailer got to move more furniture through its store.

Just three years after opening, the firm's success dictated the construction of a four-story addition, designed by the firm Shiels & Allaster, was added to the western side in 1906. The addition was necessary, the Detroit Free Press wrote July 29, 1906, because Summerfield & Hecht "has been attracting so much attention up this thoroughfare in the last two years." The addition added 20 feet along Michigan and boasted an elevator and other "up-to-date conveniences for the use of customers of the big store."

In a 1910 ad, Summerfield & Hecht said the two partners had established their store "for the benefit of wage earners who were not given the privilege of charge accounts at other stores and who could not afford to pay the excessive profits demanded elsewhere."

The company's slogans touted the lines of credit they offered their customers: "the House of Dignified Credit" and "We trust the people."

Summerfield and Hecht were active members of Detroit's Jewish community, with the former serving as chairman of the Jewish welfare relief fund in Detroit following World War I.

Their firm kept growing. Albert Kahn designed a furniture warehouse at 1400 Fourteenth St. for the company in 1914. Branches were opened at 4500 Grand River Ave. at Wabash Street, 7925 W. Jefferson Ave., 14155 Gratiot Ave. near 7 Mile Road, and a "trade-in store" at 1545 Church St.

Competition, however, was fierce. The men's former employer, Weil & Co., announced in 1915 that it would move in across the street from Summerfield & Hecht, into a 10-story building built by David Stott on the southwest corner of Michigan and Washington Boulevard. That building, designed by Marshall & Fox of Chicago, is now known as the Gabriel Houze. Kahn designed a new building for Finsterwald Furniture right next store to Summerfield & Hecht, which opened Oct. 20, 1919. Finsterwald's had previously been on Monroe at Randolph.

The corner of Michigan and Washington was now home to three furniture sellers -- and Summerfield & Hecht's digs were being outclassed by the competition's locations in fancy new skyscrapers.

A (forced-by) fire sale

On Jan. 27, 1929, Summerfield & Hecht's flagship store was destroyed by fire. The story led the front page of the Detroit Free Press. The five-alarm fire left one firefighter injured. The blaze was reported at 2:24 a.m., and "the fire, the biggest in the downtown district in more than 11 years, was fought by 15 engine companies, six ladder companies, three high-pressure companies and two rescue companies before it was subdued shortly after 4 o'clock."

"The district was enveloped in great clouds of smoke," the Free Press wrote, and nearly everything was covered in ice, with icicles dangling from the fire engines and utility lines that frigid January morning. It took 40 lines of water and nearly 1.2 million gallons of water to extinguish the furniture-fed flames.

The commotion apparently woke many guests from the Book-Cadillac and other nearby hotels from their slumber, as thousands came out and watched the store burn. The loss was valued at $400,000 - about $6.2 million in 2021 dollars.

Just one week later, on Feb. 4, 1929, the men reopened in a new store just to west, at 336 Michigan Ave. "This achievement is believed to make a record for quick and efficient re-establishment after a fire loss," the Free Press wrote the morning before the reopening. The store opened "while sporadic blazes still burst out from time to time in the ruins (of the old store) a few feet away." The new site was acquired by purchasing the stock of the Blay Furniture Co.

Still, the fire and the furniture rat race was apparently enough for Summerfield & Hecht. A little less than three months after the fire, the business partners announced in an ad in the Free Press on April 21, 1929, that they were out: "Good-bye, Detroit - We're through!"

After 26 years, the pair sold out to their former employers, liquidating their inventory and turning the stores over to Weil & Co. "We've been working like beavers, bringing merchandise from our warehouse," Hecht wrote in the ad for the liquidation. "I want to break all records in this great sale, and give the public values that will go down in history. Then we can close the books of this business, give Weil & Co. possession of our stores - and retire."

They didn't fully retire, however, with Hecht establishing the Alfred Realty Co., partnering again with his old pal Summerfield.

On May 12, 1929, a notice was published alerting shoppers that the Summerfield & Hecht liquidation was over and the stores closed. Ten days later, on May 22, 1929, grand reopenings as Weil & Co. were held at three of the former Summerfield & Hecht stores - 7925 W. Jefferson, 4500 Grand River, and 14155 Gratiot Ave. Those three locations were revamped and, in announcing the stores' grand reopenings, an ad in the Detroit Free Press proclaimed: "In dedicating this organization to the purpose of bettering the homes of the community, one fixed idea has been paramount. We must at all times provide a most complete and varied assortment of everything that is new and necessary to the home, and our merchandise must ever be priced economically. This we hold to be the responsibility of leadership."

Weil & Co. - slogan: "The store with a million friends" - now had five locations after the acquisition, including its main store on the corner of Michigan and Washington Boulevard and West Grand Boulevard near Woodward. Its main warehouse was at 17th and Hancock streets, and it kept the former Summerfield & Hecht warehouse at 14th and Porter streets.

Summerfield died Aug. 3, 1938, in New York of a heart attack. He was buried at Woodmere Cemetery in Detroit. Hecht died at age 59 on Jan. 23, 1935, of pneumonia at Harper Hospital. He was buried at Walnut Hill Cemetery in Cincinnati.

Major thanks to Ruth Mills for helping to research this article.

Last updated 06/06/2021