Detroit: A City on the Rise: Merchant’s Row

BY CHRIS ZADOROZNY, Staff Columnist

When Detroit was in its golden age, Merchant’s Row was the place to be. Merchant’s Row is now known as the Lower Woodward Historic District.  It runs from Grand Circus Park in the north, to Campus Martius Park in the south.  It’s not very large, just three blocks long, consisting of 31 commercial buildings.

As mentioned in the second article of this series, when talking about the Somerset CityLoft, the historic district was the largest in the country and the busiest in the 1920’s.  The intersection of State Street and Woodward Avenue was the biggest (most congested) pedestrian crossing in 1925.  Well, other than just mentioning some minor facts about the historic district, we are going to dig deep and find out what really was there and what is being done to revitalize what was the best shopping district in the city.

Merchant’s Row looking South on Woodward

Merchant’s Row flagship stores were the J.L. Hudson Department Store, Vernor’s Soda Fountain, Sanders Confectionery, the S.S. Kresge Company, and Kern’s Department Store.  The J.L. Hudson Building, which is now just an empty lot, was the tallest department store in the world.  It was 33 stories high and had 2.2 million square feet of retail space.  It was where every Detroiter went to shop Downtown.  The building was demolished in October of 1998 and the lot has been empty since.  The only thing that exists is an underground parking structure.

For 13 years, nothing has been talked about for the site until recently.  Dan Gilbert, mentioned a couple of articles ago, is looking into the site and has requested a longer tax break for it.  It currently has a tax break until 2017.  If Gilbert gets his way, which has usually happened with the purchase of many buildings downtown, it will become a space that will hopefully get used again.  His tentative plan for the site, or so the rumors go as of now, is that it would be a mixed use building of retail, office space, restaurants, and residencies.  There is no firm plan in place to start building, but at least there is speculation for the former Hudson’s site.

The empty site of the former J.L. Hudson’s Building

The Kern’s Building was directly next to Hudson’s and the Compuware Building now sits on the site.  Kern’s was another department store in Downtown Detroit, not as popular as Hudson’s but there was something that made it stand out from the others: its clock.  The big saying back then was, “Meet me under the Kern’s clock,” as it was so busy that if you were under the clock, people knew where to find you.

Vernor’s was the pop of city.  It has been around since 1866 and had a flagship store on the corner of Woodward Avenue and Clifford Street.  Detroit is still known for Vernor’s but the flagship store on Woodward no longer exists.  Tall-EZ Shoes now sits in the original spot where the drug store was.  Sanders Confectionery was the ice cream of the city like Vernor’s was the pop of the city.  Sanders original confectionery was right across the street from the Kern’s Building.  Sanders now only has a handful of stores left in the Metro-Detroit area, but is working on building their once successful empire back up.  A parking structure now is built on where the former flagship store was.

Finally, the Kresge Flagship store was located across the street from the Hudson’s store.  Kresge is now known as Kmart, but back then was yet another department store that Detroiters shopped.  The original headquarters was located in Grand Circus Park, but the department store was in the small little corner of the world that was the busiest in 1925.  The building is not what it once was, but it’s on its way.  The former flagship store for Kresge now has a restaurant and a few shops.

Somerset CityLoft, a topic covered in the second article is also helping to revitalize the area.  It was a bunch of shops from Somerset Mall in Troy, making mini-stores out of a couple of ground level floors just off of Clifford Street on Woodward Avenue.  It started something great, only one weekend a month from June-October.  It looks as if the mini-stores succeeded as they will come back for the Christmas rush.  They will be open December 1, 2, and 3 from 11am-7pm.
There are still many empty buildings in the former Merchant’s Row, but with the revitalization of the area, they probably won’t sit empty for long.  Dan Gilbert and Somerset are leading the charge for the area.  Don’t be surprised if this area once again becomes the heart of Downtown.

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