The "Window" of Opportunity

December, 2006.

The People's Outfitting Building somehow managed to survive being wiped out like the other big department stores downtown, and I estimate it was mainly due to its more reasonably-sized building lending it to a readier reuse plan than say, the mammoth big-block stores like Kern's, Crowley's, Krolik's, or Hudson's, all of which had been demolished by the time this tower was finally going vacant in the 1990s.


What makes People's historic, according to the book Twentieth Century Retailing in Downtown Detroit by Michael Hauser and Marianne Weldon is that they were "the first large retail concern to extend credit at retail." From Detroitblog's old research (which I conveniently saved an offline copy of), 
The store was founded by Adolph and Ignatz Freund, German immigrants who came to Detroit in 1877. They built and opened their store a year later, selling “Toys and Fancy Goods” such as baby carriages, carts, wagons and dollhouses.  The business faded after a time, and in 1893 the building it had occupied at Michigan and Shelby was sold to Leopold Wineman, who founded the People’s Outfitting Company department store. 
From the start, People’s offered customers both 30-day and 60-day charge accounts with no interest charges, unheard of at the time in retail department stores. “It’s Easy to Pay – the People’s Way” was its motto for the policy. At the time, the store lauded the interest-free accounts as “a dignified and wholesome method of buying (which) develops the habits of thrift and frugality, and enables everyone to make ‘home’ the best place on earth.” The policy was so unique it made national headlines.

After a few years, People’s outgrew the building and purchased the adjacent one. The company soon outgrew both of them and added a floor atop each in 1903. Even this stopgap measure wasn’t sufficient.
In 1908, the store had to commission the construction of a warehouse at Grand Boulevard and E Street to clear room for retail displays in the main store. It soon outgrew that too, and a separate, five-story warehouse, designed by Albert Kahn, was built at Warren between Maple and Williamson. It was so large its garage could hold 50 trucks at once.

But the rapidly expanding store could not operate in its small, original space, and a new 12-story building, cloaked in terra cotta, with large, open floors, was built on the site.

The entrance and upper levels were done in Italian Renaissance style, and the vestibule and display windows featured mosaic-tiled floors. The main concourse was tiled with colorful ceramic, and the plate glass windows at street level were the largest single sheet glass of any store in Detroit. The second floor, consisting mostly of offices, were ringed with a balcony from which the lower level could be viewed.

The new store, with 78,000 square feet of retail space, opened to the public on May 11, 1916, with a large party featuring a day of concerts inside. In addition to the moderately priced home furnishings the company had become famous for, the store began offering more high-end merchandise, promising “furniture of every description for every room in the home.” People’s offered everything imaginable, from furniture, carpets and drapes to jewelry, cameras, Victrola phonographs, washing machines, pianos and even auto tires. At the time it billed itself as Detroit’s largest furniture department store.

By the 1920s, People’s was one of the country’s largest department stores, with branches in Buffalo and Syracuse in New York; Cleveland, Cincinnati, Toledo and Springfield in Ohio; Scranton and Wilkes-Barre in Pennsylvania; and Indianapolis in Indiana. It also began offering home delivery.
A descendant of Leopold Wineman was in fact one of the eight partners who founded the Old Wayne County Building Ltd. Partnership, that financed the restoration of the Wayne County Building in the 1980s (other partners included the Farbmans, and the three top officers of Thorn Apple Valley, Inc.).


This 12-story bastard posed quite the challenge for many, many years however, to those of us who were interested in sneaking inside. It was infamously well sealed, and as far as I know never showed even a moment of weakness in the entire decade or so that it stood vacant. It became known as one of those proud few abandoned skyscrapers downtown that "no one" had been in (except of course, David Kohrman), and we came to regard it with a bit of apprehension of whatever might be behind this seeming invincibility.

My first serious attempt at getting in (other than accessing it from the skybridge that connected it to the Peter Smith & Sons Building on the 9th or 10th floor) was to try going in through a mockingly wide-open window on the third floor facing the alley. I had Sloop requisition the longest extension ladder he could find, but it was not quite long enough, and moreover the guards at the Book-Cadillac were beginning to take notice of my increased attentions as of late.


So naturally when the first predictable whispers began to issue from the now re-lighted windows of the Book-Cadillac Hotel of demolishing it in favor of a parking garage, we knew we had to heighten our vigil. If the window of opportunity presented itself it would be fleeting at best, and we had to be ready to pounce.

That "window" presented itself in December, 2006. I just remember running down Washington to the payphone by the Tubby's to call Chisel and Detroitblog John the moment I happened to spot an exploitable hole while driving by after work one day. Minutes later, we were inside.


There was not much of a lobby in this place, these stairs were about all that survived the 1960s bomb. The rest of the interior left much to be desired...namely any kind of trace of its original decor:


One more interesting little historic anecdote I dug up is that People's Outfitting actually sued another company in 1912 for registering their business under an intentionally similar name, in the Michigan Supreme Court case, People's Outfitting Co v. People's Outlet Co.


Almost every building visible in this next shot is vacant or abandoned...the small white three-story building on the opposite corner (201 Michigan Avenue) was needlessly demolished in 2013:


The Book-Cadillac, now seemingly under renovation (for real this time) loomed, windowless, across the street, and it was merely for the sake of its (hoped-for) new residents being able to park their cars that the People's was about to be demolished:


When People's was bought out by State Sample and moved out from this building in 1959, it was renamed the Detroit Commerce Building and housed a few various municipal and county agencies. Ironically, one of the last entities to reside in the structure before it closed in 1997 was the Detroit Historic Commission. Detroitblog pointed out that the Army Corps of Engineers also occupied several floors here during that time, I would guess most likely because the McNamara Federal Building stands down the street from it, where they are headquartered today.

The very last tenant was a Schnelli's Deli, a beloved lunch spot whose loss was mourned with wails, tearing of hair, and beating of breast by many an inconsolable Army Corps of Engineers employee even to this day (as I can personally attest). According to those who remember, no deli downtown today can compare. I guess the new, car-driving residents of the Book-Cadillac Hotel will never get to experience it either.

If you look at the terra cotta treatments here, you'll see that it is very similar to some of what Albert Kahn did on the Kales Building and the (old) Detroit Free Press Building when he built them around the same time:


You might also notice that a lot of my shots are identical to the shots that Detroitblog took, since we were both greedily chomping off each other, just happy to finally have a chance at shooting this place.



The broad flank of the Lafayette Building's old north elevation took up most of the view from this building's front-facing windows:


After moving out, People's / State Sample eventually went bankrupt, but there was a plan in 1969 to rescue it from insolvency and turn it into one of the largest black-owned businesses in the city. Unfortunately the financing never worked out and the company ceased to exist.


The view from the rear windows however was quite nice, once you got up above the 9th floor or so:


The view over the roof of the old Colonial Building across the alley allowed glimpses of Capitol Park's rotting glory:




As I've said before, I like arches, so after the mind-numbing sameness of the People's middle floors, I was excited to get up to the top floor and start shooting more:


A lot of the archy goodness was obscured however by crappy modern office architecture:


Exasperated, I found that climbing up on top of one of the office dividers was just the ticket to getting a better shot:




Pretty soon that wasn't enough anymore and I started hanging out the window again to get shots of the arch-itecture from the exterior:


And of course from the roof there were the requisite looking-down shots...


...where you can see just how much of the roofline of this building was 1960s-ified by stripping off its terra cotta ornamentation in favor of regular glazed brick--a move reportedly spurred by the death of a pedestrian who was killed on Woodward by a piece of falling masonry from an aging building in 1958. As a result of the tragedy, the city conducted a crusade to remediate all excessive cornice ornamentation downtown, and the result is the muted effect you see today on almost every single historic building here. (I wonder where all the fancy rubble that was removed ended up?)

But as you can see even that replacement brick has begun to show its age as well:


Happily though, you can see that the elevator penthouse's cornice has been left unmolested:


The People's Outfitting Building was also into urban farming before it was cool:


Off in the distance the Fort Shelby Hotel lay quiet and dark still, despite recent talk that investors might be ready to give it a new future in light of the similar action that seemed to be stirring for the Book-Cadillac:


The better half of the Park Apartments loomed nearby, and the Fisher Building off in the distance:


I personally think that it might have been one of Louis Kamper's better designs for a tall building...it seems to make a lot more sense than the Book Tower.

Pretty complex series of roofs over at the Peter Smith & Sons Building:


And here we have the Lafayette Building's arboretum, the top of the Levin Federal Courthouse, and 211 West Fort:


The service level at the top of this building contained a few interesting things that hearkened back to its days of being rebadged as the "Detroit Commerce Building"...it seemed to serve as an attic to toss old junk:



We of course came back at least once at night, for the consuming of the usual rooftop beers and sodium-tinted long-exposure shots:




Another look across at the now-demolished Lafayette Building's roofline:


As was so common back then, the lights were on but nobody was on the streets anywhere.


But at least the lights that were on in the Book Cadillac meant that someone would soon be home...you can see the stark contrast already as the decades of grime are power-washed from the facade:


The white blur in this shot is the viewfinder on my partner's camera as he stuck his tripod back out the window for another shot too soon:


But I do miss those nights, yes I do...



References:
Twentieth Century Retailing in Downtown Detroit, by Michael Hauser and Marianne Weldon
Industrial & Commercial Buildings, by Albert Kahn, Inc.
http://www.forgottendetroit.com/peoples/index.html
detroitblog.org
The Renaissance of the Wayne County Building, by Suzy Farbman and James P. Gallagher

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