The Way It Was – Fyfe’s Shoes, 1933

Fyfe’s Shoes, 1933
Photograph courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library


Detroit’s association with the automobile industry is rock-
solid, earning it the enviable sobriquet “The Motor City,” but the city once had a much more diverse economic association: shipbuilding, seeds, pharmaceuticals, stove-making, railcars, cigar-making, music publishing, and shoe manufacturing.

In fact, Hazen Pingree, widely regarded as Detroit’s greatest mayor, started out selling shoes in the 19th century. However, in the town’s shoe business, nothing could quite compete with the 1919 opening of Fyfe’s Shoe’s 14-story Gothic-style “Temple of Shoes” at West Adams and Woodward, named after Richard H. Fyfe, who had already made his fortune then in the shoe business. At the time of its construction, it was the world’s largest shoe retailer; this photo dates to the early 1930s, when Grand Circus Park and Woodward was downtown’s hub of activity.

Fyfe’s was no ordinary purveyor of footwear. A playroom and merry-go-round brightened the children’s department on the second floor, while a putting green adorned the fifth floor. Looking north on the west of Woodward, one can see the signage of the State Theatre (in 1937, it was to be known as the Palms-State Theatre). Farther north is the Fox Theatre, built in 1928. Often, early street scenes such as these also chronicle the demise of buildings, but not here.

Happily, the Fyfe Building is still standing, long since kicking off its shoes, relaxing, and opening its home to residential units. The State is now known as The Fillmore Detroit, and the sumptuous Fox is still going strong. This cluster of Detroit is undeniably alive, forging ahead into the 21st century.