The Way It Was — Christmas at Hudson’s

Discover the magic that the department store offered this time of year by taking a closer look at this 1952 image.
Photograph courtesy of The Michael Hauser Collection


Five-year-old Skip Shaw was one of thousands of children over several generations who would relish cherished memories of meeting Santa Claus in the 12th-floor Toyland at the 25-story, Chicago School-style red-brick J.L. Hudson Co. department store on Woodward Avenue in downtown Detroit.

Famous for its elaborate Christmas decorations throughout the building, the store often featured animated window displays and a nine-story tree of lights that lit the front entrance facade.

When the white-gloved elevator operator called out the 12th-floor stop and opened the brass inner gate, parents and their excited youngsters were guided through a wonderland of fake snow and a forest of twinkling lights to Santaland, where the children waited anxiously in line to meet jolly old St. Nick. After being photographed with Santa and promising that they had been good all year, each child told him what they wanted for Christmas.

This photo appeared on the cover of the December 1952 issue of The Hudsonian, an informative and colorful in-house publication distributed to the personnel. By 1953, the store reportedly had 12,000 employees and posted an average of 100,000 sales a day.

Founded in 1881 by Joseph Lowthian Hudson, the retailer was first located in the old Detroit Opera House building before a new structure was erected in 1911 on Woodward, where it would undergo 12 expansions to cover an entire city block, becoming the world’s tallest department store, a title it held until 1961.

With declining sales and Detroit’s economic downturn beginning in the 1970s, the flagship store closed in 1983. On Oct. 24, 1998, an estimated 20,000 spectators and local television audience members watched the beloved store turn into a massive dust cloud following a 30-second ground-shaking implosion.

After almost two decades of Detroiters seeing a gaping vacant site in the heart of downtown, the Bedrock real estate firm owned by Dan Gilbert is completing a 1.5 million-square-foot mixed-use development on the property that will include luxury residences and a hotel, office and exhibition space, ground-floor retail, and a soaring tower that at 685 feet will be the second highest structure in the city. It is expected to open in 2024.

This story is from the December 2023 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.