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Hudson's North Pole

Story and photos courtesy of John J. Vallance, Windsor

Christmas today just isn’t the same without the traditional visit to Hudson’s in downtown Detroit for a trip to the North Pole and a seat on Santa’s knee. Windsor’s John Vallance takes us back to that magical era.

The Hudson’s store was made up of six
different buildings built between 1891 and 1946.
Together, they covered an entire city block at
Woodward and Gratiot Avenues in downtown Detroit.

The adventure always began with a bus ride through the tunnel from Windsor to Detroit. Stepping from the warm bus into the frosty air of Cadillac Square, the busy sidewalks crowded with throngs of holiday shoppers.

Snowflakes landed in your hair and the wind was cold, but you didn’t care. You were heading some place very special.

As you drew near, the building stood tall against the cold, gray sky, display windows filled with colours of the season. In contrast with the dark red brickwork, several thousand white twinkling lights formed a huge Christmas tree that stretched from the ground floor window awnings clear to the tip of the tenth floor! You had arrived.

As you pushed through the heavy revolving doors, the smell of bus fumes quickly dissolved into the lovely scents coming from dozens of cosmetic counters. Those who entered from Gratiot Avenue were greeted by the aroma of candy and freshly baked chocolate chip cookies.

You made sure to hang on extra tight to Dad’s hand – he might never find you should you happen to get lost in this vast crowd. Still a long way up to your destination: the North Pole.

As you wait for the elevator a group of Christmas carolers entertains the crowd while noisy children take turns getting a sip of water from one of the sleak brass drinking fountains. One of the 59 elevators opens and you step inside.

A lady operates this elevator – sharply dressed in a gray uniform with white gloves. Floor after floor glide by until finally, you arrive at the North Pole – in reality, the large store auditorium on the twelfth floor.

Stepping from the elevator, you stare in absolute wonder at an entire indoor forest of trees decorated with more lights than you could ever count. As you walk through the forest you see elves, reindeer and even chipmunks hard at work helping Santa get ready for his big night. Finally, to a long line of eager and restless children and you know soon you’ll meet the famous jolly man himself.

Santa Claus arrives at Hudson's;
Thanksgiving Day, 1968

After your turn on Santa’s knee, you simply have to visit the spectacular Toy Department conveniently located on the same floor. What a department it is – an entire jungle of stuffed animals, dolls from around the wold, games of every description, and speeding slot-car races! When you look up there are model airplanes hanging at crazy angles – some of them look as if they are about to crash into the bridges, castles and other fabulous creations built with Lego Bricks and Lincoln Logs.

You press your nose against the glass to watch several tiny trains make their journey over what seems like miles and miles of miniature electric track. You don’t want to ever leave!

This was the special childhood magic of a visit to Hudson’s on one cold December Saturday in 1964.

Hudson’s was more than a store. It was a unique part of Detroit and Windsor’s way of life for nearly a century. It was not just a place to buy things, but a place to be amazed! Hudson’s seemed to have an unmatched sense of style and a one-of-a-kind flare for display. A trip to Hudson’s was never just a shopping trip – it was an adventure!

By the time Hudson’s reached its final Christmas season in 1982, the huge store was only a shadow of its former glorious self. Thirteen floors of merchandise had dwindled down to only seven. Only one restaurant was still serving meals. Although the fabulous Christmas decorations remained inside the store, the incredible animated window displays and giant tree of lights were gone from Woodward Avenue.

Following a gigantic January liquidation sale that nearly emptied the huge building of merchandise and fixtures, the lovely old department store turned out the lights and locked the doors for the last time on Monday, January 17th, 1983.

The demise of the store (1983), the building (1998), and the Hudson’s name (2001) have left quite a vacancy in the downtown Detroit scene. At present, a brand new office and retail shopping development is under construction on the large site where the former red brick giant once stood.

But one thing most certainly is for sure – it will never be the same.
(look for more on Hudson’s in a future issue)



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