Fates vary for Detroit’s Gruen shopping centers


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By Kim Silarski, Docomomo US/Michigan
As many of Detroit’s 1.8 million residents and their employers sprawled away from the city center in the early 1950s, the Motor City’s dominant downtown retailer, family-owned J.L. Hudson Company (known commonly as Hudson’s), did the same, albeit grudgingly. The region’s largest post-war development at the time, the modernist $30 million, two-million-square-foot Northland Center, opened in 1954. It was the brainchild of Austrian émigré architect Victor Gruen (b. 1903, d. 1980), the “father of the shopping mall” who convinced Hudson’s to follow its customers to the suburbs of Detroit, then the nation’s fifth largest city. Northland and its three sister “directional” malls initially thrived and expanded, but all suffered modifications, modernization, and additions that disguised their modernist bones over time.
Image above: Historic postcards of Northland Shopping Center. Credit: Kim Silarski Collection 
J.L. Hudson Company developed Northland (1954) and Eastland (1957) centers with Gruen as open-air environments and Westland (1965) and Southland (1970) with Gruen and architect Louis Redstone as enclosed malls, in inner-ring Detroit suburbs. All four were anchored by multiple-story full-line Hudson’s department stores and surrounded by acres of free parking for Detroit’s signature product - the automobile.  Northland and the slightly smaller Eastland featured classic mid-century modern architecture and design, original modernist sculptures by Midwesterners (several by acclaimed artist Marshall Fredericks), tasteful landscaping including rectangular reflecting pools with fountains and water lilies, familiar local stores linked by covered walkways with piped-in music, and popular annual community events such as holiday displays and the “Back To School Circus.”
The opening of Northland Center in a former farmer’s field in 1954 after two years of construction was a major news story reported across the United States as the arrival of America’s largest, most modern shopping center – the first shopping mall as we know them today. Southfield Township, incorporated as a city in 1957 and located at Detroit’s northern border (Eight Mile Road), was rapidly growing, spurred on in part by the extension of the John C. Lodge Freeway (M-10) north of Eight Mile in 1962.  In 1959, the stunning Minoru Yamasaki-designed Reynolds Metals regional sales office building became a Northland neighbor.

Historic postcards of Northland Shopping Center. Credit: Kim Silarski Collection

Historic postcards of Northland Shopping Center. Credit: Kim Silarski Collection

In the small, modest eastside bedroom community of Harper Woods, sandwiched between Detroit’s northeast side and the affluent lakefront Grosse Pointe communities, there was equal excitement in 1957 with the arrival of Eastland Center, except for the hold-out resident whose farmhouse stood on a prominent corner of the mall property until his death. 
Gruen envisioned these malls as new town squares, providing both convenient retail commerce and a community gathering place where fond family memories are made. He sought like-minded creative collaborators to produce these comprehensive and pleasing environments, such as landscape designer Edward A. Eichstedt, an apprentice of Chicago’s Jens Jenson. Eichstedt’s Detroit clients included General Motors and Wayne State University, specifically its Yamasaki-designed McGregor Memorial Conference Center. Noted graphic designer Alvin Lustig created the space-age starburst logo and typography that informed the centers’ entrances and signage.
Northland was comprised of 110 stores on a single ground level surrounding and facing a 475,000-sq. ft., four-story Hudson’s department store, all ringed with more than 8,000 parking spaces. Most of Detroit’s best-known retailers were there, including clothiers Hughes & Hatcher and Winkelman’s, Baker’s and Chandler’s shoe stores, Cunningham’s and Kresge drug stores, and hometown confectioner Sanders. Local electric utility Detroit Edison’s stores accepted payments, offered free light bulbs and repaired small appliances. Satellites on the mall grounds included Kroger supermarkets, a police mini-station, and Stouffer’s Restaurant (Stouffer’s was also present at Eastland, near a freestanding B. Siegel store). In the 1960s, a standalone Cinerama theater was added. The other directional malls started with twin standard screens, adding more screens over time. Adjacent apartment complexes and businesses incorporated the words Northland and Eastland in their names. Westland Center’s hometown, Nankin Township, incorporated itself as the City of Westland, after its mall.

Historic postcards of Northland Shopping Center. Credit: Kim Silarski Collection

Historic postcards of Northland Shopping Center. Credit: Kim Silarski Collection

By the mid-1970s, public tastes shifted and Hudson’s – then part of the Minnesota-based Dayton-Hudson Corporation following a merger with Minneapolis’ Dayton’s Department Store chain – opted to enclose and expand its open-air centers, allowing shoppers more options and environmental comfort in a decidedly four-season climate but eliminating the pleasant, civilizing aspects of the original concept. The natural gardens and peaceful plazas disappeared behind the new walls and high roofs, while expansions for additional stores further diminished the original layout and flow. The graceful exterior lines of the anchor Hudson’s buildings and the retention of a few beloved Marshall Fredericks sculptures, based on children’s stories including “The Lion and The Mouse,” were the only original design elements left on view.
Simultaneously in the mid-1970s, newer, larger “super-regional” enclosed malls were constructed in southeast Michigan by developer A. Alfred Taubman that  featured multiple anchor stores including Hudson’s in more far-flung yet growing suburbs, such as Lakeside Mall in Sterling Heights about 23 miles from downtown Detroit and Twelve Oaks Mall in Novi, about 30 miles from downtown. Ironically, later Taubman developments included the successful open-air “lifestyle center” The Mall at Partridge Creek, opened in 2007 just down the street from Lakeside. The 1970’s-era Taubman malls were larger and had all the required comforts of the day, but lacked architectural distinction or elegance. They remain relatively successful today yet are challenged by newer, even more deluxe malls.
Over time, Dayton-Hudson relinquished ownership of its Detroit-area malls and found itself a takeover target. Dayton-Hudson was purchased by Chicago-based Marshall Field’s in 2001, which was subsequently bought by May Company, then consumed by New York retail giant Federated Department Stores - Macy’s - in 2006. The Northland Macy’s store, the original Hudson’s, closed in spring of 2015, exactly 61 years to the day of Northland Center’s 1954 opening. The entire mall shut down shortly thereafter and the site was purchased by the City of Southfield. Current plans call for the former Macy’s building to remain while the entire site is redeveloped.

Building number six of the Northland Significance/Condition Report

Building number four and six of the Northland Significance/Condition Report

Eastland Center in Harper Woods retains its Macy’s and a Target as anchors, but suffers from lack of other national chain stores. Owned by Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp., its doors are still open but it is in receivership. The two other Hudson-Gruen directional shopping malls have fared better; Westland Shopping Center in Westland is owned by Cushman & Wakefield and has four anchors including Macy’s and Sears. Southland, owned by Rouse Properties, remains open in the city of Taylor, not far from Detroit-Wayne County Metropolitan Airport, with anchors Macy’s and JCPenney. 
In his later years, Victor Gruen would bemoan the shopping mall movement he had helped to spawn with Northland, Eastland, Westland and Southland, as well as the nation’s first enclosed mall, Southdale Shopping Center in suburban Minneapolis, a Gruen design opened in 1956 by Dayton’s Department Store. Inspired by Greek agoras, colonial town squares and European plazas, Gruen envisioned his malls as 20th-century utopian communal spaces that existed to serve and unite people and strengthen communities. Yet he soon realized that the suburban sprawl his shopping centers helped foster contributed directly to significant declines in traditional downtowns, a phenomenon that was increasingly evident in the city of Detroit during the second half of the 20th century. The behemoth downtown Detroit Hudson’s store closed in 1983 and was imploded in 1998; the Dan Gilbert-owned site is set to host a dramatic new mixed-use development.

Kim Silarski is a veteran Detroit-based journalist and communications manager at a Smithsonian-Affiliated museum in Dearborn, Mich. She grew up near Eastland, had a teenage flirtation with Lakeside, learned to drive a stick shift in Northland’s parking lot, and returned to Harper Woods 20 years ago as a homeowner.


Mall Maker: Victor Gruen, Architect of an American Dream by M. Jeffrey Hardwick (2004, University of Pennsylvania Press)

Plastichrome postcard series of Northland and Eastland Centers by Colourpicture Publishers, Inc., Boston 15, Mass. U.S.A. Copyrighted by Hiawatha Card Co., P.O. Box 56, Ypsilanti, Mich. Photos by Lucy Gridley. Year of publication not indicated; estimated late 1950s, early 1960s. From the author’s personal collection.

Archival and contemporary reportage of Northland and Eastland from their inceptions: various Detroit-area newspapers including the Detroit Free Press, The Detroit News.

Northland Significance/Condition Report by Deborah Goldstein and Ilene Tyler, Docomomo-US/Michigan, 2015. (.pdf attachment; also linked from blog post at http://tylertopics.com/blog-news/)