Encyclopedia Of Detroit

Ernst Kern Company

Kern’s was founded in 1883 by Ernst Kern, Sr., and his wife Marie Held Kern.  Kern was a German immigrant who specialized in imported fabrics, laces and ribbons.  From a modest location at St. Antoine and East Lafayette, the firm moved to Randolph and Monroe, finally settling in 1897 at Woodward and Gratiot.  Sons Ernst, Jr., and Otto took over the company following the senior Ernst’s death in 1901.  Marie maintained management duties until after World War I.

Between 1919 and 1928 several expansions led to a ten-story addition encompassing 200,000 square feet. Kern’s spacious main floor had a rich art deco look. The marble floors were accentuated with a 30-foot high ornamental ceiling, decorative cast-iron railings, and rich mahogany counters.  New additions to the store included an auditorium, a roof garden, an employee gymnasium, a dining room, an elevator bank featuring 21 cars, and new street entrances directly to the basement. By this point, the store employed 500 associates.

Kern’s pioneered mail-order services to out-of-state customers.  The store also featured a Brentano’s Book Shop and initially a lending library.  Kern’s was famous for its Basement Dollar Days.  The Founder’s Sale, however, was Kern’s largest storewide sale conducted each September.  Crowds became so immense for this extravaganza in the late 1930s that Chevrolet offered courtesy automobiles to shuttle shoppers home with their purchases.

Children could not wait to visit Kern’s Toyland where they could get a free book from Santa, merry go-round rides, and surprise packages.  The store changed the theme of the Toyland regularly, alluding to poplar children’s characters like “Dumbo” and “The Lone Ranger.”  

Otto Kern sold the company in 1957, citing the lack of customer parking, emerging suburban shopping centers, and the inability of Kern’s to establish branch locations as challenges.  Despite upgraded merchandise, innovative promotions, and a modernized physical plant, the store closed its doors on December 23, 1959 -- as the famous Kern’s clock that had adorned the store since 1933 struck midnight. 

The clock was removed in 1966 and placed in storage until the Junior League of Detroit lead a campaign to restore it in the late 1970s.   In 1980 it was rededicated at Woodward and Gratiot.  It was removed in 1998 to make way for the demolition of Hudson’s Department Store, only to be restored again in 2003 by Compuware Corporation, which built its headquarters at the former Kern’s site.

 


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