Encyclopedia Of Detroit

Crowley, Milner and Co.

Crowley, Milner & Co., often called simply “Crowley’s,” was a major department store in downtown Detroit which spawned several satellite locations during its lifespan. The store was founded in 1909 when brothers Joseph, William and Daniel Crowley along with William Milner, owner of W.L. Milner Department Store in Toledo, Ohio, purchased the Pardridge and Blackwell (P&B) department store. P&B opened a huge six-story emporium facing Farmer Street in 1907, but economic problems of the time had almost forced P&B into bankruptcy.

The Crowleys and Milner envisioned their store as a high-end retailer selling luxury goods imported from Europe reflecting the affluence of the City of Detroit at the time. Between 1915 and 1926, with the economic and population boom in Detroit related to the growth of the automotive industry, Crowley’s expanded its site with several additions, including an 11-floor warehouse and administrative center, which were joined to the main store by an elaborate five-story bridge. By 1946, the store covered almost 800,000 square feet with 17.5 acres of floor space and 1,450 sales associates.

Crowley’s was known for its food service. Patrons could buy lunch, afternoon tea, and formal dinner on Saturday. Grinnell Brothers music store supplied pianos, allowing guests to enjoy music from well-known operas while they dined.

Crowley’s boasted several Detroit “firsts,” including the first escalator in 1909, which was replaced with the store’s famous wooden escalators in 1928. In 1920, the store was the first retailer to initiate time-payment sales, or layaway, on all general merchandise, with the sales financed through the Morris Plan Bank. They were the first Detroit retailer to use gasoline powered delivery vehicles rather than horse drawn wagons, and also pioneered a charge-plate system, an early version of credit cards, and a cycle billing program.

The store produced elaborate holiday displays in its “Toyland” section and was one of the first stores to offer souvenir photographs of a child posing with Santa Claus. Their “Lunch with Santa” program began in 1951. During the 1950s and 1960s, Crowley’s hosted a holiday festival in their seventh floor auditorium featuring carnival rides, a children’s snack bar, and surprise gifts from Santa. Crowley’s also began opening branch stores in the 1950s, expanding their presence beyond downtown. By the early 1990s there were over 10 branches around Metro Detroit.

To stimulate deteriorating sales in the 1960s and 1970s, Crowley’s responded with storewide events, special presentations in the auditorium, and Sunday shopping hours. Despite these efforts, sales at the downtown store in 1976 slid to levels lower than during the Great Depression until finally, the store closed on July 2, 1977. By 1999 all of the branch locations had closed, and in February of that year the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, liquidated its stock and sold its last remaining stores to Value City.



Crowley-Milner and Company photograph, 1935

Crowley, Milner and Company Department Store Photograph, 1940s

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