Encyclopedia Of Detroit

Ernst Kern Company

Kern’s department store once rivaled Hudson’s in its popularity and quality of service, and sat alongside it for 76 years. Founded in 1883 by German immigrants Ernst and Marie Kern, the Ernst Kern Company began on a small scale featuring imported fabrics and laces. From its first location on St. Antoine Street between East Lafayette and Fort streets, the firm moved to Randolph and Monroe streets before finally settling in 1897 at Woodward and Gratiot avenues. Sons Ernst Jr. and Otto took over the company following their father’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. The building featured Art Deco styling with mahogany counters, 30-foot high ceilings and decorative cast-iron railings. To enhance the store’s appeal, an auditorium, roof garden, dining room, 21-car elevator bank, and a gymnasium for its 500 employees were added. New street entrances led customers directly to the basement.

Kern’s pioneered mail-order services to out-of-state customers. The store also featured a Brentano’s Book Shop and a lending library. Kern’s was famous for its Basement Dollar Days and Founder’s Sale. Every September the Founder’s Sale drew such crowds that, in the late 1930s, Chevrolet offered free rides home to package-laden shoppers. By this time, a third generation of Kerns, Otto’s sons Ernst F. and Richard, had strategic positions in the company.

Very popular with children, Kern’s Toyland featured visits with 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 outside of the store since 1933, struck midnight. The building was demolished in 1966, and the site is now occupied by the One Campus Martius building, completed 2003. The clock was saved and restored, and can been seen near its original location.



Kern's Department store exterior, 1920s

Kern's Department Store interior, 1920s

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