Hudson's building implosion: 25 years since the dust cloud engulfed the city of Detroit

Tuesday, Oct. 24 marks two anniversaries at FOX 2: One is the 75th anniversary of WJBK, the other is the 25th anniversary of the iconic implosion of the Hudson's building in downtown Detroit, which enveloped everything around it – including FOX 2 anchors Huel Perkins and Monica Gayle – in a massive cloud of dust.

Known as The Big Store, the J.L. Hudson's Department Store was the premier shopping center in the heart of downtown Detroit. Opened in 1891 and standing proudly at over 400 feet, Hudson's was not only the tallest department store in the world with over 2 million square feet of floor space but also was one of the three largest department stores in the world.

Although many Metro Detroiters will remember its Maurice Salad, Hudson's was famous for its most beloved tradition - the J.L. Hudson Thanksgiving Day Parade through downtown.

Complete with marching bands, giant heads, elaborate floats, costumes, clowns, balloons and of course, Santa Claus, the parade route attracted hundreds of thousands of people from all across Metro Detroit into downtown. According to architect and author Bruce Kopytek, for Detroit Hudson's was truly an icon.

"It became an institution that was really associated with the city of Detroit," Kopytek told FOX 2 in 2020. "You trusted the store to have the best of everything. At Christmastime, if there were Hudson's boxes under the tree that meant that you're getting something really good."

Original elevator from old Hudson's building getting new life in Bloomfield Hills home

Over its 107-year lifetime, Hudson's become an international fixture of Detroit with the largest American Flag in the country on its exterior. During its peak in the 1950s and '60s, it featured more than 200 departments with over 16,000 vendors from 40 different countries.

"If you walked around downtown Detroit and you had a nice green polka dot Hudson's shopping bag that meant that you were somebody because you just bought something at Hudson's," Kopytek said.

Hudson's decline

For years, that department store was the premier spot to shop in downtown Detroit and was also one of the most important department stores in the county. Its heyday was in the 1950s and '60s. In fact, in 1954 Hudson's reportedly had sales of more than $163 million -- which is equal to more than $1.4 billion today.

Sales started to decline by the mid-70s and, coinciding with the dwindling population of Detroit as residents moved out of the city, Hudson’s closed its doors in 1983. 

As the city population dwindled, so did Hudson's and, by 1983, the building closed its doors.

For 15 years, the century-old building stood at the corner of Woodward Ave and Grand River between Grand Circus and Campus Martius.

Eventually, in 1998, the building was imploded – which added an iconic chapter to this legendary building.

Hudson's implosion

On October 24, 1998, the old flagship store was demolished in a ‘controlled implosion’. At the time, the 14-story building was the tallest structure ever imploded.

FOX 2 covered the implosion live from downtown Detroit with Huel and Monica sitting a few blocks away, overlooking the implosion.

Behind them, the building built into a billowing dust cloud before eventually enveloping them and all onlookers in a massive pile of dust and debris. The dust cloud was so big, it could be seen from Southfield.

Perkins and Gayle held face masks as they turned around and faced the spreading dust. 

"We can see and feel little tiny particles of the building coming down," Perkins said.

He then went to Al Allen – wearing a hard hat, mask and safety goggles – to find out if the People Mover's rails survived the implosion.

"We survived the dust. There was a lot of dust down here, thousands of pounds of dust, like a huge cloud that engulfed everyone here. People were running," Allen said.

The People Mover sustained some damage but is, of course, still working today. 

Fortunately, there were no serious injuries to the 20,000 people who watched the implosion live in person but it did shatter windows at many of the then-abandoned buildings across Woodward Avenue. 

After the implosion, the lot was turned into a four-level underground parking garage in 2001.

Huel and Monica sit among the cloud and debris from the Hudson's building in Downtown Detroit on Oct. 24, 1998.

Hudson's future

If you head downtown to Woodward Avenue today – or at any point in the past five years – you'd have seen construction crews working on the building of the new Hudson's building. Once complete, the 685-foot-tall building will be the second-tallest in the city and state.

Starting on the first floor, the building will have retail and ‘experience’ spaces along Woodward and Grand River.

New renderings of Hudson's site development in Downtown Detroit

The mixed-use building will have public spaces throughout, venues on the second and third floors of the building, and more. Events in these spaces can hold between 50 and 2,500 people.

Construction started in 2017 with the groundbreaking ceremony. Since then, 130-foot caissons were drilled to support the foundation and more than 10,200 tons of steel and 11,600 beams were used to create structural support.

Since March 2021, the building has been steadily growing up and the office building topped out at 220 feet. Structural work on the tower is still underway and will reach its final height of 685 feet later this year, making it the second-tallest building in Detroit and Michigan.

The development is expected to be finished by 2024.