Sixteen-year-old Richard H. Fyfe came to Detroit in 1855 looking for work, finally finding a job at a shoe store. In just 10 years, he rose from cobbler to one of the city’s top retailers. On March 4, 1917, a fire destroyed his store and left five firefighters dead.
But Fyfe, 78 by that time, wasn’t ready to hang ’em up. In fact, he decided to build anew, but build bigger, hiring the firm Smith, Hinchman & Grylls to design him the world’s biggest shoe store. His “Temple of Shoes,” offering 10 floors of nothing but footwear, opened Feb. 17, 1919.
When Fyfe died Oct. 27, 1931, at age 92, the Detroit Free Press reflected on his 75 years in the city selling shoes. Fyfe watched Detroit grow from a city of about 40,000 people to one of 1.5 million, as if the city were “growing out of one size shoe after another.”
Unlike many retailers, the company stayed loyal to Detroit and refused to open stores in the suburbs. While noble, it was foolish. By the late ’60s, the store’s 10 stories of shoes had been reduced to one. After 106 years, the R.H. Fyfe Co. entered bankruptcy in September 1971. Its store was quickly converted into apartments.
Coincidentally, before Hazen S. Pingree became Detroit’s greatest mayor, he was a simple shoemaker, and he used to bring his wares in a big basket to Fyfe’s store to sell. Today, the Pingree Monument sits across from Fyfe’s former store.