Furniture retail giant Van Elslander dies at 87

Ian Thibodeau, and Charles E. Ramirez
The Detroit News
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Warren — Art Van Elslander built a furniture-store empire of 181 locations from a single store.

Known for his debonair style, the founder of Art Van Furniture was a philanthropist who gave millions to charities and causes, including collecting and hauling 3 million bottles of water to Flint. In 1990, he wrote a personal check for $200,000 to save Detroit’s Thanksgiving parade.

Archie “Art” Van Elslander died Monday after battling lung cancer for several months. He was 87.

The first store, known then as Art Van’s, opened in 1959 on Gratiot at 10 Mile in what is now Eastpointe. It has since grown from Michigan to Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa and Missouri.

“He is a true icon in Michigan and Detroit,” Art Van Furniture CEO Kim Yost said Monday. “Every single award over six decades that was ever created (in the furniture industry), Mr. Van received. We see him as the king of Detroit. Let there be no mistake, whether it’s saving the parade, or giving back millions of dollars year after year to communities we’ve served, no one will leave a mark in terms of Detroit as he will.”

Yost, speaking Monday from Art Van’s flagship store in Warren, said until very recently he talked daily to “the chairman” on the phone — often shortly after Mr. Van Elslander had wrapped up his morning workout. He always asked “what was next” for the business. In an interview with The Detroit News in late November 2015, Mr. Van Elslander said he’d never retire.

“I don’t think I will,” he said then. “I think I’ll die in the saddle. When you’re having fun and really enjoying it, why on earth would you quit?”

Mr. Van Elslander sold the company in 2017 to a Boston-based private equity firm. After the sale, son Gary Van Elslander became Art Van Furniture’s president. Another son, David Van Elslander, became president of Art Van PureSleep. Both sons have since left the company.

His death comes as the furniture chain continues to expand into states throughout the Midwest and into Canada. Yost said the company will open its first store in Windsor this fall. Last week, the company opened five locations in Missouri and Illinois.

At the time of the sale, Art Van Elslander vowed he would continue his rich philanthropic heritage. He and his company have donated tens of millions of dollars to Michigan charities and causes.

In December, he donated $20 million to the Solanus Casey Center, a Catholic charity center in Detroit that’s named after the priest who is in the process of being canonized a saint. The donation paid homage to the friendship between Casey and Mr. Van Elslander’s father, a spokeswoman said.

The Van Elslander Family Foundation contributed the lead gift to support the expansion of St. John Hospital and Medical Center in Detroit; that included naming rights to a new 144-bed patient tower known as Van Elslander Pavilion. The Mary Ann Van Elslander Neonatal Intensive Care Unit was named after his wife, Mary Ann, “for the family’s support and Mary Ann’s longtime volunteer commitment to the Special Care Nursery,” according to St. John Providence.

One campaign, the Art Van Charity Challenge, awarded $8 million across eight years to nonprofits in the areas where Art Van has furniture or PureSleep mattress stores.

Mr. Van Elslander is also the man known for saving America’s Thanksgiving Parade.

When the parade was in danger of shutting down because of shaky finances, Mr. Van Elslander stepped forward with his checkbook. A consistent corporate donor since then, his company became the main sponsor in 2013, picking up an annual tab well into six figures. Until 2015, Mr. Van Elslander himself rode in the procession. He ceded that role to sons Gary and David, who rolled down Woodward in convertible Mustangs, but he watched from an office building along the route.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said in a statement the city has lost one of its greatest supporters and philanthropists.

“Furniture may have been Art Van Elslander’s business, but Detroit always has been his heart,” Duggan said. “Art’s kindness and generosity seemed to have no limits. There will never be another ‘Art Van.’ He will be terribly missed and fondly remembered.”

Dan Loepp, chairman of the Michigan Thanksgiving Parade Foundation, echoed that sentiment. The foundation stages the annual parade through downtown Detroit.

“Art Van was a true force in our community and we will greatly miss his tireless commitment to the parade and the many remarkable things he made possible throughout our region and state,” Loepp, who is also president and CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, said in a statement.

Tony Michaels, president and CEO of The Parade Company, which is the parade foundation’s marketing and operating division, also expressed the group’s condolences.

Wujek Calcaterra & Sons funeral home in Sterling Heights is handling the funeral arrangements, which had not been finalized by the family Monday night.

Mr. Van Elslander is survived by 10 children, 32 grandchildren, four great-grandchildren and one great-great grandchild.

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau

Staff Writers Neal Rubin and Maureen Feighan contributed.

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