Furniture magnate Art Van Elslander dies at 87

By: Brian Louwers, K. Michelle Moran | C&G Newspapers | Published February 12, 2018

 Art Van Elslander opened his first store in 1959 and later grew Art Van Furniture into a company with nearly 4,000 employees and 100 stores across the Midwest.

Art Van Elslander opened his first store in 1959 and later grew Art Van Furniture into a company with nearly 4,000 employees and 100 stores across the Midwest.

Facebook photo by Art Van Furniture

WARREN — Art Van Elslander, a Detroit-born businessman and philanthropist who founded one of the nation’s largest independent furniture sellers, died Feb. 12 surrounded by his family at the age of 87, Art Van Furniture officials confirmed in a Facebook post.

The son of a Belgian immigrant who started work in the retail business at the age of 14 in a men’s clothing store, Van Elslander graduated from Detroit’s Denby High School in 1948, served in the U.S. Army and started a family before he got his start in the industry he would transform in the decades to come. In 1959, he opened his first furniture store in 4,000 square feet of space on Gratiot Avenue in East Detroit, now Eastpointe. He announced his decision to sell the company to a private equity firm in January 2017 after he grew Art Van Furniture to include nearly 4,000 employees and 100 stores across the Midwest, headquartered on 14 Mile Road, west of Van Dyke Avenue, in Warren.

Van Elslander proudly put his own support and that of his company behind many charities and causes, including Detroit’s annual Thanksgiving Day parade, Focus:HOPE and Forgotten Harvest.

The statement posted on Art Van Furniture’s Facebook page indicated that the family “appreciates the outpouring of love and support,” while requesting privacy at this time.  

“My family is heartbroken by the loss of our father,” his eldest son, Gary Van Elslander, said in the statement.

Additional details, including funeral arrangements, were not immediately available at press time.

Van Elslander’s former longtime home on Lake Shore Road in Grosse Pointe Shores — where he lived for many years — was well-known in the community, especially for the spectacular Christmas lights and decorations that could be enjoyed by motorists each year.

Grosse Pointe Shores City Manager Mark Wollenweber said by email that when the lakefront house was constructed, “It was one of the most expensive here in Grosse Pointe Shores.” Van Elslander kept a low profile in the community, but Wollenweber said Van Elslander’s wife was a volunteer at Services for Older Citizens, a nonprofit that offers programs and help to seniors in the Grosse Pointes and Harper Woods.

Like many, Wollenweber is familiar with Van Elslander’s contributions to America’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

“I am sure one of his many contributions to the whole area was saving (what was formerly known as) the Hudson’s Thanksgiving Day Parade,” Wollenweber said by email.

Van Elslander’s gifts to the parade are one of the many he made to nonprofits and causes throughout metro Detroit. St. John Hospital and Medical Center, whose campus is in Detroit and Grosse Pointe Woods, was a major recipient. Part of the St. John Providence health system, the hospital is now part of Ascension Healthcare. Through personal and foundation gifts, Van Elslander, his family and his foundation donated more than $21 million to St. John Providence.

Brian Taylor, a spokesperson for Ascension Michigan, said by email that Van Elslander was “St. John Providence’s largest donor.”

A gift to St. John Hospital and Medical Center’s expansion campaign helped to construct the Van Elslander Pavilion patient tower, which brought a new Heart and Circulatory Center and Diagnostic Imaging Center, along with 144 private patient rooms, to the hospital. Other donations were crucial in the creation of the Van Elslander Cancer Center and expansion and renovation of the hospital’s Mary Ann Van Elslander Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and Special Care Nursery, Taylor said.

“It is incredibly difficult to put into words the great sadness we all feel about the death of Art Van Elslander,” Patricia Maryland, the president and CEO of Ascension Healthcare, said via email. “The world has lost a larger-than-life individual and a great friend.

“A dynamic and successful businessman, Art spent much of his life giving back — abundantly — to the community that supported his businesses over the years,” she continued. “His gifts to our health system — and to many other charitable programs in Michigan and beyond — have had immeasurable impact on the quality of life for individuals and families within the community.”