Building Grand Rapids: Part I, from Furniture City to urban renewal

From establishing itself as the Furniture City to urban renewal to renovations of historic buildings, GR has witnessed much transformation in its buildings. Read the first in a two-part piece on the last 100 years of construction in GR.
In 1826, French trader, Louis Campau, established a trading post within a wooded, pristine wilderness where indigenous Odawa, Ojibwa, and Potawatomi peoples thrived all along the banks of the Grand River. Five years later, Campau purchased the City of Grand Rapids’ current downtown business district for $90 from the federal government. By the time the City incorporated in 1850, it had one furniture factory and a handful of shops. In the following decades, banks, churches, and more furniture factories accommodated a growing industry and a growing population, which provided investment and labor.

Some of these buildings remain, for example, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, 134 North Division Ave. (1848); First (Park) Congregational Church, 10 E. Park Place NE (1868); the Ledyard Building, 125 Ottawa NW (1874); Berkey and Gay Furniture Company Factory, 940 Monroe NW (1874); Michigan Trust building, block of Pearl, Ottawa, Fountain and Ionia, NW (1892); The Waldron Hotel, 58 Ionia (1894); and the Grand Rapids Public Library (1902).

Michigan Trust BuildingGrand Rapids historian and author of Walking Tours of Heritage Hill and Almost Lost, Building and Preserving Heritage Hill, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Thomas Logan believes that even though their architecture is not unique or especially outstanding, Grand Rapids historic buildings lend an important essence to the City’s downtown.

“On Monroe Avenue, it’s nice to see a lot of the old buildings up and down the street that still have that character,” says Logan.

By the turn of the century, the "Furniture City” was home to Berkey and Gay’s successors, Baker Furniture Company, Williams-Kimp, American Seating, and Widdicomb Furniture Company. According to Logan’s photo-essay, published on the Grand Rapids Historical Commission’s website, more hotels began to spring up downtown near what was then a residential area along South Division Avenue. The Herkimer (Jenks) Hotel, built in 1905, served both residential and commercial customers.

According to Logan’s presentation notes, “By 1910, the population had grown to 112,571. In this second decade of the twentieth century, architects were moving away from the Chicago School. They had learned how to design a tall building, with a strong one- or two-story base, a multi-story shaft above it with a vertical visual emphasis, and a large cornice to cap the composition. But they were returning to classical elements for the decorations: fluted pilasters, round arches in stone, decorative urns, and brackets…The heavily decorated style they favored became known as the 'Beaux-Arts' style.”

In 1913, the Pantlind Hotel was built to exemplify this neoclassical style—and now is a part of the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel at 187 Monroe Avenue NW. The introduction of higher-speed elevators allowed the Pantlind and successive downtown structures to be built taller. In 1922, The Morton House, another example of the neoclassical style, was built at 72 Monroe Center NW. Banks and office buildings joined the growing cityscape. An interesting side-note, when the Waldron Hotel became The Williams Hotel in 1926, it also became the first Grand Rapids hotel owned by an African American.

Urban renewal: History lost, new perspective gained

Despite this strong architectural start, the ‘60s were not good years for downtown Grand Rapids’ historic buildings. Like in many of the nation’s larger cities, Urban Renewal resulted in demolitions for parking lots, office parks, and freeways, forcing many existing residents and businesses to relocate. By 1969, Grand Rapids’ developers had razed more than 120 old buildings. Even the Gothic Victorian-era Old City Hall and former Kent County Courthouse were demolished, despite well publicized protests.

Leyard Building“We lost a lot of history in ‘60s and ‘70s when urban renewal was tear-down and rebuild,” says Craig Datema, CEO and chairman of Triangle Inc., a construction management firm that has since been involved in renovating many of Grand Rapids’ historic gems. “The most public loss was the old Kent County Courthouse.”

“They practically destroyed the downtown with the urban renewal, parking lots, and freeway projects,” adds Logan. “The fortunate thing is that the renewal impulse didn’t extend to Monroe Center so a lot of the early 20th century buildings remain to give that feel of an earlier commercial district.”

The RoweLogan is glad that the new Grand Rapids Public Library building project ran out of funds before the old building was demolished. “When they built the new wing in 1969, they assumed that they would tear down the old library,” he says. “By the time they got to that point, wiser heads prevailed. Not only did they preserve it, they also renovated it to restore its original character and connected it in a logical way to the new structure. They did a wonderful job renovating that whole building.”

He also notes that several historic buildings have been successfully repurposed. For example, the Federal Building, now part of Kendal College of Art and Design, which has maintained the original character of its courtrooms and main lobby, and, his favorite, the Ledyard Building. “The old Ledyard Building along Lyon near Monroe has an interesting history,” he says. “At one time, the public library was in that building and some of the public museum exhibits started out there.”

The Federal BuildingTriangle Inc. completed that renovation of the Ledyard in 1987. The project combined seven individual buildings into a complex retail space and tied two city blocks together with a multi-story atrium. “We had to be quite creative in how we aligned the floor systems in order to make it all work,” Datema says. “I believe that project was the first example of a major, downtown renovation.”

Logan also notes that several current renovation projects give fitting homage to the architecture of Grand Rapids’ past.

“Another favorable turn, some renovations, like those that Sam Cummings of CWD has been doing, give more character as the old buildings’ facades are uncovered,” Logan says. “In several cases, it’s the old buildings that have been rehabbed that provide more interest and continuity.”

Read more next month as part two of this story discusses how, in the new century, Grand Rapids got its groove back through creative renovations and its role as the nation’s Green Building capitol.

“Constructing the future” is a new 12-part series from Rapid Growth that will explore issues facing, and related to, West Michigan’s construction industry and the numerous organizations, trends, and innovations seeking to create positive advances in our community. The series is sponsored by Triangle Associates, a West Michigan-based construction company that provides construction management, design/build services, general contracting, integrated project delivery, and more to projects locally and across the country.

A working writer since 1992, Estelle Slootmaker is happiest writing about social justice, wellness and the arts. Stelle serves as communications manager for Our Kitchen Table and chairs the City of Wyoming Tree Commission (The Tree Amigos). You can contact Stelle at [email protected] or via her website,

Images courtesy of the Grand Rapids Historical Commission.
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