The DA Blodgett Home for Children, once a palatial touch of classic
Greek architecture in the quaint East Hills neighborhood, is getting
recycled. Workers recently put up a chain link fence around the
property where the building was constructed in 1908. Then they tore
down two mismatched circa 1960 additions.
begins the highly delicate renovation – restoring massive Corinthian
columns, rebuilding the ornate covered entrance, or portico, and
planting an attractive public garden – that will transform the former
orphanage for homeless and nameless children into modern office space
in one of Grand Rapids’ hottest business districts.
The recycling of the Blodgett Home, a projected $7.4 million
project, is the latest sign that the city’s future depends intimately
on its past. Urban developers continue to invest billions of dollars in
contemporary sky rise hotels, high-tech medical labs, and the finest
modern museums money can buy.
But in the midst of all the new construction is a thriving local
movement to reclaim old – and usually abandoned – historic buildings.
Developers now race to find distinct structures that outlived their
original purpose but are ripe for new uses. Architects and
preservationists call it "adaptive reuse," and there are a growing
number of impressive examples throughout the central city.
A decommissioned water treatment plant on Monroe Avenue is becoming
office space. A former industrial power plant found new life as a west
side restaurant. Hulking furniture factories are now stylish
residential lofts. The old YMCA. Public school buildings. A 20th-century arena. The list goes on and validates a central theme
of Grand Rapids’ revival: People like to live where history prospers.
“Grand Rapids has become a real showcase for historic preservation
and urban redevelopment,” said Rhonda Saunders, the historic
preservation specialist for the City of Grand Rapids. “People want to
live in places with character. Preserving older buildings adds depth
and character – both visually and emotionally – to neighborhoods and
A Tipping Point
also adds economic value. One dollar spent rehabilitating old buildings
in Michigan, for example, generates eight more jobs than a dollar spent
in manufacturing car parts, according to a 2002 report prepared by the
Michigan Historic Preservation Network. The report found that
rehabilitation projects added $1.7 billion and 20,252 jobs to
Michigan’s economy since 1971. They also returned some $32 million in
once-abandoned or dilapidated properties to local tax rolls.
Backed by such clear economic potential, the commitment to historic
preservation is particularly strong now in Michigan’s second largest
city. Grand Rapids-based projects comprised a full 25 percent of those
applying to the state’s historic preservation tax credit program in
2005. And those developers approved by the program in 2004 invested
nearly $85 million in restoration projects around the city.
“We’ve passed a tipping point,” said Sam Cummings, president of
Second Story Properties. “Somebody did one project and it was viewed as
successful. So then somebody did another one. Now it’s spreading like
some sort of positive cancer. People are just not letting up.”
A New View
Not so long ago, the revival of
downtown life meant the destruction of historic places. Building codes
and bankers favored new construction over restoration. Realtors argued
no one would ever live downtown, especially in converted industrial
factories. And preservationists generally were perceived as crackpots.
Altogether, the urban renewal movement of the '50s and '60s demolished
128 structures across a 40-acre swath of the urban core. Lost to the
wrecking ball were dime stores, Keith’s Church, and the irreplaceable
City Hall building originally constructed in 1888.
Some critics still argue that historic preservation is an expensive
waste of time, and that designation of historic districts erodes
private property rights and gentrifies neighborhoods. But for the most
part those arguments prove unfounded. Designated historic districts
such as Heritage Hill, Cherry Hill and Fairmount Square, for example,
are some of the most diverse and attractive places to live and work in
the city. The community now embraces historic preservation as a common
sense way to maintain cultural roots, uphold community character and
stimulate local economies.
“We’ve gone through a real change in mindset,” said Rebecca
Smith-Hoffman, a co-owner of the consulting firm Past Perfect. “We’ve
pretty much killed the idea that we can or should knock our old
Indeed, restoration and preservation of historic structures is not
just a common theme flowing through the city’s 2002 Master Plan.
Redevelopment projects designed to update historic buildings for modern
applications now literally sit at the center of the push to revive
neighborhood and business districts across the city.
The Ultimate Recycling
The Wealthy Theatre,
originally built in 1911, was slated for demolition in 1989. The
building had stood vacant for 20 years. The mosaic-tiled floor had
fallen through to the basement. And water gushed down the interior
walls during heavy rains. Neighborhood residents defeated the
demolition proposal and the theatre, which reopened in 1998, is now a
community arts center and movie house in the thriving East Hills area.
Monroe Street Filtration Plant, built in 1912, is one of Grand Rapids'
more highly decorated structures. Among its many honors, the American
Water Works Association declared the facility “an American water
landmark.” The plant, which was the first in the nation to fluoridate
the public water supply, also is recognized as one of Michigan’s Top
Ten Civil Engineering Achievements. Today, DeVries Property Ventures is
investing more than $8.7 million to recycle this stately building,
vacant since 1992, into office, commercial, and residential space.
The old YMCA, closed in August 2005 when the athletic club moved to
its new home across town, was built in 1914. Second Story Properties
renamed the eight-story brick building the Fitzgerald and launched a
$20 million project to convert it into 50 luxury condominiums.
The highly detailed building at 118 Commerce in the Heartside
District once housed the Coliseum, Grand Rapids’ first major gathering
place for public events. But developers recently recycled the building
into office space. Today it houses the headquarters of the Heart of West Michigan United Way.
High School, located at 900 Broadway, is the oldest school facility in
Grand Rapids. Originally constructed in 1872, Union High barely
survived construction of the downtown freeway system. Today Pioneer Construction is redeveloping the building into 180 west side condos.
It’s It's been a strange evolution for the Martineau Building at 128
South Division. Originally built in 1928, the Martineau housed the
Ideal Electric Company, then Miller Billards Parlor, followed by the
Valentine Furniture Company, and the Pink Poodle Laundry Mat.
After sitting vacant for several decades, and a $10 million
renovation in 2004, the Martineau reopened in 2005 with eight modern
lofts dedicated to living and work space for painters, photographers
and other artists. Now the Martineau project is helping to drive the
resurgence of the Heartside district as the artistic epicenter of
downtown Grand Rapids.
Developers also have seized on the city’s historic furniture
factories to generate new housing opportunities. The former Berkey and
Gay furniture factory, built circa 1860, found new life as condos,
offices, and a restaurant/bar in the North Monroe district. A similar
rescue effort renewed the American Seating factory, where the power
plant was converted into a night club.
Stay tuned to the empty Olds Manor on the corner of Michigan and
Monroe. Thirty years ago the building risked the wrecking ball. That's
not so true today, according to Heather Aldridge, the neighborhood
revitalization director for Dwelling Place, the nonprofit development
firm based in the Heartside district.
“Historic preservation is the ultimate recycling,” Aldridge said.