Grand Rapids architecture through the eras

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Herpolsheimer's photo courtesy of Grand Rapids History Center.

From Furniture City and Beer City USA to the birthplace of ArtPrize, Grand Rapids has garnered a national reputation for creativity, commerce and collaboration.

The buildings tell a similar story. Each brick, stretch of milled pine, and layer of paint point to a legacy of innovation. A closer look at the architecture of downtown’s iconic buildings speaks to the city’s past, as well as a glimpse into her future.

Turn-of-the-Century: 1899 – The Waters Building, 161 Ottawa Avenue

The six-story Waters Building at the corner of Lyon St. and Ottawa Ave. was originally called the Klingman-Waters Exhibition Building. Photo courtesy of Grand Rapids History Center.

The mere size and masonic detail of the red-brick Waters Building hint at its original purpose. Floor-to-ceiling windows line the sidewalks along Ottawa Avenue like an exhibition hall, beckoning passersby to peer in. After nearly 125 years, the architecture is still doing its job.

In the late 1800s, industrialization was changing America, and in Grand Rapids, furniture production was burgeoning. Still decades before the Model-T would be introduced, travel was limited to horse, boat and train. Hoteliers and retailers on the hunt to find the perfect furnishings were required to travel to each manufacturing site, often taking them around the country.

It was at this time that Phillip Klingman, a young entrepreneur in the furniture business, had an idea that would change the industry. Klingman dreamed of a centralized exposition hall where furniture manufacturers from all around the country would rent showroom space, making Grand Rapids the single destination for furniture buyers across America. He needed a building – a large building – to launch this feat.

Klingman brought his idea to the Waters family, whose wealth had grown from West Michigan’s early lumber industry. By 1899, the five-story Waters Building was erected, and within a year, the demand for space was so high that a sixth floor was added.

“The building was open only twice a year,” said Candice Smith, Founder of Tours Around Michigan. Smith leads walking architectural tours of Grand Rapids. “Furniture companies would put their items on trains and ship them to Grand Rapids. [The Waters Building] was the largest building in the world for furniture exhibition and an important piece of Grand Rapids becoming Furniture City.”

As the success of the Waters Building grew, other buildings sprouted up around the city supporting demand for furniture exposition space. The iconic red brick Waters Building served as a furniture exhibition space until 1958 when the industry largely moved South.

Today, the original red brick exterior remains intact, standing testament to one man’s daring and a community’s support. Its usefulness lives on, housing the Homewood Suites by Hilton as well as retail, office space, and condos.

The Twenties: 1925 – McKay Tower Towers, 146 Monroe Center NW

National Bank of Grand Rapids, built in 1940, later became McKay Tower. Photo courtesy of Grand Rapids History Center.

Across from Rosa Parks Square stands the McKay Tower. Aptly named, the 16-floor building tells the story of the city’s growth and prosperity that marked the roaring twenties. The first four stories of the landmark were constructed in 1914, home of Grand Rapids National City Bank. The opulence of the neo-classical design was tantamount to the economic growth of the City’s industries. The building’s rectangle footprint is enhanced by dramatic columns and stone-carved details, reminiscent of a Greek temple. Inside, the space was equally opulent. Pamela VanderPloeg’s book Grand Rapids Downtown Buildings describes separate lounges for the Bank’s male and female customers, as well as club rooms and a handball court for employees.

By 1925, Grand Rapids’ economy was booming. Work began to add 12 floors, making it the tallest building in Grand Rapids, a title it held until the Amway Grand Tower was completed in 1983.

A feature in a 1926 Sunday Herald dedicated the building, “The Grand Rapids National Bank, as an expression of the confidence it reposes in our city’s progress, has completed its splendid 16-story home on Campau square, dedicating it to the Greater Grand Rapids of the future.”

The building’s namesake, however, didn’t come along until 1942. Frank D. McKay purchased the building and cemented his name to the legacy, both literally and figuratively. Two more mechanical floors were added in the 1940s.

Today, the former banking lobby has been converted into an event space, the McKay Ballroom. Pieces of the original grandeur remain intact, including granite surfaces and the beveled columns that tower two stories high.

The Forties: 1949 –  Herpolsheimer’s Department Store, 1 Monroe West

Originally constructed as Herpolsheimer’s Department Store, the building at 1 Monroe Center is now home to the Grand Rapids Police Department. Photo by Pamela VanderPloeg.

The war had ended. Soldiers were returning home. A new breath of optimism was surging through American streets and Grand Rapids was no exception. In the spirit of a fresh start, a popular downtown department store, Herpolsheimer’s, constructed a building to reflect this new era.

“It was an extraordinary building that heralded the end of World War 2 and the beginning of a new economic boom,” said Pamela VanderPloeg, local architectural historian and author. Designed by Boston-based architects Perry, Shaw and Hepburn, the store’s main display window stretched three stories high, boasting the status of tallest in the nation. The wildly modern exterior was reported by the Grand Rapids Press to have used enough cement to pave eight highway miles.

“It was a classic combination of Mid-Century Modern with a little bit of international style,” said Bob Daverman of Daverman Architecture. “It was more like the Mid-Century Modern of Palm Springs and Hollywood. It had storefront windows that were like the ones you would see in Chicago.”

The basement of Herpolsheimer’s was home to Santa’s Express Monorail, which inspired “The Polar Express,” a children’s book by Grand Rapids native Chris Van Allsberg.

The downtown department store closed in 1990, and by 2001 the renovated space became the Grand Rapids Police Station.

The Sixties: 1969 – Grand Rapids’ City-County Building, 300 Monroe Avenue

The Grand Rapids City Hall and Calder Plaza is located at 300 Monore Ave. Photo by Pamela VanderPloeg.

Grand Rapids City Hall is most easily recognized as the dark 10-story structure towering beside Alexander Calder’s La Grande Vitesse. Designed by Chicago architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the brown Canadian granite exterior accentuates the building’s geometric lines and lack of ornamental decoration, both elements of international-style architecture. Set on the sprawling Vandenberg Plaza, City Hall arose as part of an immense revitalization effort in the 1960s known as urban renewal.

As the suburbs exploded with growth, downtown fumbled. Many of the buildings once filled with office space and retail were vacant, and land value was plummeting. City leaders planned a series of new buildings that aimed to reduce urban blight and create a vibrant downtown that would attract businesses and patrons alike. A centerpiece of the City’s urban renewal initiative was the Vandenberg Center, a 40-acre plane bordered by Michigan Street, Ionia Avenue, Lyon Street, and the Grand River, and home to the new City Hall and County Building. Approximately 120 buildings were cleared to make way for the new city center.

Alexander Calder’s La Grande Vitesse was the first piece of art funded by the National Endowment of the Arts’ Art in Public Places program. Since it was installed on Vandenberg Plaza 1969, the famed red sculpture has become an icon of Grand Rapids, even incorporated into the City’s logo.

Eighties: 1982 — Mirror on Monroe, 171 Monroe Avenue NW

Mirror on Monroe was built in 1982. Photo by Bryan Esler.

The 1980s ushered in a new era for downtown with the wave of historical restoration projects. With many historic structures now lost in the name of urban renewal, the new decade brought a revived interest from developers and investors to save the existing buildings.

It was partly for this reason that the newly designed Mirror on Monroe building garnered acclaim. Built in 1982, architect Robert Wold used his modern design to enhance the historic buildings surrounding it. By wrapping the bold, rectangular building in reflective materials, the edifice mirrored the sky and architectural gems around it. In a 1982 interview with the Grand Rapids Press, Wold explained, “We wanted a simple design statement reflecting the surroundings against the sky.” The design was so successful that it won the Michigan Society of Architects’ Gold Medal Award that same year.

The exterior isn’t the only visual to pay homage to the architectural beauty around it. Inside, the wall-to-wall metal-framed windows allow occupants to view the surrounding streetscape. Today, the building is home to PNC Bank and a handful of other entities.

Turn of the Millennium: 2003 — DeVos Place, 303 Monroe Avenue NW

DeVos Place aerial photo courtesy of R. Daverman.

Continuing what was started in the 1980s and 90s, DeVos Place architecture embodies the dual values of the new millennium: preserving the old while building the future.

Situated on a 13-acre stretch between the Grand River and Monroe Avenue, architectural firm Ellerbe Beckett with the Progressive AE project team were careful to reflect the surrounding landscape into the building. One of DeVos Place’s most notable features is the curved roof line, setting it apart in the city skyline. “The waved roof was a gesture of the river cascading over these various dams, picking up the curl of the water,” said Bob Daverman, who served as Progressive AE’s project manager for the DeVos Place project.

References to the river are reflected in interior finish choices as well, including the terrazzo floor, a finish made from cement, sand and ground minerals, which is polished into a shiny hard surface. Even the serpentine light fixture is intended to mimic a water snake cutting through the rapids.

Despite being new construction, historic preservation also fell under the project scope. The building site included the 1932 Welsh Civic Auditorium on Lyon Street. As plans for the new performance hall were underway, efforts to preserve the entirety of the auditorium were entertained, which included the feasibility of moving the building to a nearby location.

“It was a very loved building,” Daverman recalled. “The front lobby and south portico were the only components of it that were protected by the local historical landmark status.”

In the end, the façade and lobby of Civic Auditorium were preserved, and with it, a piece of Grand Rapids’ story. Recognizable by the grand neoclassical pillars facing Lyon Street, the structure is one of the few remaining downtown buildings with an Art Deco influence.

Welsh Civic Auditorium was constructed during the Great Depression. Photo courtesy of Grand Rapids History Center.

Yet even for the portion of the Civic Auditorium that was demolished, not all was lost. Pieces of the building were salvaged, including a series of Art Deco carvings, which were integrated into the hallways around the Steelcase Ballroom.

The Welsh Civic Auditorium was constructed during the Great Depression as a way to provide jobs to Grand Rapids workers. Funded by a $1.5 million public bond, craftspeople were paid in scrips, emergency money issued by banks due to lack of physical currency which could then be used to buy food and clothing at a scrip store. It was constructed from Detroit-made steel and limestone from Indiana. 

The Flatiron Building: 2021 – 40 Louis Street NW

Among the newest additions to the Grand Rapids cityscape is the Flatiron Building designed by Yamasaki Associates. Photo by Kris Kinsey.

Among the newest additions to Grand Rapids cityscape, the flatiron building is a near mirror image of the site it sits on. Situated like a slice of pie on the rectangle-shaped lot between Louis Street, Ionia Avenue, and Fulton Street, the flatiron style refers to its close resemblance to a clothing iron.

The wedge-shaped lot has been home to several uses over the years, starting in 1890 as the Ringe, Kalmbach & Logie Shoe Boot Factory and, more recently, a flat-surface parking garage. Yamasaki Associates of Troy, Michigan was hired to design a home for Residence Inn by Marriott Grand Rapids Downtown. Yet the firm’s roots can be traced back to 1955 when famed architect Minoru Yamasaki set out on his own. Yamasaki’s most notable work was the Twin Towers in New York City’s World Trade Center.

Today, the triangled parcel houses a 14-story, 147-room hotel. The street level is home to waffles, coffee and cocktails restaurant Social Misfits, and its newly opened sister restaurant, The Foolery, self-coined as a “fine” dive bar.

Editor’s note: This article is best viewed as it was laid out in the March-April 2024 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. View the flip book online here

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