Skip to main content

History Happened Here

Art And The City

June 2024
7min read

How Grand Rapids Regained Its Grandeur

I’ve long held the notion that my lion-pawed oak dining table was a prime example of Grand Rapids furniture. Michigan’s second city is the birthplace of mass-produced furniture in America, but when I visited last summer, I didn’t see anything that resembled it. And I discovered a lot more to think about than tables and chairs. Except for Steelcase, the office furnishings conglomerate founded here in 1912, most of the business had decades ago moved to the American South, with its cheaper labor costs. The once-flourishing automobile-parts industry had similarly declined. Yet I found the place still humming with the kind of energy and optimism that had attended its birth.

In 1838 Henry Schoolcraft, a Commissioner of Indian Affairs, visited the tiny settlement on the Grand River at virtually the hour of its founding and predicted that “its rise to wealth and populousness must be a mere question of time, and that time hurried on by a speed that is astonishing.” By then, the first cabinetmaker, William Haldane, had already opened shop. As the region’s thriving fur trade began to diminish, new arrivals looked to carve their opportunities from the great untouched forests of the upper Midwest. They floated logs down the Grand River, and with the falls that gave the town its name they found the power for their mills. The oldest dated piece of Grand Rapids furniture, on view at the city’s marvelous history museum, is a drum-style sewing table with a message written inside the frame: The maker, Bernard Orth, “fixed this table for present of my wife and she is a good wife, 25 Jan 1859.”

Grand Rapids today is a big small town, with a population of about 650,000 that includes the surrounding suburbs. The core is compact, set along the river and served by five bridges that appear especially handsome when illuminated after dark. There is a very pleasant river walk, installed in 1993, and as the former mayor John Logic proudly points out, the river is clean enough to allow people to fish for salmon in the very heart of downtown. Some handsome remnants—warehouses, showrooms, and such — of the glory days of “Furniture City,” as it was called, still hug the water, but the Grand Rapids skyline also holds a surprising number of tall buildings of recent vintage.

Many cities mourn a great loss that served to galvanize their preservation movements. In New York that loss was Pennsylvania Station. For Grand Rapids it was City Hall. Built in 1888, the burly, imposing stone building was demolished in 1969. When a young woman named Mary Stiles, one of its fiercest defenders, chained herself to the wrecking ball, her photograph ran in newspapers around the country. Today relics of City Hall, including the great clock—its four dials eight feet tall—can be seen at the Public Museum of Grand Rapids.

Occupying a modern building that fronts the river on the site of an old flour mill, the museum goes back a surprisingly long way; it will be 150 years old this year. This is one of the smartest and most engaging history museums I have visited anywhere, and two of its exhibits particularly captured my imagination.

One, “The Streets of Old Grand Rapids,” is a full-size, two-story re-creation of the city center around the turn of the last century. Storefronts of businesses that flourished at the time are furnished in meticulous detail. Sounds of people talking, train whistles, walls cluttered with handbills all work together to provide such a persuasive trip to another time that I was surprised, even annoyed, when after a few blocks the display ended and I was back in the present.

Grand Rapids has one of the smartest and most engaging history museums I have visited anywhere.

However, “Furniture City” lay ahead. The exhibit, sponsored in large part by the Steelcase Corporation and brilliantly conceived by a designer seasoned at the Smithsonian, manages through the prosaic medium of bedposts and bureaus to convey all the tumult of a great human enterprise. The journey through nearly 11,000 feet of gallery space begins around 1840, guided by Johannes Meerman, a fictional character who takes the form of a life-size cutout accompanied by a recorded commentary. He shows up throughout the exhibit. Here he is a Dutch immigrant (one of the groups that settled this region), who has just begun to work for the Berkey Brothers mill.

At the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, displays by three local manufacturers won medals, beating out established East Coast firms. Berkey & Gay’s award-winning matching dresser and washstand. made of walnut, are on display and far more elaborate than anything I had ever associated with Grand Rapids.

Johannes appears again around 1900, this time as a band sawyer—a skilled mechanic. In this section details of his work and life are drawn from a letter a Dutch-born worker sent home to his parents. By the time I came to a recreated interior of a 1910 factory, showine various stages of the business from the rough mill room to the upholstery and shipping divisions, it was clear that Grand Rapids stood at its zenith. But the museum doesn’t just dwell on the glories of enterprise. There’s also an uneasy exhibit on the passions aroused in 1911, when more than 4,000 workers went out on strike, told through newspaper accounts, letters, and the speeches of the embattled participants.

Another look at the class structure of the era comes through a set of 10 factory-worker trading cards, free to museumgoers, which draw on the historical record to describe various jobs. On one side is a cartoon portrait of a worker; on the reverse his or her story. “My name is John Mancewicz and I am 14 years old. I just started working as a lugger in the furniture factory. I wanted to quit school and start working here a lot sooner, but all these laws were passed that made me stay in school until now.” The lugger makes 18 cents an hour. George Randall, who handles the ripsaw, gets 40 cents, while Clara Loomis, a clerk, is paid $10 a week, “less than the men I work with, but that is expected. I don’t have a family to support.”

Furniture City of the 1920s is evoked via some wonderful old photos and an entertaining narration that introduces the wholesale Furniture Market, a twice-yearly event that lasted until the 1960s. At its peak it was an effervescent three-week-long party and that excitement is conveyed through a perfectly imagined chat between two characters, a salesman and a store owner, that could have come straight from the pen of Sinclair Lewis. “The market is the tonic for whatever ails,” says the salesman, and his companion agrees: “You go home all filled up with ginger.” I felt a pang to see the streets of the town not yet sundered by urban renewal, but I left that part of the exhibit full of ginger.

Moving on to modern times, I found Johannes again, this time as a systems installer of Steelcase workstations. Steelcase has confronted some hard times lately, since offices aren’t exactly expanding these days, but its largess and that of its retired director Peter Wege manifest themselves in many ways, including an exquisite restoration of a Frank Lloyd Wright house and the recent gift of $20 million from Wege’s foundation for a new addition to the city’s art museum.

Even on the briefest visit to Grand Rapids certain names become familiar. For instance, the Public Museum is part of the Van Andel Museum Center, and the nearly million-square-foot DeVos Place currently rising along the river will be one of the Midwest’s largest convention centers. Jay Van Andel and Richard DeVos, whose Dutch-born forebears settled here at the turn of the twentieth century, founded the Amway Corporation in 1959. It achieved fame as either a masterpiece of direct selling or a highly lucrative pyramid scheme, depending on who tells it. In recent years the company has reconstituted itself as Alticor and sells household goods and other products worldwide.

The hotel I stayed in, the Amway Grand Plaza, is divided in two. There are a soaringly modern tower, with great river views, and a magnificently restored historic section, built in 1913 and still called the Pantlind. The older wing has a spacious lobby and public rooms aglow with crystal and gilt, plump Edwardian furniture, and very appreciative patrons. There were weddings by the bushel the June weekend I was there, and I heard one departing hotel guest exult, “Isn’t it wonderful there’s something like this in Grand Rapids!”

Frederik Meijer, whose grocery and discount stores blanket the Midwest, is another local benefactor. In 1995 he and his wife, Lena, founded a sculpture park and botanical garden, reflecting their respective passions. A 10-minute drive from downtown Grand Rapids, the 125-acre facility is home to works by some of the world’s great sculptors, from Auguste Rodin to Richard Hunt. Last summer Louise Bourgeois’s bronze and marble spider brooded on 30-foot legs over the hills and flowery meadows of the carefully uncultivated landscape. The Meijers, now in their eighties, clearly revel in the amazing and ever-growing treasure they have brought forth. When I attended a concert at the brand-new amphitheater, Frederik Meijer strode briskly to the podium and with great aplomb led the musicians in a rendition of “Stars and Stripes Forever,” using his cane as a baton.

Grand Rapids started to appreciate modern sculpture in the late 1960s, when Alexander Calder, perhaps an unlikely patron, was persuaded to create a 43-foot-tall stabile. Titled La Grande Vitesse, the piece expresses the power of the swiftly flowing river. Almost immediately the flame-colored steel sculpture became the heart and soul of the city. Nancy Mulnix, in 1967 a young mother of three and a volunteer at the local art museum, was the catalyst.

“We invited the art critic Henry Geldzahler to speak at the museum,” she told me. “We were in the midst of urban renewal, and when I showed him the holes in the ground where the new city hall and county administrative buildings were going, he mentioned the brand-new National Endowment for the Arts, saying, ‘This is the perfect place for the NEA’s first grant for public sculpture.’

“I began to correspond with Calder; he was somebody who had always touched my heart. And he agreed to do it. I got our congressman Gerald Ford’s support. The NEA came up with a matching grant of $45,000, but in the end it came to $127,000, and Calder helped us out. He asked me to pick out some gouaches, and he let us auction them to raise the money. Then the purchasers donated them to the art museum.”

Calder completed the piece in two years, and for the 1969 dedication Aaron Copland wrote a fanfare. In its early days La Grande Vitesse attracted a surprising degree of local ire. Nancy Mulnix recalls hate mail, including a letter saying, “If I ever see you, I’ll spit on you.” Then there was the bullet shot into her home. Things are different today. The stabile’s image appears on street signs, police cars, and garbage trucks. And every June Calder’s immense emblem is celebrated anew, with a hugely popular three-day festival, drawing as many as 500,000 visitors. “It is the gathering place for causes, for protests, for celebrations,” Nancy Mulnix has written. “We measure distance from the Calder, we start and finish at the Calder. It is never alone, and it is never defaced.”

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.