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Grand Rapids Then and Now


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New article, new pictures... From 1970:

 

 

 

Thank God that isn't downtown anymore.  Looks like the result of a WWII bombing campaign.

 

Sweet Jesus what a disaster! That is the downtown some people actually think was better. Easy highway access, and look at all of the free parking!  :sick:

 

As for Calder Plaza, the big problem with it is that it isnt a plaza. Plazas actually serve real functions in other parts of the world as a nexus of major thoroughfares. They are places that people go through to get to other places. Natural meeting zones because everyone uses it. Along with other features like squares, and the piazza, American developers like to beotchize these words and apply them to any old concrete slab and think people just will gravitate to it as if that's why they did it in Europe. In this case the plaza is in reality just the roof of an underground parking garage.

 

Even after all of that empty space was filled in, there was even fewer reasons to go there. No retail, no businesses, just plug-ugly government structures that today look hopelessly out-of-date. The only hope for the place is for all of the buildings surrounding Calder to be demolished and the area rebuilt.

Edited by GR_Urbanist
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"plug ugly" and "hoplessly out of date" -- wasn't that the rap on the old City Hall? if we've learned anything it ought to be this: that our aesthetics do not necessarily trump the aesthetics of earlier eras.

 

While agreeing with the aesthetic disaster that is the plaza, I'm still mulling over the counter-factual history. Say you keep the fabric, but got the highways, what happens to the city? Where does City Hall move? (they did it in Richmond in 1970, btw). Does downtown become a Lansing writ large? What is the process of recovering the riverfront? Etc. And for that matter, where does the performance hall go? Welsh was a hideous venue for the Symphony.

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"plug ugly" and "hoplessly out of date" -- wasn't that the rap on the old City Hall? if we've learned anything it ought to be this: that our aesthetics do not necessarily trump the aesthetics of earlier eras.

 

 

 

Oh I'm willing to love some examples of the era. I used to hate the new city hall, now I adore it.

 

But the Ford Federal Building? It is a mess. Many of the others around the plaza need ground floors that aren't blank. The plaza would be far better if they had at least left the old Kent Co. building.

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I agree, I don't think all the modern buildings were failures.  Though it ain't the old City Hall, The current City/County buildings do work for me too, especially how they're paired side by side.

 

I like the old Hall of Justice too.  Before this MLive series, I had completely forgotten about that building, and I can't believe it was only torn down in 2002.  I thought that was great modern design, just a terrible fit for downtown (not to mention by the river)

 

 

 

As for Calder Plaza, the big problem with it is that it isnt a plaza. Plazas actually serve real functions in other parts of the world as a nexus of major thoroughfares. They are places that people go through to get to other places. Natural meeting zones because everyone uses it. Along with other features like squares, and the piazza, American developers like to beotchize these words and apply them to any old concrete slab and think people just will gravitate to it as if that's why they did it in Europe. In this case the plaza is in reality just the roof of an underground parking garage.

 

 

Exactly, and I can't believe we keep doing this over and over again - like at St. Andrews.  It's a nicely designed little spirograph patio.  If only they had put that at an actual square.

Edited by RegalTDP
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I'm in agreement about the Federal building. What it especially lacks as a public building is an entrance. yes, it's got a door but that's about it and even then it doesn't really front to the plaza very well. And of course there is the completely nasty Monroe/Michigan corner that looks more like a battlement. Since they are not likely to tear down the building, how about an addition/lobby that fronts out to the plaza? And then maybe some sort of open/glass box on the corner with stairs that leads to the formal entrance.

 

yeah, this gets rid of the diSuervo. sniff. But we'd get more connection.

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I'm in agreement about the Federal building. What it especially lacks as a public building is an entrance. yes, it's got a door but that's about it and even then it doesn't really front to the plaza very well. And of course there is the completely nasty Monroe/Michigan corner that looks more like a battlement. Since they are not likely to tear down the building, how about an addition/lobby that fronts out to the plaza? And then maybe some sort of open/glass box on the corner with stairs that leads to the formal entrance.

 

yeah, this gets rid of the diSuervo. sniff. But we'd get more connection.

 

 

Aren't federal buildings subject to strict architectural safety requirements thanks to the OKC bombing?

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Even after all of that empty space was filled in, there was even fewer reasons to go there. No retail, no businesses, just plug-ugly government structures that today look hopelessly out-of-date. The only hope for the place is for all of the buildings surrounding Calder to be demolished and the area rebuilt.

 

We're the government.  We're here to help.  Uh-huh.

 

It's sad, really.  They saw downtown's future as little more than office complexes, and actively discouraged any retail, housing, or eating options.  Even today, most options for those things are buildings that were not destroyed.  No one has really found a way to re-use the now outdated office structures.  My grandpa thought they were all fools, though, so at least I don't feel so bad.  The children of those behind this are still trying to justify it as a success decades later (see mLive articles).  What?  Can't take the shame?  :)  All the while, tenants flee the whole renewal area because it is a wasteland.  Five acres of vacant land along Ottawa, save for a parking lot.  In the middle of "downtown".  What a success.  I've heard it said by fairly large outfits that it isn't really even "downtown" and they didn't/don't like being there because new hires hate it.

 

It would be very difficult to fix this now, although I am sure it could be done.  You would probably have to move or get rid of that sacred chunk of orange scrap metal occupying a good chunk of the five acres.  Then you would then have to re-orient City Hall/County Building to Monroe (or move them elsewhere then demo), in-fill everything along the west side of Ottawa, huge parking ramp behind, and then do some creative in-fill in front of the mid-rise "skyscrapers" on the east side.  Since they can't even seem to get a decent plan for the vacant lot at Pearl and Ottawa, I'd say this is likely not a viable plan without more government money to fix what the last government money did.  The key to any substantial retail is liner parking ramps, and that's a tough sell. 

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  • 11 months later...

d142_1.jpg

The 1-storey red brick building near center between the canal and the river was a hydroelectric power plant.  This was the last of several built on that site, but the original built there was the world's first hydroelectric power plant.  Before the hydro power, factories along the river would get their power from wheel wells which would turn long cables with pulleys, transfering the rotational power across the canal, sometimes across the river, and often 2 blocks away from the canal.  Some of the cables would be underground, others dangled and rotated overhead.

Also near this plant was an entrance to a large mine under the river (covered up by grass in this picture), which remains a large cavity below the river to this day.  The close location to the river caused the entire mine to fill with water during a flood and it had to be pumped back out.

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  • 1 month later...

Youngster posted some questions on another site, reposted below:

 

One of my more recent fascinations is with the Bridge Street Signal Tower at the corner of Bridge St. and Seward Ave in front of El Sombrero.

Some questions that can hopefully get some answers:

1. Any photo's out there of it throughout it's history? Photo's of the tower seem very few and far in between.

2. What was the tower's ACTUAL USE? I've heard anything from an interlocking tower (which makes no sense to me) to a tower for controlling early electronic crossing systems (before relays).

3. When was the tower decommissioned and what railroad last owned it? PC? Conrail? MIGN?

4. When did the tower last receive any upkeep? It's condition is starting to deteriorate, pieces of the cupola are laying on the ground under the tower.

5. How has this tower, 125 years young (built in 1890) survived being torn down where as other Grand Rapids Landmarks such as Union Station have succumbed to the wrecking ball and scrappers torch?

6. Who owns it now and when was it sold?

7. Any interest in restoring the tower or have any attempts been made?

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I'm sure there are, there's a lot of photos out there.  The question is do we have it somewhere in the archives or was it pilfered when the archives were easily accessible by the public?

Here is a photo of the tower at 28th St & Division:
https://www.facebook.com/groups/264767850370094/permalink/443595075820703/

As for the actual use, I believe they were to watch the tracks especially at switches, similar to a control tower at an airport.  They probably served both purposes you describe.  In 1911 there were 85 trains leaving/entering Union Station every day, and that doesn't include the numerous other stations in the city.  So there was definitely enough traffic to justify employing someone to watch for trains and activate any signals before relays.

I believe the track there is currently owned by CSX, and the tower stands on the railway's ROW.  I think before CSX it was Conrail.  I'm not sure who had it originally.


There's another one still standing in the city on Hall which is better preserved and maintained.

https://www.google.com/maps/@42.941799,-85.690947,3a,46.5y,195.25h,83.02t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1siUo1y2YL43t63R_KhGIwxA!2e0!7i13312!8i6656

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There's another one still standing in the city on Hall which is better preserved and maintained.

https://www.google.com/maps/@42.941799,-85.690947,3a,46.5y,195.25h,83.02t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1siUo1y2YL43t63R_KhGIwxA!2e0!7i13312!8i6656

 

The one on hall was moved from the original Union Station on Ionia when it was torn down.  I could swear I've read a feature article on it's preservation that gave some of the backstory on how that happened, but I can't find it in a quick search.  I did find this photo from when it was on Ionia, on pg 5 of this PDF. http://www.historygrandrapids.org/uploads/files/document/IoniaSW.pdf

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I don’t know much about the Bridge Street tower.  I was hoping that Raildudes dad would have chimed in here since he is the train buff here.  I can remember that years ago Tom Rademacher (or maybe it was his predecessor, Tom LaBelle) wrote a column in the Press about this old African American man who worked for the railroad and sat up there and watched for trains.  When one came he’d throw the switch to activate the crossing gates.  This was long after all the other crossings had been automated.  The reason this one hadn’t been was because at the time there were still two sets of tracks each belonging to a different railroad and one was going to be torn out and both railroads were to share the remaining track, so they didn’t want to invest in automating tracks that were going to be replaced.  And like most things involving railroads it took years before this project was even started let alone completed.  The old guy would sit up there all day and wasn’t allowed to read or have a radio or TV, and I believe his restroom facilities consisted of a jar or something similar.

 

Around the same time, further to the north the two parallel railroads crossed the east-west Grand Trunk Railroad tracks.  The predecessor railroad to the Grand Trunk Railroad was the original railroad in Grand Rapids and being the first one, it controlled that junction.  I remember there was a ground level shack there where a guy would sit all day and when occasionally a train on one of the other railroads had to cross the Grand Trunk tracks he’d get out and manually throw the switch.  Apparently it was a good paying job because mostly I remember his new Corvette parked nearby.  This was back in the sixties.  Maybe Raildudes dad can stop by and add some detail or correct my possibly faulty memory. 

 

The one on hall was moved from the original Union Station on Ionia when it was torn down.  I could swear I've read a feature article on it's preservation that gave some of the backstory on how that happened, but I can't find it in a quick search.  I did find this photo from when it was on Ionia, on pg 5 of this PDF. http://www.historygrandrapids.org/uploads/files/document/IoniaSW.pdf

 

Regarding the Hall Street Tower, Raildudes dad and I had a discussion here about it that you might be thinking of, starting down at post #244:

 

http://www.urbanplanet.org/forums/index.php/topic/40457-hey-whats-that/page-13

Edited by walker
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  • 10 months later...
2 hours ago, kevin8gr said:

Slide taken from my grandpa's (Russ Molt) collection. Ionia street looking north as the "new" weather ball is being installed in the 1960's.

6779423505_aeef85315c_o.jpg

Interesting parking ramps in this shot.  15 cents per hour parking in the Wurzburgs department store ramp.  The red building In the right foreground is the Morton House Hotel parking garage that's been mentioned a few times here over the years.  The building just to north of it is the combination Michigan National Bank drive in bank and parking ramp.  It is a long story as to why but before banks in Michigan were deregulated Michigan National was the only bank that could have offices in multiple cities and then only in certain major cities but in return it wasn't allowed to have any free standing branch banks in those cities.  So in order to circumvent this restriction for the drive-in they built a tunnel underneath the street that connected the main bank to the drive-in bank so they were technically the same building.            

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13 hours ago, joeDowntown said:

Shame to see the building next to the Klingmans building. It was quite a pretty building. Love the nostalgia. Hate seeing what existed before urban renewal. 

Joe

The Ashton Building was damaged in a fire in 1916 but obviously was still standing and functional into the 1970s.  I wonder if the condition of the building played a part in the decision to demolish.

After the fire, the company that supplied the building's roofing circulated a photo of the damage in a magazine ad as a testament to the roof's strength.  You can make out the old city hall's spire and the GRBC Brewery in the background.

Also, I've heard that building was supposed to be haunted.

Screen Shot 2016-05-11 at 9.33.32 AM.png

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