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Israels unveils West Side complex

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Tuesday, December 07, 2004

By Rob Kirkbride

The Grand Rapids Press

GRAND RAPIDS -- A hulking furniture factory on the West Side is now the headquarters for Israels Designs for Living -- and more.

The former John Widdicomb Furniture Co. factory on the corner of Fifth Street and Seward Avenue NW has a new lease on life after an $11 million restoration project.

A private party was held Monday to show off the site, which officially opens in March.

Once open, the complex will house Israels corporate offices, Designs for Living and the new John Widdicomb Trade Center -- a multi-floor library of fabrics, carpets, tile, paint and furniture for interior designers.

The campus also will include Israels' warehouse and delivery, customer service and furniture repair.

Bob Israels and his son, David Israels, worked on revamping the building for two years, hiring contractors to strip out asbestos, remove contaminated soil and sandblast the brick and wood of more than 100 years of furniture-making soot.

"When my dad said he was going to buy this building, I thought he was crazy," said David Israels, describing the building constructed just after the end of the Civil War. "But the Widdicomb name is part of the history of Grand Rapids. To have it disappear would have been a shame."

The history of Widdicomb, the oldest registered furniture company in the United States, dates to 1858 when Englishman George Widdicomb and his three brothers opened a cabinet shop here. The John Widdicomb Co., after years of struggling, closed in 2002.

In 1996, the factory at 601 Fifth St. was named among the city's first renaissance zones, which eliminates most local and state taxes at that site for up to 15 years.

Bob Israels, president of Israels Design for Living, grew up about 10 blocks from the Widdicomb building.

He used to help his grandfather prepare Widdicomb showrooms for the Grand Rapids Furniture Market.

"My dad hated to see this piece of property in disrepair," David Israels said.

In 2002, Bob Israels bought it and it has been no small task to restore the building.

"The environmental cleanup took several months," David Israels said. "We had to dig out under the foundation to remove the contaminated soil. And there was a sandblasting crew working in the building for three months straight."

They had to add steel reinforcements to all the wooden beams and pour a film of concrete on each floor to level them out.

The finished product is impressive. Granite floors and plush carpeting replaced the sawdust-covered factory floors. New windows were installed. Stained-glass windows from the former Pearl Street Israels store were installed.

"The magnitude of this showroom will not only attract local businesses from West Michigan, but businesses from all over Michigan," said Bob Israels.

Israels also owns the building across Fifth Street, which was the former Widdicomb finishing plant, which will be turned into offices. He also owns the former Widdicomb office building across Seward, which he leases for offices.

A document storage building between the Widdicomb finishing plant and St. Adalbert Catholic Church was leveled and will be used for parking.

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Good news! I did not know there was so much history there, and it's nice to see that the building has a new lease on life.

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