Unsolicited Advice: Forget Beer, Grand Rapids. It's Time to Trumpet Architecture, Too.

A street in Grand Rapids' Heritage Hill neighborhood.

A street in Grand Rapids' Heritage Hill neighborhood. Michael Grass / RouteFifty.com

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

There's so much great architecture in Michigan's second-largest city, which should do more to promote it.

Unsolicited Advice is a new Route Fifty occasional feature, where we offer our observations on state, county and municipal governments and the communities they serve.

Grand Rapids, Michigan, has long been called the Furniture City or the Furniture Capital of the World.

But much of the furniture industry left town after World War II. Office furniture is still big in the area—Steelcase and Herman Miller are based nearby—but these days, the local economy is far more diversified having weathered the Great Recession fairly well, especially compared to Southeast Michigan, which was hit hard by the severe downturn in the automotive industry.

Downtown Grand Rapids (Photo by Henryk Sadura / Shutterstock.com)

Art and design are also big draws in Michigan’s second-largest city. Right now, Grand Rapids is in the midst of Art Prize, an international public art competition which transforms the cityscape into an expansive gallery, utilizing public and private spaces downtown and in adjacent neighborhoods and drawing thousands to the city over two-and-a-half weeks. It pumps a lot of money into the local economy, especially for restaurants and bars. (I grew up in Grand Rapids and, last year, wrote about the impacts of Art Prize and brownfield redevelopment on the city for Government Executive.)

The Founders Brewing Co. in Grand Rapids. (Photo by Michael Grass / RouteFifty.com)

These days, Grand Rapids locals often call their hometown “Beer City USA,” a title it secured through winning an online poll a few years ago. A poll for USA Today readers also named it Best Beer Town:

Grand Rapids earns a spot among the nation's top beer cities with more than a dozen area breweries, including Founder's Brewing Co., as well as one of the top ranked beer bars out, HopCat. "[T]he city really promotes beer," says CEO of Bon Beer Voyage Dr. Ruth Berman. The Convention and Visitors Bureau "does a really great job of promoting the beer as a tourist venue."

While Grand Rapids is certainly a great beer town—I remember when Founders was a small fledging brewery, and it’s great to see the expansion of beer culture in the city—denizens should remember that the “Beer City USA” recognition wasn’t exactly an honor awarded by a panel of distinguished judges or beer experts using a complex comparative methodology. The city won a popularity contest thanks to Grand Rapids’ numerous civic cheerleaders pushing an intensive marketing campaign.

Again, don’t get me wrong: Grand Rapids is a great beer town, and its brewery offerings are worth promoting for economic development purposes. But are there other Grand Rapidian strong suits the city should be pushing as well?

I have something: the city’s architectural offerings should also rise to the top of the city’s marketing efforts. There’s so much, but many Grand Rapidians might not realize the underutilized civic assets in its buildings. But there are reasons why architecture should be trumpeted more by city leaders. Grand Rapids should be a national destination for architecture buffs.

Grand Rapids is home to one of the largest historic districts in the United States.

(Photo by Michael Grass / RouteFifty.com)

Heritage Hill, east of downtown, is home to a truly wonderful collection of residential architecture, including Greek Revival, Queen Anne, Italianate, Tudor, Craftsman Bungalows and Prairie styles. There are around 1,300 structures in the district, according to the Heritage Hill Association, which sponsors an annual home tour. Even if you’ve explored the neighborhood previously, there are always new homes to discover.

(Photo by Michael Grass)

The Meyer May House is among the best preserved examples of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie architecture.

The Meyer May House (Photo by Michael Grass / RouteFifty.com)

When you’re thinking about Frank Lloyd Wright, the Robie House in Chicago is always regarded as one of the best examples of Prairie architecture anywhere. It’s certainly an impressive house—from the outside. But not much of the interior furnishings remain. It feels somewhat vacant inside. 

Grand Rapids can boast that it has the Meyer May House, which is a gem and standout example of the Prairie style completed in 1909. And unlike the Robie House, the interior preservation of the May House is absolutely stunning, thanks to a careful restoration by Steelcase in the 1980s. The house is open to the public and you should visit.

There’s another Wright house down the street ...

The Amberg House (Photo by Michael Grass / Route Fifty.com)

… or at least a house likely designed by one of Wright’s apprentices, Marion Mahoney. (She collaborated with her husband, Walter Burley Griffin, to design Australia’s capital city, Canberra.)

For all that’s been preserved, Grand Rapids is a great place to study the impacts of urban renewal, especially downtown.

Why? Back in the 1960s, Grand Rapids bulldozed a good chunk of its downtown area, including its Gothic-style City Hall and and Romanesque-style County Building, in an attempt to stop the decline of the central business district. (Last year, The Grand Rapids Press revisited the urban renewal scheme in an exemplary multi-part series.)

Calder Plaza in Grand Rapids (Photo by Michael Grass / RouteFifty.com)

What replaced what was razed? A new civic center set around a plaza, with a new City Hall and County Building. Outside stands La Grande Vitesse, a bright red Alexander Calder sculpture that’s become the city’s symbol. The newer office buildings that rose around the plaza might lack the charm of the city’s historic neighborhoods, but they are an important reminder of an era in America where we were happy to tear down anything considered old.

Fortunately, plenty of historic architecture remains downtown, especially along the Monroe Center commercial corridor and in the adjacent Heartside and Monroe North areas, filled with formerly run-down warehouses and commercial buildings that have been revitalized with apartments, condos, restaurants and bars.

The Heartside district. (Photo by Michael Grass / RouteFifty.com)

It’s a great place to look at what’s next in architecture and urban design.

There’s a lot of adaptive reuse, green building and neighborhood corridors that continue to see revitalization. Many areas of the city, especially downtown and adjacent neighborhoods, are incredibly walkable, and the city has been progressive on the expansion of bicycle infrastructure. There's also the proposed Grand Rapids Whitewater project, which aims restore the dammed-up rapids of the Grand River and enhance flood protection while expanding recreational access to the river.

The Heartside District (Photo by Michael Grass / RouteFifty.com)

Even the bus stops for the new Silver Line bus rapid transit system have a distinctive, recognizable design (now, if Grand Rapids could only increase the frequency of the bus service and dedicated lanes along the Silver Line, then it will be a true bus rapid transit system).

Grand Rapids, it’s OK to be more boastful and tout your architecture a bit more!

It’s not that Grand Rapids doesn’t promote its architecture as an asset. There are walking tours (this one from Convention & Visitors Bureau needs some major improvement, though). Some might argue that Art Prize is the ultimate architectural promotion since the entire city is essentially an art venue. But there’s so much in Grand Rapids architecturally that really deserves more national promotion, in addition to great beer.

PREVIOUSLY on Route Fifty: Grand Rapids Learns to Live With Its River Risks

Michael Grass is Executive Editor of Government Executive's Route Fifty and grew up in East Grand Rapids, Michigan. He's the founding co-editor of DCist.com and has worked previously for Roll Call, The Washington Post's Express, Washington City Paper, The New York Observer and The Huffington Post.

NEXT STORY: Washington Still Funding Charter Schools for Now; Sun Pharma Wants No Part of Arkansas Executions

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.