With a population of nearly 200,000, Grand Rapids is Michigan's second-largest city. It is nestled in the Grand River valley forty miles inland from Lake Michigan. Native Americans recognized the advantages of the site and used it as a meeting and trading center. Owashtanong River (“Faraway Waters”), so called by the Indians and translated by the early French traders to “Grand River,” flowed south at that point, then turned west and flowed to Lake Michigan. Rapids stretched about four thousand feet before the turn and quickly dropped sixteen feet in elevation. On the east side of the river, a dry, flat plain stretched about one thousand feet to a steep sand bluff. A broad, swampy plain extended about a mile to the west to the foot of sixty-foot-high hills.
French fur trader Louis Campau was the first permanent settler of Grand Rapids. A post office was opened in 1832, and the name Grand Rapids was given to the rapidly growing settlement. Incorporated as a village in 1838 and as a city in 1850 with a population of 2,700, the city grew steadily. By the end of the Civil War, it had several railroads and a thriving industrial economy based largely on lumbering.
During a period of accelerated growth between 1870 and 1900, as Grand Rapids became the center of trade and commerce in western Michigan, there was a great deal of building in the central business district, today called Monroe Center ( KT3). A significant number of high-style buildings designed by well-known architects from Chicago and elsewhere and by skilled local architects remain from the late nineteenth century. In the 1920s several skyscrapers were built in Monroe Center. The downtown area remained relatively unchanged until the late 1960s and early 1970s, when urban renewal resulted in the demolition in 1969 of the solid, stone High Victorian Gothic Grand Rapids City Hall (1885–1888, Elijah E. Myers), the Kent County Courthouse (1884–1890, Sidney J. Osgood), and other landmarks. It made way for Vandenberg Center ( KT1) and other new buildings. Recently, as growth continues, a number of new structures and sustainable green buildings have gone up and older buildings have been renovated in the lower Monroe area along the river.
The west side of the river developed around industry. Houses for workers were built near factories and grand churches were built to meet spiritual needs. The availability of talented craftsmen—in particular, New England cabinetmakers skilled in woodworking and immigrant workers—along with an abundance of lumber and an excellent transportation network led to the success of the furniture industry in Grand Rapids. The display of four Grand Rapids furniture companies at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia called attention to Grand Rapids, and the nation came to regard the city as the “Furniture Capital.” Many of these early furniture factories still stand and some are in operation.
As the city prospered, so did its citizens. Residential construction continued unabated until the 1930s. The area on the bluffs on the east side of the river became the fashionable place to live, with many magnificent houses built in the area known today as Heritage Hill ( KT30). Upper-middle-class professionals continued to move here as the area developed, with the expansion of streetcar lines. Most who grew wealthy in the early part of the twentieth century chose the far eastern edge of the city or East Grand Rapids in which to build their stately grand homes and estates.
In the twenty-first century the health care industry is important to the economy of Grand Rapids. Today, Grand Rapids, together with Ann Arbor, Marquette, and Traverse City, is viewed as a Michigan pinnacle city. In promoting mass transit as well as lively, walkable streets and vibrant cultural attractions, Grand Rapids has achieved the density essential to urbanism valued by preservationists and residents alike.
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