A Matter Of Historic Trust

June 12, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — A study committee has recommended that the Trust Building at 40 Pearl NW be designated as a historic district. The 10-story downtown office structure, officially known as the Michigan Trust Co. Building, is owned by George Wanty.

The Grand Rapids Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) will hold a hearing on the recommendation in February and the Planning Commission is currently reviewing the study committee’s preliminary report to ensure that the findings meet the city’s plans.

City commissioners formed the historic district study committee in July by naming HPC member Heather Aldridge, Cornerstone Architects President Tom Nemitz, and Rebecca Smith-Hoffman, a principal in Past Perfect Inc., to the panel.

Smith-Hoffman told the Business Journal that the building’s architectural importance was a significant reason for the committee’s recommendation.

“It was the first steel-framed building in Michigan,” she said.

The Michigan Trust Co. hired noted Chicago architect Solon Beman to design the structure, which was heavily patterned after the Pioneer Press Building in St. Paul, Minn. — a building Beman also designed and one that opened in 1889. Work on the Trust Building began in 1891 and cost about $300,000 to build.

At the time, the building was considered a state-of-the-art skyscraper. A 150-man crew built it of brick and stone, which was placed over steel and iron, with fireproof tiles and floors that were a foot thick. The structure was heated with steam, had both gas and electric lighting, and each office was wired for telephones.

The Trust Building became the city’s first structure dedicated solely to office use, and was fully leased when it opened.

“They built a 10-story building when everything around them wasn’t higher than four. It was a skyscraper; that is exactly what it was. Actually, it was the first skyscraper in Michigan,” said Smith-Hoffman.

Smith-Hoffman said the preliminary report has also been sent to the Michigan Historic Preservation Office in Lansing for review and comments. After all the reviews are finished, the committee will issue a final report for city commissioners who will decide whether or not the building becomes a local historic district.

There isn’t any apparent opposition to the designation, so Smith-Hoffman felt that the final report will look a lot like the preliminary one and the building should receive its local designation by summer.

The Trust Building was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. In 1981, the Care Corp. purchased the building and renovated it to the tune of $2.2 million. Wanty bought the Trust in 1998 and also is restoring the structure, a project being designed by Cornerstone Architects.

Renovating a historic building according to the standards set by the Department of Interior can bring a developer a federal tax credit worth up to 20 percent of the project’s cost. The state also offers tax credits for historic restoration work.

“It’s a wonderful building,” said Smith-Hoffman, who added that a noteworthy number of local businesses got started in the Trust Building.

Wanty, by the way, has a personal connection to the building. He is a great-grandson of George Proctor Wanty, whose law firm Fletcher & Wanty was an early tenant of the Trust. The elder Wanty served as a legal adviser to the Michigan Trust Co. until he was appointed to the U.S. District Court in 1900.           

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