When the American Institute of Architects formed in 1857, the field was not well represented in the Grand RiverValley or its surrounding communities. For many years believed by pioneers to be "a big black swamp," West Michigan was settled later than other parts of the Midwest, and its historical architecture is a testament to that fact.
"Our architecture is later than Ohio and Indiana," said Jennifer Metz, a principal of local historic preservation consulting firm Past Perfect Inc. "We were settled a little bit later, and there is not a lot left from that period."
Michigan became the 26th state in 1837. The village of Grand Rapids was incorporated a year later. By 1846, it was a "story-and-a-half village," according to Albert Baxter's 1881 tome "History of the City of Grand Rapids, Michigan." About 1,500 villagers lived on the 50 acres of land that is today the city's commercial core. There was little development occurring outside of that small tract originally owned by pioneer Louis Campau, and it became the subject of intense real estate speculation.
A seven-year-old city in 1857, Grand Rapids was even then largely a frontier town. The development boom did not really begin until the completion of the region's railroads and the subsequent rise of the furniture industry in the late 1860s to 1880s.
There are few surviving structures from this time of mud roads and wood-frame buildings — almost exclusively designed in the Greek Revival school of architecture. These mostly included simple, gable-roofed one- or one-and-a-half-story farm homes such as the Edward L. Briggs House (1852) at 2420 Plainfield Ave. NE, the James O. Fitch House (1856) at 39 Fitch Place SE or the Henry Holt House (1852) at 2000 Thornapple River Drive SE in Cascade.
"This was also called the national style because it was used so much when this part of the country was being settled," said Rebecca Smith-Hoffman, a Past Perfect principal.
More extravagant examples are seen today in the octagonal Bailey House (1855) at 3180 East Paris Ave. SE in Kentwood, the Orlando Odell House (1845) at 10629 Bailey Drive SE in Lowell, and the recently renovated Abram W. Pike House (1845, currently the home of architecture firm Design Plus) at 230 E. Fulton St., which features a full-height tetrastyle Doric portico.
"When you look at the Pike House, it was almost in the middle of the woods, on the outskirts of the city limits," said Smith-Hoffman of the area that later grew into the Heritage Hill neighborhood. "Its design was fairly sophisticated for its time."
Non-residential structures ranged from the three-story brick downtown commercial building today known as the Campau Square Building at 180 Monroe Ave. NW (1853, originally an Italianate design, it has a completely different façade today) to simple wood frame buildings such as the Calkins Law Office (1836, believed to be the oldest building in Grand Rapids) at 235 State St. SE, and the Alpine Township Hall (1847) at the corner of Seven Mile and Walker roads.
Saint Mark's Episcopal Church at 134 N. Division Ave. is one of the region's few examples of Gothic Revival architecture from that era. A composite of Grand River limestone, brick and painted wood, the church was built in 1848 with substantial additions in 1851, 1855 and 1872. Its general plan is in the shape of a Latin cross, although that was not part of the original design.
Some notable examples of other styles began to emerge in Grand Rapids shortly after 1857. The Late Victorian buildings in the Ledyard block of Ottawa Avenue and MonroeCenter began construction in 1859. Several of the Late Victorian and Italianate buildings in the Heartside commercial district were built during the 1860s and 1870s.
Although there was a large degree of settlement in OttawaCounty during this time, beginning with a group of Dutch settlers who arrived in the 1840s and 1850s, there are incredibly few buildings from that era standing today because of a massive forest fire in 1871 that destroyed nearly all of Holland
The Holland Reformed Protestant Dutch Church at 57 10th St. in downtown Holland was one of the few survivors. Dedicated in 1856, the imposing Greek Revival structure features a portico of six massive Doric columns surmounted by a classical entablature with an ocular window on the north face. A three-part, 60-foot tower with an octagonal belfry projects from the low-pitched roof. It is built with native hand-hewn oak, and includes a copper rooster on top of the belfry — symbolizing Peter's denial and pride — as is commonly found on Calvinist churches in The Netherlands. Also surviving is HopeCollege's Italianate Van Vleck Hall (1858), a dormitory that served as the focal point of activity for what was then HollandAcademy
In Muskegon, the Hackley-Holt House (1857), a combination of Late Victorian, Italianate and Classical Revival stylistic elements, is one of the few historical structures surviving from that time period.