Architecture & Design, Construction, and Nonprofits

City recognizes those with perfect past

Chew marks made by firehouse horses bring cultural history to life.

May 9, 2014
| By Pete Daly |
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Engine House No. 7
John Leegwater, left, and Kevin Dornier, of Midtown Craftsmen, restored the award-winning Engine House No. 7. Photo by Jim Gebben

Historic preservation allows people today to see what homes and buildings looked like 120 years ago, sometimes with clues to what happened there.

At the award-winning Engine House No. 7 project, horses that chewed on the wood in a stall more than 100 years ago left a vivid reminder of life in the days of horse-drawn fire engines.

Six historic preservation awards will be presented at the Grand Rapids Community Foundation May 15 to representatives of recently completed projects, and two other awards will be made to individuals noted for their active support of historic preservation.

Barry VanDyke, chair of the Grand Rapids Historic Preservation Commission, said the first historic district declared in Grand Rapids was Heritage Hill. “That’s actually the oldest historic district in the country,” he said.

It resulted from failed attempts by local historic preservation enthusiasts to save the old Grand Rapids City Hall from demolition in the 1960s. He said out of that “came the desire to actually give the people in (a historic) neighborhood some standing in court,” allowing them to more effectively fight legally to stop the demolition of historic structures.

Other individuals and organizations honored this year for historic renovation projects include David, Isaac and John LaGrand; Lee Kitson Builders; Habitat for Humanity of Kent County; Mel Trotter Ministries; and Jeremiah32 LLC.

The city has a number of historic districts and single structures designated as historic landmarks, including Engine House No. 7, 816 Madison St. SE. The building is now owned by Tall Turf Ministries, known for its operation of Camp Tall Turf, a summer camp near Hesperia for inner-city children from Grand Rapids.

Tall Turf Ministries bought Engine House No. 7 in 2010 from the Inner City Christian Federation, which had only been using the upper floor. Kyle Lim, marketing and fundraising coordinator for Tall Turf, said the organization has renovated the first floor and restored the façade, spending almost $300,000 on the project.

Lim said there are “a lot of cool things” preserved in the firehouse that date from its earliest days, including a barn door leading into the second floor conference room.

“Our conference room used to be the hayloft, where they would throw down the hay for the horses” that were kept in stalls on the ground floor, said Lim.

The stall area still contains vivid reminders of the horses that were essential for pulling the steam-powered fire engines in the days before internal combustion engines. John Leegwater, one of the principals of Midtown Craftsmen, the company hired to supervise the restoration work, said a couple of wood support posts still show the teeth marks where horses chewed on the wood, a common habit of horses spending time in a stable.

Midtown Craftsmen, led by carpenters Leegwater and Kevin Dornier, has done extensive historic restorations in many Heritage Hill homes since 2006. Leegwater said Engine House No. 7 was built in 1891 and is virtually a twin to the restored Engine House No. 9 on West Leonard Street, now occupied by The Mitten Brewery.

The architect on the internal renovation of the firehouse was AMDG in Grand Rapids.

Leegwater said the biggest challenge in restoration of the façade was trying to determine what the original wooden firehouse doors actually looked like. They had been replaced years ago with overhead aluminum garage-type doors.

Research by Midtown Craftsmen at the Grand Rapids Public Library eventually turned up a photo of the building in one of the early decades of the 1900s. It is actually a photo of a firefighter posing on his Indian motorcycle in front of the doors, but the photo provided detailed information to Leegwater and Dornier. They were able to build replicas from white pine, and it was a major project: The doors are 10 feet tall and 3 inches thick, and mounted on heavy metal hinges that allow them to be opened for special events.

The project by David LaGrand and his sons was his house at 556 Wealthy St. SE in the Heritage Hill Historic District.

Lee Kitson Builders also renovated a private residence, this one at 336 Visser Place SE in the Wealthy Theater Historic District.

Habitat for Humanity of Kent County undertook a “huge” project in the Wealthy Theater Historic District, according to Rhonda Baker of the city’s historic preservation department. The work was underway for a couple of years and resulted in the rehabbing and historic restoration of six single-family homes, plus the construction of four new homes designed to reflect the traditional architecture of the neighborhood. Baker said it had a very positive impact on the four short streets involved: Donald Place, Robey Place, Freyling Place and Visser Place.

Mel Trotter Ministries is being honored for its work in the Heartside Historic District, rehabbing the one-story commercial building at 47 Williams St. SW. It now contains office space.

Baker said a Special Recognition Award will be presented to Jeremiah32 LLC for its project at 619 Wealthy St. SE in the Cherry Hill Historic District. Jeremiah32 is a subsidiary of Wealthy Street Bakery, which acquired a decaying commercial building last used as a liquor store. The building was successfully rehabbed so it would no longer be considered for demolition. Owners of Wealthy Street Bakery are David and Melissa LaGrand, and Jim and Barb McClurg.

Two individuals, both former members of the Historic Preservation Commission, also are being honored at the awards ceremony May 15. Tom Pfister is a former chair of the commission, and Wesley Beck served two terms. Baker said they are being honored for their many hours of volunteer work and community activism in support of making Grand Rapids historic neighborhoods better places to live.

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