The Blodgett Building Is Back

November 5, 2007
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After being dormant for the better part of two decades, the D.A. Blodgett building is alive again.

The Inner City Christian Federation, a nonprofit organization that puts deserving people in houses, has put itself in the almost century-old stately structure at 920 Cherry St. SE. ICCF recently moved its employees from two core city locations to the building that once was an orphanage and later a hospital. The organization celebrated the completion of its historic restoration in late October and is looking forward to using the previously neglected building as its headquarters for many Octobers to come.

Cornerstone Architects Inc., of Grand Rapids and Traverse City, took on the challenge of redesigning the Blodgett building, which had sat empty since 1986. Demolition was the first step in the process — the additions made to the structure in the 1950s when it was the Mary Free Bed Hospital were razed.

Then the real redesign work began.

“It’s obviously the kind of stuff we like to do, but the complexity of it was probably one of the most complex renovations we’ve been involved with. I think this one was complex because of the desire to recreate and totally return it to what it was like in 1908 when it was built,” said Tom Nemitz, principal and president of Cornerstone Architects.

“So much damage had been done to the building when they put those 1951 and 1957 additions on that there were just a lot of replicated pieces that needed to be made. A lot of research went into determining what they needed to look like — the size and scale and that type of thing,” he added.

The structure’s ornamentation is a neo-classic terra cotta, which just can’t be picked off a shelf at a building supply store. So Nemitz said a search had to be undertaken for skilled firms that could replicate the ornate pieces, and that hunt turned up two. They chose a firm based in Texas, which offered a terra-cotta substitute made of concrete reinforced with fiberglass.

“By them being far away, it was a difficult process. It was pretty much removing the pieces, sending these down to make their casts of the pieces, and have them send these back to have us approve it. And then we had to select colors that matched the slightly yellowed look of the terra cotta,” said Nemitz.

There were structural challenges, too. Because the building had been vacant for so long, the weather had taken its toll on the structure. The roof especially had deteriorated in a couple of places. The water rusted the steel and essentially vaporized the concrete roof. It had to be rebuilt.

“We eliminated the rusty structure and put a skylight in and framed around it. You get lemons, you make lemonade,” said Nemitz.

Cornerstone was involved with the building’s design for at least 18 months, and part of that time was spent getting the project’s historic designation approved all over again. With the 1951 additions slated to come down for the ICCF project, the design and construction plan had to be resubmitted and re-ratified so the organization could hang on to the historic tax credits.

“We had to go through a process to prove that the 1951 additions were not historic and that we should still get tax incentives should we demolish those,” said Nemitz.

Rockford Construction Co. managed the project.

The structure offers a little more than 30,000 square feet and sort of rises four levels. It “sort of rises” because the ground floor is literally that: a ground floor — as roughly half of the lower level is in the ground.

And for Nemitz, whose firm has designed dozens of historic renovations, the in-the-ground floor turned out to be a pleasant surprise rather than a headache as it contained a buried treasure.

“We also uncovered underneath some of the remodeling that it had some original wood wainscoting, and that is now being used in the boardroom and one of the office spaces. We asked the painters to strip some of that to see what kind of wood we were dealing with. They liked the wood so much, they stripped the entire woodwork and it just came out gorgeous. We never painted it. We just stained it, put polyurethane on it, and it looks great.” CQX

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