Two of Grand Rapids’ favorite things – art and history – come together in a project memorializing some of the most significant contributors to the city’s rich legacy.
The Grand Rapids Community Legends Project is an ongoing initiative to erect 25 larger-than-life bronze sculptures of notable figures in Grand Rapids history. Begun in 2008, the project now includes 12 installations memorializing 14 legends.
Most of the sculptures are located in downtown Grand Rapids, so it’s easy to see them all on a walking tour. Be sure to read the plaques at the base of each sculpture for more insight into their influence on the community. Here’s one suggested tour route, which also includes a glimpse of some other sculptures of legendary local figures.
300 Monroe Ave. NW
Lyman Parks was the first African American to serve as mayor of Grand Rapids, an office he held from 1971-1976. Prior to that, he was the first African American elected to the Grand Rapids City Commission, in 1968. Parks was a pastor who moved to Grand Rapids in 1966.
This statue was sculpted by Maryland-based Antonio Tobias Mendez and installed in 2013.
Pearl Kendrick, Grace Eldering and Loney Clinton Gordon
400 Monroe Ave. NW
Head north on Monroe to Michigan Street (100 yards or so). Cross the street and go right (east) on Michigan. The building on the corner is the Michigan State University Research Center. A sculpture on the south porch of the Research Center honors three Grand Rapids women who helped develop the whooping cough vaccine.
Titled “Adulation: The Future of Science,” the statue depicts researchers Pearl Kendrick and Grace Eldering and research assistant Loney Clinton Gordon, who developed the pertussis vaccine in a public health lab in Grand Rapids in the 1940s. Close by are the figures of two children – representing the future generation of scientists – admiring the women.
“Adulation” was sculpted by Jay Hall Carpenter, whose portfolio includes 500 sculptures created for the Washington National Cathedral in D.C. It was installed in 2019.
442 Bridge St. NW
Reverse course and head west on Michigan St., which morphs into Bridge St. when you cross the Grand River. Cross Bridge St. at Turner Ave., just past the highway underpass. Continue west about 400 feet, past Swift Printing, Jolly Pumpkin Pizzeria & Brewery, Morning Belle and Butcher’s Union to Arktos Meadery.
The statue in front of Arktos depicts world champion boxer Stanley Ketchel, aka “The Michigan Assassin.” A Grand Rapids native, Ketchel won the middleweight championship in 1907 and held it until he was killed shorted after his 24th birthday in 1910. Ketchel was a beloved son of the Polish immigrant community that congregated here on the city’s west side.
Massachusetts-based sculptor Ann Hirsch created this piece, which was installed in 2015.
Bonus Sculpture: Nishnabe Gemaw
Head back east on Bridge St., back under the highway overpass, past the parking lot for the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum, to the entrance of Ah-Nab-Awen Park on the banks of the Grand River. Turn left (south) on the Riverwalk Trail.
Look to your right about 200 yards into the park to see a statue of Early American leader Nishnabe Gemaw standing atop a boulder. This statue precedes the launch of the Community Legends project, but it depicts a significant figure in Grand Rapids history. A committee of elders from the Odawa, Ojibwa and Potawatomi tribes commissioned sculptor Tom Hills to create this bronze statue in 1992.
Betty Bloomer Ford
303 Pearl St. NW
Continue south on the Riverwalk Trail. You will see the Gerald. R Ford Presidential Museum on your right. At the southern end of the Museum is a statue of First Lady Betty Bloomer Ford extending her hand to beckon guests into the Museum, which documents the life and times of Grand Rapids’ own Gerald Ford. Betty Ford was an indispensable partner to “Jerry” from the couple’s marriage in 1948 through her precedent-setting stint as a politically active presidential spouse and beyond.
Grand Rapids native J. Brett Grill sculpted this piece, which was installed in 2018.
Bonus Sculpture: Gerald R. Ford
Just a bit to the north of the Betty Ford statue, positioned at the entryway to the Museum, is a statue of the President himself, Gerald R. Ford. Installed in 2011, it captures Ford in motion, with papers in his left hand and his gaze fixed on the distance. Also sculpted by J. Brett Grill, this piece is a duplicate of the statue he created for the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.
Both the President and Mrs. Ford are interred on the grounds here, just north of the Museum.
Bonus Sculpture: Spirit of Solidarity Labor Monument
Follow the driveway south out of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum parking lot. Just before you reach Pearl St., on your left, is the Spirit of Solidarity Labor Monument commemorating the Grand Rapids furniture workers’ strike of 1911. Three bronze sculptures – two men and one woman – represent the workers and their wives who sacrificed much to advance the cause of labor in the city. Grand Rapids artist Roberto Chenlo carved and cast the sculpture, which was installed in 2007, on the 96th anniversary of the furniture strike.
301 W. Fulton St.
Continue south across Pearl St. to Front Ave. You’ll walk past the Holiday Inn Grand Rapids Downtown on your right and the Grand Rapids Public Museum on your left. Just before the road curves to the west, you will see a Grand Valley State University sign in front of GVSU’s Eberhard Center. Turn left (east) onto the concrete path heading toward the Grand River.
The statue just outside the north end of the Eberhard Center depicts Chief Noonday, also known as Noahquageshik or Nawquageezhig, who led the Grand River Band of Ottawa Indians. When traders arrived in the greater Grand Rapids area, the American Indian leader helped welcome new settlers.
Sculptor Antonio Tobias Mendez sculpted this piece for the Community Legends project. It was installed in 2010.
Jay Van Andel
130 W. Fulton St.
Continue east, crossing the Grand River via the iconic Blue Bridge. The first street you will encounter is Campau Ave. Turn right (south) on Campau and follow it to Monroe Ave. Turn right (south) onto Monroe. The light on the corner is Fulton St. Head east on Fulton, then cross Fulton at the next intersection (Ottawa Ave.).
Van Andel Arena, West Michigan’s largest indoor sports venue and entertainment facility, sits on the southeast corner of the intersection. The statue in front of the Arena depicts Amway Corp. co-founder Jay Van Andel, who helped fund many local philanthropic projects before his death in 2004 – including his namesake arena, the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, the Grand Rapids Public Museum and the Van Andel Institute, an independent research facility doing groundbreaking research into cancer, Parkinson’s and other diseases.
Another creation of local sculptor J. Brett Grill, this piece was installed in 2011.
Roger B. Chaffee
11 Sheldon Ave. NE
Travel east on Fulton St. past Ionia Ave. and Commerce Ave. to Division Ave. Cross Fulton at Division and continue east on Fulton one block to Sheldon Ave. On the corner just outside the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum is a statue honoring Grand Rapids native Roger B. Chaffee, who became a NASA astronaut chosen for the first American flight to the moon. Tragically, he and his to crewmates were killed during a routine test less than a month before the scheduled moon flight.
J. Brett Grill sculpted this piece, which was unveiled in 2018.
The Roger B. Chaffee Planetarium at the Grand Rapids Public Museum also honors the Apollo astronaut.
Bishop Frederic Baraga
Cross Sheldon Ave. and then turn right (south) to cross Fulton St. Walk south on Division Ave. about four-tenths of a mile, past Weston St., Oakes St. and Cherry St. Sheldon curves to the left at the Cathedral of Saint Andrew, the Mother Church of the Catholic Diocese of Grand Rapids.
The statue of Bishop Baraga stands atop a circular garden at the end of a piazza facing the Cathedral. Baraga, who died in 1868, is famed for his missionary work in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, but he also established a mission on the west bank of Grand Rapids’ Grand River, near present-day Saint Mary's Catholic Church, in 1833.
Sculptor Jay Hall Carpenter imagined Baraga approaching a Native American village with one hand raised in blessing and the other carrying a translated prayer book. A basket of fish at the bishop’s feet symbolize his ties to the Great Lakes Region. This statue was installed in 2012.
Helen Jackson Claytor
Head back north on Sheldon Ave., all the way across Fulton St. to the corner opposite the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum. Follow Sheldon Ave. north along the west side of Veterans Memorial Park. (You can wander through the park to see memorial pillars honoring veterans and stop at veteran-owned non-profit coffee shop HAS HEART.)
Sheldon Ave. dead ends into Library St. Turn right (east) on Library then make a quick left on Library Place. Fountain Street Church is on your left and the Grand Rapids Public Library is on your right as you approach the campus of Grand Rapids Community College straight ahead.
A small park at the northwest corner of Fountain St. and Library Place/Bostwick Ave. is home to a statue of Helen Jackson Claytor. An educator and civil right activist, Claytor was the first African American president of the Grand Rapids YWCA and she became the first African American president of the national YWCA in 1967.
Installed in 2014, this piece was sculpted by Jay Carpenter Hall.
Bonus Sculpture: Arthur Vandenberg
Go west on Fountain St past Division Ave. (the first stop light) and Ionia Ave. (the second stop light) until it dead ends at Ottawa Ave. Turn left and then right at the next stop light, Monroe Center St. NW. Walk down the north side of the street, passing such businesses as Old World Olive Press, Cinco de Mayo restaurant, Uccello’s Ristorante, Le Macaron, Sweet Yo’s Frozen Yogurt and Angel’s Thai Café. (Yes, this is a perfect opportunity to rest your legs while you enjoy a meal or snack.)
Monroe Center St. ends at the intersection of Monroe Ave. and Pearl St. Standing at this three-way intersection is a statue of Arthur Vandenberg, who worked as editor, then publisher of the Grand Rapids Herald newspaper, before being appointed to the U.S. Senate in 1928, where he was instrumental in organizing the United Nations.
Installed in 2005, this statue was sculpted by Antonio Tobias Mendez.
Bonus Sculpture: Rosa Parks
Cross Monroe Center St. to view a statue of civil rights icon Rosa Parks mounted on a black marble pedestal. She is standing in front of a replica of the bus seat she famously refused to give up to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955. Unlike the historical figures immortalized by the Community Legends project, Parks never lived in, or even visited, Grand Rapids. But the city named the community gathering space situated behind this statue Rosa Parks Circle in 2001 to acknowledge the international impact of Parks’ courage.
Sculpted by Denver-based artist (and first African American astronaut candidate) Ed Dwight, this piece was installed in 2010.
Cross Monroe Ave. and then Pearl St. You’re now standing at the southeast corner of the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel. Follow Pearl St. west along the hotel. Turn right (north) just past the hotel onto the Riverwalk Trail along the Grand River. Just beyond a section of outdoor seating for Amway’s The Kitchen by Wolfgang Puck restaurant is a statue of Lucius Lyon looking out over the river.
Considered one of the founding fathers of Grand Rapids, Lyon was a land surveyor who represented Michigan in the U.S. House of Representatives (1883-1835, 1843-1845) and the U.S. Senate (1835-1839). Lyon was one of the largest landowners in the city's early history. He petitioned for Michigan's admission into the Union and drafted the first state constitution.
This statue was created by British-born artist Stuart Williamson and New York-based StudoEIS in 2008.
Anna Sutherland Bissell
Just before the back entrance to DeVos Place stands a statue of Anna Sutherland Bissell. One of the nation’s first female CEOs, she was appointed to head local carpet sweeper company Bissell Inc. after her husband’s death in 1889. Within 10 years, she had built Bissell Inc. into the largest corporation of its kind in the world. Known for her concern for her employees, Bissell developed employee compensation insurance and pension plans, and avoided lay-offs during The Great Depression.
Boston-based sculptor Ann Hirsch created this piece, which was installed in 2016. Note that the sculpture base is not flat, but rises on a slope – that’s meant to signify that Bissell is ascending into a role and taking on a challenge.
William Alden Smith
Just beyond the Bissell statue, up a short flight of steps, is a statue of William Alden Smith. Smith represented the Grand Rapids area in the U.S. House from 1895-1907 and he served in the U.S. Senate from 1907-1913. Smith constructed the Grand Rapids, Kalkaska and Southeastern Railroad in 1897, and he was a leading advocate of universal safety standards on railroads. As a Senator, he chaired hearings investigating the sinking of the Titanic.
Robert Eccleston, a nationally recognized sculptor specializing in veterans and civic memorials, created this statue, which was installed in 2017.
NOTE: Construction on Lyon St. and Lyon Square, the riverfront park at the end of the street, may cause intermittent closures of the Riverwalk Trail through 2024. If so, you can access the Anna Sutherland Bissell and William Alden Smith statutes by following Monroe Ave. in front of DeVos Place to Michigan Street. Turn left (west) on Michigan St. and join up with the Riverwalk Trail at the Grand River.
You can now return to Monroe Ave. and the front entrance of DeVos Place, the original starting point of the tour.
Gerald R. Ford
Gerald R. Ford International Airport
The newest Community Legends sculpture is located a 20-minute drive from downtown, at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport. President Gerald Ford is depicted sitting on a curved sandstone bench, one arm lifted for embrace (perfect for photos!) An unorthodox pose for a presidential monument, the seated position is meant to evoke what sculptor J. Brett Grill called Ford’s “humble and unassuming” nature.
The statue sits at the terminal entrance of the airport, in the Presidential Gateway Plaza. It was installed in 2020.