Downtown Grand Rapids has exploded in the last decade with the grand openings of breweries, restaurants, apartments, and entertainment venues. In light of everything new in the city, Grand Rapids’ rich history is still all around us, whether we realize it or not. If you know where to look, you might be surprised by the wealth of historical, architectural beauty in the city.

If you’ve never taken note of our architectural history, here are a few buildings to take a peek at the next time you head downtown:

Exhibitors Building past photo in downtown Grand Rapids, MichiganExhibitor Building present day in Grand Rapids, Michigan
Originally known as the Fine Arts Building, you’ll find this gem at the back of the Amway Hotel, right near the river.
Photo courtesy of the Grand Rapids Public Museum (top) and Experience Grand Rapids (bottom).

The Exhibitors Building (220 Lyon Street NW, connected to the Amway Hotel)

This striking, old building holds the distinction of being on the National Register of Historic Places, an honor it received in 1982. It was built in the 1920s, designed in the Renaissance style, and housed the showrooms of numerous furniture companies from around the country. “One of the cool things is the polychrome terra cotta they used, which has multiple colors and is fired clay, so the colors don’t fade away,” explains Gina Bivins, public engagement manager at the Grand Rapids Public Museum and president of the Grand Rapids Historical Society.

The terra cotta designs display the tools of the workers who built the furniture. “There’s a wood plane, a mallet, a T-square, and a triangle, for example,” Bivins says. To see these designs up close and personal, take the skywalk between the Amway Grand Plaza and the convention center — you’ll be almost nose-to-nose with them. “The terra cotta is beautiful and it’s an exceptional building.” Don’t miss the little faces of lions that run around the top!

 

Old photo of McKay Tower in downtown Grand Rapids, MichiganPresent day photo of McKay Tower in Grand Rapids, Michigan
The 100+ year-old McKay Tower has grown along with Grand Rapids.
Photo courtesy of the Grand Rapids Public Museum (top) and Experience Grand Rapids (bottom).

McKay Tower (146 Monroe Center Street)

Long before the McKay Tower loomed, this was the site of a modest house, the first framed building in Grand Rapids, and the site of the first non-Native American wedding in Grand Rapids in 1834.

A little more than 50 years later, a two-story building called the Wonderly Building was erected on that site, and in 1915, the first two floors of the current McKay Tower were built as the Grand Rapids National Bank. More stories were added over the years until it became the 18-story skyscraper you see today, which currently houses luxury apartments and the breathtaking Ballroom at McKay.

“If you look at the building you can see where it originally stopped,” says Bivins. “Standing on Pearl Street, you can see the massive, beautiful columns, and if you look beneath them you’ll see the details of the original parts of the building. The Doric columns are fluted rather than being horizontal, and there are perpendicular flutes carved all the way to the top. Banks were built as if they were permanent, with a never-going-to-go-under feel to them, and this building certainly has that look to it.”

One other cool feature: the glass PNC building across the street reflects the McKay Tower in each of its little panes. “It creates a little bit of a jaggedness because of the reflection in each window, so it has an almost abstract look to it,” Bivins explains. Be sure to look for that type of abstract reflection in other mirrored buildings downtown, too.

 

Old illustration of St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Grand Rapids, MichiganPresent day photo of St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan
This grand church was built prior to the Civil War.
Photo courtesy of the Grand Rapids Public Museum (top) and Experience Grand Rapids (bottom).

St. Mark's Episcopal Church (134 North Division Avenue)

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, the oldest public building in Grand Rapids, was built in 1848 in the Gothic Revival style. The sanctuary you see today is significantly larger than the entire church was in 1848. The chancel, transepts, and towers were all additions built over time. It’s interesting to note the differences between the original structure and later additions. “The spires, for example, are light brick because they were added a little later. About every ten years they built something and you can tell, because the architecture changes,” Bivins explains.

Inside the remarkable building, you’ll see walls made from limestone that was hauled by oxcart from the Grand River. On those walls, you’ll see the names of congregants who fought and died in the Civil War. As you walk through and take in the beauty all around, you can see the ever-evolving history of the city.

The limestone walls, hand-carved wood, and Gothic architecture give the interior a solemn feel. “A lot of Heritage Hill families went to church there and, when you go into the sanctuary, you can feel it,” said Bivins. “When you step into St Mark’s Episcopal Church, you’ve stepped into history.”

 

Willard Building Exterior in downtown Grand Rapids, MichiganThe exterior of the Willard Building as it sits today. Photo credit: Experience Grand Rapids

The Willard Building (150 Fulton Street East)

The Willard Building also boasts a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. Built in 1930, it replaced the multi-story Burleson Sanatorium and was named for Dr. Willard Burleson.

The new, one-story structure is notable for its unique and exquisite terra cotta work, including urns, crests, acanthus leaf designs, and – wait for it – 20 peacocks perched along the top of the building! “Once you’ve seen the peacocks, you wonder, ‘How have I not seen those before?’” says Bivins.

 

More Grand Rapids Historical Buildings

Old photo of the Civic Auditorium in downtown Grand Rapids, MIPresent day photo of Civic Auditorium in Grand Rapids, Michigan
Across the Exhibitors Building, you’ll find the Civic Auditorium, named for the mayor who commissioned its construction during the Great Depression, by the river.
Photo courtesy of the Grand Rapids Public Museum (top) and Experience Grand Rapids (bottom).

George Welsh Civic Auditorium (Lyon Street, on the east shore of the Grand River)

Originally known simply as the Civic Auditorium, this is the only original building on the block that survived demolition. It features beautifully carved stonework by sculptors Corrado and Rudolph Parducci, including the signs of the zodiac and the seal of Grand Rapids as well as relief sculptures by Corrado Parducci called “Fine Arts” and “Music.”

 

Old photo of the 77 Monroe Center building in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan
Don’t miss the full-sized Native American carved into the corner!
Photo courtesy of the Grand Rapids Public Museum.

Corner of Monroe Center Street & Ionia Avenue

All four buildings at the intersection of Monroe Center Street and Ionia Avenue have interesting architectural features, including gigantic flags on one building and little metal eagles on another. One corner is home to 77 Monroe Center Street. Look for the full-size Native American, tomahawks, and lion carved into the corner of the building. (Corrado Parducci also did these carvings, which represent the early history of Grand Rapids.)

When you’re ready for more exploring, check out the History page on the Experience Grand Rapids website. And the next time you’re downtown, look up! You might be surprised to find Corrado Parducci’s lion or a terra cotta peacock starting back at you.