These tiles from the demolished Old Grand Rapids City Hall make me so annoyed.  I like how they look and I am glad they didn’t end up in a landfill, but I wish they were still gracing the old Elijah Meyers designed City Hall (1888) which was destroyed in 1969.  I was a baby when it happened, but from what I have heard and read it was a ridiculous mess and a local tragedy.  The massive, solid, makes you feel good about your city’s government building was said by those in power to be extremely unsafe and it really could not be used anymore with the sophisticated technology of 1969! (Side note:  when you hear the key words “unsafe” “green space” “obsolete for technology” start questioning the whole argument – usually this commentary is coming from someone benefiting from the demolition of the structure).

There was a fight too and a good many Grand Rapids residents spoke up, took out whole page advertisements denouncing the plan, and one great lady even chained herself to the wrecking ball, but it happened anyway.  The uplifting part of the story is that the outrage over the demolition kick-started the Historic Preservation efforts in the state with the creation of enabling legislation for the protection of historic resources and locally making way for the legal protection of Heritage Hill and creating a Historic Preservation ordinance.

We have to remember it was a time in the United States when only modernism was taught in architecture schools, the architecture of the late 19th century was considered quaint, but dark, fussy and unimportant and really only appreciated by the few forward-thinking hippy-types who liked cheap rent.  The mainstream was building ranches and bi-levels, moving out of the city, and working in rectangular boxes.  Let me also put on record that I love an elegant and well-designed glass box and I have nothing against modernism, but it was easy for builders and bad architects to rip off the general idea and not get the details of that simplistic style right, leaving us all with a lot of crappy architecture from the mid to late 20th century.  (This abundance of poor quality architecture is in part the reason that modernism fell out of favor and there was so much bad architecture, people longed for something better, some connection, and some soul-enhancing element to their spaces).

The ultimate irony is that the replacement buildings for the Grand Rapids City Hall and the Kent County Building were an exquisite International Style set designed by Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill and the plaza included the magnificent La Grande Vitesse stabile by Alexander Calder. So we lost something amazing and gained something also amazing which is confusing, but this doesn’t excuse the demolition of the 19th century buildings – the original arguments to tear down were hollow.  The message that should be taken away from this is to take care of what you have and when you build new – build high quality and well-designed new structures that are contemporary.

The same silly arguments came back nine years ago when the midcentury SOM complex was threatened with demolition for a hotel which would have wrapped around the Calder like a snake.  Luckily the horrible idea died for monetary reasons, but it worries me that not many people cared what happened to the SOM buildings or the Calder’s context at the time.  Maybe now that time has passed and the International Style is so beloved again if threatened we would be fight for them and win this time.

http://www.historicamerica.net/michigangrandrapids.html