A recent quick walk through the old public museum at 54 Jefferson Street was such an amazing and delightful tease.   Housing the museums archives, the back section of the building is becoming an organized collection of artifacts.  I could easily have spent an hour or more in each aisle and wish for more time

The multitude of objects would awaken a child-like curiosity and imagination in any of us.  The large array of subject matter could also be a treasure for academic research.

There are several people with a vision of what such a collection could mean to the community.  They plan to have the artifacts accessible on line.  The collection would be available and recognized nationally and internationally.

I was awed by the vast archival materials and would enjoy further study of any number of items in the collection.  However, my initial passion is toward the building itself and the two other structures in the city managed by the museum.

The Van Andel Museum Center on Pearl Street opened in November, 1994.  Since that time the museum on Jefferson has been closed to the public.

The original museum was founded in 1854 as the Grand Rapids Lyceum of Natural History, among the oldest history museums in the country.  In 1865 it merged with the Grand Rapids Scientific Club. In 1868 they formed the Kent County Scientific Institute and Museum.   It became  a premier educational organization and remains  a nationally accredited  institution.

The building at 54 Jefferson was opened to the public in 1940 with the corner stone date of 1938.  It was designed by local architect Roger Allen and was built with the aid of funds from the Federal Public Works Administration. (PWA)

It is faced on the south and west sides with broad and smooth surfaced limestone above a base of polished black granite.  The main entrance has paired projecting bays on either side of the symmetrically balanced façade.  There are glass display units framed by the polished black granite flanking the entry with glass block windows above..  The simple angular detailing emphasizes the Moderne (late Art Deco) style.

While the exterior has remained in good condition, the interior is undergoing a rebirth.

The Grand Hall is once again displaying its former beauty.  The glass block windows, which had been boarded over, are now open to the space and shed a soft glow of light from the balcony level.  The double staircase leads up to the windows and a walkway with original railing surrounds the main floor.  The side walls had been covered with green shag carpeting which has been removed.  The walls then were treated with skim coated plaster and painted an off white.  The original terrazzo floor has been retained.

The public will have an opportunity to experience the space during Art Prize 2012 where 18 artists will display their work.

The reuse of existing structures such as the museum building is an important part of the continuing revitalization of Grand Rapids. The plan for 54 Jefferson is for the Grand Hall area to become an active viable multi use space that will respond to the changing needs of the community.  The archival section will be a valuable addition to the historic wealth of this area.

The other two buildings mentioned are the Charles P. Calkins Law Office building and the Carl Voigt house.

The Calkins building believed to be the oldest extant frame structure in Grand Rapids was built between 1835 and 1837. It was originally located on the northeast corner of Monroe and Ottawa and was moved to its present site at the triangular shaped park on State Street in 1974.  It sits across from the museum, south-east of Jefferson.

The tiny Doric and simple temple -front law office was built for attorney C. P. Calkins who came to Michigan from Vermont.  The one room miniature Geek Revival structure was restored as a pre-civil war law office in celebration of this county’s 1976 bi-centennial.  The interior is not currently open to the public.  The building is maintained by the museum.

Historian Gordon L. Olson authored a book on the history and restoration of the building in 1976 with revisions in2009-2010.

The 1895 Voigt house at 115 College Avenue was designed by Grand Rapids architect William G. Robinson.  The building is located in the Heritage Hill Historic District and is open to the public by arrangement with museum as a Victorian House Museum.

The red brick building displays many late 19th century characteristic s seen in the Queen Anne style.  It has a wrap-around balustrated porch, conical roof corner  tower,  gabled and textured  dormers, projecting bays, and a steeply pitched hip roof.

The interior has richly wood carved details, parquet floors, stained glass windows, with silk and tapestry wall coverings. The interior was last furnished in 1907 and was donated intact to the Grand Rapids

Foundation in 1971.  It eventually was turned over to the care of the Public Museum. The Voigt family lived in the house for  76  years  and left  it filled with their belongings.

Mr. Voigt t started a mercantile business with W. G. Herpolsheimer and later opened the Voigt Milling Works which he owned and operated.

The house is a great time capsule of family furniture and artifacts.  The interior and exterior have been kept in pristine condition and is operated by the present Van Andel Museum Center.


Nancy Goodman is professor emeritus, Kendall College of Art and Design where she inspired many to care for the history of place. Her passion for revitalizing architecture and community lives on through the many students she inspired.