Where the Vandenberg Center is located, had been the core of old Grand Rapids.
Something was always happening at the RKO Keith's, Midtown and RKO Regent movie theaters, the Elks Temple and the Oasis Bar. There was the old Police Department, the City Hall and the Court House along with some bars and restaurants.
Louis Campau bought 72 acres of federal land for $90 which became downtown Grand Rapids, bounded by Michigan and Fulton Streets and Division Avenue and the Grand River. Lucius Lyon purchased the north half from Campau (Kent Plat) and the new dividing line was Pearl and Lyon Streets. They were strong rivals and streets dead-ended near their border line. Lyon had mortgaged his land to buy out a partner. He died in 1851 and the mortgage was not paid off until 1864
Development started quickly but the crash of 1837, slowed growth. Floods were another problem. Small businesses set up shop and also small industries. After 1864, the development progressed.
In 1839 John Almy built a house where the county building now stands. It was the first house made of limestone.
The First Reformed Church was constructed of limestone in 1842 at Ottawa and Michigan. George Martin, a young lawyer, built his house on the north slope of Prospect Hill at Lyon and Ottawa streets. It had verandas on three sides.
A creek ran across the plat near the Old Kent Bank's parking lot. Charles Belknap described the pond as "the happy home of polliwogs, flies and mosquitoes, fever and ague. Mr. Belknap recalled when a silk-hatted Easterner took an unexpected dive in the pond after interfering in a quarrel between a husband and wife who operated a grocery store. The wife, on whose behalf he acted, thanked him by slashing him in the back with a cheese knife. A few days later he left town.
The area north of Prospect Hill became home to the families of John Peirce, a merchant, John Squier, who built the first opera house, and Peter Peirce, who was city clerk, state senator, postmaster and mayor of Grand Rapids.
The business along Lower Monreo (Canal) were constructed on pilings above street level.
One corner was a large wooden hotel catering to farmers and lumberjacks. The loggers would drink, gamble and brawl in the summer as long as their money lasted. North of the hotel was the Sons of Temperance Hall. It lasted only a short time among the many saloons.
During the Civil War, the old Reformed Church served as a military hospital for wounded soldiers.
Between 1857 - 1872, the close-built, wooden buildings linked by wooden sidewalks made for a series of disastrous fires. Brick buildings succeeded the wooden ones.
On April 11, 1871, a fire destroyed nearly everything between Monroe and the river in the area no the Hall of Justice and Police Department. About the only building left were the Squier's Opera House and a flour mill. The y both burned within another year.
The river served as an avenue for logs and steamboats.
Nehemiah Sergeant arrived in 1835 and with a crew dug a canal 5 feet deep and 81 feet wide around the rapids on the east side.
Charles C. Comstock, industrialist, land developer, after whom Comstock Park was named, started in a sawmill built in 1854 on the canal.
The longest-standing industries were Leitelt Iron Works, which was taken out in 1963 by urban renewal, and Bissell Carpet Sweeper factory. Bissell became the largest manufacture of sweepers in the world until 1958 when it moved to Walker.
The project of raising the grade of Lower Monroe above flood level was begun in the 1850's and finished in 1873. The street was paved first with cobblestone and later cedar block. In 1865, a set of horse-car tracks ran from the grain station at Coldbrook Street to Monroe.
Frederick W. Wurzburg started his dry-goods store where the old Bronson House
In 1876, a fire station was built on Crescent, a little south of where the Calder mobile now stands. Kent County offices were housed in a square building north of Lyon and Ottawa, and to the west was the Grand Rapids Eagle, a Republican newspaper for more than 40 years.
In the 1880's and 1890's, a red brick County Building and courthouse, a new City Hall with a clock tower, and a new Police Department rose on Ottawa Avenue. In its heyday, Canal Street business thrived, electrified streetcars served the area. Stores include Wurzburg's, Julius A. J. Friedrich's Music House, Walter K. Schmidt Co. and Kutsche's Hardware, which remained until 1963.
On Ottawa Avenue, Alt Heidelberg, a saloon became a gathering place for police, politicians and others in the area. The cops could also get free beer at the Christoph Kusterer brewery on Michigan, founded in 1849. Kusterer died in a ship wreck on Lake Michigan in 1880. During prohibition, they manufactured a nonalcoholic beverage, "Silver Foam". The company changed owners and at the time they went out of business was the Fox Deluxe Brewing Company in 1951. The building was demolished in 1966 and the State of Michigan office building is on the site.
The depression marked the beginning of decline for merchants in the area. When Wurzburg's moved to upper Monroe, it was the final straw. The complex of public buildings looked immense from the outside but wasted space and old plumbing and electric made it impossible to renovate. Urban renewal left Grand Rapids with cold, glassy, imposing buildings but no mixture of old and new architecture. There was no life in the city after the workers went home at night.
Created: 2 Jan 2011