Art and the City: How Grand Rapids Regained Its Grandeur

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I'VE LONG HELD THE NOTION that my lion-pawed oak dining table was a prime example of Grand Rapids furniture. Michigan's second city is the birthplace of mass-produced furniture in America, but when I visited last summer, I didn't see anything that resembled it. And I discovered a lot more to think about than tables and chairs. Except for Steelcase, the office furnishings conglomerate founded here in 1912, most of the business had decades ago moved to the American South, with its cheaper labor costs. The once-flourishing automobile-parts industry had similarly declined. Yet I found the place still humming with the kind of energy and optimism that had attended its birth.

In 1838 Henry Schoolcraft, a Commissioner of Indian Affairs, visited the tiny settlement on the Grand River at virtually the hour of its founding and predicted that "its rise to wealth and populousness must be a mere question of time, and that time hurried on by a speed that is astonishing." By then, the first cabinetmaker, William Haldane, had already opened shop. As the region's thriving for trade began to diminish, new arrivals looked to carve their opportunities from the great untouched forests of the upper Midwest. They floated logs down the Grand River, and with the falls that gave the town its name they found the power for their mills. The oldest dated piece of Grand Rapids furniture, on view at the city's marvelous history museum, is a drum-style sewing table with a message written inside the frame: The maker, Bernard Orth, "fixed this table for present of my wife and she is a good wife, 25 Jan 1859."

Grand Rapids today is a big small town, with a population of about 650,000 that includes the surrounding suburbs. The core is compact, set along the river and served by five bridges that appear especially handsome when illuminated after dark. There is a very pleasant river walk, installed in 1993, and as the former mayor John Logie proudly points out, the river is clean enough to allow people to fish for salmon in the very heart of downtown. Some handsome remnants--warehouses, showrooms, and such--of the glory days of "Furniture City," as it was called, still hug the water, but the Grand Rapids skyline also holds a surprising number of tall buildings of recent vintage.

Many cities mourn a great loss that served to galvanize their preservation movements. In New York that loss was Pennsylvania Station. For Grand Rapids it was City Hall. Built in 1888, the burly, imposing stone building was demolished in 1969. When a young woman named Mary Stiles, one of its fiercest defenders, chained herself to the wrecking ball, her photograph ran in newspapers around the country. Today relics of City Hall, including the great clock--its four dials eight feet tall--can be seen at the Public Museum of Grand Rapids.

Occupying a modern building that fronts the river on the site of an old flour mill, the museum goes back a surprisingly long way; it will be 150 years old this year. This is one of the smartest and most engaging history museums I have visited anywhere, and two of its exhibits particularly captured my imagination.

One, "The Streets of Old Grand Rapids," is a full-size, two-story re-creation of the city center around the turn of the last century. Storefronts of businesses that flourished at the time are furnished in meticulous detail. Sounds of people talking, train whistles, walls cluttered with handbills all work together to provide such a persuasive trip to another time that I was surprised, even annoyed, when after a few blocks the display ended and I was back in the present.

However, "Furniture City" lay ahead. The exhibit, sponsored in large part by the Steelcase Corporation and brilliantly conceived by a designer seasoned at the Smithsonian, manages through the prosaic medium of bedposts and bureaus to convey all the tumult of a great human enterprise. The journey through nearly 11,000 feet of gallery space begins around 1840, guided by Johannes Meerman, a fictional character who takes the form of a life-size cutout accompanied by a recorded commentary. …