Federal Building to Ferris Building: Renewal and Reconnection

Thanks to the Grand Rapids Historical Society for inviting our own Tom Mathison, along with Gene Hopkins from HopkinsBurns to discuss the story of transforming the historic Federal Building to the Woodbridge Ferris Building in downtown Grand Rapids.

The Western Michigan Federal District Court was created by act of Congress in late 1863. But it was not until 1872 that efforts to build a federal courthouse started. Site selection was in 1873, and Congress appropriated $70,000 for the site. The site required a lot of filling because it was partially in a low, swampy area. Excavation for the foundation was finally completed in 1876, and the building was completed in 1879 for $212,000. The first court session was held on October 7 of that year. This courthouse served well for about twenty years, when the growth of the district and the growth of the agency staffs in the building demanded more space. Finally, in 1909, the red brick building was demolished.

The historic Federal building took its place with the laying of a new cornerstone in 1909, with President Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter attending the ceremony. That same year, President Taft had become the 27th President, the first Lincoln-head copper pennies were minted, Robert Perry reached the north pole, Ernest Shackleton reached the south pole, Mary Pickford made her film screen debut, and the number one song hit of the year was “Shine On Harvest Moon”.

Like many federal courthouses of a century ago, it shared space with other public institutions – in this case – the U.S. Post Office. This building was heavily used and served as a symbolic point of public pride and place of public discourse. When it was built, James K. Taylor was the Supervising Architect of the U.S. Department of Treasury and he was credited with hundreds of federal buildings around the country between 1897 and 1912.

The primary public entrances were on the west side of the building. The U.S. Circuit Court met here until 1912, and the U.S. District Court met here until 1972.

The building contains about 90,000 SF on five levels and represents a Beaux Arts Classicism style of architecture. Its structure is a steel frame, encased in concrete, with load-bearing exterior masonry walls. When it was built, it was billed as the first fireproof building in Grand Rapids, with a stone exterior and copper roof.

In the 1950’s the congressional offices of Gerald Ford were in this building, and after the Federal Courts and Post Office moved out of the building in 1972, it was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974 and the State Register in 1975.

By 1981, the bottom three levels of the building were converted to house the Grand Rapids Art Museum and the primary public entrance was moved to the south side of the building. The top two levels remained unoccupied and were used for miscellaneous storage by the museum.

When the Art Museum moved to its new building in 2007, the building sat essentially vacant, although it still served a public function for periodic art shows.

The site encompasses an entire city block, and the building is set back from the street, which provides for landscaping and gathering space for the public within the downtown. Historically, this neighborhood has always been the locale for federal, state, and local public offices and buildings.

A masterplanning effort commissioned by Ferris State University and Kendall College of Art and Design identified this building as a potential site to meet the needs of its expanding programs and enrollment in downtown Grand Rapids. It provided an excellent connection between the existing classroom building and a student housing building to the north, in order to form a three-block, contiguous campus in the heart of downtown. It also provided a unique urban environment for educating and training designers of the future. At that time the building remained as a federal property, operated and maintained by the City of Grand Rapids.

From 2010 to 2013, the project completed final design and implementation to the building it is today. It included a complete renovation of the site, including barrier-free access to the south entrance, exterior gathering space and exhibit space for sculpture, and new facilities for material deliveries.

This project, and the extensive efforts by so many to achieve this successful result, has been embraced by the entire community as it extends its life as a community-wide source of pride and engagement. It brings expanded programs for young designers to live and learn in a vibrant downtown environment, and it continues to serve the community for everything from ArtPrize to receptions and gatherings of all types.

To express the importance of this project to FSU and Kendall College, these quotes are appropriate from the ceremony on June 18 of 2012 to rename the building in honor of Woodbridge N. Ferris, former Michigan Governor, former U.S. Senator, and founder of Ferris State University. FSU has no other building named for its founder.

We are so proud of this beautiful building as a vibrant symbol of art design, preserving the past, a bright economic future, especially for its students, and as a modern resource for the Grand Rapids community.

David L. Eisler, President
Ferris State University

This building is now filled with the essence of true collaborative design, which is people solving difficult challenges together creatively using design methodology. It’s a very fitting metaphor for how the project came to be, with so many contributors bringing their best efforts together.

David Rosen, Former President
Kendall College of Art and Design