City celebrates historic preservation work


    Mark Sellers and Jeff and Tami VandenBerg were honored last week by the city of Grand Rapids and its Historic Preservation Commission, along with eight others, for preserving a portion of the city’s past by making some of its venerable structures useful for the future.

    Sellers and the VandenBergs, a brother-sister duo, turned the building at 68 Commerce Ave. SW in the Heartside Business District into The Pyramid Scheme, a live music venue and nightspot. Before they came along, though, the single-story building was unlikely to host anything or anyone other than the wrecking ball that was fairly prominent in its immediate future. The structure had water damage, was filled with mold, was deteriorating and had been vacant since 1990.

    “I spent a lot of money to turn a moldy, long-vacant building into a thriving business when others told us it would need to be torn down. We’re proud to have helped save a piece of GR history and bring more excitement to the Heartside district,” said Sellers.

    The single-story structure was built in 1926 and was known as the Mara building. For years it was an auto showroom. Later it became home to an auto parts supplier and then a service shop. HPC President Rhonda Baker said Sellers and the VandenBergs not only rescued the building from a rubbish heap, they also fully restored it and created a vibrant business.

    “I’d have to say the awards are one of my favorite events each year,” said Baker. “It’s always an honor and fun to give recognition to those making a difference in our community. The recipients are all very deserving, and it is important to show the city is aware of, cares about and appreciates citizens’ efforts.”

    The other award for an Outstanding Commercial Preservation Project went to Brookstone Capital LLC of Midland. The firm, headed by principal Karl Chew, renovated the buildings at 209 and 217 South Division Ave. and 17 Williams St. SW into residential units and commercial space.

    All three structures were roughly a century old. When Brookstone Capital took possession of the trio in 2010, the roofs leaked, the windows were falling out of the jambs, the masonry was crumbling, and the storefronts had been long boarded. “They not only saved three historic structures, they have helped to revitalize and give new life to nearly an entire city block,” said Baker.

    The 18th annual awards ceremony was held at the Grand Rapids Community Foundation headquarters, a beautifully renovated building on Oakes St. SW, last week. GR City Commissioner Ruth Kelly and HPC Chairman Tom Pfister described each winning effort and gave each winner their awards.

    But prior to honoring the winners, Kelly told the audience the preservation work they did pleased her personally on two fronts. First, she was grateful for the sensation she gets when she tours a restored building. “The structures and the memories attached to them provide an observer with a sense of comfort and familiarity,” she said.

    On a more practical note, Kelly pointed out preservation work leads to energy conservation as the buildings that are restored were originally built to use natural methods for heating and cooling. “What can be more efficient than to reuse a building that already exists?” she asked.

    “The homes, places of worship, the campus and commercial buildings that we’ll see in today’s presentation had a lifespan much longer than our own. They were not purposely built to become obsolete overnight, necessitating disposal and waste … This is what I learned from you. This is why I appreciate you.”

    Gabriel Works and Jan Earl were honored with the HPC Special Recognition Award, which is given to individuals who “continually give of themselves to make our community better.” Works was cited for being a leader in turning the once crime-ridden Cherry Hill neighborhood into a revitalized residential area that is now a historic district filled with wonderfully preserved homes. Earl has been a driving force in making Heritage Hill the city’s most recognized residential district, and she directs the neighborhood association.

    “The city owes a debt of gratitude to Gabriel Works and Jan Earl. Both of these women were instrumental in protecting Cherry Hill and Heritage Hill properties from blight and instead helped create some of the most attractive, safe and in-demand neighborhoods in Grand Rapids,” said Kelly.

    The HPC’s Outstanding Residential Preservation Project awards went to Julie and Bob Connors and Brent Ahmicasaube. The Connors restored the house at 311 Pleasant St. SE in Heritage Hill, which was their second restoration project. Ahmicasaube, who owns Heritage Craftsmen, renovated a huge, three-story house at 302 James St. SE built in 1890.

    The outstanding preservation project awards done by a group went to Grand Rapids Community College and two West Side Catholic churches: the Basilica of St. Adalbert and St. Mary’s. GRCC won for restoring the Warren White Hall at 415 E. Fulton St., the former Davenport University campus. St. Adalbert was cited for its restoration of the church’s three copper domes that cover 18,000 square feet across its roof. St. Mary’s was named for renovating its noted steeple that graces the city’s western skyline. Grand River Builders did both church projects.

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