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Old Posted Mar 25, 2017, 5:26 PM
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Join Date: Dec 2008
Location: West Michigan
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The Kalamazoo Building - Kalamazoo's First Skyscraper

This is a great thread topic and I’d like to keep it going. The arsenal of skyscrapers in my home area is limited – Kalamazoo is in the featherweight division when it comes to buildings of great height and stature – but challenge accepted. The nationwide building boom in the late 1800s and early 1900s pushed the small city’s miniature skyline upward, like it did in the urban behemoths of the country.

I found a wonderful, in-depth article about ‘Kalamazoo’s First Skyscraper’ – The Kalamazoo Building, on the Kalamazoo Public Library website. The story was written by David Kohrman, Kalamazoo Public Library Staff in May 2012, and kudos to him for a well-researched article, which you can link to here. Most of the photos that I am posting here are from that website, with original sources noted.

Of course, it’s all relative – a ‘skyscraper’ in Kalamazoo would be nothing more than a wart on the small toe of many larger cities’ building stock. But for the time and place, this diminutive tower was a big deal for residents. If you are willing to stretch your definition of skyscraper to one of just 8 stories, please, read on.

The article explains that,

As the building boom spread, any city that fancied itself progressive and prosperous had, or aspired to have, at least one skyscraper. Many people in Kalamazoo were disheartened that no such structure yet existed in the business district. The 24 January 1906 announcement that an eight-story skyscraper was planned generated considerable buzz and excitement. The Kalamazoo Gazette wrote: “It is just this kind of a building that Kalamazoo has needed for a long time, something which is possessed in hundreds of other cities this size.” The following day the Gazette editorialized that the existing low-rise buildings in the business district were “not in keeping with the spirit of Kalamazoo.” The Gazette continued by noting that the skyscraper’s construction “marks the beginning of the Greater Kalamazoo.”

Soon dubbed the Kalamazoo National Bank building, the skyscraper was slated to be built on the southwest corner of Main, today’s Michigan Avenue, and Burdick Streets. Plans called for a tower that rose an astounding eight stories over the business district, making it the tallest building in town and the city’s first recipient of the term “skyscraper.” Its design would conform to the latest in architectural taste. The building was designed by Chicago architect Joseph C. Llewellyn, who later also designed the new Burdick Hotel.

Not surprisingly the skyscraper’s arrangement conformed to the design standards that had been developed for tall buildings in Chicago, known as the Chicago School. Like those in Chicago, Kalamazoo’s new tower would resemble a classical column, with the lower floors forming a decorative base, the middle floors an unadorned shaft, and the top floor an ornate capital. The decoration was neoclassical. The lower two floors, which formed the base, were faced with carved stone. The five middle floors featured vertical piers and large windows to allow ample light into the offices. The top floor featured a projecting decoration known as a cornice.
The primary tenant, Kalamazoo National Bank, collapsed during the Great Depression. A succession of businesses came and went in the decades after, and today, the ground floor serves as a branch for the Keystone Community Bank branch, with offices and condominiums above. The building has been significantly altered over its lifespan – the large painted sign was added in the 1940s, and the decorative cornice was removed in the 1950s. In the 1960s, The façade of the first few floors was covered over with some sort of concrete / pebble-type panel system that was all the rage then. A new cornice was installed in 2012. But despite all of these changes, the building has survived fires, economic depressions, urban renewal, and the occasional freak tornado, which is more than many of its steel & masonry neighbors that have come and gone could say. One hundred and ten years after construction, the building still proudly stands as one of the city’s most recognizable buildings on a prominent corner downtown.

Here’s to another 100+ years, Kalamazoo Building!

Image: 1907 picture postcard, showing the steel frame rising.
Image Source: KPL Local History Room Photograph

Image: The steel frame, taking shape
Image Source: Collection of the author of the article, David Kohrman

Image: Another 1907 picture postcard, this one showing the masonry and stone cladding completed. A note from the sender reads, "A picture of the nine story building to show you what Kalamazoo is getting to be."
Image Source: Collection of the author of the article, David Kohrman

Image: An early photo of the completed building, reflecting the design principles of The Chicago School.
Image Source: KPL Local History Room Photograph

Image: A somewhat recent photo showing the painted signage, which was first added in the 1940s, along with the missing original cornice, which was removed in the 1950s.
Image Source: Collection of the author of the article, David Kohrman, photo taken in May 2012

Image: A more recent photo, showing the installation of a new cornice in May 2012.
Image Source: Collection of the author of the article, David Kohrman, photo taken in May 2012

Image: A full-height view of the building today, taken standing north of the building and looking southwest, across Michigan Ave. towards Burdick St.
Image Source: tyler.kemper, via Instagram
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