Wealthy Street History & The Wealthy Theatre Historic District

Origin of Wealthy Street

Jefferson Morrison was born in New York in 1805 learning the tanning trade as a young man. In 1831 he came to Detroit working for Judge Ingersoll as a clerk in his leather factory. In the mid 1830s Morrison was appointed Inspector of Leather for Wayne County and Justice of the Peace for Kalamazoo and Kent Counties. In 1835 he moved to West Michigan opening the first general store in Grand Rapids. In 1836 he became Judge Jefferson Morrison upon his election as the first Probate Judge of Kent County.

In 1848 the boundary of the village of Grand Rapids was extended south from Fulton Street to the section line. In this same year Judge Morrison platted Morrison's Addition in the newly opened region of the village. In the plat filing, Morrison named the northern and eastern bounding streets (the western was an extension of an existing street). The southern bounding street, however, was left unnamed until the village population grew southward and east-west travel along the new southern boundary of the village became necessary. Widower Judge Morrison married his second wife, Wealthy Davis, in 1850 and named the southern-most avenue of Grand Rapids—Wealthy Avenue—after her. This name, unlike the others, remains today; the other bounding streets of Morrison's Addition later became Jefferson, Cherry, and Madison Streets.

 

Wealthy Theatre Historic District

The Wealthy Theatre Historic District was created in 1997 under Grand Rapids City Code and the Michigan Local Historic Districts Act. The district spans Wealthy Street from Eastern Avenue to 1200 & 1201 Wealthy Street and includes properties of Fairmont Street, Donald Place, Visser Place, Freyling Place, and Calkins Avenue.

The neighborhood developed in the late 19th and 20th centuries as the home of a broad cross-section of Grand Rapids residents. Along Wealthy Street the larger houses were home to business and professional people, while the five one block long, north/south streets: Donald, Robey, Freyling, Calkins, and Visser Places, were home to working class Dutch immigrants for many years.

Also notable is the intact early suburban commercial area which developed along the streetcar route that ran down Wealthy Street. The easy access provided by the streetcar led to the rapid growth of the surrounding residential neighborhood. The businesses, which were often owned by neighborhood residents, provided needed goods and services. This mixture of residential and commercial structures served by mass transit exhibits the type of development that progressive urban planners are working to emulate today.

The commercial section of the area is done in the classic turn-of-the-century style of American urban neighborhoods: two-storey brick buildings, Italianate (tall narrow windows on the second floor with decorative surrounds), retail below and residential above. Much of the housing stock in the area consists of American Foursquares—square foundations, four rooms on the first floor, and four rooms on the second. They vary in roof styles and siding, but they all have the same floor plan. American Foursquares are part of the Arts and Crafts movement that swept though the Midwest and western parts of the United States in the early 1900s. In the domain of residential architecture, the Arts and Crafts movement was a reaction to overly ornate Victorian construction (and the Industrial Revolution that made that kind construction available to the wealthy). Arts and Crafts homes—the foursquare and the bungalow—emphasize simple construction and an honest use of basic materials. Many of them have casement windows with leaded glass and fixed stained glass windowsâ€"a reference to the pre-industrial period of the Middle Ages.

Additionally, there are a few fine examples of the work of well-known Grand Rapids architect, Pierre Lindhout. The Wealthy Street Baptist Temple (now Community Bible Baptist Church) built in 1912, was the first building of its type to be constructed in Grand Rapids and was the original home of the Baptist Bible Institute and Theological Seminary (now Cornerstone College). Wealthy Theatre, built in 1911 and a designated city landmark, was the first of eleven neighborhood theatres designed by Lindhout and is the only one remaining. Lindhout also designed the group of commercial buildings at the northwest corner of Diamond and Wealthy—including the 1916 Helmus Building at 941 Wealthy Street which originally housed a portion of the Helmus Brothers moving and storage company and also served as Post Office Station C until 1945.

 

Grand Rapids and Reeds Lake Railway Streetcar System

The village of Grand Rapids was incorporated in 1838, with its initial development occurring along the banks of the Grand River at the heart of the city today. From 1840 to 1890 the population doubled every ten years, with the 1870s being the decade of greatest growth. In the early 1870s much of the land surrounding Wealthy Street was devoted to farms and small pasturage. Those with an interest toward developing this land to accommodate the growing population of the city saw the need for access to the area and beyond to Reeds Lake.

Located about three miles east of the city limits, Reeds Lake had long been a popular picnic spot for city residents. The need for a streetcar line providing easier access to the lake was recognized, and in 1872 the Grand Rapids and Reeds Lake Railroad Company was organized. Initially, the streetcar was to run down Sherman Street south of Wealthy, but property owners along Wealthy Street wanted the route changed. They raised $17,000 in subscriptions as an inducement and donated it to the Grand Rapids and Reeds Lake Railway. This contribution paid the cost of construction of the streetcar tracks along Wealthy Street, with the rai1way company agreeing to operate and maintain the line. This line began downtown, running from Fulton Street to LaGrave Avenue then along Wealthy Street to Reeds Lake and the amusement area Ramona Park, providing general access the entire length of the route for a ten cent fare.

Streetcar lines were privately owned and operated. To generate weekend ridership, streetcar companies often developed attractions at the end of their lines. And so it was with Ramona Park built on the shore of Reeds Lake, where John Collins Park now stands. Ramona Park offered water slides, a swimming area, boat rentals, steamboat rides, a theater, and large amounts of gin. All that now remains of the amusement park is Rose's Restaurant, which was once Rose's popcorn stand. Up until the mid-1980s this humble establishment sold hotdogs, hamburgers and caramel corn to those visiting the lake.

With the construction of the streetcar down Wealthy Street, land began to be developed at a rapid pace. A 1906 Grand Rapids Press article describes the growth of the area, “With the opening of the railroad there was an active demand for houses, and the building activity which followed still goes on unchecked. There are rarely vacant houses to be found in the Wealthy district." Lots were sold and new houses constructed, filling in land that had recently been farmed. During this period of immense growth in Grand Rapids, the popular Queen Anne style houses were constructed along Wealthy Street and the surviving farmhouses were updated.

As was expected, the provision of cheap and rapid transportation opened the area to development and its small farms gave way to the suburban residences of doctors, lawyers, and local business owners. The first commercial area along Wealthy Street, known as Wealthy Heights (now part of the Cherry Hill Historic District), began in the mid-1870s between Union and Eastern Avenues. After 1900 the streetcars were stored in the carbarn (1514 Wealthy Street SE) where Lake Drive meets Wealthy Street and a commercial center developed around it to serve that neighborhood's rapidly expanding population. This carbarn is now an office complex and commercial development that was Atomic Object's first home in 2001.

America's love affair with gasoline-powered locomotion and Detroit's influence in Michigan, in particular, following World War II lead to the demise of streetcars. However, today, in certain areas along Wealthy Street obvious seams in the brick pavers hint at where streetcar rails were once laid.

 

Wealthy Theatre

Additional commercial growth began in 1911 at Fuller Avenue and Wealthy Street when neighborhood residents Thomas and Laura Giles built the Pastime Vaudette (now Wealthy Theatre) at 1130 Wealthy. The first neighborhood theater in the area, the Pastime Vaudette encouraged other businesses to locate nearby.

Since its construction, the theater has served as an important visual landmark. It was the first of eleven neighborhood theaters built throughout the city designed by local architect, Pierre Lindhout. The Giles owned the theater until 1917 when it served as a warehouse for the Michigan Aircraft Company.

Under the ownership of Oscar Varneau, the theater reopened in 1920 as the Wealthy Theatre. It remained in operation for the next 53 years, outlasting all other neighborhood theaters. In the 1960s it was known city-wide as the place to see foreign films.

The 1930s and the early 1940s were the boom time for neighborhood theaters, but following World War II, television and drive-in movies began offering stiff competition. By the 1960s the flight to the suburbs was seriously undermining the health of the city's neighborhood commercial districts, and the commercial district surrounding the Wealthy Theatre was no exception.

Pierre Lindhout's original design was a solid brick building with a storefront typical of the period. At the time of its construction, The Grand Rapids Herald described it as “the finest structure of the kind in the city." A confectionery was housed in front with the vaudette extending behind the shop. The theater had a sloping floor, hardwood trim, and a pressed metal ceiling. After acquiring the theater, Mr. Varneau opened the front of the building to create a large recessed entry in the former shop space. In 1930 the auditorium was extensively remodeled to accommodate talking pictures. In 1934 the front of the theater was substantially reconstructed. Today the theater essentially retains its 1934 appearance.

The growth spawned by the Wealthy Theatre in 1911 continued through the early 1930s, with the construction of additional commercial buildings. The new businesses provided a wide range of goods and services for neighborhood residents and streetcar commuters. These stores sold clothing, groceries, meats, dry goods, hardware, etc. The commercial districts along Wealthy Street so completely met the needs of residents that it was necessary to shop downtown only for specialty items.

The theatre closed its doors in 1973. In 1989, when the city planned to demolish the building, concerned neighbors and South East Economic Development, Inc. (SEED) convinced the city to deed the building to SEED for rehabilitation as a community arts center. A 1.5 million dollar capital campaign for the theater’s restoration allowed it to re-open in 1999 as home to the Community Media Center.

 

Immigrants, Heritage, and Diversity

The first African-Americans came to Grand Rapids from Detroit with a group of laborers to build a canal around the rapids of the Grand River in the 1840s. Following the Civil War, ex-slaves began arriving from the South and by 1920 the city's African-American citizens numbered 1,000. The migration from the South steadily continued, particularly during World War I and World War II, when employment opportunities were plentiful.

The first Dutch arrived in Grand Rapids from the Hudson River Valley with the general movement of settlers to the area from New York. Immigration from the Netherlands began in 1846 due to crop failures and hard times. A second large wave came from the Netherlands between 1865 and 1873, then the third and largest wave came in the 1880s.

The simple frame houses along Donald, Robey, Calkins, Visser, and Freyling Places began to be constructed in the 1880s to provide housing for the largest wave of Dutch immigrants. In his memoir entitled With a Dutch Accent, David Cornel Dejong gives a somewhat unflattering account of what the neighborhood was like for a new immigrant in the late 19th century. The author writes of Freyling Place:

"Then we all started out for our house, our first house in America, which was situated in a Christian neighborhood composed entirely of Hollanders, all of the same faith we were. It would cost us merely eight dollars a month to live in so sanctified a place, which turned out to be an alley, and seemed hardly worthy of glamorous America. On one side of the alley, along its entire length, was a greenhouse with barns, stables, and seedbeds. On the other side stood a row of ugly little houses, and from their narrow little windows our fellow Christians peered out at us, then ducked out of sight again. The street was too narrow for sidewalks, and was extremely hot in the glittering sun. Still, we were willing to accept it in good faith, especially since it bore the good Dutch name of Freyling Place."

According to census records, the population of the Wealthy Theatre History District and its surrounding neighborhood has historically been racially integrated. Early residents were predominantly American-born Dutch and recent Dutch immigrants, with African Americans comprising the next largest group of residents. Between 1870 and 1880 African Americans began to settle immediately southwest of the study area. The census of 1880 shows an integrated residential pattern with Dutch and African Americans residing on the same streets. The presence of Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church and six major African-American churches in the area attest to that fact. The oldest of those churches, Messiah Missionary Baptist dates from 1899. Wealthy Street itself does not show such integration until the 1950s.

Eastown is the modern day business district (originally a streetcar suburb of Grand Rapids) that encompasses Wealthy Street. In 1960 0.3% percent of Eastown’s population was African-American; in 1970 that figure rose to 25%. That dramatic shift was made possible by the Civil Rights acts of 1964 and 1968, which ended discriminatory home mortgage lending practices sponsored by the FHA. Many African-American families moved into the southern section of Eastown, south of Wealthy Street, and many white families moved out. Eventually many of the businesses left as well. Since the 1960s Eastown has been the home to a wide variety of people: Professionals, blue-collar workers and service industry employees; young families, singles, retired people, and college students; whites, African- Americans, and Hispanics. According to the 2000 Census, Eastown has a total population of about 6,000 people—68% white, 26% African-American, 3% Hispanic, and 3% in other categories. About 40% of the houses are rental. College-age people make up roughly 18% of the population. Most recently, due in large part to the area's designation as a Michigan Renaissance Zone, the Wealthy Theatre Historic District has seen an influx of development as well as a variety of new people—young professionals, college students, young families, and new business owners and the accompanying gentrification. However, there yet exists a mix of cultures and income levels.

 

Notable Area Businesses, 19th Century through the 2000s

One of the earliest businesses of the area was Freyling and Mendels Nursery located at 1059 Wealthy from circa 1880 to 1964. Three generations of Freylings conducted their nursery and landscape operations in a complex of greenhouses, offices, and their residence. The firm served as landscape architects to such notable projects as the Cascade Hills Country Club, the original Blodgett Hospital, and Rosedale Memorial Park. Freyling Place takes its name from this family. The nursery complex was demolished in the late 1960s. Car Glo Car Wash occupied the site for many years to be replaced by a McDonald's Restaurant in the early 1980s. The McDonald's closed in the late 1980s, leaving a blighted vacancy where once stood a thriving nursery.

Huizingh's Furniture Store stood to the east on the block next to Freyling and Mendels Nursery. Huizingh's was a large store for its day displaying furniture for every room of the house. Professional offices on the second floor once provided dental and medical services to the neighborhood. Now a third generation business, the furniture store operates from 28th Street.

Ebling opened his blacksmith shop in 1896 at 1030 Wealthy servicing the many horses and wagons delivering goods and services to the area. After the advent of motorized delivery, the shop survived by fashioning trailer hitches and repairing anything iron. According to news reports, Ebling's was the last blacksmith shop operating in Grand Rapids. Today, Ebling & Son continues its business from Kentwood.

Joseph Huizingh opened Huizingh Hardware store at 1035 Wealthy in the late 1910s, where the family-owned business continued until the late 1980s. The store had the high metal ceiling, well stocked shelves, and rolling ladder of a classic hardware store. The second generation of Huizinghs raised a family of seven in the building's second floor apartment. One of the oldest surviving commercial buildings in the area, it fell into disrepair and sustained fire damage in the late 1980s. This simple Italianate-style building was restored in 1996 by a neighborhood resident.

Dick Vander Wal's hamburger and coffee shop at 1019 Wealthy was purchased by Herman Baker in 1939. Baker began his bookstore with his own personal library and other personal libraries he purchased. Ministers, students, and the public could browse and buy his used books. Baker Book House prospered and expanded into new book sales and publishing as well. The Baker book business is no longer on Wealthy but it has remained local as it's grown.

Lindy's Bar and Beer Garden (a business with a complicated relationship to its pious Dutch neighborhood) was located at 1141 Wealthy Street. Lindy's had a front door for those with no qualms about using it and a back door accessible from a small parking lot or from Fuller Avenue by way of small driveway. In later years Lindy's was sold and known as the White Rabbit. Both the White Rabbit and an oil station next to it were eventually demolished; today Family Dollar occupies this space.

Henry Koning operated a used car lot near the southwest corner of Wealthy & Diamond. Henry had a good reputation and his business flourished. Eventually he purchased the entire corner; razed the buildings that once housed a drug store, meat market, and more; and expanded his lot. This corner sold or serviced automobiles for a number of years. It remained until the early 2000s (albeit dilapidated and abandoned) when environmental clean up efforts made way for today's Uptown Village development.

R. Van Dellen grew up at the northeast corner of Wealthy and Diamond. He began his business career from this same corner in about 1900 painting homes and working his way up to buying, repairing, and reselling houses. From his experience in real estate his reputation grew and he became an advisor in property valuation eventually marketing properties and dealing in the sale of land and farms. The window of the small office he built on this corner read “R. Van Dellen Real Estate, Insruance, Loans and Notary Public, Open Saturdays til 9 PM." When the depression hit, Van Dellen's son Chester decided not to attend college. Though displeased with this decision, as there were no gasoline stations serving the area, Van Dellen decided to open one that Chester would operate. The old office and family home were torn down. A new office just up from the corner facing Diamond and the gasoline station took their place. The gas station had four gasoline pumps, a small station house, and an open grease pit next to it; it prospered.

At 1142 Wealthy, L.V. Eberhard opened his first grocery store. He would go on to open many stores in West Michigan. Not known to be a particularly pleasant person, he was, however, quite generous—donating large sums of money to John Ball Zoo. Though his name is no longer present on a chain of grocery stores, it is yet prominent in Grand Rapids as the L.V. Eberhard Center—the original building of GVSU's downtown campus. Eberhard vacated his store at 1142 Wealthy in the mid 1940s. Station C Post Office moved from 941 Wealthy into this space at that time. Today, the building is home to Handicap Sign Incorporated.

In March 1929, the Michigan Tradesman featured an article about the elimination of the independent grocers from the Wealthy Heights area by the unfair competition of the chain grocers. Describing the area as “a large wealthy section of the city." The story states that only one independent grocer (Eberhard) was able to withstand the pressure of Piggly Wiggly, A&P, Kroger, and others. Ironically, those chain grocery stores were located just west of Wealthy Heights in the new buildings constructed in the Fuller/Wealthy business district. Because of the buying power of the chain stores, they were able to offer fresher produce and a broader selection of goods than the independent grocers. Following World War II, when the streetcar had given way to the automobile and the migration to the suburbs began, the grocery chains followed.

However, other businesses came to occupy the vacancies and the district continued to thrive until the late 1970s when real decline began. Despite hard times and suburban flight, many residents and businesses chose to stay. Those who stayed formed the nucleus of the effort to revitalize the district, including Verhey Carpets (1113 Wealthy), Lady Love Barber Shop (1119 Wealthy), Two Stans Bar (1005 Wealthy), and The Rib Crib (1131 Wealthy).

An important catalyst for this revitalization has been the neighborhood-based, non-profit development corporation—South East Economic Development, Inc. (SEED). SEED was formed in 1986 by its surrounding neighborhood organizations with the intention of promoting and redeveloping the Wealthy Street commercial corridor through the rehabilitation of its existing buildings.

 

SOURCES
The preceding text is based on several large excerpts from the 1997 Wealthy Street Historic District Study Committee's Final Report. Light editing has been performed for currency and logical order given the presented context. Much additional material has also been added.

  • Smith-Hoffman, Rebecca and Metz, Jennifer. 1997 Wealthy Street Historic District Study Committee Final Report
  • Docent Sheet for Eastown: A Brief Overview and Information Sheet on Eastown and a Suggested Walking Tour. Calvin College Physical Education Department
  • Van Dellen, Marvin. Wealthy Street—Eastern to Fuller, 1930-1960: Dutch is Spoken Here. Origins: Historical Magazine of The Archives—The Hekman Library (Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary). Volume XVIII, Number 1, 2000
  • Baxter, Albert. The History of the City of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Munsen & Company: New York, 1891
  • Michigan Pioneer and Historical Collections, Volume 26 1894-1895
  • Plat of Morrison's Addition

 

PHOTO CREDITS

  • Post's Drug Store – Heritage Hall photo by permission of Calvin College Archives.
  • All other photos by permission of the Grand Rapids Public Library.