Then as now: Furniture factories still characterize Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) – The identity of Grand Rapids as a furniture town has changed over the years. It started as a riverside village with a few pioneers who found a way to use the White Pine Forests of western Michigan. From there it grew into an industrial city focused on home furniture and eventually a handful of giants that turned their gaze to the offices of the 20th century and beyond.

As the city has grown and taken on various nicknames, Furniture City will always be a part of it. The furniture industry still shapes downtown Grand Rapids in many ways. Huge brick buildings that once hummed with the sounds of tools still stand, serving new purposes for the city’s youngest residents.

Here’s a look at some of those stunning factories that have defined Grand Rapids for generations and as they stand today.


A view of the north end of the John Widdicomb Co. building. It has since been converted into office space.

John Widdicomb Co. was one of the largest furniture manufacturers in Grand Rapids at the turn of the 20th century, and its massive factory on Seward Avenue NW still stands. The factory was built in 1880 and is more than 113,000 square feet. It is one of many on the Northwest side purchased by Robert Israels and renovated as part of the city renaissance zone, These included state and local income and property tax incentives. The building now serves as an office complex and is currently home to several local businesses including Spectrum Health.


The Berkey & Gay Furniture Co. factory is now The Boardwalk Condominiums in downtown Grand Rapids.

A company that started out as a one-man maker of tables grew into a furniture giant. Developers claim the Monroe Avenue factory was once that Largest furniture factory in the world. When construction was completed in 1892, it was hailed as “the pinnacle of industrial perfection” by The Evening Press – now The Grand Rapids Press. However, not even the powerful Berkey & Gay was able to survive the whims of industry and in 1954 the factory closed. The building has been converted into apartments in the early 2000s and then into a condominium complex now known as Boardwalk Condominiums. The condos are known for their industrial vibe, including high ceilings and exposed brick that remind residents of the building’s long history.


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After years of working as a outfitter and traveling salesman for Berkey & Gay, Karl Slight started his own business and shifted his focus from white pine in West Michigan to high quality lumber shipped from the Northwest and even Central America. The massive Sligh factory building still stands on Century Avenue SW and is a common sight for drivers along US-131. It currently houses several antique shops, but the building’s future is uncertain. An investment company has submitted plans to redevelop the Sligh building along with other parts of this neighborhood. If approved, the developers plan to remove the concrete addition and place the original structure on the National Register of Historic Places. It will then be converted into residential and retail space along with several other nearby buildings.


The Baker Furniture building on Monroe Avenue NW began life as the Grand Rapids Chair Co. in 1872 before becoming a subsidiary of and eventually becoming a part of the Sligh-Lowry Furniture Co bakery furniture. The company and its 7.2 acre property were eventually sold and its warehouse and corporate offices in Grand Rapids were relocated to North Carolina in 2006. But the building is finished a new phase of life — stay in the furniture industry. The Baker Furniture building was acquired by MiEN company, which designs and builds furniture for schools. MiEN Co. plans to convert part of the factory building into a mixed-use space with residential and retail space. This includes demolishing part of the building to provide more access to the riverbank. MiEN Co. will use the warehouse and add a fifth floor to the office space to serve as the headquarters.


Only a handful of bones remain of one of the city’s largest employers. According to research by labor historian Jeffrey Kleiman Grand Rapids Showcase Co. had the second highest number of employees in 1912 with 569 workers, behind American Seating, which employed 631 workers. The factory, which hugged the railroad lines near Cottage Grove Street between Division and Jefferson, eventually became a part of the Welch-Wilmarth Corporation and then Kindel furniture. Although Kindel is still in business, the factory on the southeast side is long gone. The only thing that is still standing is the factory’s large chimney, with Kindel painted in large letters on its brick facade. Then as now: Furniture factories still characterize Grand Rapids

Dais Johnston

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