I love hearing about new developments happening in and around downtown. There’s always a few new projects underway and it’s exciting to see how our city is changing and growing. Recently, Celebration Cinema announced plans to build a movie theatre downtown.
What used to be there?
Maybe I’m just being a history nerd, but when I hear about projects like this I wonder what was there before. The movie theatre is going to be built on a parking lot, but I’m guessing that it wasn’t always a parking lot. So, I decided to check into it a little bit and see what I could find.
My first stop was the Sanborn fire insurance maps. Maps from the 1950s showed me that the southwest corner of Ionia and Oakes used to be Union Station, which is kind of a big deal in Grand Rapids history.
Now, I know that there are some diehard railroad history fans out there, and I’m not one of them. They could probably tell you everything you wanted to know about Union Station, but I can’t. Which is actually kind of perfect, because it gives me a chance to show what you can find in our local history department when you’re not an expert! I do have the advantage of knowing where to look, but our staff is here to help you figure that out – we’re happy to help you!
After I found out it was Union Station, I checked our Pamphlet and Article Files. We don’t have a file on Union Station, but we do have one on railroad stations. It had a few articles on Union Station, and I learned that it was designed by the renowned Chicago architectural firm D.H. Burnham and Co. (I first learned about them reading Devil in the White City). The station was built in 1899 and, before cars, was “about the busiest place in Grand Rapids.” Several Presidents passed through the depot (Taft, FDR, Eisenhower and Truman), as well as movie star Gloria Swanson.
By 1958, the depot was no longer used and sat “silent and empty awaiting an obvious fate.” According to the Grand Rapids Herald, city officials “expressed hopes that the site on Ionia SW will be used to park automobiles, which have played a big role in the ultimate future of the railroad terminal.” It was demolished in the early 1960s, and the site has been a parking lot since then. Here’s hoping for new life for the site in the future!
(All quotes are from a Grand Rapids Herald article, October 12, 1958).