Traditional Building Portfolio




A Promise Renewed

Project: The Blodgett Building, Grand Rapids, MI

Architect: Cornerstone, Grand Rapids, MI; Heather DeKorte, RA, LEED AP, project architect

Contractor: Rockford Construction Co., Grand Rapids, MI; Kevin C. Wheadley, project superintendent

LEED-NC: Gold Certification

By Nicole V. Gagné

Philanthropist Delos A. Blodgett passed away in 1908, shortly before construction was completed of an orphanage in Grand Rapids, MI. Eschewing the humble design of similar institutions, Blodgett had funded a monumental Neoclassical building, ornamented with terra cotta and graced by epic Corinthian columns, four stories high, on its entrance portico. Within, the building boasted terrazzo flooring, cast-iron stairwells, quarter-sawn white-oak woodwork and plaster cove ceilings.

By 1948, the D.A. Blodgett Building Home for Children had become a private hospital for treating polio. As the hospital expanded, four additions were attached, one of which grew out from the entryway, and so the columns were demolished and the portico lost. The 30,000-sq.ft. orphanage eventually became a 56,000-sq.ft. hospital, which in turn was converted into office space in the 1970s. That incarnation proved a failure, and although the building passed through many hands thereafter, it fell into neglect, and by late 2003 the decaying structure was for sale, and targeted for demolition by the city.

Then an angel stepped in: the Inner City Christian Federation (ICCF) of Grand Rapids, a faith-based, nonprofit affordable-housing organization. ICCF President and CEO Jonathan Bradford recognized the Blodgett Building's potential for his organization, which had grown dramatically since its founding in 1974.

To return the building to its original splendor – and its original square-footage – as well as adapt it to the needs of the ICCF, Bradford turned to Cornerstone Architects of Grand Rapids, a full-service architectural firm established in 1989; Associate Partner Heather DeKorte, RA, LEED AP, served as project architect and historic architect.

DeKorte recalls her first encounter with the leaky, neglected structure: "It was really miserable," she says. "The building had been vacant for many years, and people had been living in it: You could see there had been campfires, and it looked like sometimes they had gotten out of control. But that was minor. I wouldn't say that the squatters did significant damage to the historic parts of the building, other than their graffiti."

"However, there was significant water damage throughout, especially on the upper floors, although water had also gotten down to the main floors in some locations. And that water damage had caused a lot of damage to other components. There was also a nice smell to it!"

A further complication was the lack of primary-source information. "When we started the project," says DeKorte, "we had very little to go on. We were unable to locate any original documentation or drawings or specifications of the building. "There wasn't anything we could work from except two images that were always on my desk: a postcard of the original building, from around the time that it was constructed, and a photograph showing the demolition of the great columns – they had sections that were like drums stacked on top of each other, and you could see them separating as the column was falling. You could kind of put these two pictures together and reassemble what it was supposed to be like."

As work started on this project, people began to bring their own information to DeKorte – what they knew or recollected, or photos or images they had. "Someone would say, 'I ran across this postcard,' and sure enough, that image would be something different than the postcard we already had. It all basically confirmed that we were pretty accurate and going in the right direction. I wouldn't say there were any major changes based on this newer information. By the time we were done, we had quite a bit more to work from, but at the start, it was lean."

"A lot of what we did was based on proportion" she says. "The demolition photo was actually pretty clear, and you could count the bricks in some instances, or do proportions across the building: 'OK, that lined up with such and such, and such and such is still existing, so...' Because of how certain things related to each other, you could re-create it. It was a challenge, but I think it turned out remarkably well."

Another challenge was the uncertainty about the building's original design, because so much of it was obscured by the additions. "Probably about 25 percent of the historic facade was visible, due to the other building that had been constructed in front of it. That was a big challenge, not knowing what was behind the additions until demolition, and demolition of course doesn't start until after your whole design and construction-document phase is pretty well complete!"

"We made a lot of assumptions about what was going to be there when the newer addition was demolished, but once it was removed, for the most part, we were actually pleased by how much of it was intact," says DeKorte. She adds that one of the bigger surprises was the east facade. "The majority of this building is very symmetrical, very predictable, but when we got around to the east facade, it was not that way. It had been pretty well covered up by another building, and when that was demolished we saw openings that were definitely original – they had original terra-cotta headers and sills – but they were not predictable, they were not symmetrical. They were really unexpected, rather unusual configurations. That facade made it a little more difficult to get a grasp on what was intended there because it was kind of irregular and didn't quite have a method that we could understand as well."

DeKorte found that the question of appropriate design also complicated replacement of the columns: "They were probably the most difficult things to re-create because there was the least amount of information on them," she says. "In a postcard, there's just not that much detail, so you're always studying it with the magnifying glass, trying to make sure you're getting it right! There are some taller buildings downtown that have pilasters that are pretty impressive in scale, but nothing freestanding like this, nothing with this appearance. There wasn't a whole lot in the area which we could reference, and we spent a lot of time and energy trying to get the columns correct."

General contractor Rockford Construction Co. of Grand Rapids handled most of the work, but several aspects of the project required specialized talent. The terra-cotta restoration and re-creation was done by Dale Cox of the Draper Group, Grand Rapids, MI.

"There were only a few existing pieces," says DeKorte. "Where there was something on the building that we could work with or re-create a mold was made of it, and then they'd make a casting from the mold and send that to a GFRC manufacturer who replicated the terra-cotta pieces. Wherever there was existing terra cotta on the building, we tried to repair it as much as was possible, but those elements that were missing or broken beyond repair were replaced with GFRC."

In another instance, brick from a downtown building that was slated for demolition was reused in the Blodgett Building. "Its masonry bricks matched this building exactly," says DeKorte. "So they salvaged all the brick from the walls of that building and used them to re-create a lot of the historic facade, and for patching and repairing areas. The mason did a remarkably good job. The match is incredible."

The building's interior had suffered even worse than its exterior had, leaving the architects with little to restore. "A lot of the historic interiors had long since been obliterated. We went through and assessed what spaces might still be even remotely intact, which should be preserved or improved back to their historic state," says DeKorte.

"Only a few spaces were of the caliber that we could consider keeping historic – the front boardroom and the auditorium on one of the upper floors. We really paid close attention to keeping those spaces as historic as possible, and minimizing the impact of new technologies and new systems and new materials."

The rest of the building was much more available for upgrades and technology improvements. However, there was some terrazzo flooring and plaster ceilings that were repaired and restored. (Ritsema & Associates of Grand Rapids restored the decorative plaster ceilings.)

In addition, the millwork in the boardroom and one of the open offices was stripped and reworked, removing white paint from wainscoting to reveal quarter-sawn oak. Ritsema stripped and refinished the existing woodwork and Dave Warwick of Warwick Interiors of Invermere, BC, Canada, restored and repaired the existing materials.

In the final stages, the Blodgett Building became a showcase of green components. More than 170 energy-efficient Pella windows were installed, and some two-thirds of the flat roof now has solar panels (supplied by SUR Energy Systems, Ann Arbor, MI). The parking lot was made water-permeable, and a cistern is used to gather rainwater for the irrigation of the courtyard's garden.

Inside, the newly insulated building features carpets of recycled plastic, sophisticated low-flow plumbing fixtures and solar-driven faucets, and a sophisticated HVAC system. All this work conformed to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards, and the restoration has been awarded LEED-NC (New Construction) gold certification.

"The owner, Jonathan Bradford of ICCF, was involved on a daily basis," says DeKorte. "He had very definite ideas about how he envisioned this project, and he was very firm that it needed to have LEED certification. Sometimes the historic and the sustainable can clash, but we all kept an open mind as we moved forward with each step, reassessing as we went, and ultimately we were able to achieve a much higher LEED rating than I think anybody anticipated when we started. We made adjustments very quickly and took full advantage of several things that came up as we went along."

"Suddenly there would be a local patron who was willing to invest some monies to make sure that this project became an example. There was one person who donated the money to put solar panels on the roof – certainly, no one had anticipated those at the beginning of the project! You do what you need to do, and at the end of the day you realize that it's good for the environment and good for the building."

Work on the Blodgett Building was completed in time for its centennial in 2008. "ICCF had a definite goal to get this project done by that anniversary," says DeKorte. "They had been occupying two other buildings, and they had their own deadlines to get out of them and consolidate into this one. There were other financing deadlines that put obligations on everybody as well."

On October 25, 2008, a ribbon-cutting ceremony was held in front of the ICCF's new headquarters for the rededication of the Blodgett Building – a renewal of Delos A. Blodgett's commitment to give his city a vibrant center of community care. TB

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