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Grand Rapids in 1856

Scene of early Grand Rapids viewed from the...

Kent County Court House

by Albert Baxter

From the beginning up to the present time, fifty-five years, the Kent County offices have been a wandering and much divided family. November 8, 1833, James Kingsley, S. V. R. Trowbridge and Charles Lanman, Commissioners appointed by the Governor of the Territory, came here to designate the place of the Seat of Justice of the County of Kent. The place selected was on what is now known as the Public Square or Fulton Street Park, and they set a stake very near the center of that ground. This was done in pursuance of an act of the Territorial Legislature passed July 31, 1830.

In 1838 the county built a Court House there, in which were held the courts and county municipal meetings. A portion was used for a jail, and the Sheriff's residence was in the building. It was a two-story frame, about 30 by 40 feet in size, fronting east and west, with a hallway through the center. It had a cupola, over which was a gilt ball. It was built by Sylvester Granger and William I. Blakely; contract price, $3,000. It was destroyed by fire July 12, 1844, and was replaced by a smaller, one-story building, with a single room and entrance hall, somewhat in the fashion of a country school house. This was used for County Court purposes and meetings of the Board of Supervisors for about six years. Its cost was only $300. It was also used for school purposes by the Grand Rapids Academy; was the place of the annual Indian payment one or two years, and of the annual fairs of the Kent County Agricultural Society in 1849 and 1850. The annual elections, local and general, were held there for some years during the village days. The offices of the County Clerk, Register and Treasurer were never kept in either of those buildings. In 1845 the Supervisors invited proposals for the erection of a stone or brick building, but nothing tangible seems to have resulted from that.

The county ceased to use the site about 1852, and from that time until 1860 rented rooms in various quarters of the city for the Clerk's, Register's and Treasurer's offices and Court and Supervisors' rooms. Charles H. Taylor, who was elected Clerk in 1838, and held the position eight years, one testified that he kept the office wherever his place of business was, using a little desk with about twenty-five pigeonholes. The office was moved several times during that period, and in 1845 was in the Rathbone building, at the junction of Monroe and Ottawa streets, opposite the foot of Fountain street. Under Mr. Taylor's successor, in 1847, it was kept in Irving Hall, and about this time the County rented offices in the Rathbone Building for Clerk, Register and Treasurer, which were occupied several years.

When the old Court House site was abandoned, the Court and Board of Supervisors moved to the west side of the river and used for some time a building erected for church and lecture-room purposes, near the end of the Bridge street bridge. A hall in Commercial Block was also used for a time. In January, 1852, the county offices were removed to the three-story frame building known as Public Hall, or Sons of Temperance Hall, on the east side of Canal street midway between Lyon and Crescent avenue. Some six years afterward the County rented apartments in the Taylor & Barns Block, where the McReynolds now is, which were used until that building was burned in January, 1860, when the records were destroyed. After that fire the County found temporary quarters in Collins Hall, in Luce's Block, the Withy Block, and other places. In that year was purchased for $1,000, on ten years' credit at 7 per cent., ground at the corner of Lyon and Kent streets, and a building placed thereon, in which have since been kept the offices of Clerk, Register, Treasurer, and for a portion of the time of the Judge of Probate and the Superintendents of the Poor. (That site had been offered free to the county in February, 1854, by its then proprietors, together with a donation of $800 toward the erection of a county building, which proposition was rejected by the Board of Supervisors.) Provision was also made for the erection of the building, by a loan of $1,000 at a rate of interest not to exceed ten per cent. In the meantime, for the use of the Courts and the Board of Supervisors, other quarters have been rented.

From 1850 until 1887 there was almost a continuous strife in the Board of Supervisors, over questions as to the permanent location of a site for the County Buildings. Counter claims arose touching the title to the so-called Court House Square, and there were divisions as to whether the site should be on the east or west side of the river. In October, 1851, the Supervisors passed a resolution selecting the west side. In 1852 the county contracted for grounds a little south of Bridge, between Front and Court streets, and proceeded to erect thereon buildings for a jail and Sheriff's residence, and occupied the same until 1872. In 1860 this question of east and west side was submitted to vote at the April election, and the west side won it, but the decision was not final. Votes, either upon questions of location or upon propositions to raise money to erect buildings, came almost as regularly as the return of election day.

At the April election in 1874 was submitted a proposition for raising $150,000 by loan to erect County Buildings on the Public Square. There was a small majority for it in the city, but in the county it was defeated by 4,305 negative against 3,130 affirmative votes. January 24, 1876, the county rented of William Leppig court room and offices at $800 per annum, "for three years with the privilege of five years." The title of the county to the Public Square ground being in dispute, proceedings in chancery were instituted to test the matter, and in the summer of 1883 testimony was taken in the case. In these proceedings county and city alike took an interest, inasmuch as the city had received from Louis Campau, the original owner, a quit-claim of one-half the Square. The issue finally went to the Supreme Court of the State, where the decision was adverse to the county, but favorable to the city.

Finally, at the October session in 1887, the Board of Supervisors purchased, for the sum of $32,500, the property 220 feet front on Crescent Avenue, and extending south there from between Kent and Ottawa streets to include lots 122, 123, 116, 117, 108, 109, and the north half of lots 102 and 103 of the Kent Plat; and determined that this be "designated and fixed upon as a site upon which to erect and maintain a Court House." At the January session, 1888, the Supervisors submitted to the people a proposition to raise by loan, on the bonds of the county, $150,000 to build a Court House. The vote at the April election following of the electors of the county, was almost unanimous in favor of the loan. October 25, 1888, a contract was made for the erection of the building, with the Western Construction Company, of Detroit, for the sum of $160,000; according to plans and specifications made by Architect Sidney J. Osgood.

Work was immediately commenced on the foundations. The time set for the completion of the building is January 1, 1891. The bonds, amounting to $150,000, bearing five per cent interest, have been disposed of for a premium of $7,727, to be deducted from the interest. The bonds are for $1,000 each, and payable $10,000 on the even numbered years and $20,000 on the odd, the last of them maturing January 15, 1899.

The cornerstone was laid July 4, 1889, with formal ceremonies, and the work of building is in progress. The structure has a frontage of 159 feet on Crescent Avenue, and 124 feet each on Ottawa and Kent streets. From the grade line to the finial of the central tower it is to be 174 feet high. Of the builders, two of the contracting parties live outside the State, namely: Goodall Brothers, Peru, Indiana, stone work, and Streeter & Company, Chicago, iron work. The others are Grand Rapids men, to-wit: J.D. Boland, brick work; H.E. Doran, carpenter work, and Weatherly & Pulte, plumbing and steaming heating. Building Committee: R.B. Loomis, Chairman; W.D. Frost, Secretary; J.W. Walker, James Hill, John T. Gould.

From the History of the City of Grand Rapids by Albert Baxter, 1891, pgs 371-373

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