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Grand Rapids in 1856

Scene of early Grand Rapids viewed from the...


In a hustling, growing city like Grand Rapids in its earlier days it became a serious question to obtain needed space. All kinds of expedients were used, but perhaps one of the most common was that of infringing on city property and using the space under the sidewalks for commercial and other purposes.

Herpolsheimers was another downtown business that used the areaways. Their restaurant was beneath the sidewalk of Ottawa just south of Monroe. Every day more than three hundred dinners were prepared there. The kitchen was divided into two rooms; in one the cooking was done and in the other the cooked food was prepared for the table.

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South of the kitchen and beneath the sidewalk of Ottawa was a motor that operated the big air compressor that forms the main part of the pneumatic tube cash system that reaches every corner of the big store.

The south end of the Three Crowns Restaurant, located in the basement of the Morton House for many years, occupied an area under the sidewalk along Monroe Center.

Many businesses stored coal for their furnaces beneath the sidewalks in areaways. A round cover, about the size of a manhole cover, in the sidewalk over the areaway could be removed to expose the coal chute.

Double metal doors in sidewalks covered elevators that received deliveries and then descended to facilitate storage in basements or areaways. Sometimes these underground areas were lighted by heavy pieces of circular glass that were set into the overhead sidewalks.

Grand Rapids has always, at least officially, referred to these spaces beneath sidewalks as Areaways. They are called by several names in other locations:

  • Sidewalk Basement
  • Sidewalk Vaults
  • Sub-Sidewalk Basement
  • Hollow Sidewalk
  • Vaulted Sidewalk
  • Basement Extension

Steve Hitch 1116

Water often seeped in to areaways causing damage to the supporting structure, and was usually followed by sunken and damaged sidewalks.

Grand Rapids city ordinance, Common Council Minutes, December 16, 1895, page 551: “The walls enclosing such area or basement shall in no case extend into or under any sidewalk, street, highway, avenue, lane or alley in the city of Grand Rapids further than to the inside of the curb line. No such area wall shall be built in any case until a plan of such wall, showing the location, dimensions, the material to be used and the manner of construction thereof, shall first have been submitted to the Board of Public Works and shall have been approve by said board.”

Thank you to Ms. Barfuss and Mr. Hitch of the Grand Rapids City Engineer’s Office for their valuable help in clarifying areaway questions and providing photographs.

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