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Grand Rapids in 1856

Scene of early Grand Rapids viewed from the...

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400 E. Fulton, Before Davenport

by Jennifer Morrison, Davenport University Archivist

published: September 24th, 2011

Seven residences on the north side of the 400 block of East Fulton Street, between Prospect (to the west) and College (to the east) are shown on the 1912 Sanborn Fire Insurance map. Three of them survive to this day. After Davenport began buying property there in the late 1950s, the stretch became the main campus of what was then Davenport Institute. The downtown site was sold to Grand Rapids Community College in 2009, when Davenport opened a new campus in Caledonia in 2005. The stories of those seven homes, present in 1912, involve some of the most prominent names and trends in Grand Rapids history. Among the former residents were some of the city’s earliest pioneers with long forgotten names like Sarell Wood and Wilna Cole, as well as railroad, lumber, and furniture businessmen; some with never-forgotten names like Blodgett and Widdicomb. Unusual for those times, there were also two early businesswomen, Mrs. Sarell (Mary) Wood and Julia Hawkins March. (See Related Items on the right for histories of the seven homes.)

Founded in 1866 by Conrad G. Swensberg as the Grand Rapids Business College and Telegraph Institute, Davenport's ancestor was first located in the Luce Building at Monroe and Ottawa. Later the school occupied space in the Ledyard Building, at the southwest corner of Ottawa and Pearl, for many years. When Michael E. Davenport took over leadership of the school, the name evolved to the Grand Rapids Business Institute. M. E. Davenport died in January 1959.

Robert Sneden, his son-in-law, succeeded him as president of what had become Davenport Institute. The school occupied the second floor of the Art Moderne style building located on the southeast corner of Fulton and Division. Faced with an increasing enrollment and a need for student housing and other space, Sneden began buying property on the Fulton Street Hill in 1959.

The former Charles Sligh mansion at 455 E. Fulton had been converted to apartments in 1943, and Davenport students were finding a home there at least as early as 1958. In 1961, the structure officially became Mabel Engle Hall, a women's residence hall named for M. E. Davenport's wife.

The furniture industry would be well represented on the east side of the 400 block of elite Fulton Street hill, which eventually featured the residences of Harry Widdicomb, Charles Sligh and Robert Irwin, as well as the Furniture Museum itself. In 1897, the two homes on the left, in this photo, were owned by officials with the GR&I Railroad, another key factor in the industrialization and urbanization trends affecting our city at the turn of the century.

Also purchased for the Institute, in 1959, was the recently closed Grand Rapids Furniture Museum building, originally the T. Stewart White mansion at 427 E. Fulton. The White mansion became Warren Hall, named for M. E. Davenport's only son who died in service during WWII. Other acquisitions followed until Davenport owned all the property on the north side of the 400 block of East Fulton as well as other lots on the block.

This block, now the DeVos campus of Grand Rapids Community College, and previously the main campus of Davenport University, once featured seven prestigious residences as revealed by this 1912 Sanborn map. In 1912, this hill district stretch was populated by men like Harry Widdicomb, Delos Blodgett and T. Stewart White. Three of these structures remain today, converted for use by the educational institutions that came here later.

Conrad G. Swensberg

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In 1866, young Conrad Swensberg opened the Grand Rapids Business College & Telegraphic Institute, the ancestor of today's Davenport University.


Items Available at the History & Special Collections Dept. of the Grand Rapids Public Library

  • Conrad Swensberg Biography and Portrait File
  • Davenport College Vertical File
  • Moceri, Peggy Sneden. History of an Institution: Davenport College. 1990


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