18-story city landmark undergoes renovation

Building was started in 1915 as a bank; the tower was completed ten years later

By Garret Ellison

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) — Chaundra Derks has had the keys to McKay Tower for several months, but she’s still discovering hidden nooks and crannies.

The building, which has more than a dozen bank vaults stashed here and there, is in the midst of an upgrade project being undertaken by its new owners, Steadfast Property Holdings Inc., of which Derks is director of operations.

“I love the history behind this building,” she said. “I love walking through here and finding things like safes and boarded-up elevator shafts in the closet.”

Steadfast, owned by Jonathan Borisch, founder of Borisch Manufacturing of Kentwood (now Amphenol Borisch Technologies), has been busy resealing windows, fixing the façade and making other internal upgrades to the grand dame of Grand Rapids skyscrapers since purchasing the building for $10.5 million in May.

The largest of those upgrades is a renovation project to the old second story bank lobby, which is being converted to a ballroom event space for wedding receptions, business meetings, holiday parties and banquets of up to 250 people.

The soaring space has been vacant since 2010, when tenant Structure Interactive, an information technology firm that specialized in Internet marketing, folded after the 2008 economic downturn.

The 18-story McKay Tower has been a city landmark since the first two stories were built as the Grand Rapids National Bank in 1915. The tower was finished in 1925 and an additional two mechanical floors, plus a lighted beacon, topped the building in the early 1940s.

The old bank lobby was built on the second floor as a security feature.

Steadfast recently completed the interior demolition of the space after receiving special land use approval this fall from city planners. The remodel will add a commercial kitchen on the Monroe Avenue side, and Derks said the bulk of the space, amid large gothic columns, will remain open and airy with lots of natural light.

The original bank deposit table will become part of the bar. The old main bank vault will become a wine room. The building’s marble lobby staircase will not be extended upward due to fire code reasons, said Derks.
The building’s elevator system is being completely overhauled, said Derks, but the old-school mail chute that runs alongside will remain. The original double wood-framed glass bank lobby doors, discovered on the 15th floor, will be re-hung in the ballroom entrance. Original wood flooring will be redone and original bank counter-top granite will be used somehow in the remodel.

Until 1983, when the Amway Grand Tower was finished, the McKay Tower was the tallest building in Grand Rapids. It was designed by architects with Owen-Ames Kimball Co. It’s currently the fifth tallest building in the city.

The structure replaced the Wonderly Building on the site, which was the location of the area’s first non-Indian marriage in the 1830s, in a cabin owned by pioneer Joel Guild. A plaque on the building’s west face commemorates the historic event.

Grand Rapids businessman Frank D. McKay bought the tower from the bank in 1942 and maintained a luxurious two-room office suite on the ground floor. McKay, who named the building after himself, was known as a “kingmaker” in the Michigan Republican Party and beat multiple attempts by federal prosecutors to pin corruption charges on him during the 1930s and ‘40s.

Steadfast hopes to have the space available by next spring. The total project will cost approximately $800,000. Craig Architects of Grand Rapids is the project architect.