Grand Rapids firm Keller and Almassian PLC moves into a building rich with history


– PHOTOS BY CYNTHIA PRICE except the one about the sign being uncovered is courtesy of Keller and Almassian.

By Cynthia Price

Legal News

The building into which the Keller and Almassian law firm moved last Friday is the West Michigan history gift that keeps on giving.

It starts out with events in what would have seemed a very distant place when they transpired: the Lake Michigan shore in what is now Ottawa County.

During the 1820s and 1830s, financiers and dreamers in Philadelphia, including prominent Nicholas Biddle, thought that stretch offered an optimal place for a commercial and residential center to rival Chicago — which at the time was not the major player it would later become.

With shipping being the major form of commercial transportation, the newly-formed Port Sheldon Company considered its options, first attempting to purchase lakefront land that is now Grand Haven. Eventually, they settled on the place where the Pigeon River empties into Pigeon Lake along Lake Michigan. The company’s owners and investors felt that it could be a thriving metropolis someday, and optimistically purchased 600 acres, at $1.50 per acre, from the government.

Unfortunately, they were wrong. It turned out that the very shallow opening into the lake meant shipping was awkward. Eventually, in the late 1830s, a combination of bitter weather and widespread financial crises spelled the end of Port Sheldon.

But what is the connection between that failure in Ottawa County and the beautiful building on Fulton Street in Kent County? The answer is: the pillars.

A man named Charles Badger had opened what was intended to be a luxury hotel in Port Sheldon named Ottawa House, but it closed after five years. As the Port Sheldon Company  went into foreclosure, its clerk, Abram Pike, stayed behind to dispose of land and buildings as best he could.

When Pike moved to Grand Rapids in 1844, he took four of the six pillars from the Ottawa House for his new home, which has a very similar design to the former hotel.

Incidentally, the pillars had to be dragged through the woods by oxen to reach their destination, and some of the side portions of the house were made from pieces of the Port Sheldon depot.

The Abram W. Pike House, now the home of Keller and Almassian, is designated as a Historic Landmark.

The house later became the first home of the Grand Rapids Art Gallery, renamed in the 1950s the Grand Rapids Art Museum.

The Grand Rapids Art Association was incorporated in 1893 and had several locations — the final one of which was destroyed by fire along with part of its collection — before a benefactor offered a matching gift to buy the Abram Pike House. The purchase went through in 1922 and the Art Gallery, later the GRAM, called it home until 1978.

Where many of the law office divisions now stand was a wide-open exhibit space.

It is clear that Todd Almassian is passionate, almost reverent, about the historical connection of the office space, but he also emphasizes the critical role played by the Pike House’s previous tenants, Design Plus.

There are two large boards in the building which show the “before” photos of the place Design Plus, an   architectural and engineering firm which has now merged with Progressive AE, occupied from 2007 until 2013. “It was a mess,” Almassian says. “They did an incredible amount of work.”

As just one small example, there is a wall-based fountain, shown at right, which Design Plus restored. The dusty aqua and ochre tiled basin was apparently a gift during the Grand Rapids Art Gallery years. Design Plus, Almassian says, was fastidious about attention to historical detail in this place with such ties to local history.

And there is more... As final renovations were underway in June and a small group of people met in the front offices, a woman came in through the back and surprised them with more historical good news.

The woman, Anita Gilleo, said that she was positive her grandfather, Mathias Alten, had painted a sign saying “The Grand Rapids Art Gallery” for the building.

Now, Mathias Alten is one of Grand Rapids’ most famous residents, an impressionist painter who spent a lot of time in Europe working with the greats. He is associated with other famous artists of his time such as George Bellows, J.S. Sargent, and Thomas Eakins.

According to Gilleo, the sign he painted in his teens was still on the building facade, but covered by white wood.

Workers did not hesitate a moment to check her story out, and were rewarded by finding the carved and gilded sign intact.

Apparently, it was later changed to say Grand Rapids Art Museum. But it is in very good shape, and Almassian lovingly points to slight but visible remnants of the gold leaf originally used.

Almassian says they took the sign down to avoid confusion, but intend to keep it inside the building; he hopes once he gets things in order at the still-new offices to display the artifact more prominently.

Almassian’s partner and brother Michael says he is “not really at all” into the historical aspects of the building, but he loves his beautifully lit and elegant corner office.

The Almassian brothers are two of the six attorneys with the firm, along with James M. Keller Jr., Greg J. Ekdah, James R. Oppenhuizen and Benjamin M. White.

The firm specializes in business, litigation, commercial transactions and all aspects of bankruptcy and insolvency. Todd Almassian in particular focuses on commercial and consumer bankruptcy, and has served as an expert in professional negligency cases. An award-winning lawyer with many publications to his name, Almassian  served as the treasurer of the Grand Rapids Bar Association last
year and continues to be active in the federal bar association bankruptcy steering committee.

He says the firm will continue to maintain the highest standards for the building and carry its historic legacy forward. “I think we need to be stewards for the next generations coming through,” Almassian says.