The Hanselman Building

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Photo Gallery: Hanselman Building 

“Kalamazoo has put on real city garments during the last two or three years. This is evidenced by the tall office buildings – sky-scrapers that have been erected where low ancient buildings once stood.”

The above statement was published in the Progressive Herald on 26 August 1913 as part of a feature describing the city’s newest skyscraper, the Hanselman Building. It was no understatement that Kalamazoo had grown taller in a very short time. Prior to the turn of the century, no commercial buildings in the city exceeded four stories. That all changed in 1907 when the city’s first steel-framed skyscraper, the Kalamazoo National Bank Building, rose an astounding eight-stories over the sidewalk. The building was hailed as a sign of Kalamazoo’s progress and modernity. It marked the beginning of a local high-rise building boom, of which the ten-story Hanselman Building was the literal high point.

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George Hanselman.
Progressive Herald, 26 August 1913.

The Vow

The new skyscraper was the brainchild of George Hanselman. A self-made businessman, Hanselman was one of the city’s prominent rags-to-riches success stories. He had little to his name when he opened a modest peanut and candy stand in 1878. Local lore tells us that this stand was set up on the sidewalk in front of the City National Bank at the northwest corner of Main and Burdick Streets, today’s Michigan Avenue and Kalamazoo Mall. The bank did not appreciate Hanselman’s enterprise and had him forcibly removed. As the police led him away, Hanselman vowed that he would one day purchase the corner, much to the amusement of the witnesses. The truthfulness of this story is uncertain, as it went unrecorded at the time, but the story received considerable mention many years later, after Hanselman had made good on his vow.

Whether he was motivated by the vow or not, Hanselman’s sidewalk peanut and candy stand quickly evolved into the successful Hanselman Candy Company. At its peak the firm was the largest confectionery manufacturer in West Michigan, producing a wide range of chocolates, ice cream, nuts, and candies. By the turn of the century it occupied an impressive three-story factory on East Main Street, adjacent to the Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad’s passenger station, a sizable step-up from the sidewalk stand. Hanselman’s popular products included the Frozen Joy ice cream bar, which had fruit-flavored ice cream covered in chocolate. It is also said that Hanselman was the first source of bananas in Kalamazoo.

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An advertisement for the Hanselman Candy
Company.
Kalamazoo Gazette, 26 August 1913.

Candy made the formerly penniless Hanselman one of the city’s leading citizens. He and his family lived in a large home on South Street, which still stands. However, Hanselman invested most of his candy profits into a growing family-run real estate empire, largely made up of apartment buildings. It would be a combination of experience in real estate management combined with the continued profits from the candy company that provided Hanselman the means to purchase the old City National Bank corner in 1911 and to make plans for his most ambitious project to-date. As luck would have it, external factors also helped pave the way for the new skyscraper.

Blank Slate

In many regards, the necessity for a new building at the northwest corner of Main and Burdick stemmed from the devastating Burdick Hotel fire on 8 and 9 December 1909. Although the two buildings that occupied the Hanselman Building’s future location, the E.M. Kennedy Drug Store and the City National Bank, were not consumed in the blaze, they were severely compromised in its aftermath. On 21 March 1910 staff of the drug store noticed a series of strange and escalating creaking noises. The sounds eventually caused sufficient alarm that workers began to panic and make their way for the exits. Most only made it a few steps before the entire building suddenly slid into the massive void left by the removal of fire ruins. According to witnesses, the building completely disintegrated within a matter of moments. The store’s owner, Benjamin Baumann, was seconds away from walking in through the front door and watched his business literally vanish before his eyes. Remarkably, although there were many injuries, all of the building’s occupants were pulled from the rubble alive.

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The ruins of the E.M. Kennedy Drug Store following the building's collapse. The City National Bank is on the right.
Author's Collection.

Afterwards it was determined that removal of the neighboring ruins had made the drug store’s foundations unstable. The collapse of the drug store caused significant damage to the neighboring City National Bank. Most of the bank’s cornice was ripped off, stress cracks appeared on the walls, and large sections of brick fell onto the sidewalk.

Believing it was also doomed, the fire department attempted to pull down the City National Bank. These efforts failed and the building was deemed “safe.” However, that still left an empty hole on Main Street where the drug store had formerly stood, and a bank building that needed extensive repairs. Conditions were ripe for new development on the corner. For months the Kalamazoo Gazette editorialized on the necessity for a suitable new structure at the site, teasing Kalamazoo residents with rumors of planned office buildings or even an extension of the Burdick Hotel. One by one, these rumors were promptly dismissed.

It would be George Hanselman who would obtain the corner, making good on a vow that had once seemed preposterous. Unlike the earlier rumors, Hanselman’s plans did not appear in print until they were nearly a done deal. The story broke on 1 March 1911, when the Kalamazoo Gazette announced that Hanselman was in the final steps of purchasing the needed land. Bargain prices were not to be, however. Despite the favorable conditions, Hanselman’s purchase of the corner set a new record in Kalamazoo commercial real estate, edging out the Kalamazoo National Bank site as the most expensive commercial property in the city.

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The architects' rendering was published on the
front page of the Kalamazoo Gazette as well as
in postcard form. The sender of this postcard
wrote "Don't you think that they have a nice
building in Kalamazoo?"
Author's Collection.

Design

In order to fill his newly acquired street corner, Hanselman hired the Detroit architecture firm of Shiers, Rohns, and Goerke to draft plans for a ten-story office building that was to be second to none. When the architects’ plans were proudly displayed on the front page of the Kalamazoo Gazette on 27 August 1911, locals were clearly impressed by their work. They were soon commissioned to design a new Masonic Temple on Rose Street, today’s Rose Street Market.

The blueprints called for a slender neo-classical tower, lavishly detailed with fine materials and ornaments. The exterior of the Hanselman Building was covered in white and green glazed terra cotta. The effect was the appearance of a soaring column supporting an elaborate cornice. Large windows provided for a well ventilated interior. The lobby, stairways and corridors were paneled in marble. By late October the design was slightly altered with the purchase of additional property on North Burdick Street, which allowed for a sixth bay of windows on that street.

The construction contract went to Henry L. Vanderhorst who, in a career spanning 1898 to 1945, built many of the city’s prominent landmarks. It was Vanderhorst who had built the city’s first skyscraper, the Kalamazoo National Bank Building. His firm is also credited with the State Theater, the Kalamazoo Gazette Building, the Dewing Building, and a number of industrial structures.

The Hanselman job began in September 1911 with the demolition of the old City National Bank. By November the first floor began to rise over the sidewalk. The building was topped out by January.

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The steel and concrete frame has reached roof
level and the terra cotta facade is up to the
sixth floor in this photograph.
Local History Room Photograph, uncataloged.

“Great Oaks from Little Acorns Grow”

The Kalamazoo Gazette displayed great enthusiasm for the skyscraper both in the amount of coverage given to its construction and to the prose used in its description. The Hanselman Building provided additional evidence that Kalamazoo was a city on the move, representing the Kalamazoo of the future. In comparing the proposed new building to its elderly neighbors, the Gazette wrote: “In other words, within eight months a magnificent ten-story building will look benignly down upon ‘asbestos row,’ across Burdick Street, reminding the passerby that great oaks from little acorns grow. With one sweep of the eye, the citizen may behold in panorama the history of Kalamazoo, its small beginning in the dim and musty past and its present evidence of progress and enterprise.” ‘Asbestos row’ referred to a group of dilapidated single-story buildings across Burdick Street from the new skyscraper. They were long considered eyesores and presented the greatest contrast to the city’s new office buildings.

Demand for space in the city’s tallest building was great and the Hanselman soon was leased to capacity. The basement was reserved for a restaurant while the stores facing Main and Burdick Streets were occupied by a cigar store, sporting goods store, and two jewelers. The second floor was envisioned as a shopping destination for women with the types of businesses “which women only patronize.” The directories for the upper floors were a listing of many of the successful professionals of the day. Tenants included insurance agencies, contractors, lawyers, and doctors. The upper two floors were reserved for doctors and dentists, so they might benefit from the natural light. Tenants began moving into the nearly completed skyscraper in October 1912.

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Proud construction workers pose on the roof of the nearly completed skyscraper, then the highest point in
the city. The smoke stacks on the far right are the Standard Paper Company, today's Graphic Packaging.
Local History Room Photograph, uncataloged.

The Human Fly

As the city’s tallest, it is no surprise that the Hanselman Building was the focus of a rather daring promotional stunt that was the highlight of the 1916 Kalamazoo County Fair. Held during the first week of October throughout the downtown area, the fair attracted tens of thousands to the streets surrounding the skyscraper. The Kalamazoo Gazette sensed the opportunity for a dramatic performance and hired Jack Williams, a famous traveling stuntman dubbed “the Human Fly,” to scale familiar landmarks. Williams had earned his nickname in daredevil building climbs throughout the country.

In the weeks leading up to the big event, Williams built up suspense with boastful claims published in the Gazette. As if climbing the building wasn’t enough, he described a series of theatrical stunts he would perform on his way up. In explaining one to the Gazette Williams stated “When I get to the roof I will take a chair, balance it on two legs on the cornice, sit in it and swing my feet out over the edge. That’s a good trick if it works. If it does not, why I’ll come down faster than I went up.”

But both Williams and his wife expressed confidence to the press that the climbs were safe and that anyone hoping for blood would be let down. Williams went on to say “People have been coming to see me for four years in the belief that someday I will ‘splat myself’ on the pavement below. Thus far I’ve succeeded in disappointing them, and I will keep on doing so.” Meanwhile, his wife insisted she felt no concern for her husband’s chosen profession, going so far as to say “He wanted to be an aviator. But I objected. That’s too dangerous a business and anyone who goes into that game is foolish.”

The big day came on October 4th. That afternoon Williams drew massive crowds when he first scaled the six-story Edwards and Chamberlain building on East Main, the present-day Haymarket Building. But that climb was but a warm-up for the ascent up the Hanselman in the evening. Police roped off the streets around the skyscraper to, as the Gazette claimed, protect spectators should Williams fall. But those measures proved unnecessary and Williams’ prior confidence well-founded. Bare-handed and without the use of ropes or any other climbing aides, Williams made his way up the building’s south façade at 7:30. A searchlight illuminated his path. The crowd roared with excitement as he rounded the building’s massive cornice and shinnied up the flag pole.

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The Hanselman Building as completed.
Author's Collection

Later Years

Following its date with the Human Fly, the Hanselman Building went on to lead a relatively quiet existence, remaining one of the tallest and most visible landmarks in the city. It was finally eclipsed in height in 1929 by the fifteen-story American National Bank, today’s Fifth Third Building. Tenants came and went, but the building always maintained a healthy occupancy rate. Physical alterations were minor, the building appearing late in life much as it had in its early years.

George Hanselman died on 26 June 1923 at the age of sixty one. His wife, Margaret, who had been an active partner in all of his ventures, took over management of the family’s apartment buildings until shortly before her 1939 death. Their eldest son, Harold Hanselman, assumed control of the Hanselman Building and of the candy company. The candy company continued operation until 1925, when it was sold. The Hanselman Building, on the other hand, remained in the family until its 1958 sale to a group of Chicago investors.

Wrong Place at the Wrong Time

By the early seventies the Hanselman Building found itself in the wrong place at the wrong time. The neighboring Burdick Hotel, which occupied most of the block, closed after years of struggling financially. This left a void downtown that the city’s leadership thought was best filled with a bold construction project. Urban renewal was the popular trend of the era. This involved large-scale demolition of older buildings to make way for modern structures intended to inject new life into city centers. As the Burdick was ripped down throughout 1972, plans were drafted to replace the entire block with a new hotel and convention complex named the Kalamazoo Center.

However, as the plans for the Kalamazoo Center were finalized, a lack of funds spared the Hanselman Building and its immediate neighbor, the Travis Building, formerly the Cowlbeck store. Thus the Kalamazoo Center ended up been designed around the two older structures. But, in the view of the Center’s backers, the continued existence of the older buildings would be an “eyesore” and hinder the good the project was hoped to do for downtown. A group led by Irving Gilmore, W.T. Little, and the Kalamazoo Foundation raised private donations for the purchase of the two buildings and partial payment for their demolition. In exchange for the donation of the properties, the city was expected to pay the remaining three-quarters of the demolition costs, a proposal that easily passed in the city commission.

Implosion

Demolition was announced on 10 July 1973 and less than a month later the city took title to the building. Throughout the late summer and fall the Hanselman’s thirty tenants were evicted and officials studied the best way to bring the structure down. Ultimately it was decided to hire Controlled Demolitions Inc. to dynamite the skyscraper on 31 December 1973.
Much like its construction sixty years prior, the Hanselman Building’s demolition was heavily hyped by the Kalamazoo Gazette. The coming implosion was described as “spectacular” and the building’s removal a sign of progress. The paper provided hints and details for people to watch the collapse. On the morning of the event, around one thousand took this advice and filled the city’s streets and rooftops, enduring bitter cold, in order to see the landmark’s end.

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The Hanselman Building makes a dramatic exit.
History Room Subject File: Buildings - Kalamazoo -
Kalamazoo Mall, N., 103.

The atmosphere was later described by the Gazette in festive terms with people gathered in anticipation, waiting for the inevitable wailing sirens that would announce the detonation. The previously announced time came and went and the crowds waited hours, not knowing when the blast would come. Some gave up and left, others sought warmth in their cars. But the majority remained at their chosen perches, finding other means of fighting the cold. A Gazette writer noticed one clever individual, writing: “One smart operator was spotted sitting on a box atop a building just north of the blast site. He had his back leaning against a warm chimney and he was wrapped in blankets. Every now and then, he could be seen taking a sip of hot coffee or whatever. He had it made.”

At 10:10 in the morning the demolition experts were satisfied, and the police made one final sweep around the block. A series of sirens went off and finally a countdown. A number of muffled thuds echoed from deep within the basement of the Hanselman Building and sixty-one years of history caved into itself. It was all over in only five seconds.

The Hanselman Building nearly had its revenge, however. As the building crumbled to the ground, a large chuck of concrete was hurled like a missile towards the County Building on Michigan Avenue, smashing onto the front steps and then shattering a window. Two spectators received slight injuries as a result. Fortunately the rock missed where the bulk of people had gathered.

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This wing of the Kalamazoo Center, today more
popularly known as the Radisson, occupies the
former location of the Hanselman Building.
Photograph taken by author, September 2012.

“Lonesome place against the sky”

On 7 January 1974 the Kalamazoo Gazette published an anonymously written letter titled "Eulogy for the Hanselman Building." It had been written as a response to the Gazette’s largely enthusiastic coverage of the demolition. The writer concluded: “Perhaps in another generation or two or three, a crowd of people will gather to see your successor atomized by a phaser to make room for yet another building, and perhaps some of them will feel as heartsick as we do now over your demise, as their memories of the Kalamazoo Center vanish into thin air. (At least you left rubble and dust.) Ashes to ashes, dust to dust… sick transit Gloria mundi (rough translation: fame is fleeting). Farewell, old friend… you leave a lonesome place against the sky.”

That “lonesome place” would remain in the sky for three decades. The plans of the Kalamazoo Center were not drastically altered and the Hanselman’s former location was developed as a sunken concrete plaza. It wasn’t until an extensive 2003 renovation of the Kalamazoo Center that a nine-story wing rose where the Hanselman once stood.

Historians generally don’t like to ponder “what if” questions. But one has to ask how this story would have unfolded had only George Hanselman set up his modest peanut stand across the street. Then, perhaps, his skyscraper might still decorate the city’s skyline.

Sources

Articles

"Work on skyscraper here is commenced"

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 1 March 1911, page 3

"Contract for Kalamazoo's third skyscraper today"

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 26 August 1911, page 1

"Great structure achievement of successful career"

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 29 May 1912, page 8

"Elaborate cafe will soon occupy basement of Hanselman Building"

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 6 October 1912, page 6

"'Human fly' to climb up face of skyscrapers in Kalamazoo"

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 24 September 1916, page 1

"George Hanselman, 61, succumbs"

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 27 June 1923, page 1

"Hanselman Building to be razed"

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 10 July 1973, page A-1, column 1

"Hanselman tumbles down"

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 31 December 1973, page A-1, column 1

"Eulogy for the Hanselman Building"

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 7 January 1974, page B-1, column 1

History Room Subject Files

History Room Subject File: Buildings - Kalamazoo - Kalamazoo Mall, N., 103