At the turn of the twentieth century skyscrapers were still a relatively recent development. The desire to build taller had historically been thwarted by the number of stairs people were willing to climb and how much weight masonry could support. But the industrial age solved these problems with the invention of elevators and the use of structural steel. Structural steel was the big breakthrough. The idea of using a metal skeletal frame to support a building first appeared in Chicago in the 1880s. This concept was soon emulated and improved upon. A skyscraper building boom spread across the country, extending from Chicago to New York, and eventually to smaller cities.
As the building boom spread, any city that fancied itself progressive and prosperous had, or aspired to have, at least one skyscraper. Many people in Kalamazoo were disheartened that no such structure yet existed in the business district. The 24 January 1906 announcement that an eight-story skyscraper was planned generated considerable buzz and excitement. The Kalamazoo Gazette wrote: “It is just this kind of a building that Kalamazoo has needed for a long time, something which is possessed in hundreds of other cities this size.” The following day the Gazette editorialized that the existing low-rise buildings in the business district were “not in keeping with the spirit of Kalamazoo.” The Gazette continued by noting that the skyscraper’s construction “marks the beginning of the Greater Kalamazoo.”
Soon dubbed the Kalamazoo National Bank building, the skyscraper was slated to be built on the southwest corner of Main, today’s Michigan Avenue, and Burdick Streets. Plans called for a tower that rose an astounding eight stories over the business district, making it the tallest building in town and the city’s first recipient of the term “skyscraper.” Its design would conform to the latest in architectural taste. The building was designed by Chicago architect Joseph C. Llewellyn, who later also designed the new Burdick Hotel.
Not surprisingly the skyscraper’s arrangement conformed to the design standards that had been developed for tall buildings in Chicago, known as the Chicago School. Like those in Chicago, Kalamazoo’s new tower would resemble a classical column, with the lower floors forming a decorative base, the middle floors an unadorned shaft, and the top floor an ornate capital. The decoration was neoclassical. The lower two floors, which formed the base, were faced with carved stone. The five middle floors featured vertical piers and large windows to allow ample light into the offices. The top floor featured a projecting decoration known as a cornice.
Contractor Henry L. Vanderhorst was entrusted to build the locally unprecedented structure. Vanderhorst was well qualified for the job. In a career that would run from 1898 to 1945, he would build many of Kalamazoo’s prominent landmarks. The Kalamazoo National Bank would be a highlight. Prior to the skyscraper he had built facilities for a number of area manufacturers, such as the Henderson Ames, Kalamazoo Stove, and Bryant Paper companies. Later downtown projects included the buildings that would occupy the other three corners of Main and Burdick, the Hanselman, First National Bank, and Dewing Buildings. The State Theater and Kalamazoo Gazette buildings, on South Burdick Street, were also built by his firm.
The start of construction was initially delayed over disagreements on suitable new quarters for the many businesses that were to be displaced. Relocating the Star Bargain House proved particularly tricky. This dispute was resolved with a property swap that moved the Star Bargain House to a prime storefront location across Main Street, next to the Burdick Hotel. It would be at that location, over three years later, where the store would famously burn to the ground, taking the Burdick and much of the block with it.
Fortunately, business relocation proved to be the greatest obstacle the builders would face. The process of clearing the site and actual construction proceeded rather uneventfully. There were no accidents. The only delays reported by the Gazette were due to tardy shipments of materials.
As work progressed the citizens of Kalamazoo marveled at the sight of a black steel skeleton rising over Main and Burdick. But for many, impressing outsiders was more important. Noting the building’s progress, the Kalamazoo Gazette wrote on 24 November 1906: “Nothing advertises a city to strangers more than the impressions they get when going through the place on a train.” The writers expressed relief that the building’s frame had reached a height to be visible from passing trains on the Michigan Central tracks, and wrote of hopes that the skyscraper would serve to overshadow Kalamazoo’s less impressive aspects. The Gazette concluded, “The long line of low buildings on North Burdick Street is anything but impressive. The new structure, however, looming up so prominently may in a measure take the attention away from the poorer built up part of the city.”
For those strangers who lacked the opportunity to pass through Kalamazoo on a train, other means were made available for the city’s citizens to show off their emerging landmark. Picture postcards were a new fad of the era, and numerous cards depicting the construction of the building at various stages were produced and mailed around the country. These cards, showing a modern steel frame towering high above low-rising nineteenth century business blocks, were frequently captioned “first skyscraper.” It remained a popular subject long after the building’s completion. Relatives and friends all over the country could see the evidence of Kalamazoo's growth and modernity.
The Kalamazoo Gazette had enthusiastically embraced the skyscraper upon its announcement and throughout its construction. Interestingly editors sang a different tune after its completion. The creation of an office tower, rising much higher than any of its neighbors, not only changed the visual landscape, it altered downtown wind conditions. Some found this an unwelcome side effect. Several articles recorded dissatisfaction with the new conditions. The Gazette wrote: “Kalamazoo has a tall building, and with the building it has bought a ‘Flatiron building weather breeder.’ There is a continual wind at that point, where before the atmosphere was mild and slow of motion, and never impolite to hats or hosiery.” Pondering a bleak future when more skyscrapers would be built, the Gazette envisioned a worsening situation requiring wind breaks on Main Street, and warned its readers that “…the caged winds shall sweep everything moveable in a whirl of dust and flying garments, down our chief avenue of trade.”
The dire predictions of garment-robbing winds brought about by the “weather breeder” proved largely unfounded. But the belief that more skyscrapers would soon follow was correct. The new Kalamazoo National Bank Building marked the beginning of steel-framed high-rise construction in Kalamazoo. The bank had not even been completed before other tall buildings began to rise. Another eight-story skyscraper, the Rickman Hotel, was built in 1907-1908 at the corner of North Burdick Street and Kalamazoo Avenue. Simultaneously a six-story building went up at East Main and Portage Streets to house the Edward and Chamberlain hardware store. Over the next few years other steel-framed high-rises joined the emerging skyline, including the Rosenbaum Building, an expansion of the Gilmore’s Department Store, and the new Burdick Hotel. Although following in the pioneer’s footsteps, none of these buildings surpassed the Kalamazoo National Bank in height. It wasn’t until the 1912 construction of the ten-story Hanselman Building, directly across Main Street, that the city’s first skyscraper was overshadowed.
“Colony up in mid-air”
The possibility of attaching oneself to Kalamazoo’s most exciting new construction project drew a wide range of tenants to the new skyscraper. Despite being one of the largest buildings downtown, and offering considerable rental space, demand was so great that the building was fully leased before its completion. The building was finally ready for occupancy in late summer 1907. The first of the building’s tenants began moving into the upper floors by mid August. The Kalamazoo Gazette described the building directory as a “colony up in mid-air” populated by the city’s professional class. Tenants included dentists, doctors, real estate agents and lawyers. The upper reaches of the skyscraper housed the most unusual tenants. Much of the eighth floor was occupied by a Christian Science reading room. At the very top, a special roof-top penthouse was constructed to house J.M. Reidsema’s photo studio. This space provided Reidsema not only with a spectacular view, but also with excellent lighting conditions thanks to the unobstructed sunlight and skylights.
The building’s primary tenant, from which it derived its name, was the Kalamazoo National Bank. The bank had occupied the street corner prior to the skyscraper’s construction, and maintained that prime corner location on the ground floor of the new structure, moving into its new quarters in September 1907. Elaborate interior furnishings included a marble-paneled lobby and a massive safe that contained over seventy-thousand pounds of steel. The bank continued its presence in the building for decades, but fell victim to the collapse of the financial industry during the Great Depression. The former bank space was then divided and occupied by various stores. Following the demise of the bank, the building became known simply as the Kalamazoo Building, a name that persists to this day.
Over the years building tenants have come and gone. After the failure of the Kalamazoo National Bank, Mahoney’s Apparel, a women’s clothing store, was one of the businesses that moved into the bank’s former space. In 1967 the store expanded, taking over the entire lower two floors and basement of the building and becoming the building’s major tenant. After Mahoney’s closed its doors in 1974, the space was occupied by a Michigan National Bank branch. Today that space is a Keystone Community Bank branch. Several of the upper floors continue to house professional offices, while others were converted to condominiums in 1970. This gave the Kalamazoo Building another pioneering distinction as the first condominium building in the city. The former Reidsema studio on the roof has since been converted into an elaborate office and loft, initially occupied by William Little. Little purchased the building in 1968.
The building has undergone several significant exterior changes as well. The landmark Kalamazoo Building sign painted at the top of the west elevation made its first appearance in the 1940s. Sometime during the 1950s the cornice that decorated the top of the skyscraper was removed. This was a common practice at the time, as old projecting ornamentation became viewed as a potential falling danger. It was cheaper for owners to remove them rather than reinforce them. The cornice’s former location was marked by a painted white band. Further significant alterations occurred in 1967 when much of the lower two floors and parts of the upper floors were covered in pebbled panels, greatly altering the character of the building.
The Last Doorman
For decades Leroy Bixler was as much a defining feature of the Kalamazoo Building as its brick, stone, and steel. Bixler became an employee at the building in 1944 when he took on a job as an elevator operator. In this position he quickly established a close relationship with the building’s tenants and was always willing to go the extra mile to provide better service.
In 1971 Bixler lost his elevator job to newly installed elevators that no longer required an operator. But the building’s tenants were unwilling to let him go. A new position as doorman was specially created for him, so that he could remain on the job at the building. As a result he not only became the only doorman in Kalamazoo, but the only doorman in southwest Michigan.
At his post in front of the building’s Michigan Avenue entrance, Bixler established himself as a downtown institution, helping tenants, customers, and pedestrians alike. During the 1980 tornado he made sure to get as many pedestrians as possible safely into the building. When Bixler finally retired in 1990 a plaque was installed by the entrance in his honor. Additionally, so many well-wishing letters poured in that an entire page of the Kalamazoo Gazette was devoted to displaying them.
Although long overshadowed by new construction, the Kalamazoo Building remains one of downtown’s most recognizable landmarks. It has seen other early skyscrapers come and go, including the Hanselman Building across the street. The building may lose some prominence when a planned office and residential building, Exchange Place, is built next door. Its familiar sign will likely be obscured. But upgrades made to Kalamazoo’s first skyscraper in 2012, including a new cornice, seem to suggest that the building will continue to decorate the skyline for years to come.