Final Study Report of the Century Furniture Co. Factory
by Rebecca Smith-Hoffman
Historic District Study Committee
By a resolution dated April 14, 2009, the Grand Rapids City Commission named the Century Furniture Factory Historic District Study Committee in accordance with Chapter 68 of Title V of the City Code and the Michigan Local Historic District Act, PA 169 (1970), as amended.
The Study Committee was charged to undertake the following:
- Conduct a photographic inventory of resources within the proposed Century Furniture Factory Historic District following procedures established by the Michigan Historic Preservation Office;
- Conduct basic research on the historic resources located within the proposed district;
- Determine the total number of historic and non-historic resources within the proposed district and the percentage of historic resources of that total. In evaluating the significance of historic resources, the study committee shall be guided by the selection criteria for evaluation issued by the United States Secretary of the Interior for inclusion of resources in the National Register of Historic Places, as set forth in 36 C.F.R. §60;
- Prepare a preliminary historic district study committee report;
- Transmit copies of the preliminary report for review and recommendations to the Grand Rapids Planning Commission, the Grand Rapids Historic Preservation Commission, the State Historic Preservation Office, the Michigan Historical Commission, and to the State Historic Preservation Review Board. Copies of the preliminary report shall be made available to property owners in the proposed historic district and to the general public;
- Not less than sixty (60) calendar days after the transmittal of the preliminary report, the committee shall hold a public hearing in compliance with the Open Meetings Act;
- Following the public hearing the study committee shall prepare and submit a final report with its recommendations for the designation of the historic district to the Grand Rapids City Commission which may, at its discretion, act on the recommendations of the study committee.
Dr. Phillip Hartgerink
Daniel Wells – Grand Rapids Historic Preservation Commission
Researched and written by
Rebecca Smith-Hoffman, Past Perfect Inc.
Grand Rapids History and Special Collections, Archives, Grand Rapids Public Library
Study Area Boundary Description
The proposed district consists of the Century Furniture Factory building located at 40-60 Logan Street SW, legally described as: Lot 4 Block 1, Except South 0.80 feet of West 46.0 ft, also Lot 5 Block 1 4, Block 1, Except South 0.80 feet, also Lot 6 block 1 except 0.80 feet, also Lot 7 Block 1, also Lot 8 Block 1 except South 0.80 feet of Grant’s Addition.
The proposed historic district boundary encompasses the entire area of the Century Furniture Factory, the single resource contained within the proposed district.
The proposed historic district contains one resource; one hundred percent (100%) of the resources in the district contribute to its historic integrity.
Period of Significance
The period of significance for the Century Furniture Factory Historic District is 1910 to 1942.
Statement of Significance
Criteria of significance have been established by the National Park Service under which properties are judged to be eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. These criteria are also used by the State of Michigan and the City of Grand Rapids in judging the eligibility of properties for historic designation. The National Register Criteria addresses the quality of significance in American history, architecture, archeology, engineering, and culture that is present in districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects that possess integrity of location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling, and association, as well as:
- Association with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history; or
- Association with the lives of persons significant in our past; or
- Embody the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction or that represent the work of a master, or that possess high artistic values, or that represent a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction; or
- Have yielded, or may be likely to yield, information important in prehistory or history.
The Study Committee recommends the designation of the Century Furniture Factory Historic District based upon the following criteria.
The Century Furniture Factory is locally significant under Criterion A under the theme of industry for its association with the Century Furniture Company and under Criterion C under the theme of architecture as an intact example of the type of furniture factory constructed during this period in Grand Rapids.
The Century Furniture Company was the earliest and most significant manufacturer of antique reproduction furniture in Grand Rapids. At a time when older Grand Rapids firms were attempting to upgrade the quality of their furniture, Century Furniture was founded to produce expensive, high-quality pieces. The company gained a national reputation for the authenticity of its products, which were reproductions of classic designs – Sheraton, Hepplewhite, Chippendale, Louis XV, Louis XVI, etc. – featuring expensive materials and lavish detailing. One of the more elaborate offerings appeared in the company’s exhibit at the January 1907 Furniture Market - a Louis XV parlor suite in gold with 22-karat gold leaf laid on solid mahogany. Contrary to the movement toward the increased use of machinery in the production of furniture by other firms, the carving, finishing, painted decoration, and rich upholstery of Century furniture represented many hours of hands-on labor.
The construction of this factory in 1910 and its subsequent expansions during the 1920s correspond with the company’s most successful and productive period. At its peak, the furniture industry in Grand Rapids had over seventy-two factories in operation, today about a third of those buildings remain standing and many have lost a significant amount of integrity. The Century Furniture Factory retains much of its architectural integrity and remains a symbol of the industry that made Grand Rapids synonymous with fine furniture.
The Century Furniture Factory is located at the corner of Ionia Avenue and Logan Street on the near southwest side of Grand Rapids in an area occupied by factories and warehouses that developed along an extensive system of rail lines adjacent at the west (the former rail line route is now occupied by the 131-expressway). This U-shaped, five-story, flat-roofed, brick building exhibits a utilitarian design typical of manufacturing plants of its time that has been minimally altered from its 1927 appearance.
The original 60’ x 145’ section of the building, constructed in 1910, was designed by Grand Rapids architect George L. Stone and built by the Appleyard & Johnson construction company. The façade of the five-story structure extends nine bays along Logan Street, with each bay containing a pair of 8/8 wood, double-hung windows, and three bays along Ionia Avenue, with the central bay containing a set of three 8/8 wood, double-hung windows flanked by a pair of windows of the same pattern. The main entry at the north elevation has a pair of half-glazed wood doors with a segmental-arch, spoked transom above. At the east of this entrance are two delivery bays – one with a contemporary overhead door; one with a pair of wood doors of unknown date. Offices and the upholstery and shipping departments were located on the first floor, with a show room on the fifth floor. The building also featured an up-to-date automatic sprinkler system.
In 1920, Stone designed a two-story addition that extended an additional ninety feet along Ionia Avenue, forming the west arm of the U-shape; two years later, three additional floors were added. These additions contain seven bays of large multi-paned steel sash windows at the west and facing the courtyard, with three bays at the south. At the west there is a loading door at each end of the addition. A contemporary, one-story metal building under separate ownership abuts this addition at the south.
The five-story, east arm of the building, designed by Grand Rapids architect Harry L. Mead, was added in 1927. The addition is eight bays wide at the east and ten bays wide at the north. Although the windows at the east have large multi-paned steel sash, those at the north continue the pattern of the original building – pairs of 8/8 wood, double-hung windows – providing a consistency of design along the north elevation. There are two delivery bays at the east elevation; two windows at the south elevation have been replaced by truck delivery bays. Facing the courtyard at the west and south are two delivery bays, one partially boarded with a smaller door within and one with multi-paned, wood folding doors, likely original to the building. At the east elevation of the courtyard is a pair of multi-paned, wood doors leading to the elevator shaft.
The interior space of the original building and its additions remain as it was when used for furniture production – open, with regularly spaced, chamfered wood columns, ceilings open to beams and joists, and wood floors, often bearing scars left by long-absent machinery. The many windows and relatively narrow width of the building allow abundant natural light to enter from the courtyard and exterior facades
The Century Furniture Company
John C. Rickenbaugh and David S. Brown organized the Century Furniture Company in 1900, at the beginning of the new century that was to give the company its name. Both men had experience in various Grand Rapids furniture companies prior to organizing this firm, as well as the backing of Rickenbaugh’s father-in-law - long-time furniture-man, Julius Berkey, From its inception, the goal of the company was to produce furniture of superior quality.
Rickenbaugh (1856-1905) moved from his native Ohio, where he was a probate judge, to Grand Rapids in 1887 when he married Julia Berkey. He joined with Julius Berkey in the formation of the Universal Tripod Company to manufacture a metal tripod patented by Berkey. In 1893, Universal Tripod was renamed the Royal Furniture Company and the product line was expanded to include light tables, easels, writing desks, and other small pieces of furniture. Berkey and Rickbaugh sold their interests to Robert Irwin in 1900. Rickenbaugh also was involved in the Grand Rapids Brush Company, the Fox Caster Company, the Berkey & Gay Furniture Company, and the Furniture Dealers Association, a forerunner of the Furniture Manufacturers Association. Rickenbaugh died January 25, 1905 as a result of injuries sustained while examining timberland the previous November. It is variously reported that he was thrown from a runaway horse or a carriage while in Texas or Mexico.
David S. Brown (1869-1952), a Grand Rapids native, was the son of one of the city’s first professional plumbers, who came to Grand Rapids following the Civil War. Like most men of his generation, Brown began his working life early. At the age of twelve, he left school to work for the C. O. Allen Company, which made carpet sweepers, and later worked for the Bissell Carpet Sweeper Company. His career in the furniture business began in the upholstering departments of Radcliffe & Holt and Nelson Matter & Company. In 1898, Brown opened a furniture repair and upholstery shop on South Division Avenue, which he operated until becoming a partner in the Century Furniture Company.
The Century Furniture Company began its operations at 153-159 Monroe Avenue NW, just north of Michigan Street in a building located in the Berkey & Gay Furniture Company complex. In November 1942, this complex was destroyed in one of the city’s more spectacular fires.
In its early days, the company had two employees – an office boy and a secretary. Brown was in charge of production, initially doing the upholstery work and packing and Rickenbaugh, the general manager, did whatever else needed to be done. The initial offerings of the company were high-quality sofas and chairs upholstered in leather or rich fabrics with elaborate detailing.
An announcement that the Century Furniture Company would exhibit its first designs at the Masonic Temple during the January furniture market appeared in the December 1900 issue of the Grand Rapids Furniture Record. The following spring, two Century designs were featured in the same publication – a sofa and an easy chair, both in elaborately tufted leather with distinctively-shaped wooden feet. That fall, two sleekly designed upholstered, wood-frame sofas were featured, showing the versatility of the company’s early offerings. By November 1901, the Record noted the company now occupied an entire floor of the building at 153-159 Monroe Avenue, indicating its growing success.
Following the untimely death of Rickenbaugh in 1905, the business was incorporated as the Century Furniture Company, with Brown as president, Edgar R. Somes, formerly chief designer at the Michigan Chair Company, as vice president, and David H. Brown (no relation), formerly office manager of the Michigan Chair Company, as secretary-treasurer. In September of that year, the company purchased the entire building at 153-159 Monroe Avenue. Extensive improvements were made, including the installation of the latest machinery according to the announcement in the Furniture Record.
David H. Brown (1872-1945) came to Grand Rapids in 1890 to join the newly organized Michigan Chair Company, with which he was associated until becoming secretary-treasurer of Century. Brown was active for many years in all branches of the furniture industry. He was a founder of the Furniture Manufacturers Association, serving on its board of directors as secretary from 1911 until 1944. With William Gay, he founded the Furniture Manufacturers Warehouse Association, which dealt with shipping issues for the Furniture Manufacturers Association, serving as its president from 1920 until 1944. He helped to organize and for many years served on the board of the David Wolcott Kendall School (now Kendall College of Art and Design).
Edgar Somes (1862-1940) studied art and design at the School of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In Boston, he practiced architecture for two years in the studio of Henry Hartwell. When he became interested in interiors, he worked as a draftsman with Richard Codman, designer, and Samuel Hayward, furniture maker. He later designed for A. H. Davenport, Keeler & Co, and Mellish & Blyfield Co. While with the latter, he designed the furniture and fixtures for the Boston Public Library (McKim, Mead & White,1895). Somes came to Grand Rapids in 1900 to work as a designer for the Michigan Chair Company. He served as vice president and chief of design for Century from 1905 until 1916 and is credited with cultivating a collection of antique furniture for the company that served as models for reproduction. Following World War I, he organized the short-lived Edgar R. Somes Furniture Company (1919-1920), then worked as a free-lance designer until appointed Educational Director of the newly organized David Wolcott Kendall School in 1930, a position he held until his death in 1940.
Century’s reputation for elegant reproductions is due largely to the design work of Edgar Somes. The fine fabrics and leather used in its upholstery were acquired in frequent trips to Europe by David S. and David H. Brown, who also purchased antique furniture for the company collection. In his book Grand Rapids Furniture, Christian Carron observes that Century went beyond simply duplicating antiques. “Many techniques were used in manufacturing to give the finished piece an appearance of great age. Fabrics were woven with threads missing to give the appearance of slight moth damage. Foot rails were planed to simulate centuries of wear. Beautiful woods were beaten with “distressers” to approximate nicks and beetle damage. Dark stains were applied around edges and in deep carvings to look like dirt build-up.”
As business continued to prosper, Century moved to a new factory designed by George L. Stone at the corner of Ionia Avenue and Logan Street in 1910. The area at this time was still partially residential, but houses were rapidly being replaced by factories and warehouses, drawn to the location by the adjacent railroad lines. Like so many of the city’s furniture factories, the building was expanded during the 1920s to accommodate the business growth that characterized the era. The original structure featured offices, upholstery and shipping departments on the first floor, with a show room on the fifth floor.
A Grand Rapids native, architect George L. Stone (1858-1942) began his long career as an apprentice in the offices of Sidney Osgood, where he participated in the design of a number of West Michigan governmental buildings, including county courthouses for Kent, Allegan, and Muskegon Counties (all demolished). In the nearly sixty years that Stone practiced his profession, he designed many fine residences that still stand in the Heritage Hill Historic District and in East Grand Rapids, hundreds of more modest houses, as well as many commercial structures and factories. An August 1, 1909 Grand Rapids Herald article entitled “Architect Stone Busy” reported that Stone had recently completed plans for the new Century factory, a large addition to the Grand Rapids Showcase Company, a mixed-use commercial building, a public garage, a large residence, and a new city hall in Lowell, Michigan.
Following World War I, Century continued to expand its offerings to include reproductions of furniture from famous houses in Europe and the United States. A circa 1920s price sheet includes dining room suites in the style of William and Mary, Duncan Phyfe, seventeenth and eighteenth century English designs, and Provincial French in walnut, oak, and mahogany. A complete suite of William and Mary could be purchased for $11,400.00. These styles were ideal for furnishing the period revival style houses that were popular at the time.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Century published trade catalogues - Furniture as Interpreted by the Century Furniture Company - which educated potential customers on historic furniture styles and were liberally illustrated with photographs and drawings of the company’s products.
Although furniture sales rose rapidly during the early 1920s, leading many Grand Rapids manufacturers to expand factories and to increase output, signs were indicating the boom would not last. The increased production created a glut on the market and prices began to drop in mid-decade.
The original advantages that favored the industry – large tracts of forest, cheap labor, and advanced technology no longer provided an economic edge. Other areas of the country, particularly North Carolina began to offer competition. While Michigan’s forests had been clear-cut, necessitating the importation of a vital raw material, southern forests were just beginning to be exploited.
The high quality furniture manufactured in Grand Rapids required skilled workers whose wages were higher than those in the South, making it more difficult to compete with companies producing inexpensive, machine-made furniture. Once the stock market crashed in 1929, new furniture was not high on the list of necessities of the average American. There were seventy-two furniture companies in operation when the crash came; only forty-seven remained in business ten years later.
Throughout the Depression years of the 1930s, the Century Company maintained production, although the market for its expensive furniture was small. In 1940, Raymond J. Murray, president of Murray Furniture Company, and designer David L. Evans purchased controlling interest in the company, with Murray as president and treasurer, Evans as vice president, and David S. Brown as secretary. Two years later, Century declared bankruptcy and an attempted reorganization failed due to an almost total lack of demand in the early years of World War II.
Frank Ransom notes in his book The City Built on Wood, factors other than the Depression that played a role in the closing of certain companies. As examples he cites the Fancy Furniture Company and Stickley Brothers, which both closed due to the lack of family to carry on the business following the deaths of their owners. Since Century’s assets were adequate to meet all claims and repay common stockholders about 85% of their investment, Ransom attributes the increasing age of Century’s owners to its closure. In 1942, David S. Brown was seventy-three years old. Without a second generation to carry on the company, the desire to continue for little or no profit must have been wanting.
In September 1942, the Michigan Tradesman reported that the bankruptcy court approved the sale of Century’s machinery, tools, equipment, trucks and other miscellaneous items to the Haskelite Manufacturing Corporation. The Century factory and name were purchased by Murray Furniture Company in 1945, bringing to a close forty-five years of quality furniture production under the Century name in Grand Rapids.
Haskelite used the factory as a warehouse from 1942 until 1945. Subsequently, the building was occupied by various small companies and used as storage space, until the Schoonbeck Furniture Company manufactured furniture there from 1977 to 1980. The Baker Furniture Company used the building for storage beginning in 1982.
This building is currently vacant, but plans are underway to rehabilitate the structure for use as housing.
“Architect Stone Busy,” Grand Rapids Herald, 1 August 1909.
Baxter, Albert. History of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Munsell & Company, Grand Rapids, 1891.
Carron, Christian G., et. al. Grand Rapids Furniture: The Story of America’s Furniture City. The Grand Rapids Public Museum, 1998.
[Century Furniture Company; Complete Dining Room Suites] 4 sheets, 8 pages of prices, torn from unidentified source, undated. History & Special Collections Department, Grand Rapids Public Library
Furniture as Interpreted by the Century Furniture Company, Century Furniture Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan. Trade Catalogues, 1926, 1928, 1931, 1937.
City of Grand Rapids. Building Department Permit Records, 1920-1964.
City of Grand Rapids. City Assessor Files.
“Creators of Furniture Fashions,” The Grand Rapids Furniture Record, September 1919.
“D. S. Brown Dies; Was 82,” Grand Rapids Herald, 21 June 1952.
“Death Claims D. S. Brown,” Grand Rapids Press, 21 June 1952.
“Death Claims Edgar Somes, Grand Rapids Press, 15 December 1940.
“Death Comes to Architect,” Grand Rapids Press, 24 September 1942.
“Death Takes David [H.] Brown,” Grand Rapids Herald, 14 August 1945.
Grand Rapids Furniture Record, 1900-1938.
“Haskelite Would Buy Century’s Equipment, Michigan Tradesman, 16 September 1942.
“John C. Rickenbaugh Dead,” Grand Rapids Herald, 26 January 1905.
“The Late J. Clarence Rickenbaugh,” The Grand Rapids Furniture Record, February 1905.
“The New Century Furniture Company,” The Grand Rapids Furniture Record, 1 May 1905.
“New Factory Building,” Grand Rapids Herald, 26 September 1909.
“New Grand Rapids Company,” Grand Rapids Furniture Record, June 1919
“New Grand Rapids School of Art Opens,” The Grand Rapids Spectator, 7 March 1931.
“Purchase Control of Century Furniture Co.,” Michigan Tradesman, 9 October 1940.
Ransom, Frank Edward. The City Built on Wood: A History of the Furniture Industry in Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1850-1950. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Edwards Brothers, Inc., 1955.
“[Rickenbaugh] Died Last Night,” The Evening Press, 25 January 1905.
[Rickenbaugh Injured], The Furniture Journal, Volume 21:42, 1904.
Rickenbaugh, John C. Unidentified, undated obituary; Scrapbook collection. History & Special Collections Department, Grand Rapids Public Library.
Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, 1895, 1912, 1953.
“Somes, Famous as Designer, Clung to Classics in His Art,” Grand Rapids Press, 15 December 1940
“They Stand Out,” Furniture Manufacturer and Artisan, 1 March 1936.
”Who’s Who in Grand Rapids – David S. Brown,” The Grand Rapids Spectator, 15 June 1929.