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Grand Rapids in 1856

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Historic District Study, Preliminary Report: Steelcase Plants No. 2 and 3

by Jennifer Metz, Rebecca Smith-Hoffman

Metal Office Furniture Company (Steelcase) Plants No. 2 and 3

Grand Rapids MI

December 2003

The Charge of the Committee

By a resolution dated August 20 , 2003 the Grand Rapids City Commission named the Metal Office Furniture Company (Steelcase) Historic District Study Committee in accordance with Chapter 68 of Title V of the City Code and the Michigan Local Historic Districts Act, PA 169 (1970), as amended.

City Code Chapter 68, Sec. 5.392 provides that the purpose of this Chapter is to:

  1. Safeguard the heritage of the City of Grand Rapids by preserving districts which reflect elements of its cultural, social, economic, political or architectural history, and to preserve Historic Landmarks, 
  2. Stabilize and improve property values in such districts, and 
  3. Foster civic beauty.

Under Section 5.398 of the Grand Rapids City Ordinance the Study Committee is charged to undertake the following actions:

  1. Conduct a photographic inventory of resources within the proposed  Metal Office Furniture Company (Steelcase) Historic District following procedures established by the Michigan Historic Preservation Office;
  2. Conduct basic research on the historic resources located within the proposed district;
  3. 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 CFR §60;
  4. Prepare a preliminary historic district study committee report;
  5. Transmit copies of the preliminary report for review and recommendation to the Grand Rapids Planning Commission, the Grand Rapids Historic Preservation Commission, the State Historic Preservation Officer, the Michigan Historical Commission, and to the Michigan 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;
  6. Hold a public hearing in compliance with the Open Meetings Act not less than sixty (60) calendar days after the transmittal of the preliminary report;
  7. Prepare and submit a final report with 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.

Study Committee

Jennifer Metz                      Past Perfect, Inc. (36 CFR 61 certified)

Rebecca Smith-Hoffman      Past Perfect, Inc. (36 CFR 61 certified)

Jaime Misner                      Grand Rapids Historic Preservation Commission

with the assistance of

Andrew Slager

Report written by

Past Perfect, Inc.

Study Area Boundary Description

The Metal Office Furniture Company Plants No. 2 and 3 are located on the near southwest side of Grand Rapids, Michigan at 401 Hall Street SW.  The study area is legally described as:  Commencing at the northeast corner of Lot 14, Caulfield’s Subdivision of part of Blocks 7 and 8 Caulfield’s Subdivision of Caulfield’s Second Addition, thence easterly along a northerly line of said block to a point 13 feet westerly of the westerly line of Century Avenue, thence southerly parallel to Century Avenue to the north line of Hall Street, thence west to a point 118 feet east of Sheridan Avenue, thence northerly parallel to Sheridan Avenue to the beginning.

Boundary Justification

This boundary is justified in that it contains the three buildings that comprise the Metal Office Furniture Company Plant No. 2 and the single building known as Plant No 3.  The proposed district is physically isolated from nearby industrial development by US131 to the east and by Hall Street, a five-lane, east-west artery to the south.  A steep, wooded embankment that rises at the west separates the district from the residential neighborhood at the crest of the hill.  The land to the north has historically been vacant. 

Historic Resources

The proposed historic district contains four resources; 100% of the resources are contributing buildings.

Criteria of Significance

Criteria of significance has 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:

  1. Association with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history; or
  2. Association with the lives of persons significant in our past; or
  3. 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
  4. Have yielded, or may be likely to yield, information important in prehistory or history.

Designation Recommendation

The Study Committee recommends the designation of the  Metal Office Furniture Company (Steelcase) Plants No. 2 and 3 Historic District.  This district is significant under National Register Criterion  A in the category of industry and invention for its association with Metal Office Furniture Company.  Organized in 1912, with an initial workforce of twenty-five, Metal Office Furniture grew into Steelcase, Inc. – one of the world’s largest producers of metal office furniture and office systems.

Narrative Description

The proposed Metal Office Furniture Company (Steelcase) Plants No. 2 and 3 Historic District occupies approximately 2.3 acres and is comprised of four contributing buildings constructed between 1908 and 1953 – a one-story manufacturing building with full-length monitor roof (1908), a four-story manufacturing building  (1926/1930), a one-story brick carpenter shop (1926), a free-standing brick power plant (1926), and a one-story concrete block manufacturing building (1953).  Architecturally, these buildings do not readily fit into a particular stylistic category, but are typical examples of industrial buildings of the time in which they were constructed. 

Located on the city’s near southwest side adjacent to the US131 freeway (constructed on the former railroad right-of-way), the plant is now somewhat isolated from nearby industrial development by the freeway to the east and by Hall Street, a five-lane, east-west artery to the south.  A steep, wooded embankment that rises at the west separates the plant from the residential neighborhood at its crest.  The land to the north has historically been vacant. 

Once it began manufacturing operations in 1912, the steady success of the Metal Office Furniture Company resulted in the expansion manufacturing facility to four plants.  Plant No. 1, located at 1491 South Division Avenue, was constructed in 1912 and expanded in 1926.  Filing cabinets and specially designed products were manufactured at this plant, which also housed the main offices.  Today, this factory building is unrecognizable – faux stucco panels cover the brick walls, the original steel, multi-pane windows have been removed, the window openings have been reduced in size, and inappropriate windows have been installed.   The building is currently used by the Salvation Army as a retail and distribution center.

Desks and tables were manufactured in Plant No. 2 at 401 Hall Street SW; metal shelving, cabinets, and lockers were made in Plant No. 3, the adjacent Terrell Manufacturing Company building. Chairs were produced in Plant No. 4 on Steele Avenue just south of Hall Street.  Originally the Fancy Furniture Company factory, this building was purchased by Metal Office Furniture in 1940 and was expanded in 1949.  The original factory was demolished at some time in the past; the 1949 building is vacant and neglected.

As the number of rail lines serving Grand Rapids grew in the decades following the Civil War, manufacturing operations began to spread outward from the city center along those lines.  In 1908, Terrell’s Equipment Company  (later Terrell Manufacturing Company) constructed the first building of this plant at the northwest corner of Hall Street and Hilton Avenue (Century Avenue after 1912) to manufacture metal lockers and shelving. 

Sited on a north-south axis along Century Avenue, this one-story, twenty-three bay-long brick and mill building has a full-length monitor roof with glazed side walls (now boarded over).  Each bay is divided by brick piers and contains three 9/9 double hung windows.  The window bays of the south elevation are completely covered; the window bays along the east and west elevations are covered or have become loading bays with overhead doors.  The interior, which was originally open space, is now partitioned into individual tenant spaces and has square wood columns, concrete floor, painted brick walls, and ceilings open to the joists.  A floor was added at the monitor level in 1953. 

During the 1920s, Terrell Manufacturing came under the management of the Metal Office Furniture Company and ceased to be a separate company in 1930.   Metal Office Furniture continued to make the same products in the same building, which were marketed under the Terrell name through the 1930s.  Aggressive company advertising promoting the advantages of metal office furniture led to a period of enormous growth, resulting in a need for additional manufacturing space. In 1926, the raised basement and first two stories of the connecting four-story manufacturing building were erected along Century Avenue to the north of the original Terrell building, as well as the power plant, and carpenter shop. Two stories were added to the manufacturing building in 1930.                 

The large, flat-roof,  brick and mill building is twenty-one bays long and eight bays wide.  At the east and west elevations, the bays are defined by concrete-capped brick piers that rise from the base and end above the fourth floor windows.  The large steel, multi-pane windows contained within the bays have center-pivot vents and concrete sills.  The interior space has square wood columns, wood floors, painted brick walls, and ceilings open to the joists. 

The free-standing brick power plant north of the manufacturing building exhibits the two-part configuration typical of this building  type, having separate rooms for boilers and engines  The original steel, multi-pane windows have been removed; some openings have been reduced in size and have inappropriate fixed-pane windows or have been replaced by glass block.  All mechanical equipment was removed at some time in the past from the interior, which has brick walls and a concrete floor.                      

Located west of the manufacturing building, the one-story brick carpenter shop has steel, multi-pane windows at the east and south elevations (south windows boarded over).  At the north elevation there is a shadow line of a lumber storage shed that likely was demolished when the concrete block warehouse was constructed.  The interior has brick walls and a wood floor.

The one-story, painted concrete block building north of the carpenter shop was constructed in 1953 as part of the company’s post-World War II expansion.  There are eight regularly-spaced, square metal vents near the roof line of the west elevation, a metal overhead door at the north elevation, and a large opening with sliding door at the south elevation.  The interior is open space with block walls and concrete floor.

In September 1958, all Steelcase manufacturing operations were consolidated in a suburban area of the city.  Plants No. 2 and 3 were sold and have been used by various small manufacturers and for storage to the present time.

Statement of Significance

This manufacturing plant is significant under National Register Criterion A in the area of industry and invention for its association with the Metal Office Furniture Company, which became known as Steelcase in 1954, once one of the world’s largest manufacturers of office furniture.  Organized in 1912, the company initially produced free-standing fire-proof safes and metal filing cases for the Macey Company at its first factory on South Division Avenue.  Three years later, Metal Office Furniture received its first outside contract when it was selected to furnish two hundred metal desks for the twenty-story addition to the Boston Customs House.  With some modification, the prototype developed for this installation was offered for sale to the general public as model “601” under the brand name InterLock through the Macey catalogue.  It eventually sold in the hundreds of thousands

Following World War I, Metal Office Furniture entered into a cooperative manufacturing and sales agreement with the Terrell Manufacturing Company, which constructed the first building of this plant (Plant No. 3).  Terrell manufactured metal shelving, cabinets, and lockers that were marketed with Metal Office Furniture’s growing line of products under the Steelcase tradename (first used in 1920).   From1926 until 1958, the company’s innovative desks and tables were manufactured in Plant No. 2, including those designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for his S. C. Johnson & Company Building (1939) in Racine, Wisconsin. 

In 1941, Metal Office Furniture began producing metal “Shipboard Furniture” for the United States Navy.  A Steelcase mess table was used for the signing of the documents of Japanese surrender on board the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945.  This table is on permanent exhibit in the main gallery of the Naval Academy Museum in Annapolis, Maryland.

The production of furniture for the Navy led to the development of modular construction based upon the use of standard sizes and interchangeable parts.  The resulting Multiple 15 desk, with all parts in multiples of fifteen inches, set the industry standard.  Images of large open offices filled with rows of workers at Multiple 15 desks epitomized the mid-century corporate world. 

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Before its incorporation as a city in 1850, Grand Rapids already had a small furniture industry, and beginning in the 1870s the manufacture of furniture began to be a major element of the city’s economy.  The buildings constructed to house this industry and its workers continue to define the city’s landscape, demonstrating the long-term physical impact of the furniture industry on Grand Rapids.

Although Grand Rapids furniture was sold regionally, it did not gain a national reputation until 1876, when the Berkey & Gay Company, Nelson, Matter & Company, and the Phoenix Furniture Company exhibited at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition.  All three companies won medals and their products were well received by the public.  Prior to this time, machinery production had been limited to the manufacture of low to medium quality furniture.  The Grand Rapids manufacturers applied an advancing technology to mechanically produce high quality furniture.  This application of technologically advanced machine production, combined with a keen sense of business, an available pool of labor, accessible raw materials, and aggressive marketing of professionally designed furniture changed the industry. 

Local manufacturers staged the first Grand Rapids Furniture Market in 1878, which became a fixture of the industry and was continued until 1964.  Although other markets were held in New York and Chicago, the Grand Rapids market, held in January and July, was the earliest and, for a time, one of the largest. 

The furniture industry grew steadily throughout the years following the Civil War and was solidly established by the turn of the twentieth century.  Although local manufacturers initially focused mainly on the production of residential furniture, the increasing growth and resulting complexity of business in the latter decades of the nineteenth century led to the development of companies manufacturing furniture designed specifically for the office.  Prior to this time, most desks and chairs used in offices were the same as those used at home and were made by the residential furniture manufacturers.  However, as early as the 1870s, the Phoenix Furniture Company began manufacturing a specialized form of office furniture – the high, sloping clerk’s desk.  The company’s special order department, opened in 1884, supplied office furnishings for such major structures as the Grand Rapids and Chicago City Halls, and the Michigan and Texas State Capitol Buildings.  

By the 1890s, Grand Rapids companies were exclusively designing and making furniture for the office.  The Gunn Furniture Company, Z. E. Allen Company, and Grand Rapids Desk Company were manufacturing roll-top and flat-top desks, and the Stow & Davis Furniture Company was producing boardroom tables.  A flexible system of interlocking wooden compartments called the elastic cabinet was made by the Wernicke Furniture Company, which later merged with the Fred Macey Furniture Company, a mail-order distributor of desks, file cabinets, and other office furniture.  Wood desks,  filing cabinets, and filing trays, as well as filing systems and supplies, were made by the Wagemaker Company. 

By the turn of the twentieth century, office furniture manufacturers were a well-established part of the local industry.  However, the organization of the Terrell Manufacturing Company (1908) and the Metal Office Furniture Company (1912), manufacturers of metal office furniture, heralded a new direction in the office furniture industry.   As the height of buildings began to exceed traditional fire fighting methods, fire prevention became a major concern.  Metal office furniture was an obvious solution to the problem.  The furniture designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for his Larkin Building (1904) in Buffalo was the first use of metal furniture designed specifically for the office.  Soon the United States government was specifying metal furniture for its projects.

The prosperity of the 1920s fueled a building boom, providing a market for both residential and commercial furniture.  Many local furniture companies expanded their physical plants to meet increased demand.  In 1928 over 6,000 buyers attended the Furniture Market to view the product offerings of more than four hundred manufacturers, including office furniture manufacturers, in eight exhibition buildings and several local factories. However, with the coming of the Great Depression of the 1930s, sales of residential furniture fell dramatically.  Many of Grand Rapids’ great furniture manufacturers never recovered.  By the end of World War II, Berkey & Gay, Luce, Phoenix, and other well-known companies had disappeared from the scene.  Many of the remaining companies moved to the production of high-quality residential furniture. 

While the city’s residential furniture manufacturers struggled with new competition and shifted toward smaller-scale production of expensive furniture, the business and institutional segment (known as the contract industry) remained healthy and continued to grow.  As the disappearance of the northern hardwood forests was a factor in the movement of the residential furniture center to North Carolina, the innovation of the metal furniture industry and the plastic technology that came out of World War II fueled the growth of the local contract furniture giants, such as the American Seating Company, the Herman Miller Company, and the Metal Office Furniture Company (Steelcase).

The Metal Office Furniture Company initially manufactured free-standing fireproof safes and wood-grained metal filing cabinets on contract for the Macey Company of Grand Rapids.  Fred Macey started selling wood roll-top office desks made by other manufacturers by mail-order in 1892.  A large advertising budget fueled the rapid success of the company and other pieces of wood office furniture were soon added to the line.  When the mail-order business began to negatively effect retailers selling the same products, furniture manufacturers were pressured to stop producing goods for Macey.  In response, Macey founded the Fred Macey Furniture Company in 1896 (simplified to the Macey Company in 1908) and built a factory on South Division Avenue to supply his successful mail-order business. 

Following Macey’s death in 1909, the company came under the direction of Otto H. L. Wernicke and Fred W. Tobey.  Both men had been most recently associated with the Globe Company of Cincinnati, a producer of office products, prior to coming to Grand Rapids to reorganize the Macey Company.  Wernicke was the inventor of the elastic cabinet storage system distributed by Macey and Tobey held patents for a number of “office applicances.”  These men decided to add metal office products to the Macey catalogue.

In 1912, Fred Tobey invited Peter M. Wege to Grand Rapids to organize a company to manufacture metal office products for the Macey Company.  Organized March 14 of that year, with a capital stock of $75,000, the Metal Office Furniture Company’s founding officers were Macey Company president Alexander W. Hompe, president; Peter M. Wege vice-president and general manager; banker Henry Idema, treasurer, and his son, Walter D. Idema, secretary.  Original company directors were Tobey and Wernicke of the Macey Company, and attorney Philip H. Travis. 

On August 7, 1912, the Grand Rapids Press reported that the newly organized Metal Office Furniture Company would make its first delivery to Macey that week despite the fact that its factory was not yet finished.  The company’s current workforce of twenty-five was expected to double when the factory was completed.  Metal Office Furniture products were sold through the Macey catalogue as the InterInter line until 1918.        

In 1914, Peter Wege became president of the Metal Office Furniture Company and in 1917 Walter Idema became secretary-treasurer.  David Hunting joined the firm in 1914.  When Hunting became secretary and sales manager in 1920, the management team that would guide the company for the next thirty years was in place.  At age 42, Wege was the senior member of the firm.  Idema and Hunting were aged 24 and 22 respectively when they became associated with Metal Office Furniture. Wege’s inventiveness, Idema’s financial abilities, and Hunting’s salesmanship proved to be a combination that would transform a company with fewer than fifty employees into one of the world’s leading manufacturers of office furniture and office systems.  

David Hunting procured Metal Office Furniture’s first outside contract in 1915 for two hundred metal desks for the twenty-story addition to the Boston Customs House.  The United States government’s supervising architect specified metal furniture as an element of fire prevention in this high-rise building.  Although the company had never manufactured a desk before this time, Peter Wege designed a prototype, constructed with welds and crimped metal instead of bolts, that met government standards.  This prototype, with modifications, became the well-known style 601 desk that eventually sold in the hundreds of thousands under the brand name InterLock..  Metal Office Furniture thus established itself as a competitor in the growing metal office furniture market.  Soon steel filing cabinets and a new invention, the Victor metal waste basket, for which Wege was issued a patent in 1917, were added to its product list.  During World War I, wood-grained metal Liberty Bond boxes, initially produced as a premium for the Swift Meatpacking Company, were later added to the company catalogue.

In 1918, Metal Office Furniture ended its agreement with the Macey Company, which had been adversely effected by the war and was struggling financially.  A cooperative manufacturing and sales agreement was reached with the Terrell Manufacturing Company.  Terrell made metal storage cabinets, shelving and lockers that were offered with Metal Office Furniture’s growing line of products under the Steelcase tradename (first used in 1920). 

The building boom of the 1920s, combined with a creative national advertising campaign promoting the superiority of metal office furniture, led to a period of enormous company growth.  Metal Office Furniture expanded its factory on South Division Avenue (Plant No. 1) and began construction of a new building for the production of desks and tables connected to the Terrell plant in 1925.  By 1926, Walter Idema was president of Terrell, a management association that led to the merger of Terrell with Metal Office Furniture in October 1930.  Shelving, lockers and storage cabinets continued to be produced in the same factory (Plant No. 3).  These products  were marketed under the Terrell name through the 1930s.

When completed in 1926, the new building became Metal Office Furniture Plant No. 2, where desks and tables were produced for the next thirty-two years.   A promotional brochure featuring photographs of the new building advertises that “The very latest in special machinery make possible the most comprehensive line and the lowest prices ever offered in steel desks.”

The Metal Office Furniture line during the 1920s included variously styled desks and accompanying office tables, specialized secretarial desks and cabinets, filing cabinets, shelving units, and the Victor wastebasket and desktop letter files.  Company growth demonstrated that the public was accepting metal furniture for its fire-proof qualities and its durability, but people still wanted the look of wood.  Giving the customers what they wanted, Metal Office Furniture offered its products grained in oak or mahogany.

The early 1930s saw the introduction of another patented design by Peter Wege – the Steelcase Calculating Machine Desk, offered in four colors with an innovative “wearproof” linoleum top.  The company’s contribution to the Century of Progress display at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair – a futuristic, island-based desk – helped to promote the quality design of its products despite the deepening depression.  This desk does not appear to have been produced for sale.

During the Depression years, Metal Office Furniture continued to patent new products, including a food storage cabinet for home use, a self-misting fruit and vegetable display unit for grocers, and a projectable file-cabinet drawer with a ball-bearing drawer-suspension mechanism.   In the interest of maintaining cash-flow, no job was too small – in addition to its own products, the company made metal stove pipes, metal household furniture for the Dochler Manufacturing Company of New York, and even metal beer cases after the repeal of Prohibition. The company’s 400 employees worked shorter hours at reduced wages, but they remained employed.

In 1936, David Hunting met with Frank Lloyd Wright to discuss the manufacture of office furniture being designed for the S. C. Johnson & Company Building then under construction in Racine, Wisconsin.  It was to be like no furniture currently available and Wright was having difficulty finding a company to produce it.  In his book Frank Lloyd Wright and the Johnson Wax Buildings, Jonathan Lipman cites Hunting’s recollection of the meeting:  “He had made no drawings of his desks, but he took an envelope or a paper out of his pocket, made some rough sketches on it, and said, ‘This is about what I’d like.’  And that was the information we received.  I never saw a detailed sketch from Frank Lloyd Wright’s office about the furniture.” (Lipman, p 88)  Metal Office Furniture’s engineering department made preliminary drawings, which Wright corrected until he was satisfied. 

The actual manufacture of Wright’s furniture was a collaborative affair:  Metal Office Furniture contracted the wooden work surfaces to Stow & Davis, the tubular steel frames to American Seating Company (these were fabricated in the Transportation department where tubular steel was used in bus seating), and the fabric to the Chase Furniture Company.  Metal Office produced the sheet metalwork and finished and completed the final assembly at Plant No. 2.  All metal surfaces were painted a distinctive Cherokee Red.

More than forty different pieces of furniture were designed, including variations on the basic clerical desk to accommodate different tasks; square, rectangular, and round tables for use in various departments; and file cabinets, as well as a desk for the company president and a conference room table for the executive office area.  David Hunting described the collection as “the forerunner of contemporary open office furniture.” (Lipman, p 91).

Metal Office Furniture survived the depression only to be faced with a material shortage when

the government drastically curtailed the use of steel for civilian production in 1941.  The company discontinued production of its roll-top desk, but began making ‘Shipboard Furniture’ for the United States Navy, including metal desks, chairs, tables, bunk beds, and pulpits for chaplains.  With much of its workforce serving in the military, women were hired in large numbers to maintain production.     

The production of furniture for the Navy during World War II, led to the development of modular construction based upon the use of standard sizes and interchangeable parts.  David Hunting conceived the idea of the Multiple 15 desk, with all parts in multiples of fifteen inches in lengths from thirty to ninety inches.  This concept was adopted by other manufacturers and became an industry standard.  A civilian version of the company’s military C line chair was introduced and remained in production until 1974.   Company photographs from the late 1940s and 1950s featuring installations of row upon row of the military-inspired Multiple 15 desk withline chair, project the feeling of office as a continuation of barracks.  The curtain-wall construction of post-war office buildings featured large interior open spaces where those at the bottom of the corporate hierarchy labored, often at a Steelcase desk.

In 1949, the company announced plans to modernize and expand Plants 1 and 2 to accommodate increased post-war production.  A 58,000 square foot addition to Plant No. 4 on Steele Avenue was already nearing completion.

The unprecedented economic growth of the post-war decades fueled a building boom.  Federal urban renewal policies often resulted in widespread demolition of central cities where low-rise commercial centers were replaced by office skyscrapers.  The steady expansion of the federally-funded interstate highway system enabled expanded suburban development.   Both federal policies fueled the building boom – many of those buildings were furnished with Steelcase products.  The company’s workforce had reached 600 by 1950, when it received its largest post-war order from the New York-based Mutual Life Insurance Company for 1,650 desks and 3,200 chairs. 

On December 1, 1954 Metal Office Furniture became Steelcase Inc.  Since the Steelcase tradename had become more widely recognized than the company name, the change would eliminate confusion.   Steelcase desks received nationwide television exposure when Jack Webb, star and director of Dragnet  created a replica of the Los Angeles Police Department for the series – including the recently installed Steelcase furniture.  Additional exposure came with the installation of a Steelcase desk in President Eisenhower’s Western White House in Denver.  That same year, the company introduced a simple innovation that had an enormous impact on office design – color.  Sunshine Styling offered Steelcase desks and other furniture in colors such as Autumn Haze, Desert Sage, and Blond Tan.  The following year the Multiple 15 idea was expanded when Convertibles  were introduced, offering a wide variety of arrangements for work surfaces.   

Steelcase acquired 38 acres of land at 36th Street and Eastern Avenue in a suburban area of the city in 1953.  The following year a factory and warehouse were constructed at this site.  On November 26, 1955, the Grand Rapids Press carried the announcement that Steelcase intended to build a $1 million desk manufacturing plant.  All Steelcase operations were eventually moved to this location, which has steadily expanded over the years.

In September 1958, the operations of Plants No. 2 and 3 were transferred the new manufacturing plant.  The subject buildings remained vacant for about two years before being sold.  They have been in use by various small manufacturers and for storage to the present time.  The current owner is rehabilitating the plant using state and federal historic preservation tax credits and is following the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation.  

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Peter M. Wege (1870-1947)

Peter Wege already held several patents for metalworking when he came to Grand Rapids in 1912  from Marietta, Ohio, where he had served as designer and executive for the Safe Cabinet Company, a company he founded. 

Wege began his career at the age of thirteen, when he was employed as a sheet metalworker in his hometown of Toledo, Ohio.  In 1894, he moved to Cincinnati to work for the Metal Office Furniture Company, manufacturers of shelving and cupboards made of galvanized iron.  From 1897 until 1910, Wege honed his craft, working in the furniture metalworking business for various firms, including the Max Goldsmith Metal Furniture Manufacturing Company in Boston; the Cornell Company in New York City, manufacturers of steel office furniture for courthouses; and the General Fireproofing Company of Youngstown, Ohio, another early metal office furniture manufacturer. 

Walter D. Idema (1889-1979)

A recent graduate of Princeton University, Walter Idema was looking for a business opportunity when he joined his father as an officer of the Metal Office Furniture Company.   As secretary, Idema was employed in various capacities, learning all phases of the business.  He became vice-president in 1920, president in 1943, and chairman of the board in 1961.  In 1944, Idema introduced an employee profit-sharing plan – one of the first in the country.

Idema also served as a director of Old Kent Bank, of which his father was president for many years, and as a director of the Michigan Trust Company.  He was president of the Terrell Manufacturing Company prior to its merger with the Metal Office Furniture Company, and a director of the Stow & Davis Furniture Company.  One son and three sons-in-law were associated with Metal Office Furniture.  One son-in-law, Robert C. Pew, became president of the company in 1966, then chairman of the board and chief executive officer in 1980.

David D. Hunting (1892-1992 )

David Hunting was employed as a factory worker by the Metal Office Furniture Company in 1914 after graduating from the University of Michigan.  The following year he became a clerk and salesman.  After serving with the United States Army during World War I, Hunting rejoined Metal Office Furniture, becoming secretary and sales manager in 1920. 

Hunting was also a director of the Stow & Davis Furniture Company, where his father was  secretary for many years, and was also active in many local charitable organizations.


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Carron, Christian G.  Grand Rapids Furniture: The Story of America’s Furniture City.  Traverse City, Michigan: Village Press, Inc. for The Public Museum of Grand Rapids, 1998.

Citizens Historical Association.  Biography of Alexander W. Hompe. Indianapolis:  Citizens Historical Association, 1936.

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Citizens Historical Association. Biography of Peter M. Wege.  Indianapolis:  Citizens Historical Association, 1941.

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Hunting, David, Obituary,  The Grand Rapids Press, 20 April 1992.

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Knobel, Lance. Office Furniture, Twentieth-Century Design.  New York:  E. P. Dutton, 1987.

Lipman, Jonathan.  Frank Lloyd Wright and the Johnson Wax Buildings. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1986.

“Local Firm to Expand,” The Grand Rapids Press, 26 November 1955.

“Makes First Delivery of Finished Product,” Grand Rapids Evening Press, 7 August 1912.

Metal Office Furniture Company. “Modernizing America . . . “ Promotional brochure, c. 1930s. Steelcase Inc. Archive, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Metal Office Furniture Company. “Nearly Three Acres of Manufacturing Space,” Promotional brochure, 1928.  Steelcase Inc. Archive, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Metal Office Furniture Company.  “Steelcase Desks,” Promotional brochure, c.1933.  Local History Department, Grand Rapids Public Library.

Pevsner, Nikolaus. A History of Building Types. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1976.

“Opportunities In Grand Rapids: Winning Fortunes Making Furniture Specialties,” Grand Rapids    Evening Press, 21 June 1912. 

“Organization is Complete,” Grand Rapids Evening Press, 16 March 1912.

Ransom, Frank Edward.  The City Built on Wood: A History of the Furniture Industry in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Ann Arbor, Michigan: Edwards Brothers, Inc., 1955.

“Steelcase Company Founder Idema Dies,” Grand Rapids Press, 11 May 1979. 

“Two Plants Expand Here,”   The Grand Rapids Press, 9 February 1949.

Steelcase:  The First 75 Years. Grand Rapids, Michigan:  Steelcase Inc., 1987.




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