Corporation Hall: Kalamazoo's First City Hall

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Corporation Hall on South Burdick Street, circa 1909. The tower with the flag on the left is the Post Office.
History Room Photograph, uncataloged.

"Quick to Rescue Hall"

Kalamazoo's government has had several homes over the years. The first structure built for the purpose was Corporation Hall, which was erected in 1867 and located on the west side of South Burdick Street, today's Kalamazoo Mall, between South Street and Michigan Avenue. It was an all-in-one civic building, also housing Kalamazoo's fire and police departments. Combining departments under one roof was common for communities the size of Kalamazoo at the time. The presence of the fire department gave the building its nickname, "Quick to Rescue Hall." Throughout the years, Corporation Hall also housed the Ladies Library Association, the Kalamazoo Public Library, and the Kalamazoo Board of Education.

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Allen Potter supervised the
building of Corporation
Hall.
Compendium of History and
Biography of Kalamazoo County
Mich.
A.W. Bowen & Co., 1906

Corporation Hall was completed at the cost of $14,500, a significant sum at the time. The Kalamazoo Gazette  credited much of the success of the project to Allen Potter, future village president and city mayor. Potter had been charged by a committee of the village's Board of Trustees to superintend the construction of the building. He performed this task to such satisfaction that the village gave him a $300 engraved silver service expressing its gratitude.

Corporation Hall was one of the finest examples of Italianate architecture in Kalamazoo. The building's façade featured red brick, rusticated stone, pediments over the doors and windows, and an overhanging cornice. The ground floor was dominated by three large doorways for the different fire companies, above which the names of the companies, Burr-Oak, Empire, and Excelsior, were carved. Just below the cornice three large stones were engraved with additional text. The southernmost stone read "Always ready", the center stone "Erected A.D. 1867", and the northern stone "Prompt to the Rescue." The building's most distinctive feature was its massive cupola that towered over the roof and lent that section of Burdick Street a hint of elegance one wouldn't expect on a commercial avenue.

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This view of Corporation Hall was taken in the
late 19th century. The original doors for the
fire department are visible.
History Room Photograph, uncataloged.

From Village to City

In 1884 Kalamazoo grew from a village to a city. As a result Corporation Hall became Kalamazoo's first city hall. However, as the city grew, so did demands for space. Gradually Corporation Hall became overcrowded. In 1905 the fire department moved into a new central fire station further south on Burdick Street. The fire department's former space on the ground floor was taken over by various city departments and the large doors were replaced with windows. In 1914 the police department followed suit and moved into a new headquarters building on Water Street. Corporation Hall ceased to be multiuse and was now entirely occupied by the city offices. Increasingly the building was referred to simply as City Hall.

Corporation Hall's time as a dedicated city hall was short lived. By the early 1920s the city sought a larger home for its offices. On 1 May 1925 the city moved out of Corporation Hall and into the newly purchased Frank Milham and Frank Orcutt homes. The Milham home stood on South Street at St. John's Place and the Orcutt home behind it on Lovell Street. The city's occupancy of these former residences was intended to be temporary. After five years work began on replacing them with a new permanent City Hall building on the same site, which is still used today.

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After vacating Corporation Hall, city government moved into the Milham home, seen on the left, and the
Orcutt home, seen on the right. These were later razed and replaced by the current City Hall.
Picturesque Kalamazoo
Kalamazoo Publishing Company, 1909

Later Years

After the departure of government offices, the city retained ownership of the property and leased it for commercial use. The first tenant was the J.C. Penney Company, which first occupied the building in 1925 and remained there for the next thirty years. The building's appearance was drastically altered in that time, including the removal of the cupola and the original Italianate facade. From Burdick Street it appeared to be an entirely new structure.

By the 1950s many in city government felt it was time for Kalamazoo to get out of the real estate business and to sell any properties that were not being used for public purposes. The former Corporation Hall fell under this category and its sale was particularly attractive due to its location in the heart of Kalamazoo's retail district. The property was viewed as too valuable to hold onto. The issue was first raised in 1952 but quickly became controversial. Action was held up for several years as city commissioners debated the property's value and the wisdom of selling it.

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This image, from a postcard,
shows how Corporation Hall
appeared after 1964.
Author's collection.

In 1956 the J.C. Penney Company moved south to a new location at the corner of Burdick and South Streets. The city government debated the future of the property, and the idea of selling the property was again raised. A buyer was promptly found and Corporation Hall was sold to the Mangel Stores Inc., a nationwide department store chain, for $300,000. This was considerably less than officials thought the property was worth five years earlier, but the sale put the property on the tax rolls.

The new Mangel store offered departments for women, men, and children, spread throughout the building's two floors. To update the new store, an extensive renovation was carried out. The interior was decorated in pastel colors, and tiles, which were common decorative motifs in the 1950s. The Penney's-era façade was completely removed and replaced with a windowless wall of tan brick. The building now had its third and final face.

The Mangel store occupied the site for the next eight years, leaving in 1964. After their departure the space was split into multiple storefronts and housed a number of businesses over the years. The final tenants included the Athena Bookstore, which moved out in 2005, and the Soup Kettle restaurant, which closed in 2009.

In 2011 Corporation Hall was demolished for a new retail and residential development. The new building bears the name of its predecessor, but with the exception of the stone foundations, the entire historic structure was removed and replaced. The new Corporation Hall is a mixed-use development, housing retail on its ground floor and condos on the upper levels. It reflects a growing demand for residential space in the central business district.

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Corporation Hall was demolished in late 2011 for a new development. The process revealed the structure's stone foundations, seen here.
Photo taken by author, January 2012. 

Sources

Books

Etching 1867 Corporation Hall and a Community's Growth

  • Wes Freeland
  • H 720.9774 E 838

Articles

"The latest slander on Allen Potter extinguished"

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 29 October 1872, page 1, column 1

"Corporation Hall: First tenants in a matter of days"

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 3 January 2013, page A-1, column 1

History Room Subject Files

Subject File: Kalamazoo Government - City Hall

Subject File: Buildings - Kalamazoo - Kalamazoo Mall, S., 100 Block

Subject File: Mangel Stores, Inc.