The Knapp’s Building, Lansing

by Aubrieana A. Richardson

Although the Knapp’s Building has a new modernized look and usage to the city, the Knapp’s Building still has planted roots in the history of Lansing.(1)  Research states that the J.W. Knapp’s Building served as the most prominent department store for a little over forty years.(2) This building constructed by Bowd Munson in 1937 to 1939 has survived decades upon decades up to today’s point in time. Over the years, a historic tale arose about this building, it is said that the Knapp’s Building is indeed a landmark.(3) The J.W Knapp’s Building now occupies the site where the Lansing House Hotel once stood back in 1865. A former spy and builder of the Lansing House Hotel, General Lafayette Baker was part of a possee that caught former President Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth. Though I have not experienced first hand the time period of the Knapp’s Building, breaking down its components to a simpler historic finding is the key to a better appreciation of the historically significant matters of this building. Evidence suggests that the Knapp’s Building is a maverick and the community of Lansing’s people is responsible for keeping this historic tale alive. Thanks to the help of the many investors and supporters. The Knapp’s Building proves to be historically worthy due to the location, architecture, and relevance to the city of Lansing.(4)

What Was the Start of Knapp’s?

Beginning in late 1880s, this building called the Lansing House Hotel served to the legislators and politicians of the State of Michigan.(5)  Henry J. Downey purchased the Lansing House Hotel and soon renamed it Hotel Downey. It was said that the Hotel Downey of Lansing was the most popular and expensive hotel during that era. Mainly because of the conveniency of the location, in addition it was also scenic. Hotel Downey went through major repairs after two fires took place, however the second fire took a much stronger toll on the building causing it to have taken a total lost. On November 21, 1936, J.W Knapp Company purchased the Hotel Downey property, with the intent of constructing a new department store. Astonishingly that is what occurred after the fire damages from 1920s and 1930s.(6) On December 7, 1937, the department store had came into existence and opened its doors.(7) The local newspapers documented that the store was “one of the most modern retail merchandising establishments in the country.”(8)

Historical Attributes

During the Great Depression the state of Michigan part took in much construction, Kestenbaum mentioned the fact that, “the State Journal reported that more construction was going on in Lansing than in any other city outstate Michigan …..”. The building architecture describes the foreshadowing moment of the great depression era. Kestenbaum demonstrated the ideal that the construction of the J. W. Knapp Building was the venerated Lansing landmark. The curvilinear look gives the building the streamline structure with yellow and blue and dark blue macotta, with aluminum and brass railings.(9) Justin L. Kestenbaum stated that the most significant new downtown structure of the new building wave during 1936 was the J.W. Knapp department store. This Art Deco structure sits on the site of the Downey Hotel, as referenced to the State Journal, “the new store symbolized not merely a daring innovation in downtown store architecture but [a symbol of a new era in America] ……”. Kestenbaum labeled the new construction, modern and old style of the Knapp building to have been brave.(10) Bob Carl Reed stated that the J.W Knapp Department Store was one of the most beautiful stores in Lansing. After going to see the Knapp’s Building personally, a mutual appreciation for the buildings outer appearance and the core historic foundation soon manifested.

Significance of the Location

This modern structure attracted people from all walks of life. This is where local women from the city met in agreeance to the formation of the Womens’ Hospital Association in 1896, which now could be called the Sparrow Health System. Throughout the history this building has gone through such varied administrators, fire damages, and much reconstruction. After all , this building is where Lansing big leap in the economy thrived in relation to the downtown area. No wonder the building would have not the been the highlight of a town’s history. The Knapp’s Building has this flawless demeanor, based on the originality of style. In addition, it shadows the fluorescent view of the downtown Lansing area, while too overseeing the construction of downtown area. Knapp’s Building is located on 300 South Washington Avenue, just nearby the State Capitol Building and not far from the Lansing Community College Campus downtown.(11) The redevelopment of the Knapp’s Building includes several features and requirement much rehabilitations, round up the cost to about 24 billion dollars as mentioned in the Lansing State Journal by Barbara Wieland and Melissa Domsic.

Relevance to the Downtown Area

Since the beginning of the late 1800s, this building has brought forth excellence and a tale to tell from the State of Michigan perspective.(12) J.W. Knapp Company opened up for business on December 7, 1937. Though the construction of the top two floors were not completed yet, the business started off with exactly three hundred-fifty employees and fifteen thousand customers. Making note that this over elaborate but pleasing opening was just the calculations of the first day of business. During these times department stores were hugely favored, because it offered a one-stop shopping trip to the the community. Keep in mind that from the 1940s-70s the Knapps Company expanded, including having to add additional spacing to the building, and carrying out the business to other properties of the downtown area. With the circulation of business surrounding the entire downtown Lansing precinct , an atmosphere of social interaction and satisfaction then generated amongst the people in the city.

However, once the uprise of shopping malls increased, it completely overpowered the sensation of department stores. Unfortunately, the department store could not keep up with trend during the evolvement of the era and sense of style was not good enough for the late 1900s. The company had declined in popularity and business.(13)  According to Nick Eyde, the former owner of the Knapp’s Building stated that, “the vacancy of the Knapp’s Centre created a large hole in the State Capitol’s downtown. It had a drastic negative impact on retail downtown and certainly on the downtown population as well.” Thus an upcoming of shopping malls were approaching and therefore causing the company to be sold to a larger conglomerates, beginning the down size of the merchandize, jobs, and downtowns convenience center. Vacancy came into effect during 1980, leaving the company bankrupt and causing doors to be closed officially on October 13, 1980. The Knapp’s Building underwent modifications during closing and then became vacant once more in the 2000s. During its vacancy, J.W. Knapp’s Building awaited another redevelopment modifier to the buildings structure to take place.(14)  In 2010, it was once documented in an article by the name of Retro revival: Developer hopes to transform iconic Knapp’s building downtown, that the Mayor Virg Bernero said he was excited the iconic downtown building was on its way to being restored.

Current Status/Significance

Beginning as early as 2003 throughout 2009 redevelopment considerations were being brought about. Soon thereafter in the year 2010, the Eyde Company announced a variation of accommodations that this new developed Knapp’s building would soon provide to the downtown Lansing area. Just only four years ago is when the redesign took place, initiated by the Quinn Evans architectural firm. The Quinn Evans architectural firm replicated the building’s appearance so that it would match perfectly to the original design from the 1930s. Nick Eyde briefly spoke on the new fulfillment the Knapp’s Building has to offer, mentioning that, “the importance of the building has changed, in that its’ use is not quite the same. It will fulfill a different (and much needed) purpose in Lansing’s future, with retail, office and residential in the building.” (15) The site of the Knapp Building has been reserved in history. Significance of the building has changed in the fulfillment of the city of Lansing, however the appreciation and respect for the building has been restored. The Knapp’s Building continues to give to the people in the city of Lansing. Currently the building has a restaurant by the name of Sarnie Shoppe, apartment complexes with such amazing views, and also a wonderfully made professional settings for the offices.

NOTES:

  1. Michigan Capital City, Lansing
  2. Brochure 228 Appendix Two
  3. Michigan Capital City, Lansing
  4. Michigan Capital City, Lansing
  5. PDF Lansing Michigan Government p. 3
  6. PDF Lansing Michigan Government p. 4
  7. PDF Lansing Michigan Government p. 4
  8. Justin L. Kestenbaum p. 104-107
  9. Justin L. Kestenbaum p. 104-107
  10. Bob C. Reed p. 15
  11. Barbara W. and Melissa D. Lansing State Journal
  12. PDF Lansing Michigan Government p. 4
  13. Personal Interview, Nick and George Eyde
  14. Barbara W. and Melissa D. Lansing State Journal
  15. Email from Nick Eyde