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Sunday, 12 May 2013 22:00

Ballrooms bring out downtown history

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The Ballroom at McKay Tower blends the historical character of the nearly century-old facility with the modern furnishings most people expect to have for events such as weddings. The renovation project designed by Craig Architects Inc. was built by Owen-Ames-Kimball Co., the contractor that originally built the building in 1916. The Ballroom at McKay Tower blends the historical character of the nearly century-old facility with the modern furnishings most people expect to have for events such as weddings. The renovation project designed by Craig Architects Inc. was built by Owen-Ames-Kimball Co., the contractor that originally built the building in 1916. COURTESY RENDERING

Two long-forgotten downtown Grand Rapids bank lobbies have found new life as event spaces thanks to recent renovation projects.

Both the Ballroom at McKay Tower and the Ballroom at CityFlats Hotel blend the facilities’ historic charm with the capabilities of modern amenities.

While their interiors feature turn of the century embellishments like original marble finishes and intricate woodwork, each space is outfitted with all the necessary accoutrements today’s event-goers demand.

But adding high-end sounds systems and bringing original finishes back to life isn’t the difficult part of these projects, said Richard Craig, the owner of Craig Architects Inc. who designed the renovation for both projects.

“The biggest challenge is getting A/C and ductwork from being exposed and getting lighting and power in there to do things that ballrooms need to do,” Craig said. “That really takes the most imagination.”

Having the owner select a period aesthetic (e.g. early 20th century architecture) and narrowing the design to the best use of the space — wedding receptions, in the case of both McKay Tower and CityFlats — helps to manage the renovation process, Craig said.

“We try to be flexible, but our focus was weddings,” he said. “If you have solved how (the space) would work for weddings, other uses work just as easily.”

Another helpful tool, which Craig said many architects don’t utilize enough, is the Michigan code guide for the rehabilitation of existing buildings. Taking into account the entire building using a sort of scorecard, architects can navigate around potentially detrimental and undesirable modifications.

In one instance, an exit door to a staircase in McKay Tower was two inches too narrow, and the builders would have had to destroy some of the surrounding marble wall to widen it. Based on the analysis of the entire building, the project was able to keep the door as-is, Craig said.

Another plus for the McKay renovation: Construction managers Owen-Ames-Kimball Co. had a set of plans for the four-story structure. The Grand Rapids-based construction company built the original structure nearly a century ago.
“It’s always beneficial to have the original drawings and to be able to understand the details hidden within the construction,” said Brad McAvoy, project manager and director of engineering services for O-A-K. “Also, it can you give an example of a design/existing infrastructure problem that had to be reworked.”

From those original plans, the O-A-K crew knew it would need to get creative with how it would have to structurally support the ballroom’s large chandeliers, he said.

“A bank lobby today wouldn’t have been built like this lobby was constructed,” McAvoy said. “It’s amazing that the high-end finishes used in 1916 are still desirable and have held up to the nearly 100 years of use.”

The owners of McKay Tower are hosting an opening reception for the $800,000 project on May 17.

The Hinman Co.’s $500,000 renovation of the Ballroom at CityFlats was completed last fall and has been open for business since then.

For CityFlats, the vaulted ceilings allowed enough room to hide ductwork, and original 150-watt incandescent lights were replaced with LEDs that went into the existing fixtures. Still, crews also had to figure out how to install fire prevention systems as well as reduce noise coming from ventilation systems in the space.

While there were some code issues and variances needed to circumvent other troublesome aspects of the remodel, neither project had to follow any historic preservation guidelines. However, both owners were sensitive to the historic architecture, Craig said.

“The things to feature are the things that aren’t possible to do anymore like the details in the ceiling and the woodwork,” he said. “No new renovation can match what is already there.”

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