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By Estelle Slootmaker
Photography by Johnny Quirin, Archival Photos Courtesy Grand Rapids Public Library

On Nov. 1, 1930, The Grand Rapids Spectator, a newsletter for area businesses, featured an article about the newly conceived plan for downtown’s latest addition: “The Civic Auditorium will add to the beauty of the Riverfront … An imposing structure here will be plainly visible from considerable distances and readily accessible.”

Created as a public works project and funded by bonds approved by the voting public, the Civic opened the doors of its art deco façade in 1933 and turned a profit of $3,000 during its first year, according to an article in the Jan. 1, 1934, issue of The Grand Rapids Press. Its inaugural event was a lightweight boxing match in front of 4,000 people, held in the main hall, which could accommodate 5,000 patrons; additionally, the Black and Silver Room held 800 and the Red Room another 800.

The lobby was paneled in walnut veneers from France, Italy and Germany with border panels from Tasmania. Interior stair steps were cut from black marble from Belgium and Minnesota. Victor Futelle, the Civic’s manager from the day it opened until 1951, wrote, in a brochure printed in the ’70s: “The hall was a miniature crossroads where people from almost every nation on earth have gathered.”

Downtown’s Most Popular Destination
In its hey-day, the Civic was home to the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra and was a hive of convention activity. The American Bar Association, Michigan Democratic Convention, Michigan State Republican Convention and the International Baby Chicks Association were just a few of the organizations that filled the Civic week in and week out for decades.

The Civic also hosted some big-name entertainers: Nelson Eddy, Cab Calloway, The San Carlo Opera, The Monte Carlo Ballet and Benny Goodman in the 1930s alone. In the ’60s, its walls resounded with the music of popular rock bands and musicians such as The Association, Bob Seeger, Long John Baldry, Chuck Berry, Ozzy Osborne, Def Leppard and Uriah Heep. Comedian Robin Williams did his stand-up act and the musical “Jesus Christ Super Star” made its Grand Rapids debut at the Civic. Until the ’70s, it was also the regular home of Golden Gloves tournaments, the Shrine Circus and Holiday on Ice.

In 1982, however, the Civic was slated for demolition but fortunately was saved from the wrecking ball by local historical preservationists. The structure was renovated and re-christened the George W. Welsh Auditorium in 1985.

With the advent of the Grand Center and DeVos Hall and, finally, the Van Andel Arena, the Welsh began to sputter, getting only B-rated bookings and for some years serving as the home basketball court for the Grand Rapids Hoops.

Back in the Game
During 2004 the Welsh Auditorium underwent yet another metamorphosis. The entire building was imploded except for the art deco façade and the lobby, which became part of the 40,000-square-foot Steelcase Ballroom in the new DeVos Place convention center.

“ It went down in one big bang,” said Jim Gray, who managed the project for the Grand Rapids/Kent County Convention Arena Authority. “Everything went into the basement.”

That basement now serves as a huge parking facility stretching from Michigan Avenue to Lyon Street. The granite steps that once led to the entrance were removed, reconditioned and then reinstalled over a new base. Salvaged carved limestone pieces were inset into the interior ballroom walls. The ballroom can accommodate up to 3,500 banquet guests.

“ This is a very large ballroom, maybe one of the largest in the U.S.,” Gray said. “It can be subdivided into four spaces with movable, acoustical-paneled walls. It has several bells and whistles.”

Those bells and whistles include a multitude of power and data ports, pick points (a form of adaptable electrical connections) for lights and speakers hanging from the ceiling and a stage that sets up in multiple configurations. A 12-foot-high overhead door entrance admits extra large equipment and exhibits.

The Steelcase Ballroom is the crowning touch to Grand Rapids’ new convention center. “This was my baby, my last project,” said Gray, who is retiring with the completion of the ballroom. “I think, in terms of second-tier convention facilities, this building will be one of the Top 5 in the U.S. People don’t know what we’ve built here yet.” GR

Estelle Slootmaker is a free-lance writer who lives in Wyoming.

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