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The Titanic and a parking lot on Ionia


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The upcoming Titanic exhibit at the museum gives me an excuse to write something about a cool old building that I wish still existed on Ionia but no longer does.  As you have probably read or heard, Mark Sellers, owner of the HopCat bar, also owns the controlling interest in the company that owns the touring Titanic exhibit along with all of its expensive artifacts.  Coincidently but unrelated, the parking lot across the street from the HopCat also has a strong dotted line connection to the Titanic disaster.


This lot was once home to the William Alden Smith Building, a six story gem built in 1894.  Back in the 1970’s I used to walk and drive by this building and think that this would be a great building for someone to rehab someday.  At that time it was completely vacant.  Someday never came.  Unfortunately on December 4, 1980 it was heavily damaged by a fire.  I wasn’t living in Grand Rapids at the time but from what I’ve read the building was still structurally sound but it would have cost way more money to restore it than anyone at the time could justify.  Ionia was strictly low rent (and in the case of the Smith building no rent) back in the seventies and eighties.  So the building was converted to its highest use at the time which of course means it was converted to a parking lot.  Here’s a link to a photo of the William Alden Smith Building (note the neighboring Richmond Stamp Works – a business than even when this picture was taken seemed to be from an earlier age):




Just think what could be done with this building if it was still there today and how much more dense it would make the Ionia streetscape.


So what does this have to do with the Titanic?  William Alden Smith built this building and named it after himself.  If you look carefully in the picture above the door you can see where he had his name carved.  Smith’s was a real rags-to-riches story.  He had his hand in a lot of things, but this building was one of his earliest financial ventures in Grand Rapids.  Skip forward to the Titanic disaster; by this time Smith had moved into politics and was an important U.S. Senator.  Smith offered a resolution in the Senate to start an investigation into the disaster and he was named chairman of the investigation committee.  Smith had all the survivors subpoenaed and started the investigation in New York City the day after the survivors arrived in New York on the Carpathia before they could disperseOne of the outcomes of the committee’s work was the implementation of new maritime safety rules including having adequate lifeboats and having lifeboat drills, and requiring passenger ships to have 24  hour radio service.  The other big outcome was that the committee’s minutes and documents are one of the largest primary sources of material as to what happened to the Titanic.  Google Smith’s name and you will get plenty references and images of the Titanic

Unless you are a local history or Titanic geek you likely had never heard of him.  When I first saw his name on that building back in the seventies I hadn’t.  Even without the Titanic it turns out William Alden Smith was a pretty big man in his day.  He started out selling popcorn and newspapers as a boy and ended up owning railroads, real estate, banks, a steamship line, and the newspaper he sold as a kid, the Grand Rapids Herald.  He seems to have had his hand in just about everything that happened in Grand Rapids in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.   And he was influential in national politics including being considered at one time as a serious candidate for a presidential nomination.  Here’s a somewhat disjointed biography of him that is apparently a compilation of various obituaries about him when he died:




This is why if you want to be remembered you’ve got to get your name on as many buildings as possible, not just one.






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Thanks for the comments.  Because I enjoy my anonymity on urbanplanet (even though I’m not anyone you likely know) I’ll pass on passing it on.  I sort of wrote it as an exclusive anyway for the small but influential urbanplanet audience, after all not many other people are likely to be interested in a building torn down over thirty years ago.

However, if this inspires anyone else to write about the Titanic connection then that would be great.  There is plenty of public domain information out there to fit it all together.  And if someone wants to use what I wrote “verbatim” or in part, with attribution or not, that’s fine with me.  When someone posts under a pseudonym, they  are fair game I figure.     

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  ...When someone posts under a pseudonym, they  are fair game I figure.     

Not so much. Responsible journalism practices quote their sources, even if anonymous. Look at the MLive reporters describing the reader comments, and attributing them to the "handles" (old CB radio term) selected by those individuals. To do otherwise is plagiarism.


If no one else bites, I might take you up on your offer...perhaps someday they'll move me off the "junior novice beginner reporter" column.

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