A massive fortress towers over the city of Marquette, Michigan, perched atop a hill. Looking out over the glistening waters of Lake Superior and flanked by dense woods, this gorgeous building has a prominent presence, deeply ingrained in the city’s history. It’s truly amazing to see.
Over the years, the building has taken on a life of its own. Once you know its story, its tenacity is tough to ignore.
The first time I laid eyes on its architecture was by chance; one of those “in the right place at the right time” moments.
A group of colleagues and I took a flight to Iron River, a couple of hours southwest of Marquette. When they returned home, I stayed behind with more business, foregoing the return flight.
Due to Iron River’s remote location, renting a car was impossible. Thankfully, Barry Polzin, a Marquette-based architect, was traveling back to his office and offered to give me a ride to the city.
When we arrived in Marquette, we stopped in front of a large dilapidated building. Its huge windows were boarded up. The brick and stone were damaged from years of water penetration. Trees grew on its roof. It was abandoned, crumbling, ominous, and foreboding; like a movie version of a haunted house.
But I was instantly enamored with the building’s size and potential – Italian Renaissance Revival in style, with a symmetrical façade, and massive, classical stone columns adorning the brick exterior. Barry interrupted my staring, saying, “Someday, someone is going to do something special with this building. It’s gotta be saved.” Just then, an anonymous heckler drove by seeing the two of us looking up at the structure. “Good luck, Barry!” he mocked sarcastically from the car window. Nobody thought this building could be brought back from the brink of demolition.
I learned the building was once an orphanage. Built in 1915, it was home to hundreds of orphans and refugees for over fifty years. Later, a local high school held shop and drafting classes in the orphanage’s basement. This is where Barry took his first drafting class, foreshadowing his career as an architect.
When the orphanage closed, the building sat vacant for over thirty years. It became a rite of passage for local adolescents to break into the abandoned fortress and explore.
Because of its history as an orphanage, the building resonates deep emotions within the Marquette community. Many people hold the historic building very dear to their hearts, connecting with it personally. Some lived there as children or knew someone who grew up there. Others helped run or work in the orphanage over the years. Everyone had become accustomed to the building on the hill - overlooking the city.
I knew this place was special.
Several months later, Marty Richardson and I met with Rob McKay, Historic Architect for the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office. The Holy Family Orphanage made its presence known again. The orphanage was the first property Rob mentioned when we began discussing endangered buildings in Michigan that needed to be saved.
How fortunate that after that initial chance encounter, we now had more support to help do just what Barry had hoped for: save the orphanage from demolition.
After our meeting, Marty and I contacted developers Home Renewal Systems, requesting their involvement in the project. During that phone call, we learned the orphanage was making itself known to them as well. It had been on their radar even prior to our phone call, through contacts of their own.
It became evident there were several people unknowingly collaborating to protect the life of this historic building.
Eventually, plans aligned to rehabilitate the old orphanage. Home Renewal Systems hired Barry, the architect who took me to visit the building that very first time. He became responsible for creating all the plans for design, layout, and restoration. Old National led the financing by providing investment in the project’s historic and affordable housing tax credits, as well as construction and permanent loans.
Collectively, it was decided to bring the building back to life as safe and affordable housing. Marquette is a college town, and much of the working force and blue-collar affordable housing has since been turned into rental properties for students. Over time, affordable housing options had been eliminated in the city.
Creating a respectable, safe and affordable place for residents was imperative. Thus, the plan for a 56-housing unit apartment complex, The Grandview Marquette Apartments, was born. Of the 56 units, 14 units would be reserved for the homeless and for residents with disabilities. Additionally, those units would provide supportive services such as skills training, transportation, access to healthcare, job programs and credit counseling.
Image by Barry Polzin of Barry J. Polzin Architects
The location couldn’t be better situated for creating quality of life and sense of community for the residents. The new Grandview Marquette Apartment Complex is three blocks from the waterfront, and three blocks from downtown Marquette. It is also within walking distance to the new UP Health System’s $300 million, 265-bed state-of-the-art hospital and medical office complex. There is a VA clinic directly across the street, giving residents convenient access to healthcare solutions.
At one time, the Holy Family Orphanage was a vibrant, and critically integrated part of the Marquette community. The orphanage housed orphans and Cuban refugees from infancy to early adolescence, providing care and a home for those with nowhere else to go.
The day I first saw the orphanage, the building only had one or two winters of life remaining before it would be impossible to save. The ceiling had collapsed, and a combination of rain, snow, plaster and muck covered everything. However, when a bulldozer cleared away the remains, the orphanage’s original terrazzo floors were found in pristine condition, preserved under the protective layer of debris. The building is being restored to its original architecture, including preserving a stage where children used to perform plays and programs.
Our team is proud to have played a key role in saving this historic building; a place that has woven meaning and sentiment into the lives of many Marquette residents. It will provide an affordable home and supportive services to a new generation of people. There is a certain life in the memories the community and the building have helped to preserve. Now, the Grandview Marquette, and the people that will call it home, can create a new life and new memories that will endure for generations. This is exactly the type of work a community bank like Old National should be doing.
In November 2017, the Grandview Marquette Apartments will open its doors once again. Its first residents in more than fifty years will be welcomed home.
Also read Old National Helps Transform Abandoned Orphanage to Affordable Housing.
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