Public radio from Western Michigan University 102.1 NPR News | 89.9 Classical WMUK
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Second Friday of the month (third Friday in five-week months) at 6:45 am, 8:45 am and 5:44 pm. Why's That? explores the things in Southwest Michigan – people, places, names – that spark your curiosity. We want to know what makes you wonder when you're out and about.

Why's That: What's happening to these three historic Kalamazoo buildings?

The tan limestone Michigan Avenue Courthouse with Kalamazoo County Building carved at the top of the building. Two trees without leaves to the left and right of the building and a green bush in front of the grey concrete stairs that lead up to the building. A brown sign to the right of the bush reads Michigan Avenue Courthouse.
Michael Symonds
The Michigan Avenue Courthouse is currently owned by PlazaCorp but is still used as a courthouse by Kalamazoo County.

A courthouse, a post office, and a nearly 100-year-old commercial building caught our question-asker's eye.

The Michigan Avenue Courthouse is one of many historic buildings in downtown Kalamazoo. The limestone building looms large by Bronson Park, with carvings of various symbols of justice scattered about its exterior. Kalamazoo resident Janet Crosby wants to know what the future holds for the building.

“I've noticed that the old courthouse — that Kalamazoo County Courthouse has been, it's looking shabby and I'm concerned about the fact that that is being allowed to happen,” Crosby said. (The owner of the courthouse did not respond to a request for comment on the building's condition.)

Crosby’s also concerned about two other historic buildings in Kalamazoo: the Federal Building, commonly known as the old post office, which is just down the block from the courthouse. And the Old Oakland Pharmacy, a few blocks west on West Michigan Avenue. We’ll hear about all three. First, we’ll focus on the Michigan Avenue Courthouse, or the MAC ("mack") as insiders call it.

Completed in 1937, the exact architectural style is up for debate, according to City of Kalamazoo Historic Preservation Coordinator Luis Peña.

“This building as well as the other building, the Federal Building-post office, are both in limestone with brick and marble on them. In my opinion, they're both Art Deco buildings, but some people say that they're Moderne, or modernistic buildings,” Peña said.

Moderne is like Art Deco, but streamlined. Moderne favors smooth surfaces over mosaics and straight lines over zig-zags.

Peña says the MAC’s façade was carved by Italian architectural sculptor Corrado Parducci, whose work can also be found in Detroit and Albany.

“It's kind of impressive that he came to a smaller city like this to do sculptures as well.”

The MAC still serves as a courthouse for Kalamazoo County. But it won’t for much longer. The building is no longer owned by the County, having been sold to PlazaCorp in a 2017 land swap agreement.

The county is building a new courthouse on Kalamazoo Avenue, which is scheduled to open this summer.

As for the MAC, the land swap agreement says PlazaCorp must maintain the façade until 2037. PlazaCorp declined to comment on its plans for the inside of the building. But its agreement with the county says possible uses include “retail, office and residential” spaces.

A dark tan limestone building with Federal Building United States Post Office and Courthouse carved into the limestone at the top. Two leafless trees sit at both the right and left of the image and two poles, one with an American flag at the top, sit in front of the building. Large glass windows segmented into nine smaller windows are divided by dark tan pillars with vertical lines carved into them.
Michael Symonds
Outside of a plan to add an accessibility ramp, there are no plans to significantly change the Federal Building. It will continue to be used to be a U.S. district courthouse and house federal office space.

Across the street sits the Federal Building and US Courthouse. But it was a post office when it opened in 1939, just two years after the MAC. The city’s Luis Peña says the MAC and the post office were a part of a plan to transform the Bronson Park area of downtown Kalamazoo.

“They both represent a time when the civic center in Kalamazoo was being bolstered and we were building the civic center in Kalamazoo,” Peña said.

The building became a federal court in the early 1960s. The General Services Administration told WMUK there is no plan to change that. So, unlike the MAC's, the federal courthouse’s future appears straightforward for now.

The Old Oakland Pharmacy Building is a red brick and white wood building with a dark green pointed roof at the corner of Academy and West Main. The front top of the building has been replaced with plywood and a sign on it reads Kalamazoo Commercial Real Estate. The front glass door is block by a white cover.
Michael Symonds
The Old Oakland Pharmacy at the corner of West Main Street and Academy Street. It was been condemned by the City of Kalamazoo after a fire broke out in 2019 in the attic of the building. It is Currently owned by UpKal, LLC.

Finally, there’s the old Oakland Pharmacy, a few blocks away at West Michigan and Academy. Unlike today’s pharmacies, the English-Tudor-style corner building was intended as a destination for college students, according to Peña.

“They officially had a soft opening in May of 1926. But they waited until September of that year to do a three-day opening that kind of catered more to the students. Thursday was for the townspeople, and then Friday was for K College students and Saturday was for Western students,” Peña said.

A fire broke out in February of 1935, causing $40,000 worth of damage to the building, equivalent to over $800,000 today according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This wouldn’t be the end of the Oakland Pharmacy, however; it reopened three months later.

The pharmacy would remain a popular destination for students for decades; it was nicknamed “The Pharm” by many of its regulars. The Pharm would remain open until 1977, when then-owner John Spicer sold his section of the building to an up-and-coming record store called Boogie Records.

“In 1972, Boogie Records opened in one of the smaller sections of that store. And they expanded in '76 and 1977. To take over the entire building. Boogie records from what I can understand is a pretty big deal,” Peña says.

A big deal it was, with the metal band Iron Maiden making an appearance at the height of its fame in 1982. A video from that visit shows fans gathering outside the store and members of the band signing autographs.

Like the pharmacy before it, Boogie Records would remain a popular venue for Kalamazoo residents, though it too would eventually close in 1995.

The building then saw a multitude of cafes and breweries come and go. Now the building sits empty, though it’s owned by an LLC called UpKal. Records show UpKal is linked to the Comensoli family, which owns an Italian restaurant up the street.

Reached by phone, Pete Comensoli declined to comment on UpKal’s plans for the old Oakland Pharmacy. But Peña says that as long as the building has an owner, it has a chance at survival.

“As long as people are inhabiting buildings, that's what keeps them baseline alive,” Peña said.

Although question-asker Janet Crosby is happy that these buildings are still standing, the ambiguous future of the MAC and the pharmacy leaves her worried.

“I'm just concerned that to see these old buildings, and with some beauty and history behind them, demolished for some not so attractive, new commercial use,” said Crosby.

Report for America national service program corps member Michael Symonds joined WMUK’s staff in 2023. He covers the “rural meets metro” beat, reporting stories that link seemingly disparate parts of Southwest Michigan.