Hannah & Lay building a home to history

When employees at the Northwestern Bank Mortgage Center, Corbin Design, Boyne Country Sports and the law firm of Calcutt, Rogers and Boynton go to work every day, they don't just stroll into a place of business.

They enter a Traverse City historical jewel.

That 130-year-old bauble--the Hannah & Lay Mercantile building, where the aforementioned businesses are housed--will be recognized this spring with a historical marker from the state of Michigan. The state approved the marker in autumn 2012, but it has taken a few months to make sure certain key dates were just right (they are to be set in stone, after all), and the final language was approved in late January.

"We're excited to finally be able to know when the marker will be placed," says Doug Zernow, spokesman for Northwestern Bank, which purchased the building in 2009. "The building's history is such a prominent part of downtown Traverse City, and the marker is an official recognition of that importance."

The structure, finished in 1883, was first known as the "Big Store" because it was 55 feet tall, covered 208 feet on East Front Street and 112 feet along Union Street. It was built using 1.8 million white pressed bricks, 2,000 barrels of lime, 209,000 pounds of cast iron and 2,000 pounds of stone. The total cost of the construction was more than $100,000--quite an investment more than a century ago for lumber barons Perry Hannah and A. Tracy Lay.

The original three-story "Big Store" sold hardware, boots and shoes, dry goods, clothing, groceries, provisions and furniture. Since then, as logic would dictate, there have been many changes to the business operating within the venerable structure.

Today, the tenants recognize that theirs is a special workplace.

"It's fun to see the historical information in the lobby when you come to work every day," says Mark VanderKlipp, president of Corbin Design, a wayfinding, graphic design and signage company with offices upstairs in the Hannah & Lay building. "The building represents a big part of the growth of Traverse City, and it's a great place to do business. We actually were considering moving a few years ago, but then we thought about our location, the easy access to downtown and what a great building this is, so we stayed."

Back in the day, the building's elegant design included ornate columns, intricate etchings and details inside and out, French plate glass windows, a protected, 12-foot wide board sidewalk, 14 entrances, steam heat, and two amenities that were the first in town--freight elevators and electric lights.

"There have been many updates, there is modern lighting and some archways have been removed, but the bones of the office are still the same," VanderKlipp says. "We have the original brick walls, and the columns are still here."

There was a time when the Hannah & Lay's structure took a hit. After the "Big Store" closed its doors in 1928, the building was home to Montgomery Ward from 1928 to 1981. In 1940, a fire destroyed the eastern part of the building, but it was restored in the 1980s, and that is where the Northwestern Bank Mortgage Center is today.

Northwestern Bank founder and Traverse City attorney Harry Calcutt bought the building in 1954, the bank's mortgage center opened in 2007 and Northwestern Bank purchased the building outright in 2009. The bank also maintains several offices upstairs.

"We are not publicly traded--we are a family-owned community bank--and it's appropriate that we are associated with a building that is such a symbol of the community's history," Zernow says.

The building indeed has tradition, but Northwestern Bank also needed to keep the structure up to date with current needs, so an extensive renovation project began in 2010. Interior and exterior changes were made, lighting was added on the outside of the building, and Zernow says the original architecture was considered throughout the process.

"We updated things and still tried to keep the classic elements," he says. "You can see the big posts as support beams inside, and we copied the original detail which had been removed on the outside of the building throughout the years.

"We wanted to highlight the building and take advantage of what makes it special."

Every office in the building is full, and Zernow doesn't see that changing anytime soon. If it does, however, he says because Northwestern Bank continues to grow, it would probably bring more of its operation to the Hannah & Lay building.

"That's another thing to remember about the building," Zernow says. "It has a great history, and it's also thriving today."

Jeff Barr is a freelance writer who has lived in Michigan for 46 years. You can reach Jeff at barrj88@gmail.com.
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