Art history surprise at old house in Grand Rapids

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) - A piece of West Michigan art history was uncovered recently as workers renovated the 170-year-old Pike House.

A sign from its former days as the “Grand Rapids Art Museum” was found underneath the boards across the entry to the Greek Revival building, according to The Grand Rapids Press ( http://bit.ly/1hNltYT ).

Not much was made of the discovery until Anita Gilleo stopped by to tell the new owners the sign was painted by her grandfather, Mathias Alten, the landscape and portrait painter who is considered Grand Rapids’s most famous artist.

The carved and gilded sign, which originally identified the building as the “Grand Rapids Art Gallery,” was painted by her grandfather, a founding member of the museum, near the turn of the 20th Century, said Gilleo, who lives in the house her grandfather built near Aquinas College.

“When he first arrived here at age 17 or 18, he was a sign painter,” said Gilleo of her grandfather, who died in 1938 at age 66.

Alten was a prolific painter whose impressionist works are loved and valued by collectors throughout the art world.

Gilleo said the sign was changed from “Grand Rapids Art Gallery” to “Grand Rapids Art Museum” sometime in the 1950s as the meaning of the original name took on a more commercial tone in the art world.

Todd Almassian, whose law firm is renovating the building, said he cannot keep the sign on the exterior of the building because he believes it would confuse out-of-town visitors seeking the current Grand Rapids Art Museum.

“At the minimum, we want to put it inside the Pike House and display it prominently in the interior,” said Almassian. “But it’s been so fun to leave it up for a few days.”

Keller & Almassian bought the 18,000-square-foot office building from Design Plus, an architectural firm that had owned it since 2007.

The Pike House was originally built in 1844 for Abram W. Pike, a fur trader who moved to Grand Rapids from Port Sheldon on Lake Michigan, at the mouth of the Pigeon River.

The building’s distinctive white columns were hauled to the site by Pike after the Ottawa House Hotel was abandoned by its developers, who had hoped Port Sheldon would become a thriving seaport.

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Information from: The Grand Rapids Press, http://www.mlive.com/grand-rapids

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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