Built in 1937, The J.W. Knapp Building served as Lansing’s most prominent department store for more than 40 years. Billed as the “Showplace of Michigan,” the store included themed shopping areas and in-store restaurants, and drew customers from all around mid-Michigan to shop and play in Downtown Lansing. Although the department store closed in 1980, the building still stands today as an outstanding example of Streamline Moderne architecture, a style most recognized for its 1950s diners and gas stations with rounded edges and chrome walls. The unique building is significant to locals who remember the glory days of the store, and shopping as a family affair, especially on Christmas. Today the building is finishing up renovations for several mixed uses including retail and office space.
Even before the department store, the site played an important role in Lansing history. The Knapp building today stands on the former site of the Lansing House Hotel. The hotel was built in 1865 by General Lafayette Baker, a former spy for the Union Army and the man who captured John Wilkes Booth after the assassination of President Lincoln. The Lansing House Hotel was renamed the Hotel Downey in the late 1880s and served as Lansing’s premier luxury hotel, a favorite of state politicians. In 1896, 100 local women met at the hotel to form the Women’s Hospital Association which would later grow into the Sparrow Health System. The hotel was demolished after a fire and subsequent decline of the hotel in the 1920s and 30s, and the current Knapp Building was built in its place.
The architectural firm Bowd-Munson was commissioned to design the new building. Bowd-Munson was one of Lansing’s most prominent architectural firms from 1929 through the 1940s, designing the Federal Building, the Ottawa Street Power Station, and the Cooley Law School Temple Building in Lansing, and Spartan Stadium, Jenison Fieldhouse, and Berkey Hall on MSU Campus. The Streamline Modern style was popular during this period as a way to incorporate new technologies like electric lighting and show off sleek modernization. The building and site were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983, and declared a Historic District in 2011 by the State Historic Preservation Review Board and the City of Lansing.