Grand Rapids in 1856

by Sarah (Nelson) Ballard, Artist

Price: $20.00 ($16.00 for Historical Society members)
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Color Reprint of Original Oil Painting on Off-White Paper
Suitable for Framing
Dimensions 18 3/8” x 14 1/2”



The building boom in the downtown area during the late 1840s and early 1850s is preserved in this painting by Grand Rapids native Sarah Nelson. Note her signature and the date which appear over the rock near the bottom right corner. Although the artist’s perspective failed to accurately depict the distances between streets and avenues, she has, nonetheless, left us a charming picture of the area between Michigan and Pearl Streets, and from the crest of Prospect Hill, along which runs Ransom Avenue, to the Grand River. Scanning left to right, the first house is the Cuming “Mansion” Estate. It was constructed in 1852 on Bostwick Avenue between Michigan and Crescent Streets — the present site of Butterworth Hospital — by Dr. Francis Cuming.  An early pastor of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Dr. Cuming was one of the donors of the land that became Crescent Park. Rumor has it that he contributed his share in order to prevent anyone else from building there and spoiling the magnificent view. In the wake of lowered streets, however, the Mansion was left stranded on a sandy hill with its gardens, orchards and walks destroyed.

The second house, on the corner of Crescent and Bostwick — is where the old Trinity Lutheran Church which housed Spectrum Theatre in the 1980s ­— was built in 1851 by Grand Rapids’ first mayor, Henry Williams. He along with pioneer Daniel Ball, is credited with fostering transportation on the Grand River. The third house, the columned cottage, is located on Ransom between Lyon and Crescent. The owner, Marinus Harting, was Miss Nelson’s art instructor and a talented landscape artist. He opened his studio there in 1854. The house, which is still standing, eventually became the home of the Post family. Henry Post, a musician of note, remodelled the house considerably, and added a studio large enough to accomodate recitals. The fourth house, situated below the Post home on Lyon near Canal Avenue, was built in 1855 by Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice George Martin. It suffered in the same manner as the Cuming Mansion in that land was cut away from it, leaving it high and dry. The Fifth-Third (Old Kent) Bank Building and the Michigan Consolidated Gas Company building presently share its location.

The Stone School stands out at the top of the hill. Built in 1849 of river stone and crowned with a glistening tin roof and cupola, it was torn down less than 20 years later. However, the spirit of the old school remains as the easterly part of the Grand Rapids Junior College campus occupies the Ransom and Lyon site. St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, at the far right, was built in 1848 on Division Avenue at Pearl Street, and is clearly recognizable. Left of it is the Tower Boarding House which was located at Pearl and Monroe. Returning to the left side of the painting, we see close to the river the Backus Block. It was one of the oldest river stone buildings in the city. Occupying the site at the foot of Crescent at Canal, it has long since given way to urban renewal. Older residents assure us that the first Wurzburg store and later the Martin store were located in it. The remainder of the structures pictured, a mix of residential and commercial/industrial buildings, are currently unidentified.



Sarah (Nelson) Ballard was born in Grand Rapids in 1840. Her father, James Nelson, was a founder of the Nelson-Matter Furniture Company. The family home was located on Bostwick Avenue, just off Lyon Street, so the Nelson’s were neighbors of the Cuming’s and the William’s families. They were also members of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. Sarah was one of lite first students enrolled when Marinus Harting opened his studio in 1854. She created the painting when she was but 16. 

In 1867, Miss Nelson married Captain Steven Ballard, a lawyer whose health was impaired by the years he was confined to Confederate prison camps. The family, hoping a move to Colorado in 1880 would prove beneficial to Ballard’s health, returned to Grand Rapids in 1890, where Captain Ballard died. Mrs. Ballard and her three daughters evidently returned to Colorado as local records show no further evidence that they continued to reside here.


Originally Compiled by Gordon Olson, City Historian ©1980, 2014. Grand Rapids Historical Society.

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