645 Cherry SE, Grand Rapids, Michigan  |  Photo courtesy of the Grand Rapids City Archives

645 Cherry SE, Grand Rapids, Michigan  |  Photo courtesy of the Grand Rapids City Archives

James Bronkema was a forward thinking builder and designer of between 150-200 modern and ranch-style homes and commercial buildings in Grand Rapids.  The commercial building at 645 Cherry SE, is a fine example of Bronkema's style and was the home of New York Life when it was first constructed.   The multi-level flat-roofed building is beautifully arranged with an exterior facade that combines brick, panel and and an abundance of glass in true mid-century style.   The building features a side wall of glass and panel on the driveway side.  Wide concrete sidewalk and steps provide a dramatic and rather classical approach to the building.  Simple trim neatly completes the building's modern statement. 

Bronkema left his Calvin College pre-dentistry studies and became a pilot in World War II.  When he returned, he went to work for his father in the family real estate business.  After he designed his own new ranch home on the northwest side of town, the home created so much buzz that he began getting commissions for other homes in the area.  By the age of 25, he had become the youngest president of the local Grand Rapids Builders Association in the history of that organization.   During the time he was building houses, Bronkem's style evolved from the innovative ranch home he first built to flat-roofed modern homes on Fultonwood SE.   Bronkema designed all but one home on the iconic Fultonwood SE, a cul-de-sac of  East Fulton, one of the favorite streets of Grand Rapidians interested in modern architecture.  

Trademarks of James Bronkema's style were brick floors, radiant heat, full brick fireplace walls, large chimneys, glass window walls and a feeling of transparency between the outside and inside.  He was an early proponent of the family room and of the open concept home. 

1961 photo of home designed by James Bronkema in 1960 - an example of his modern designs|  Photo courtesy of the Grand Rapids City Archives

1961 photo of home designed by James Bronkema in 1960 - an example of his modern designs|  Photo courtesy of the Grand Rapids City Archives

Bronkema did not formally study architecture, except for a few courses at Grand Rapids Christian High.  Yet he remains one of the most popular of Grand Rapids builders.   He was also an artist and loved to paint.

Bronkema worked in the Grand Rapids and Muskegon area until he left for Florida around 1960.   In 1971, Bronkema oversaw the development of San Francisco's Embarcadero Center and served as managing partner and CEO until his retirement in 1989.  He lived in Palm Springs, California until his death in February 2015.  

Today, the Bronkema name attached to a real estate listing catches attention and means something to potential buyers. 

Bronkema Builders Office.  Photo courtesy of Grand Rapids City Archives

Bronkema Builders Office.  Photo courtesy of Grand Rapids City Archives