Isn't it always the case that when you go searching for one thing, you find something else?  I wanted more information about how the Kent County Jail came to be designed by Yamaski and Leinweber of Detroit in 1958, with Grand Rapids firm Obyron and Knapp acting as associate architects.  Instead I discovered that at the same time, E. John Knapp designed a house right across from the jail for Sheriff Arnold Pigorsh and his family.   


(Aerial view of fail and house lower center of photo)


Building this separate house across from the jail broke with the Kent County tradition of the sheriff living in a house attached to the jail as had been the case with the old jail.  And this was new house built across from the new jail in 1957 was a beautiful modern house that according to the Grand Rapids Press article, it cost $30,000.  The house was described as a brick contemporary with exterior plastic-face panels and windows in a four feet wide modular design that made for more economical construction.  A window wall on the westside overlooks the grounds.


(House under construction)


According to the article, the house was built on a slope on the north side of the jail.  Knapp's partner Charles A. Obryon describes the house size as 1,700 square feet with living room, dining room, kitchen, three bedrooms and a bath on the main level, and a fourth bedroom, garage and bath on the lower level.”  Knapp designed the kitchen with birch cabinets that separate it from the dining area. Dining and living areas were contained in one wing while sleeping quarters are located in a separate area. Said Knapp, "Ceilings and walls are all white and all of the wood is natural birch.”  He also mentioned the abundance of closets and declared that "it is the only house in Grand Rapids built entirely by union labor."


Furnishings were from Business Interiors of Grand Rapids for a price of $7,389 including draperies and carpeting.  It was emphasized that they were very budget conscious.  However, they had to build the house big enough to accommodate future sheriffs' families who might require more or less space. Several building committee members questioned the total construction price.  One member stated that the house was better than his own.


After reading about the house, we had to know if it was still standing.  We couldn't find it.  Seeing the newspaper photo, WMM researcher, Rebecca Kalinowski, a long-time Grand Rapids resident, remembered it immediately and confirmed that it was gone.


Kalinowski contacted Sheriff Stelma's office to see if they had any old photos of the house.  They responded right away, sending black and white photos of the house under construction and an aerial view of the jail showing the home's location.  They told us that the house was lived in from 1955-1975, then the next sheriff, Phillip J. Heffron, elected not to live in the house. From then on, instead of providing a house for the sheriff, the state gave the sheriff a housing stipend.  What we call "The Sheriff's House” became a half-way house for youth offenders.  And then there was a small fire. As the house was no longer used by the jail, it was torn down in the 1980s to make way for the next expansion.


Most of the Knapp-designed homes we find are still in beautiful condition. Knapp remembered the house well and remembered Sheriff Arnold Pigorsh and said he really liked him.  He recalled that the Sheriff wanted to the separate house from the jail for his family's privacy.  


When Kalinowski contacted Pigorsh's daughter Berdeen, she expressed regret that the house had been torn down.  She had loved the house, and she was very touched but not surprised by Arnold's consideration for his family when he insisted on a residence separate from the jail. 

Berdeen recalled that she was approximately 23 years old when they moved into the new house in 1958.  Berdeen remembered the contrast between the old house, attached to the jail, where you entered right from the front door into the turnstile for the jail, and the new house designed by Knapp.  She loved the new house and said it was light and airy with huge windows and beautiful views.  This was before the I-196 expressway was built, and Berdeen said the country stretched out in all directions.  She also remembered the Danish modern furniture - light but comfortable.  The kitchen was very modern with nice appliances and a garbage disposal, which was something new for her.  The kitchen opened to the dining room and living room with its enormous windows. It was carpeted throughout, which she specifically remembered because she always vacuumed it.  The bedrooms were very small - barely enough room for two twin beds, but there was lots of storage.


The house and jail kept Berdeen and her mother busy. There was always something going on.  Berdeen's mother created all the menus for the inmates and ordered the food, which was prepared in the jail kitchen by other cooks, a task traditionally reserved for the sheriff's wife.  Bergen recalled many fun details, including the time when a small plane circled the house and made many attempts to land in their yard but finally had to fly on.  Rebecca asked Berdeen if she was ever afraid living next door to the jail and she was incredulous, saying "No!"  She was very used to this life as her father had been involved in law enforcement since she was 2 years old.


Sheriff Piggish and his wife loved Kent County and its people. His daughter said, "My dad was good man." Berdeen didn't remember all of the details but recalled that sometimes in the cold winter months, the Sheriff took in homeless people and provided food to eat and a place to sleep. This was likely in the time of the old jail. Berdeen also proudly shared that her father donated the money from speeches he gave all around town to establish the Honor Camp, an alternative program to keep young offenders out of jail. 


As a tribute to Sheriff Pigorsh at this retirement, the minutes from the June 30, 1966 Grand Rapids City Commission meeting state, "The retirement of Arnold O. Pigorsh as Sheriff of Kent County has left a void in the County Government that will be difficult indeed to fill."


We also discovered that "The Sheriff's House" is linked toFaith Lutheran Church, a striking mid-century church also designed by E. John Knapp.  About the time the jail was built, the new Faith Lutheran Church congregation was meeting in the basement of a school, and Arnold Pigorsh and his family were active members.  Pigorsh recommended the Knapp to design the church based on his work on the house and jail.  Several firms were considered and it was hard for the fledgling congregation to decide what to do.  Some wanted to give more money to their missions as opposed to building a beautiful new church.  Berdeen remembers the pastor, Bob Lingnell's words to the congregation "God wants us to create beauty,” and Knapp was chosen as architect.  The result was Faith Lutheran Church built at 3-Mile and Fuller NE in Grand Rapids.   Pigorsh also convinced the congregation that they needed a big basement in the church as a place for young people to enjoy so they wouldn't get in trouble. 


As we were meeting to put together the pieces of the story, Kalinowski received a return call from the current Sheriff Lawrence Stelma.  She told Sheriff Stelma about Arnold Pigorsh's strong connection to Faith Lutheran Church.  He in shared how Pigorsh, and his successor Sheriff Parsons, started the Forgotten Man Mission that provides an outreach ministry, from several churches in town, directly to the inmates in the Kent County Jail.  And one last element to the story, the men of Arnold Pigorsh's crew surprised him by showing up for the morning service at Faith Lutheran church one Sunday with their families as a sign of loyalty to the sheriff (and Pastor Lignell was in on the secret).


That is how the simple search for material on the design of the Kent County Jail became the search for a house and its history and a segue to another story, the design of Faith Lutheran Church in Grand Rapids by architect E. John Knapp. 




Conversation with architect E. John Knapp and daughter Marcia Krech

Grand Rapids City Commission minutes, June 30, 1966

Phone conversation with Sheriff Lawrence Steam

Photographs shared by the Sheriff Stelma's office

Phone conversations with Berdeen Effie Pigorsh 

"Pigorsh Day at Church," Grand Rapids Press, February 11, 1957

"Modern Home Near New Jail, Sheriff Expected to Move First," Grand Rapids Press, November 24, 1957