The Gibson Smoke Stack: A Landmark Or A Hazard?

Jan 15, 2015

The old Gibson Guitar Factory building
Credit Rebecca Thiele, WMUK

On Monday, it was almost the end for the old Gibson Guitar Factory smoke stack. Workers arrived to demolish it, but they were met by protestors and Kalamazoo city building officials.

It turns out the company didn’t have a permit to tear down the stack. For now, the work has been put on hold, but the fight for what some residents call a “Kalamazoo landmark” isn’t over. 

Daniel Struve of Kalamazoo Guitar Company polishing the first guitar he made
Credit Kim Doolittle

Kim Doolittle and her husband Rob run Kalamazoo Guitar Company, which specializes in handmade guitars and ukuleles. They're also part of the effort Save The Stack on Facebook.

Kim Doolittle says the Gibson smoke stack was one of the first thing they wanted to see when they moved to Kalamazoo in 2009. 

“I think in ’84 when Gibson left town, I think there was a lot of Kalamazoo and a lot of history that unfortunately left with it,” says Rob Doolittle.

Kim Doolittle says when she heard the stack was going to be demolished on Monday, dozens of people asked her to pick up a brick souvenirs from the smoke stack. 

"I’m thinking I’ve got all these people saying ‘please can you get us a brick, can you get us a brick?’ And I’m thinking why are we asking for bricks? Why aren’t we asking for a stay of execution? Why aren’t we asking to save it?” she says.  

They did get their "stay of execution." The City of Kalamazoo found out that Plazacorp, the real estate development company associated with the building, didn’t file a permit to tear down the structure.

Bob McNutt is the building official for the city. He says, once the application has been filed, processing takes only a few days. McNutt says the real question will be: Can the company prove the stack will be taken down safely?

“When they start tearing it apart, are we going to worry about the stack falling while they’re doing the work?" McNutt asks. "What kind of precautions are they going to take and have they notified the state if there is any hazardous substance involved.”

According to a blog post by Plazacorp, the stack itself is a safety risk, leaning over a 14-inch gas main. City Historic Preservation Coordinator Sharon Ferraro says, when it was in use, you could see gases leaking out of the bricks on the side.

“The smoke stack is in rough shape," she says. "It has been used to vent the boilers for a very long time and—quick little technical thing—coal fired boilers need a much taller smoke stack than natural gas fired boilers need. So this was a coal fired boiler smoke stack, way too tall for the need and it was deteriorating. And there’s been damage ongoing to the thing for quite a while.”

Ferraro says the Gibson factory buildings and the stack are eligible to be listed under the National Register of Historic Places. But getting on the listing could take up to two years and, even then, the owner has to be on board.  

“Really only in extraordinary circumstances is it allowed to be listed over the objections of the owner," says Ferraro. "The previous owner was in favor of it, he just never pursued it. The current owners aren’t really clear on whether they want to pursue that or not yet. But it is eligible and that’s kind of waiting in the wings as a tool they could use.”

If the Gibson stack was listed as “historic,” the owner could put federal tax credits toward its restoration. Ferraro says it could take a lot of fundraising to persuade the owner to seek historic status. Plazacorp quoted restoration costs at around $800,000. Though the company did not say what all was included in that number. 

On Tuesday, Plazacorp put out a statement saying the owner requested that the lettered bricks be saved -but to Ferraro and Kim Doolittle, that’s not enough. Without the iconic silhouette of the stack, Doolittle says it’s just a bunch of bricks.

“To me it’s got to be all or nothing," Kim Doolittle says.

If the City of Kalamazoo approves the demolition permit, Robert McNutt says workers can take apart the stack at any time.