Gibson Guitar facility in Kalamazoo gets new life

GibsonSerious followers of the Gibson Guitar company know the rich and varied history of this iconic American company. What started with one man, Orville Gibson, making mandolins in Kalamazoo, MI has grown to a large manufacturing and marketing concern building and distributing dozens of different instrument models all over the world.

Ownership of the company has changed many times since Gibson was first sold in 1944 to Chicago Musical Instruments, but their focus on building high quality, professional stringed instruments never changed. In the 1920s and ’30s they revolutionized the construction of banjos and mandolins under the tutelage of visionary designer, Lloyd Loar. Gibson was also involved in the development of the arch top guitar, now in common use worldwide.

Now a privately-held company based in Nashville, Gibson had built its instruments in Kalamazoo until 1984, at which time a group of experienced company employees launched a new firm, Heritage Guitars, and continued to manufacture in a section of the Kalamazoo facility. They have become the favorites of a number of popular jazz guitarists, but they turn out only a fraction of what Gibson produces.

Architect's rendering of the renovations planned for the former Gibson plant in Kalamazoo, MIUnfortunately, much of the former Gibson property in Kalamazoo had become something of an eyesore, including the old Gibson smokestack which has once been a source of pride to the city’s residents, and discussions about tearing it down began to be heard. But a plan has been announced to revitalize the site, and refurbish the Gibson building which has stood there since 1917.

The majority of the original Gibson plant will be saved, with about 8% set to be torn down. This will leave roughly 150,000 square feet of useable space for Heritage and other current tenants, with an eye toward future mixed use for others. In June 16 the Kalamazoo Brownfield Redevelopment Authority voted to reimburse developers for up to $1.9 million of the project’s expected $12 million cost through tax-increment financing.

Rear view of the renovations planned for the former Gibson plant in Kalamazoo, MINot only will this project preserve the original Gibson building (and the smokestack), it will also include construction of a new space to house a beer garden, restaurant, and an observation space made of transparent materials that allow the historic Gibson factory to remain visible behind it.

Work is expected to begin later this year with a project completion estimate sometime in 2018. A recent story at Michigan Live offers more details and many photos of the property.

Hats off to the city leaders in Kalamazoo for finding a way to maintain this important piece of American heritage. If you own any of the highly-prized Gibson vintage instruments, this is where they were made.

Well done all!

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.