GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- Frederik Meijer is leaving his mark on posterity.
The senior chairman of Meijer, Inc., here -- and son of the company's founder -- still plays an advisory role in the family-owned business but devotes most of his time to finding and preserving American sculpture and displaying it at Frederik Meijer Gardens here.
"In 100 years I doubt there will be Meijer stores in a recognizable form," Meijer told SN. "But the sculpture will still be around because those pieces are as close to forever as anything can get."
While Meijer declined to discuss the company's business, he was eager to talk about his love of art and his deep involvement with Meijer Gardens.
The Gardens is a 125-acre preserve at the edge of the city here on Meijer-owned property, part of which was once intended to serve as a site of a Meijer hypermarket. But in the mid-1990s, when a local civic group sought to buy part of the land for a botanical garden, the family donated the land and built its store a couple of miles down the street, Meijer told SN.
"The group's original goal was to build an observatory with gardens surrounding it," he recalled, "but those plans turned out to be too ambitious because they underestimated their costs and overestimated the donations they would get, so we took over the fund-raising and it became very much our project."
The decision to use the site for a sculpture garden along with a botanical garden resulted from Meijer's personal interest in sculpture, he said.
That interest was piqued in the early 1980s when Meijer met Marshall Fredericks, an American sculptor noted for his statues of animals and clowns. After commissioning the artist to design a statue to commemorate his parents, Meijer said he began buying some of Fredericks' pieces, then bought additional pieces from other artists and stored them in a warehouse, waiting to find a way to display them publicly.
Over the years, Meijer said he had visited sculpture gardens all over the world, "and when the Gardens were being developed here, I felt that would be a good spot for the sculpture. So it was all really a fortuitous accident."
The Gardens, which opened in May 1995, is the permanent site for more than 100 works of 20th-century sculpture, including pieces by Fredericks, Alexander Calder, Alexander Liberman and Deborah Butterfield, some of them commissioned specifically for the facility.
A year ago the facility added a major attraction -- Il Cavallo, a 24-foot-tall bronze sculpture of a horse based on a design originally conceived by Leonardo da Vinci and eventually commissioned and built for Meijer Gardens by Nina Akamu. Since the giant horse was unveiled last October, attendance at the Gardens has nearly doubled, Meijer said.
The Gardens sought to broaden its appeal last month when it opened a 65,000-square-foot addition to an existing building on the grounds that features 3,000 square feet of indoor gallery space for traveling exhibits, as well as meeting and banquet rooms for public events.
Although the Gardens facility features sculpture by American artists exclusively, Meijer said he plans to add pieces by some European artists next summer, including works by Amaldo Pomodoro, an Italian artist whose sculpture appears at the United Nations and the Vatican, and additional pieces by a British and a French sculptor that Meijer declined to name.
The Gardens recently hired a fulltime curator for the sculptures -- Joseph Becherer, who left his post as dean of humanities at Grand Rapids Community College to take the position. "Becherer has spent a lot of time studying art in Florence, and he will help us create even more of a world-class sculpture garden than we have now," Meijer told SN.
Meijer, 80, said sculpture has become his passion "because at this age, I've had to delegate out many responsibilities at the company and my role is more of an advisory one."
Meijer's two sons, Doug and Hank Meijer, serve as co-chairmen of the company, whose 142 stores in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and Illinois account for sales that reportedly are close to $10 billion.
Although he acquired his interest in sculpture late in life, Meijer said he's always been interested in the arts. "My father loved music, and so did my mother, and my sister and I played the violin when we were young," he recalled.
"We grew up during the Depression, and no matter how poor we were, we went to the Art Institute of Chicago and the natural history museum there. And even as I got older, my father would tell me to listen to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir or even just to the birds outside. And when I was older, I visited the Rijksmuseum in the Netherlands and the Louvre in Paris, so I was always involved with art appreciation and pre-conditioned to do what I'm doing now."
Meijer met Fredericks 20 years ago when he commissioned him to design a sculpture that Meijer donated in memory of his parents to the town of Greenville, Mich., where the family business started -- a statue of the ugly duckling looking up at a swan.
Meijer's father, Hendrik, was a barber who dabbled in other businesses, including some real estate investments, before opening a family dairy on a farm in Greenville in 1928. Meijer recalled that he ran the milk delivery route from the ages of 8 to 14, delivering milk with his sister, Johanna, first with a horse and wagon and, for the final two years, with a truck.
In mid-1934, the family opened a credit-and-delivery milk business in a 1,470-square-foot store in Greenville. "Our sales were $35 a day during that first year," Meijer said.
"But we found we couldn't carry the costs of a credit-and-delivery operation, so we went to an all-cash store in 1935. But my father kept cutting hair in a store next door."
The Meijer family owned three buildings in Greenville, two of which were rented out to a drugstore and a restaurant. The third store was vacant.
"The three buildings carried a mortgage of $7,000," Meijer said, "but we couldn't afford to liquidate because we wouldn't have been able to get even $4,000 for them in the Depression. And we couldn't interest A&P or Kroger in the empty store, but when a wholesaler offered to loan us some stock, we began operating under the name Northside Grocery."
The Meijer family opened its second store in 1942 in Cedar Springs, Mich., and its third four years later in Ionia. After seeing the success Weingarten's in Houston was having with nonfood, Meijer began carrying a small assortment of tennis shoes and T-shirts in 1947 -- the beginning of the company's present large mix of general merchandise.
In 1949, the company moved its headquarters to Grand Rapids. It opened its first three large discount stores, the precursors to its hypermarkets, with extensive nonfood sections, in 1962 and enlarged several existing stores over the years to accommodate wider assortments "because we always owned our properties, and when there was enough land, we could always add to what we had," Meijer said.
Besides his involvement in Meijer Gardens, Meijer has also been active in working with the President Ford Museum here in Gerald Ford's home town, commissioning Fredericks to sculpt an eagle that oversees the Betty Ford Garden at the front of the museum.
He also bought a bust of Ford, which he donated to the museum, and commissioned a medallion of the Presidential Seal that hangs in the museum lobby -- a lobby named in honor of Frederik Meijer.
Meijer said he is particularly proud of a piece of history he bought and donated to the museum -- the metal ladder on which some people escaped to waiting helicopters on top of the American Embassy when Saigon fell in 1975, during the Ford administration.