Our Friend, Gretchen

One year ago, this week,  we remember the loss of our dear friend, Gretchen Minnhaar. Her absence is still very much felt in our office. The doors of her studio remain open where some of her canvases still hang, where the paint that once fell from her brush has become a permanent detail of the cement floor. We miss the opera music she blared while working. We miss her smile and energetic “Hello! Good morning! How are you?”

For many who knew her, Gretchen was the most interesting woman. Most worldly. Most dynamic, opinionated, and always passionate. Gretchen spoke five languages, traveled over 80 countries, showcased her artwork in over 55 exhibits around the world, earned a bachelor’s degree in Architectural Engineering from Lawrence Tech University (where she was the first woman to receive the Alumni Achievement Award), and a Master of Architecture from her native country, Argentina. Her perspective of the world was bright, and it blazed through her personality and paintings.

"My view of the world is more colorful and more relaxed. It's not better, it's just very different," (Hamilton, 2009).

In Grand Rapids we benefited from her presence as a leader in the revitalization of our city. From her service as member of the Grand Rapids Development Association, President of Grand Valley State University Foundation, President of the Downtown Development Board, board member of the Grand Rapids Symphony, and the co-founder of Chiaroscuro (a free local film series featuring award-winning films from around the world), Gretchen dedicated her time in Grand Rapids to its cultural prosperity.

As a prominent architect in Grand Rapids, Gretchen helped design two Grand Rapids icons: the Amway Grand Plaza and the Gerald R. Ford Museum. As a fine artist, she participated in ArtPrize, contributing the celebrated "Parkour" installation in the JW Marriott.

Gretchen Minnhaar, artist,
Gretchen Minnhaar and Dr. Tomatis, Grand Rapids,

Gretchen found inspiration for these images through the windows of the Monroe building she purchased and named The Minnhaar Building. It was there she worked as an architect and fine artist, and it was there that Via Design established its first office.

Valerie Schmieder, Via's founder, and Gretchen began working together in 1986 at DeWinter Associates. In addition to becoming work colleagues, the two soon became close friends. In 1989, Val launched her own design firm and moved into the 5th floor of The Minnhaar Building, sharing office space with Gretchen in her art studio.

"I feel fortunate to have worked with Gretchen for over 30 years. She has been such a positive influence and great friend to me. She always had time to chat about work affairs, the state of the design world, or what we did over the weekend. She brought an international flair to our office. We never knew what language we would hear coming out of her studio. We all miss her so very much. We still refer to her studio (now a conference room), as Gretchen's Studio, in her honor." - Valerie Schmieder.


Gretchen Minnhaar, artist, Via Design
Gretchen Minnhaar, artist, Via Design
Gretchen Minnhaar, artist, Via Design

Gretchen was glamorous, even in a speckled painting apron. She didn't like cinnamon. She loved renting movies from Netflix and watching rainstorms through her windowed penthouse. Gretchen greeted everyone with a smile. She was generous with her wisdom and her wealth. Gretchen was a trailblazer for women. Her career, her opinions, and the ambition she had for herself and this little city she came to call home, were bold.

Gretchen Minnhaar painting
"One thing you learn is not to be afraid...It's only a piece of canvas. If it doesn't turn out, you throw it out. If it turns out OK, OK. If not, that's OK, too." - Gretchen Minnhaar


Gretchen traveled a great deal, but when she returned, she always brought with her a positive and provocative energy. She illuminated our office with her distinctive voice and shining personality, sharing tales of her recent travels or showing interest in whatever we were working on at the time. She always had an opinion or advice. I miss her dearly.

- Brian Barkwell

The thing that really sticks out in my mind was her inquisitiveness. She was always eager to learn. She had a vital mind that I found inspiring. 

-Nate House

Gretchen would always remember what was going on in my life, and follow up on how my races went. I loved chatting with her. She urged you to be the best person you could be. To do better for the world. She loved people and their stories, and you could tell that by her artwork. I'm proud to have several pieces of her work in my office to remind me of her daily. Gretchen was a fabulous woman and will continue to be an influence to the lives she touched.

-Stefanie Dittmer

I was lucky to know Gretchen since I was in college, and she had a huge influence on my personal and work life. For years Gretchen was invested in myself and my family. She had an amazing passion for life, and it was contagious! We will all miss her so much.

-Sara Dupin

Gretchen was fun and resourceful. I will never forget when she chased a bat through her studio with a broom, trying to save it from being killed.

- Valerie Schmieder