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Wednesday, April 23,2014

Herrmann’s history

Celebrated Lansing home is the setting for Historical Society fundraiser

by Bill Castanier
The historic house at 520 N. Capitol Ave. in Lansing is part of the bustling Lansing Community College campus, and home of the college’s president Brent Knight, and his wife, Rise. But in 1893, the year it was built by German immigrant/entrepre neur John T. Herrmann, the house’s environs were considerably more rural: A German friend, already in Lansing, had lured Herrmann to the area in a letter, by writing: “Come to Lansing — you could shoot a deer from the back porch.”

You can get a view off that porch at the Historical Society of Greater Lansing’s annual spring fundraiser, which will be at the Herrmann House May 5. The event, “The Secrets Behind LCC’s Herrmann House,” also includes a tour of the Rogers-Carrier House next door, hors d’ oeuvres, a display of artifacts from the Herrmann family and an in-depth examination of both the home and the family history.

The Herrmann House was part of a German enclave of successful shop owners and businessmen with Teutonic names like Ziegler, Klocksiem, Kositchek and Bauch. Judges and governors lived nearby, and the first wave of auto pioneers was just beginning to emerge.

Herrmann came to the U.S. in 1872. He built a successful tailoring business, the John T. Herrmann Merchant Tailor Shop, and sold custom suits to Lansing politicians and prominent figures like W.K. Kellogg, the Battle Creek cereal maker. At the height of the business, Herrmann employed 35 workers, reportedly the largest tailoring business in the state at the time.

“The Herrmann family represents the classic immigrant story of moving to America, working hard, becoming successful and being active in the community,” said Historical Society President Valerie Marvin.

After Herrmann’s death in 1898, two of his sons took over the family business. In 1919 the house was willed to son Charles Herrmann; five years later his brother Christian Herrmann purchased the home and did substantive upgrades to the bedrooms, bathrooms and the heating and electrical systems.

In 1966, his son, also named Christian Herrmann, sold the home to Lansing Community College, where its future was put in jeopardy. Herrmann believed that by selling it to the college, the house had the best chance of survival since it sat on prime retail space.

Lansing architect/historian James Perkins, who was the director of the Ar chitectural Studies Center at LCC in 1977, was among a group who fought to protect the home.

“There was never a foregone conclusion it would be saved,” Perkins said. “(But) every piece you added to the puzzle made it harder to tear down.” One of those pieces was the discovery that the Rogers-Carrier Home had been a Victorian “painted lady” house that had been repainted to hide its flamboyance, which clashed with the fortress-like Tudor of the Herrmann House.

“That a house from that era even managed to survive makes it worth saving,” Perkins said. “There are so few homes left in Lansing (from that era).”

There had long been rumors that some of the furniture in the home had come from the estate of automobile innovator Ransom Eli Olds, but that wasn’t conformed until a recent restoration when Rise Knight discovered the underside of a sideboard was marked “Get this for RE Olds.” Later, while digging through records, Marvin found the smoking gun: A letter confirming the furniture came from the Olds estate.

In the 1920s, a scion of the Herrmann family, also named John T. Herrmann, became one of the many “wanderer writers” of the Lost Generation. After working as a cub reporter for the Lansing State Journal and a Washington news service, Herrmann went to Paris where it looked like his literary career may take off when he connected with Ernest Hemingway; the two families had been summer acquaintances on Walloon Lake in Northern Michigan.

Herrmann’s first book, “What Happens,” was published in Paris in 1926, but it was banned in the U.S. for it salaciousness. While in Paris, Herrmann had become involved with writer Josephine Herbst, whom he would later marry in a deal cut with his parents in exchange for money to buy a home in Connecticut. The two were considered radical writers and their works often were semi-autobiographical. All three of Herrmann’s novels are partially set in Lansing, as is Herbst’s famous book “Rope of Gold.”

In 1930 they both attended a writer’s conference in Russia, which got them noticed by both U.S. authorities and Russian intelligence groups. But with his writing career floundering, in 1934 Herrmann went to work for the Agricultural Adjustment Administration as part of the New Deal.

During this time, however, Herrmann became a courier for the Ware Group, a Communist cell. This led to his involvement with noted Communist Party members Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss. FBI files from this time are not available, but it is known that once Hiss and Chambers were accused of spying in 1948, Herrmann fled to Mexico and fell in with remnants of the Beat Generation. He was interviewed by the FBI several times, but why he wasn’t charged is still a mystery.

Among the artifacts on display at the tour will be a copy of Herrmann’s book “The Salesman,” based on his experiences selling seeds and books. Inside the book is a publisher’s card signed by Herrmann in red ink. Also on display will be books by Herrmann and Herbst, furniture that was originally in the home and a suit of clothes from Herrmann’s tailoring company that was made in 1910 for a local wedding.

The Secrets Behind LCC’s Herrmann House

Historical Society of Greater Lansing annual spring fundraiser 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 6 Herrmann House 520 N. Capitol Ave., Lansing $50 lansinghistory.blogspot. com, (517) 282-0671

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