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Thursday, March 24,2011

Eye candy! of the week

by Andy Balaskovitz

Property: 127 W. Grand River Ave., Lansing


Owner: SA Properties LLC Assessed value: $11,600

Dale Schrader “got a kick” out of reading City Pulse’s “Eyesore of the Week” in the May 27, 2009, issue. That’s because two properties he bought — 125 and 127 W. Grand River Ave. in Old Town — were described by a neighbor as a “breeding ground for prostitution and drug dealing.”


Schrader, 56, said at the time that he intended to fix up the properties.


Now, nearly two years later, that old filling station at 127 W. Grand River is near completion. The home next door is nearly full with tenants.


“I can’t even tell you how bad this place was,” Schrader said about the old gas station, which he said was built in 1925. “The only photo of this place was from 1969, and it was boarded up then. It’s been so bad for so long no one really believed I’d fix it up.”


The inside of the filling station still needs upgrades, but the original black mortar exterior and outdoor oak underhang have been renovated. Ninety-year-old lamps he bought on Craigslist from an old factory are installed. The pillars in front have four square holes near the top where lights will go, emanating light in a 360-degree fashion.


Schrader owns an environmental cleanup business and renovates crumbling housing in Lansing. He has lived in the Lansing area since the mid-1980s and moved to Old Town seven years ago. Why’d he buy these properties in particular?


“After years and years of driving by, I was amazed it hadn’t been torn down,” he said. “I live two blocks from here. I have a passion for improving this area, ya know?” Schrader said he is always asked: What are you going to do with it? Schrader said it’d make a great drive-thru coffee shop. Someone even suggested a massage parlor to him, he said.


But after two years and about $140,000 invested, Schrader said it will be about three weeks until completion.


“Wait until you see it when it’s done,” he said. “It’ll be spectacular.”


— Andy Balaskovitz




Architecture critic Amanda Harrell- Seyburn says: Gas stations, with good reason, get a bad rap. Throughout the Lansing area, hollow shells of once busy gas stations litter the corners of intersections — from Michigan Avenue and Larch Street to Grand River Avenue and Okemos Road. These vacant structures visually and physically clutter the urban landscape.


Adaptive reuse is incredibly important both sustainably and economically. We have entered a period of unprecedented adaptive reuse in the United States. However, the fact is that contemporary gas stations are all too often out of scale with their surroundings and thus a challenge to reuse. Dwarfing neighboring buildings in height and breadth, modern 12-pump megaliths are simply too specific in use and scale. At one time relegated exclusively to interstate turnpikes and toll roads, these monumental pumping facilities have taken over our neighborhood intersections and dramatically altered our urban landscape. Is there anything beautiful about an intersection with two gas stations looming at the corners?


Far more gas stations are demolished than are reused. In 2009, two gas stations sat at the corner of Okemos Road and Grand River Avenue in Okemos. One was replaced last year with a new building, Pets Supply Plus. The second is undergoing demolition.


In contrast, gas stations of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s were more appropriately scaled to the urban corner rather than an exit off of Interstate 96. The former gas station at 127 W. Grand River Ave. in Old Town is a treasure of this bygone era.


Unable to service the volume of traffic or the size of a Cadillac Escalade, this station is no longer economically viable. However, it is the scale and quality of the building that make it relevant today.


Perfectly angled to the intersection, its design guides in customers. It respects its neighbors and doesn’t overwhelm the intersection. The materials — brick exterior and terracotta roof tiles — compliment the surrounding residential and commercial buildings. The cantilevered roof is scaled to human size rather than the clearance of a semi-truck — all the right ingredients for a renovation and reuse.


The revival is in good company with another successful gas station reuse, the Mug and Brush on Washington Avenue in REO Town. The minute brick and terracotta style building was a gas station in the 1950s.


Schep’s Garage at the corner of Saginaw Street and Foster Avenue on Lansing’s east side is a more traditional reuse of a filling station. The pumps may be gone, but the yellow brick building with red trim provides auto repair and service. Although situated on a busy thoroughfare, this early-style station suits its residential context beautifully and is a along the Saginaw corridor.


Gas stations, despite their evolution to the characterless utilitarian structures of today, are an important feature of our contemporary world. The fact is, gas stations are one of the few, wholly 20th-century building typologies. Gas stations have only been in popular use for 80 to 90 years. That’s nothing in the scheme of architectural history.


Contemporary sports arenas are the offspring of the famed facilities of ancient Rome, the Hippodrome and the Coliseum. Apartment buildings were prevalent in ancient Middle East, notably Babylon. And the corner store had a strong presence in ancient Pompeii. The lesson to be learned is that none of these building types was perfect the first time. In fact they are always, even 1,000 years later, evolving and improving.


Amanda Harrell-Seyburn has a master’s degree in architecture. She is a local designer and urbanist.


“Eye candy of the Week" is our weekly look at some of the nicer properties in Lansing. It rotates each with Eyesore of the Week. If you have a suggestion, please e-mail eye@lansingcitypulse.com or call Andy Balaskovitz at 999-5064.

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