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Wednesday, May 23,2012

Keeping what's left

Preservation Lansing awards shine a light on great old buildings and the people who love them

by Lawrence Cosentino

Last Friday, Dave Muylle was working alone at his latest rehab project on Lansing’s east side. There were no doors on the house yet. Bird song and sunshine drifted inside.

Suddenly, something went PABOOM.

“That’s the front door,” Muylle said. Not someone at the front door, but the front door itself, falling over while waiting in the attic for a coat of stain.

For over 20 years, Muylle has been restoring modest old houses like this 1915 two-story bungalow at 141 Leslie St. He has gutted and restored a dozen houses in this pocket neighborhood, including his own, a crack house turned craftsman’s showcase. Last year, he finished rehabbing the house next door to the Leslie Street house, its virtual twin. A blatant idyll was already in progress there Friday afternoon: A renter sat on a porch swing, reading from the latest issue of The New Yorker aloud to a friend.

Today, a group of local historic preservation experts and enthusiasts were set to announce a program of awards aimed largely at neighborhood-building projects like Muylle’s.

Unlike the oft-maligned historic district commissions, sworn enemies of vinyl siding in cities across the nation, a new group of enthusiasts, experts, educators and professionals called Preservation Lansing intends to dispense carrots rather than brandish sticks.

“At this point, that’s all we can do,” Preservation Lansing member Nathalie Winans said. “There are very few historic properties [in Lansing] that are covered with a local historic district zoning designation.”

That doesn’t trouble Muylle. He’s ambivalent about historic districts, tax breaks and other official inducements. “There’s a little part of humanity that says, ‘Bullshit on that,’” he said. “This is just worth doing. I look on it as public art.” 

To be sure, some Lansing Preservation Awards — a nominating form is on Page 11 — will go to the big, headline-grabbing, tax-break-y projects the city has seen recently. But the group also wants to reward unsung hammer slingers in obscure corners of the city.

“The flagship projects are great, but we don’t see enough about the small-scale projects — homeowners who restore a historic front porch,” Winans said. “Step by step, these small-scale projects enhance the neighborhood that they’re in.”

The litany of Lansing’s lost gems, from theaters to shops to hundreds of fine old houses, is long and sobering.

“It would be a different town if half of those buildings were still here,” Winans said.

Few people in Lansing have spent more time in the architectural graveyard than Lansing librarian and local history specialist David Votta. To dramatize a handful of the city’s irretrievable losses, Votta picked this week’s cover images from among hundreds of heart-breaking images from the library archives.

“These are beautiful, well built structures,” he said. “We’ve lost significant portions of neighborhoods and architecture. It’s not just Lansing. It’s a national issue. In the past 60 years or so, so much has been torn down in the name of progress.”

Freeways, road expansion, renewal projects and sheer neglect have wiped out or defaced hundreds of landmarks and historic homes in Lansing, from baroque Barnes Castle and the Ransom E. Olds house, doomed by the crosstown juggernaut Interstate 496, to humble kit homes of the early 1900s, full of old-growth wood and working-class history.

Lansing architect Dan Bollman, a consultant for Preservation Lansing, specializes in renovation and preservation.

“Looking back, we wonder what we were thinking, but back then, there was a different set of values,” Bollman said. “Now we’re seeing what we’ve lost and moving forward to preserve what remains.”

Last year, while supervising interior work on a house on the west side, Bollman started coming to the site early, coffee in hand, to walk the neighborhood.

He centered his attention on Kalamazoo Street and the 400 block of Everett Street, but wandered several blocks in every direction and found gems all over.

“There’s a great collection of old Tudor Revival homes from the 1920s and 1910s, houses that are preserved because of the people who live in the area,” Bollman said.

But the carnage in Lansing is not over. Votta was being charitable when he described the recent renovation of the 1905 Carnegie Library by Lansing Community College, with odd features such as a bank of shrubs cutting off the main entrance, a “committee vision” without clear focus. 

But at least Carnegie’s shell was saved. In summer 2009, the 1861 City Club of Lansing downtown was razed to make way for a skyscraper that never materialized. More recently, many people were stunned when the Catholic archdiocese tore down the Holy Cross school at 1514 W. Saginaw St. last December.

Among the outraged was westside resident Gretchen Cochran, a founding member of Preservation Lansing and neighborhood activist who lives in a 133-year-old Italianate Revival house just west of downtown.

“All of a sudden you’re driving down Saginaw and there’s a pile of bricks,” Cochran said. “Next thing you know, it’s a parking lot. That school was built in 1930. It was part of the community, and it was just plain shocking.”

Last fall, Cochran met with two other women who have a passion for old buildings and heavy cred in the preservation community, Winans and Brenna Moloney. The trio became the nucleus of Preservation Lansing. Fittingly, they met at Clara’s in downtown Lansing, a 1903 railroad station turned restaurant.

Cochran envisioned a grass-roots group, but she knew that Winans would be an asset. As chairwoman of Lansing’s Historic District Commission, Winans and her colleagues wield decision-making power over exterior changes to homes and buildings in Lansing’s modest swath of locally designated historic districts. Winans is also a member of the Historical Society of Greater Lansing, keeper of the many stories that happened inside all those old buildings.

A high-profile preservation award program was on the agenda from the start. The Lansing Historic District Commission discontinued its local historic preservation award in 2003, when the planning department budget was reduced.

Winans shares Cochran’s concern over the fickle economic and political winds that buffet historic buildings.

“[Gretchen] lives in a historic house, in a historic neighborhood, but any house in that neighborhood could be demolished tomorrow without any review,” Winans said.

Compared with other Michigan cities like Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, and even small cities like Marshall and Albion, Lansing has a modest list of local historic districts. The city has eight buildings and two districts locally designated as historic. One district, Ottawa-Walnut, consists of two houses; the other, Cherry Hill, has about 90 properties. By comparison, Kalamazoo has five historic districts with 2,075 properties; Grand Rapids has six districts with about 2,500 properties, and East Lansing has six districts covering about 800 properties. Traverse City, about one-eighth Lansing’s size, has three districts covering about 350 properties.

Lansing also has 19 sites and two districts (Old Town and much of downtown) listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but the national nod is mostly just that —a nod. Only local historic district commissions can approve or deny demolitions and exterior changes to buildings in a district.

Knowing that historic districts are a tough sell in Lansing, Winans and Cochran liked the idea of a preservation group that bypassed political battles. So did the third conspirator at Clara’s. Brenna Moloney works on preservation projects in Saginaw for the Michigan Historic Preservation Network, Michigan’s statewide historic preservation organization, and its parent group, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the country’s largest private, nonprofit preservation organization.

In September 2011, Moloney got two grants (from the Americana Foundation and the Michigan State Housing Development Authority) and added Lansing to her territory. She quickly found that the architectural riches of Lansing go much deeper than the state Capitol.

“Lansing has a lot of wonderful residential architecture,” Moloney said. 

After talking with neighborhood organizations and community leaders around town, Moloney agreed that a “city-wide advocacy group” would help “raise the temperature” for historical preservation.

“There are unsung heroes in Lansing who are fixing up their buildings and their neighborhoods, who really care about the character and the sense of place,” Moloney said. “They’re stewards of the city and their buildings.”

Moloney was inspired in part by some recent grass-roots preservation successes in Saginaw. In 2011, a group called Friends of the Hill House bought a crumbling 1886 lumber baron mansion in Saginaw’s Cathedral District for $1 and got a $10,000 grant to renovate it. The house was featured on TV’s “This Old House.” In the wake of the Hill House success came another grass-roots effort to save a 19th-century mansion known as “The Cat Lady’s House.” (The vacant house’s last owner, who moved out several years ago at age 90, used to walk her pet leopard through the neighborhood.)

All three women agreed that education would be a top priority. Moloney was still bristling over a story in The Saginaw News that described the battle over Hill House as a “face off” between “pragmatic and romantic notions.”

Moloney said the clash of  “tender-hearted dreamers vs. level-headed penny-pinchers” makes good press but insists that preservation is “one of the most pragmatic financial moves a municipality can make.”

She cited Charleston, S.C., with its dozens of heritage tourism sites, as a preservation success story.

“Charleston has its problems, but it has been able to make itself into a place where people want to go for vacation and to live,” Moloney said.

“A key component of the reinvigoration of midtown Detroit has been historic preservation, mixed with new development,” she said. “In midtown Detroit and Corktown you had a group of really committed preservationists at the forefront.”

Moloney sees a similar potential, on large and small scale, all over Lansing. 

“Lansing has its own character,” she said. “I hope this is a way for Lansing to take a look at itself. We want to see people stepping up as caretakers of the city.”

Today, the same day Preservation Lansing launches its first round of awards, the Grand Rapids Historic Preservation Commission is set to present its 18th annual preservation awards. The awards go to projects both inside and outside the city’s extensive historic districts. Rhonda Baker, historic preservation specialist for Grand Rapids, said the awards have done a lot to boost preservation efforts citywide.

“I deal a lot with enforcement,” Baker said. “A lot of people, when they think of historic districts, think automatically of regulations. This is fun end of it.”

The awards are a point of pride for the winners, and usually good for a solid page touting historical preservation in The Grand Rapids Press.

“It’s not just small homeowners,” Baker said. “I have the president of Grand Rapids Community College coming out, the bishop from St. Adelbert Basilica.” (Both places will get awards Wednesday.) “They’re not sending secretaries.”

The members of Preservation Lansing want the group to go beyond whipping up buzz over yearly awards. Educational workshops and resources for rehabbers are in the works. Eventually, Winans would love to see Lansing’s growing enthusiasm for preservation coalesce into support for more historic districts, but she said the process must be bottom-up, not top-down.

“As a historic district commissioner, I would be the last person to recommend that a particular district be designated by the city,” Winans said. “I would want to see it come from the neighborhood organizations, from the neighbors themselves.”

Whether that happens, Preservation Lansing may at least encourage a few more Dave Muylles who do preservation work because it’s “just worth doing.”

As the sun sank lower Friday, Muylle was surrounded by oak beams, window frames, stacked moldings and other bits of building, as if a reverse tornado were slowly spinning the bungalow on Leslie back together.

“There’s something spiritual about this,” he said, looking at a window seat rippling with dark grain. “This is 100 years old.”

“Maybe it’s good that Lansing hasn’t discovered preservation,” he mused. “There’s so much left to do.”


Help preserve

The non-profit Michigan Historic Preservation Network publishes a 71-page directory of people and companies with experience in preserving and rehabilitating historic properties. Download at:

http://www.mhpn.org/hrcdirectory.html


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