For decades, Lansing blithely bulldozed its historic buildings and neighborhoods to make room for freeways, urban renewal projects and bland architectural junk. The city is still behind the curve compared to other places — even East Lansing — that cherish historic urban fabric.
This year, a new preservation group has found concrete (and brick and wood) evidence that the city is catching up slightly.
Five restoration projects have been nominated for the first Preservation Lansing awards, to be given Oct. 24 — the first in what hopes to be an annual recognition of those in the community who save, not demolish, architecture.
The structures range in size from a tiny 1920s gas station turned coffee shop at the northwest corner of town to a massive National Guard armory spruced into airy office space on the East Side. The nominees also include a humble East Side duplex restored to craftsman-solid form, a joyfully gardened-up downtown law office in a historic house and a blocky green hulk tamed into mixed-use service on the west fringe of Old Town.
Three of the five nominees will be awarded custom-made Pewabic Pottery plaques and will celebrate their win with neighborhood porch parties. Both the plaques and the parties will be funded by Preservation Lansing, courtesy of a $2,300 grant from the Michigan Association of Realtors.
The awards ceremony will be Oct. 24 at a historic Lansing location yet to be determined. A Preservation Lansing member said the ceremony will have a steampunk theme, with entertainment by the Lansing Unionized Vaudeville Spectacle.
In keeping with the evangelistic zeal of Preservation Lansing, each of the winners will host a porch party in the week after the ceremony to bask in their win, ogle their new Pewabic plaque with their neighbors and spread the gospel of historic preservation.
Nathalie Winans, one of the Preservation Lansing judges, is also chairwoman of Lansing’s Historic District Commission. Taken as a whole, Winans said cautiously, the nominees “suggest there is a modest increase in momentum toward a historic preservation ethic in Lansing.”
Diverse as they are, all five projects sprang from local impetus and involve local players. Even the biggest of the projects nominated, developer Pat Gillespie’s $5.2 million, 38,000-square-foot renovation of the Marshall Street Armory, is a hometown job. Gillespie grew up near the armory and played on the big guns out front. From weddings to swap meets to circuses, the Armory had countless military and civilian ties to the surrounding community. When the National Guard phased it out, Gillespie played fort with a vengeance, turning the Armory into a headquarters for nonprofit organizations and a home for his own development company.
Muylle’s labor of love
At the other end of the spectrum from Gillespie’s high-profile Armory makeover, homeowner/restorer Dave Muylle’s 18-month labor of love to restore a 1915 duplex at 127-129 Leslie St. is just one in a long series of projects completed by the quiet hammer-slinger few people outside the preservation community have ever heard of.
Over the past 20 years, Muylle has painstakingly restored over a dozen east side homes nearing the century-mark in age, beginning with his own home, a crack house turned craftsman’s showcase.
Lansing architect Dan Bollman, also a Preservation Lansing judge, said Muylle “tends to undersell himself.”
“He’s doing the right thing socially and morally, and it ends up being the right thing from the preservationist perspective,” Bollman said.
The small jewel
Muylle’s duplex, though modest, dwarfs another nominee, Artie’s Filling Station, 127 W. Grand River Ave., on the extreme west fringe of Old Town. Dale Schrader of Lansing put more than $140,000 into the 260-square-foot filling station, built in 1925 as Pulvers Brothers Filling Station but derelict since the 1960s. It’s now a coffee shop.
“That’s the one that jumps out at me the most, only because of the state it was in,” Bollman said. “The other buildings needed work, but this was really bad.”
Winans also singled out Artie’s as a “labor of love.”
“He used historic information on similar service stations to restore the original terra cotta roof and little details like the electric lights suspended around the perimeter of the building,” Wianns said.
Public-private mega-projects like the $140 million Ottawa Power Station renovation a few years ago produce significant ripple effects, Winans said, but so do small jewels like Artie’s.
“This is something a small business owner can take on, and that can really make a difference in the neighborhood,” she said.
The vibrant handshake
Only a block away from Artie’s stands another nominee, the 1909 Walker Building, formerly Beeman’s Grocery and more recently a dollar store with the brick exterior painted nasty green. Developer Gene Townsend leveraged private and state funds to put together a two-year, $771,000 project to calm the 8,000-square-foot hulk into a classic Old Town layer cake — commercial space on the bottom, apartments on top.
The Walker Building isn’t as distinctive as Artie’s or the Armory, but it promises to anchor Old Town’s west edge and extend a vibrant handshake to the near west side.
“It’s not the button or the zipper, it’s the urban fabric, and you need to encourage that too,” Bollman said.
Another thing all the nominees have in common is that they have the potential to transform their surroundings, and the Walker Building is a classic example.
“These nominations were chosen because they function as a sort of anchor for their neighborhoods,” Winans said. “That corner is a gateway going into Old Town. Those kinds of gateways can make or break a neighborhood.”
The good steward
The Alane & Chartier law firm, 403 Seymour Ave., was nominated to illustrate yet another aspect of preservation. The office is a Queen Anne style mansion over a century old, once home to Michigan State University benefactor Frederick Jenison and later the headquarters of the American Lung Association, so it never went to seed like some of the other nominees. But Preservation Lansing wants to encourage ongoing stewardship as well as dazzling makeovers.
Maintenance isn’t glamorous, but Preservation Lansing member Gretchen Cochran said that’s the way to keep a building from ever needing a restoration costing tens of thousands of dollars.
Cochran, a west side neighbor to the law firm, has watched Chartier and her colleagues work hard on the exterior. “They hauled mountains of ivy off the sides,” Cochran said. “They cleared tons of weeds, including poison ivy, from the foundation, re-landscaped the grounds to facilitate proper drainage away from the building.”