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Wednesday, October 3,2012

Shining a light on the history of Lansing

Local group raising funds for permanent museum that will tell the city's story

by ALLAN I. ROSS

Lansing is the history hub for all things Michigan, from the R.E. Olds Transportation Museum, which focuses on the rise of the automobile, to the Michigan Historical Museum, which covers the rise of pretty much everything else in the state. Well, maybe not everything —like, for example, the city of Lansing.  

“Lansing suffers from the same thing a lot of capital cities suffer from —it’s focused on the state’s history and ignores its own,” said Jesse Lasorda, one of the trustees of the Greater Lansing Historical Society. “Most folks assume that the local museums have lots of stuff from Lansing, but they don’t. They have 83 counties to cover.” 

Without getting into a philosophical conversation about epistemology and how a flashlight can’t illuminate itself, let’s just say that the Historical Society thinks Lansing residents have been left in the dark about their history for the last 150 years. You don’t have to look hard to find what a 19th century lumberjack from Alpena wore at logging camp, but a Sexton High School band major in the 1960s? Good luck. So the group has devoted itself to telling those stories (and showing those band uniforms), raising funds for what it hopes will be a permanent Lansing Historical Museum within the next two years. This Saturday, the group holds its second annual silent auction, with all proceeds going toward the proposed museum. 

“When people think about Michigan history, they think about cars and they think about Motown,” said HSGL President Valerie Marvin. “But they’re not thinking about people having lives. What about all those people going to church, going to school, going bowling at Frandor with their friends? What are their stories?” 

Marvin says that the Historical Society was founded in the 1940s, but a physical location always somehow eluded the group. She joined about four years ago and was part of the new blood that got serious about establishing a permanent museum. This led to the group’s first silent auction last year, which was held at the Comerica Building downtown. Marvin said the group raised over $10,000, which they’ve been using to lease space in the Creyts Building, 831 N. Washington Ave.  

“We’re looking to make progress,” she said. “Not just put money in the bank.”  

Some of the auction’s more interesting items include a group trip to the top of the Capitol dome (usually roped off from the public) and a behind-the-scenes tour of the museum’s archives underneath Spartan Stadium. There will also be authentic pieces of history up for sale, including a genuine Main Street sign (taken down when it was renamed Malcolm X Street in 2010) and original photographs of locations around town, including a classic shot of the Mustang Bar in what is now Old Town. 

Fittingly, the event will be held in a high profile piece of Lansing history — the former Michigan Theater, which opened in 1921 as the Strand Theater, named after the legendary theater of the same name in New York. Today it’s the Atrium Office Building, home to a chiropractic office and a travel agency, among other businesses, but Marvin says it’s one of those hidden-in-plain-sight gems that make history so much fun. 

“According to the legend, the man who built the Strand, Col. Walter Butterfield, had the likenesses of his daughters added to the building’s facade,” Marvin said. “I read that one of the granddaughters confirmed it several years ago, but she couldn’t say who was who. Most people walk by those likenesses every day and don’t even think that those were based on real people, if they even notice them at all.” 

So, after nearly 80 years, what’s it like to be facing the era of a real, honest-to-goodness Lansing history museum? 

“It’s beyond exciting — that would be the understatement of the year,” said Lasorda. “I preach the gospel of this museum everywhere I go. Never before has there been an effort like this.” 

Lasorda focuses his interest on the genealogical aspect of history as opposed to the artifacts. After all, it is all about the people. 

“No disrespect to the R.E. Oldses and Magic Johnsons of the world, but the story of Lansing isn’t about the rich and the famous,” said Lasorda. “It’s about the auto worker, the bus driver, the mailman. What was their life like? That is what’s important for this organization and for this society.”  


Historical Society of Greater Lansing Silent Auction
Oct. 6, 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.
The Old Michigan/Strand Theatre (Atrium Office Building)
215 S. Washington Square
$15
lansinghistory.org

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