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Thursday, January 31,2013

Depot gets new shot at history

BWL gives REO Town's Grand Trunk railroad station $2.8 million makeover

by Lawrence Cosentino

This story was corrected on Jan. 31 to say that Peter Kramer is a former BWL commissioner, not a current one.

A strangely lopsided, unlikely architectural tableau has opened to view on South Washington Avenue in Lansing’s REO Town.

Deep in the south shadow of the Lansing Board of Water and Light’s mountainous new co-generation power plant, nearing completion and set to go on line in July, sparkles a storybook-castle Grand Trunk Western Railroad depot, newly restored by the BWL to its 1903 glory.

Listed on the national and state historic registers but abandoned and crumbling for the past 10 years, the depot is spiffed up and ready to step back into history when Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero gives his State of the City address there at 7 p.m. Monday.

The $2.8 million makeover and Bernero’s visit are only the latest stories for a building that could tell a lot of them. Through four wars and a century of economic ups and downs, the Jacobean Revival station with the witch’s-hat roof saw thousands of partings and arrivals before it was decommissioned in 1971. The worst railroad accident in Lansing’s history happened there on Oct. 7, 1941, killing a newsboy and upending cars loaded with fresh fruit. President Gerald Ford had a steak sandwich there in 1976, after it was turned into a restaurant.

In the last 10 years, the depot decayed into an abandoned ruin where junkies shot up in the dark. Its broken roof tiles, dangling boards and gutted windows looked ripe for the wrecking ball in July 2010, when the BWL unveiled plans for a new, gas-fired power plant to replace the aging Eckert Station nearby.

The BWL didn’t set out to adopt a neglected depot, according to BWL General Manager J. Peter Lark. The utility simply needed the Washington Avenue property because of its proximity to city steam lines. Once the depot was in the BWL’s hands, however, Lark sensed a rare opportunity and greenlighted a plan to fold the depot’s restoration cost into the project’s overall $182 million budget.

Now Lark is bemused when he goes around the state and the country to talk about the new cogeneration plant. 

“The question I keep getting is, ‘How’s the depot?’” he said. “People have a real abiding interest in depots, more so than power plants. We’re going to get a lot of worth out of it.”

The depot, like the BWL, will have quasi-public status. Lark said the utility’s eight-member Board of Commissioners will hold public meetings at the station, which seats about 200. During the day, the BWL will also use the depot for staff training and other meetings.

“We will open it up to the REO Town community for community events,” Lark said. “We expect and hope the community will be able to use the building, particularly after 5 o’clock.”

Two design firms, Ann Arbor’s Quinn Evans and Cornerstone of Grand Rapids, shared the design work on the restoration. Two Lansing-based companies, Granger Construction and Christman Co., did the exterior and interior work, respectively.

Preservation expert Tom Nemitz, president of Cornerstone, admitted the power plant and the depot make an odd couple, but said the city is lucky the building was saved at all.

“It’s not the context I would have selected, but at least the restoration was done the right way, and I don’t know if anybody else would have funded it,” Nemitz said.

A Detroit firm, Spier & Rohns, designed the depot and several others in Michigan, including the 1902 Union Depot of Lansing, which is Clara’s Restaurant.

Design work on the restoration started in January 2011. Exterior work began the following June.

The depot’s thousands of curved clay roof tiles were too far gone to repair, so the design team contacted the roof’s original manufacturer, the Ohio-based Ludowici Roof Tile Co., a 120-year-old company with Old World roots that go back to Renaissance Rome. The roof’s 75-year warranty had run its course and then some, but BWL jumped at the chance to spring for another round of roof tiles from the original makers.

“Those tiles are exactly the same as the ones that were put on in 1902,” former BWL Commissioner Pete Kramer said. Gleaming copper flashing and gutters, also true to the original design, will help the roof make it through another century, Kramer predicted.

As owner representative, Kramer worked closely with three key BWL staffers on the restoration: Lark, project director Susan Devon and managing director Dick Peffley.

The Grand Trunk Western Railroad Association gave the utility the original plans for the depot, and restorers also used period photos for reference. The main interior floor, seriously damaged by water, was torn out and completely rebuilt. Elegant tile mosaic in the entryway, buried under carpet, was repaired and cleaned. Heavy oak window frames and wainscoting were painstakingly repaired and refinished. Designers cleared the airy interior of restaurant-era clutter and squeezed modern HVAC equipment into a crawlspace and attic.

Workers found history everywhere, including clear evidence of the repair work on the west end where the train hit the station in 1941.

The restoration is respectful, almost austere, except for one dramatic touch. Three unnerving bat-shaped light fixtures swoop through the cathedral-like transept gallery on the depot’s east end. Although the bat lights are accurate for the period, they were probably never in the depot.

“It was a guilty pleasure,” Nemitz said.

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