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Wednesday, January 30,2013

The Knight house

A look inside the newly renovated Herrmann House, now the home of Lansing Community College President Brent Knight, and what it took to get there

by Sam Inglot
When Lansing Community College President Brent Knight wakes up in the morning, $900,000 worth of historic renovations greet him outside of his canopy-style bed. 

It’s a new morning vision for Knight, who earlier this month moved into the 5,000-square-foot Hermann House — built in 1893 and purchased by LCC in 1966 — at 520 N. Capitol Ave. Nearly 50 years and $900,000 later, it is Knight’s home — the first LCC president to live on campus.

Designed by Lansing architect J. Arthur Bailey, the eclectic home showing both Tudor and Romanesque architectural influences was built for John T. Herrmann, a Lansing tailor from Germany, for $5,000. LCC purchased the house from a family member for $76,500 in 1966.  Architecture students studied the design, home economics students used the kitchen and photography students used a basement darkroom. Dubbed the Hermann Conference Center in the 1980s, it was designated as a state historic site in 1987. In recent years, though, the house was used sparingly as office and meeting space. 

To make the space livable for Knight, the house needed extensive renovations. The original estimate for renovating the house was $300,000 as part of improvements to the college campus, but that number nearly tripled in December to just under $900,000. To make up the difference,  LCC spokeswoman Ellen Jones said $500,000 would come from an LCC Foundation fund earmarked for capital projects. She said other capital improvement projects on campus are coming in under budget and will provide the rest of the money. 

City Pulse recently got a top to bottom tour of the three-story home with Jones. 

The first thing to greet you as you walk in the doors is what many might consider a work of art — the staircase, which has a presence that fills the empty room. The oak railings look as if they haven’t been touched by the passage of time. Carved into the north wall is an open-jawed lion head, whose roar serves as the base between the wall and the railing. When you look up the stairs, you can see original stained-glass windows colored with mahogany, gold and a faded pink that line the top of five vertical windows at the landing of the stairs. 

The large living room is void of furniture, but long rows of sheets lined portions of the floor to keep mud and dirt off the new carpeting as people walked through. The walls have oak panels starting at the floor that lead halfway up, which greet a reserved golden-taupe colored paint, again leading to oak ceiling trim that lines the perimeter of the walls. The living room used to be a parlor, Jones said, but in the 1920s a wall was removed to give the room more space. Four large windows line the west-facing portion of the living room, looking out onto Capitol Avenue. Jones said some of the home’s original furniture would be used in the living room.

Right next to the stairs in the living room you’ll see the fireplace surrounded by tan square tiles. A horizontal mirror covers the top of it. On either side of the mantel are more carved lion heads. These ones are more subdued, rather than roaring; they’re simply holding a steady gaze. 

The living room has two doorways that lead into the dining room, which has the same kinds of walls as the living room. There are two lighting fixtures that Jones said are original. Recessed can lights dot the outer edges of the room. The Knights have brought in their own dining table and chairs. Pocket doors allow you to separate the dining room from the living room. 

The modern kitchen looks like it belongs in a Lowe’s showroom, not a Victorian home. The silver toned appliances are all brand new, Jones said.  

The family room, which Jones said was an addition in the ‘90s and was paid for by Christian Herrmann Jr., grandson of the original owner, is to the right of the kitchen. Like the kitchen, it is a modern-looking space with windows at every turn, a fireplace and high ceilings that culminate into a white, hexagonal, vaulted ceiling with three skylights. The Knights have put some furniture and a flat screen TV in the room.

The Knights will occupy the dining room, kitchen, family room and second and third floors. The living room and dining room may serve as public areas for small college receptions, Jones said. 

Upstairs, a narrow hallway serves as a link to a guest bedroom, a bathroom and the master bedroom. The bathroom has original tiling that’s made up of white rectangles in a slanted pattern. Jones said the tiles were in “remarkably good shape” when renovations started.  

The master bedroom had a few pieces of the Knights’ furniture as well as a canopy bed that fit well with the era of the house. Pink tiles lined the floor, walls and ceilings of the bathroom — a few of which were cracked — as well as the walk-in, closet-like shower.

The third, west-facing bedroom on the second floor has been converted into an office and sitting room. It’s here where renovators found that some of the beams were so old that that portion of the house would have eventually collapsed if extensive repairs hadn’t been done, Jones said. They had to brace the wall and ceiling from top to bottom and brought in brick masons to repair the damage, she said. 

To get to the third floor, you have to walk through Knight’s office, which is a small space at the base of stairs leading to the top floor. 

No art or photographs had been hung up as of yet. All of the walls were versions of taupe colors or white. 

The stairs heading to the third floor pale in comparison to the main stairwell. The wood looks like it belongs in a row of church pews. Jones said the upstairs was converted from an attic into a meeting space around the ‘60s. This loft-like space is the most furnished of the entire house; it looks like it will serve as another family room. It has a hotel room-style kitchen and bathroom as well. 

The $900,000 price tag has raised eyebrows.

 “When I heard about the price I was horrified,” Gretchen Cochran of Preservation Lansing said. “But I have been told that when they opened the walls, they discovered large amounts of rot that simply had to be reamed out and redone.”

Cochran lives not far away in a restored, 125-year-old home, about the same age as the Herrmann House. She has toured the main floor of the house. She said when you refurbish historic homes, the cost can come as a surprise. 

“I know that anytime you open up a building that is old, it’s like Christmas morning: There are always some surprises — some wonderful, but some are not so wonderful,” she said.

The 118-year-old sanitary sewer pipe needed new lining. A hodgepodge of electrical systems needed to be replaced. Rotted structural beams and a termite damaged subfloor needed repair. The house is designated a state historical site, which means repairs had to be made to keep the historical integrity of the house intact — adding to the cost of repairs. It’s not as simple as replacing a broken window with a new one, Jones said. The window must be removed and repaired or even recreated to fit the decor of the house. 

Renovations began last summer, Jones said, and wrapped up at year’s end. Contractors who worked on the renovations included Moore Trosper Construction Co., Kendall Electric, Ferguson (plumbing), Integrity (plaster), Standard Electric and Siemens. 

Along with the house, the Knights are being provided with on-campus parking, Jones said. Although she wouldn’t say where for “security reasons,” she said a physical plant storage area was cleared out to serve as a covered and locked garage for Knight and his wife, Risť. 

Knight moved into the Herrmann House at the request of the LCC Board of Trustees, board Chairman Larry Meyer said.

“We’ve got the boss downtown now,” Meyer said. “It’s a very good thing to do.”

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