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Wednesday, April 10,2013

The Abigail waits for a mission

Michigan School for the Blind property on cusp of change

by Lawrence Cosentino
Apart but not isolated, dignified but not imposing, there’s no place in Lansing like the old Michigan School for the Blind campus. The Abigail, the campus’ central building, rears up on four huge Doric columns at the end of a long promenade, wrapped in a park-like hush. The sidewalk edges have a distinctive ripple pattern that let students know when they were on campus.

Valerie Marvin, president of the Historical Society of Greater Lansing, got some funny looks when she told people she will lead a public tour of the 40-acre ghost campus on Lansing’s northwest side on April 18. Friends told her it was a run-down and dangerous place to be, but she finds it tranquil and fascinating.

“We want people to go back and see the beauty of this campus,” Marvin said.

The tour is timely because the campus, mostly idle for 17 years, is on the cusp of change. In late spring or early summer, the two main owners — the Ingham County Land Bank and the Great Lakes Capital Fund — will use a blight removal grant, provisionally approved by the state, to demolish the mid-20th-century dorms and service buildings that ring the west end of the campus. Marvin wanted the public to see the grounds before that part of the campus’ story is lost.

The owners’ goal is to make the site’s oldest buildings — the Abigail, built in 1916, and a 1914 high school — “development ready,” according to Tom Edmiston, a senior vice president at the Capital Fund. An auditorium built in the 1950s will also be “gutted to shell,” keeping open the chance to leave it standing. The third early-20th-century building on campus, the 1914 superintendent’s residence, was refurbished into the office of Rizzi Design in 2010.

“We’re trying to re-think what the highest and best use of the Abigail would be, as well as the high school building,” Edmiston said.

It’s been a tough winter for the Abigail. Next Thursday’s visitors will see broken windows and cracked masonry. The bushes around the Abigail and the high school have recently been slashed to the ground and trees have been cut down.

“It looks kind of bleak at this point,” Edmiston admitted. “There was a lot of vandalism and people hiding and living in the basement.” He said the landscaping will be redone along “historic” patterns when the demolition is over.

Whatever its next use may be, this campus has already filled a crucial gap, twice over, until the outside world caught up. The campus was first developed in the 1850s as the Michigan Female College, founded by Abigail and Delia Rogers, with backing from Lansing pioneer and merchant James Turner. (“The Abigail” wasn’t the only local icon named after Rogers; so was Turner’s daughter, Abigail Turner Dodge.)

When state colleges started admitting women in 1869, the Female College was closed and the building had a brief interlude as an Oddfellows hall.  Meanwhile, the State School for the Blind and Deaf in Flint was in need of a second facility. Blind and deaf students needed different services — and, one story goes, the kids played disability-specific pranks on each other.

The Lansing campus became the Michigan School for the Blind in 1879, serving students from pre-school to their mid-20s. A blond brick high school went up in 1912, now the oldest building on the site. Lansing architect Edwin Bowd designed the high school, the 1914 superintendent’s house and a new “Old Main” building, also called the Abigail, in 1915.

Bowd’s involvement, Marvin said, adds a lot of local significance. Bowd designed dozens of area landmarks, from Christ Community Church to the Ottawa Power Station. 

The Abigail was an all-purpose building at first, but a mid-century growth spurt spawned an entire complex, including an auditorium, gymnasium, dining hall and service buildings. There were senior trips, parties, dances and even roller skating parties. Sports teams included men’s and women’s track and field and wrestling. In the 1980s, some enterprising youngsters built a still in the dorms.

The school was also a major local employer. Michigan Department of Education yearbooks list nearly 100 staff members by about 1970. A volunteer foster grandparent program paired blind students with local families.

“The school was very much a part of the community, and the community enriched the school,” Marvin said.

But enrollment declined in the late 1970s, owing to a combination of state budget cuts and a changing educational philosophy. By 1996, local schools mainstreamed disabled students and the Lansing campus was phased out. After a brief stint as a training center for the Department of Corrections, the Abigail and the high school were idled. The state sold the campus to the Lansing Housing Commission and a charter school, the Mid-Michigan Leadership Academy, which still occupies about a quarter of the site. 

When the economy tanked in 2008, a plan to develop the campus into a senior housing complex foundered and the Housing Commission faced default on the mortgage. The middle of campus, including the Abigail and the high school, went to a creditor, the Capital Fund. The Ingham County Land Bank bought most of the western part of campus, where the cottages are, and some vacant land at the northeast corner.

The campus began a piecemeal revival in the 2000s. A library on the southwest corner was purchased by the Greater Lansing Housing Coalition and refurbished into the Neighborhood Empowerment Center, a home for the Coalition and other non-profits, in 2010. The superintendent’s house was refurbished too.

The recent improvements on the fringe are welcome, but Land Bank Chairman Eric Schertzing said the clock of entropy is ticking and a new push is needed at the center.

“At some point you have to do something different to change the game,” Schertzing said. 

Bob Johnson, Lansing’s director of planning and neighborhood development, agreed, adding that no developers have offered to take on the whole campus, including the 1950s buildings.

“It’s been five or six years, and no one’s come a-knockin’, wanting to move in,” Johnson said.

Robbert McKay, historical architect at the State Historic Preservation Office, said he would rather see the complex preserved in toto.

Partial demolition is “not the approach we would like to see,” he said. “From our perspective, everything there is really a historic resource.”

In 2007, an offshoot set up by the Housing Commission submitted an application to the National Register of Historic Places for the eastern “quadrangle” of the library, consisting of the library, the superintendent’s house, the Abigail and the high school. The feds ruled that the campus would qualify as a whole, but not piecemeal.

But partial demolition may not be a deal breaker for National Register status. “It doesn’t mean that the front portion couldn’t get listed,” McKay said. Future developers would have to resubmit and explain the demolition.

“I hate to see those buildings in the back go, but we still have to look out for what’s left,” McKay said. “Those front buildings — there’s a reasonable case to be made that there’s still an intelligent story there to be told.”

Walking tour of Michigan School for the Blind campus
6 p.m. Thursday, April 18
Historical Society of Greater Lansing
Starts at Neighborhood Empowerment Center
Free and open to the public

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