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Wednesday, May 29,2013

Doing it old school

Preservation Lansing awards spotlight Genesee Street School project

by Lawrence Cosentino

This story was updated on May 29 to say that Cassandra Nelson is a member of the Lansing Historic District Commission, not the Michigan Historic Preservation Network. 

It’s doubly fitting that Preservation Lansing will launch its 2013 round of awards with a press conference today at the old Genesee Street School downtown. In a city with a tattered urban fabric, the annual awards tout the value of neighborhood fixer-uppers as well as headline-grabbers like the hulking Marshall Street Armory, one of last year’s winners.

The stately backdrop to today’s event promises to hit both sweet spots with a heavy hammer. It’s a big project with potential to launch a thousand small ones.

Tim Hunnicutt, a Grand Ledge entrepreneur, moved his office into the school two weeks ago with plans to restore the building to its 1912 glory — cupola and all — put in 16 apartments for veterans and convert the ground floor into the HQ of Zero Day, where veterans will be trained in historic preservation work. 

“This isn’t a construction training program,” Hunnicutt said. “It’s a community revitalization program.”

A couple of years from now, a detachment from Hunnicutt’s army might shore up your sagging porch or liberate your hardwood floor from shag carpet. (Just don’t ask them to put in vinyl siding. They’ll be trained to bite on a cyanide tooth first.)

The prospect of a small army of restorers rampaging through town, battling entropy one shingle at a time, is a tantalizing one for the members of Preservation Lansing, now in its second year. Putting another award on a big developer’s shelf was never the group’s top priority. (Although they do that, too.) This year, a second residential award was added to encourage ordinary people who do extensive work on their houses.

“There are a lot of people flying under the radar, just trying to keep their homes in good condition,” Preservation Lansing member Cassandra Nelson said. “And when they’re 50 to 100 years old, it takes a lot of work.”

This year, there will be two residential awards, “small” and “large” (amount not specified), along with awards for non-residential projects under $1 million and over $1 million. Winners get their triumph immortalized on a handcrafted Pewabic Pottery plaque. Buildings have to be at least 50 years old and exterior work must have been completed in the last two years.

Hunnicutt has done restoration work across the state, from the crumbling Victorian mansions of Bay City (where he headed the Front Porch Renaissance Group) to a historic hotel in remote Crystal Falls, in the Upper Peninsula. He has already worked on several Lansing projects behind the scenes, including Pat Gillespie’s Marshall Street Armory makeover.

He admitted that over the decades, Lansing hasn’t cared well for its old architecture.

“A lot of the housing stock was eliminated to build highways, big sections of parking, big government buildings,” he said.

Hunnicutt grew up in Ithaca, Mich., and loved its small-downtown feel. “It’s a county seat, so it’s got a courthouse,” he recalled. “All the buildings were designed with a purpose. They stand for something and you can tell what they were — schools, churches, grocery stores. They weren’t all just a rectangle on the edge of a parking lot.”

When old housing stock goes, Hunnicutt said, generic structures with zero visual appeal are often thrown up in their place. “This building, on the other hand, has that stately appearance,” he said, looking out his office window at Genesee School. “It’s an anchor in the neighborhood.”

Nelson said she thinks the Genesee School has a strong case for entry on the National Register of Historic Places, despite a few unfortunate modifications over the years and a lack of dramatic history, lurid or otherwise.

“It’s not haunted and nobody was murdered,” she apologized, “but it’s a great old school that retains a lot of its character and defining features, and it’s in pretty great shape, considering it’s 100 years old.”

Nelson, a member of Lansing Historic District Commission, is busy putting together a nomination for Genesee School to send to the feds this month.

The Genesee School was built in 1912 to relieve overcrowding in Lansing schools, but fell victim to the city’s undercrowding a century later. Lansing’s heavyweight architect of the 20th century, Edwin Bowd, designed the school, which, Nelson found, has a near twin in Corunna, Mich. The Bowd imprimatur is a big plus. The firm of Bowd and Munson designed nearly every major landmark in the capital area, from Spartan Stadium to the Cooley Law School Temple Building to the Ottawa Street Power Station.

Like almost any century-old building, the Genesee School has taken some hard knocks. The elephantine entrance off of Butler Boulevard was sealed up and a graceful cupola was lopped off the roof. A gymnasium was added in 1962. But it still has the strong bones, heavy wood moldings and overall feel of a solid, early-1900s school, down to the chalkboards.

Last week, those chalkboards were scrawled with the names of 28 field workers, hired by Hunnicutt on a contract with the Ingham County Land Bank. Their goal: Prepare 197 foreclosed houses for an upcoming auction, clearing debris and getting grounds ready for market. In the months ahead, Hunnicutt will pick the most promising workers for three levels of training in construction, with a focus on historic preservation.

They’ll start with basic skills such as blueprint reading and safe wrench slinging as they work their way up to the third level — “living laboratories,” like the Genesee School itself.

Hunnicutt doesn’t view restoration work as “some mystical process.” He compared Zero Day’s on-the-job training to having dental students work on your teeth at a reduced fee, only with less potential for nerve damage.

“Would I like to have people who worked on New England churches come in here and rehab this school?” Hunnicutt asked. “Yeah, I would, but I’m not going to pay them $150 an hour.”

He’s betting local homeowners and business owners will feel the same way. 

“I’m training guys in a niche area there’s a high demand for,” Hunnicutt said. Careful work will trump quick turnover, and older tools are often more useful than state-of-the-art ones. “If somebody across the street needs a porch built, and we need to turn the pillars on a lathe, we’ll do it,” Hunnicutt said. “They used to do it. Why can’t we do it now?”

Gretchen Cochran, board president of Preservation Lansing, and other people from the neighborhood felt like relatives interceding for a spinster niece when they approached Hunnicutt a few years ago, asking if he had any ideas for re-using the school.

He told them it would need “a lot of TLC.” In the 1980s, the school was phased out by the Lansing School District and occupied by a series of nonprofit organizations. The last of these was the Black Child and Family Institute, which moved out last summer citing rising maintenance costs. Neither the school district nor the nonprofits had the wherewithal to bring the building into its second century.

Any makeover, Hunnicutt said, would have to run from bottom to top, making the building energy efficient and cheap to maintain.

“You can’t just keep using it to death and patching things up,” Hunnicutt told Cochran.

He didn’t think he would end up marrying the niece himself, but the more he thought about it, the more sense it made. Hunnicutt and most of his co-workers live nearby, and he was pleased with support for his project from the city and downtown neighborhood.

The school district sold Hunnicutt the Genesee Street School for $1. (He prefers to call it a $500,000 price tag because of the building’s “obsolete systems.”) 

Last week, an architect showed him the first round of drawings for the makeover, with 16 apartments of 1,000 square feet. Besides the classes and workshops, the plans included emergency housing for veterans who lose a job or a home and need a place to crash in a hurry. Hunnicutt’s plans for Zero Day extend to buying and refurbishing houses throughout Lansing’s downtown neighborhoods. “I don’t want to make a neighborhood of veterans, but I would love to put several veterans in this neighborhood that are homeowners,” he said.

What pleases Cochran and Nelson most is the return to form of a century-old neighborhood anchor. “It’s not a use I would have ever come up with for it, but if he thinks he can make this work, I think it’s a great plan,” Nelson said.


Preservation Lansing press conference
10 a.m. today
Genesee Street School
835 W. Genesee St., Lansing


Join the preservation movement
You can help call attention to the need for greater preservation of Lansing's historic buildings by nominating a preservation job well done in the last two years. For a downloadable copy of this form, go to lansingcitypulse.com.

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