The first year Valerie Marvin led local history buffs on a tour of a notable downtown building, the featured centerpiece was an old bank vault inside the Comerica Building. Last year, all eyes were on the statues adorning the former Strand Theater on Washington Square. Those pieces of Lansing’s past are undoubtedly noteworthy, but Marvin is downright giddy about the cultural significance of this year’s tour: The John Dye Water Conditioning Plant. The fact that it’s a fundraiser for her organization, the Historical Society of Greater Lansing, is almost beside the point.
“This is worth the $15 ticket just to see the inside of this incredible building,” Marvin gushed. “It’s rarely open to the public. And we get to go inside and spend time with this vibrant part of Lansing’s history. It’s amazing.Marvin is the president of the historical society, and the tour doubles as the third annual fundraising event to try to get the group a permanent home. Since March 2012, the society has been cooped up in the basement of the Creyts Building, 831 N. Washington Ave., where it’s been building a growing fan base.
“Every exhibit we’ve had has seen an increase in attendance,” Marvin said. “It’s very encouraging. And people are starting to come out and tell us about (historial items) they have and asking if they can donate them. It’s such a good feeling knowing that people are starting to know we’re here and are trusting us with their sentimental objects. These are links to the city´s past.”
Or, in the case of the Dye plant, a still-functional aspect of it. The building is an operational facility for the Lansing Board of Water & Light, which conditions and distributes about 22 million gallons of water per day from an aquifer 400 feet under ground. The building was constructed in 1939 as part of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration program, which was designed to put Americans suffering through the Great Depression back to work.
“This is an historical example of the federal government’s attempt to bring the nation out of an economic crisis,” said Steve Serkaian, communications director for the BWL. “This has a direct link to the stimulus plan that President Obama implemented (in 2009) to bring the country out of worst economic climate since that time. This isn’t just Lansing history — it’s American history.”
It’s art history, too. The building was constructed in the Art Deco style so popular at the time because of its progressiveness. think about it — there wasn’t exactly an abundance of nostalgia in the late ‘30s. And the WPA worked for more than just unskilled workers. It also served as a government-funded commission project for established artists. The Dye building boasts statues, reliefs and large-scale murals by artist such as Frank Cassara and Charles (brother of Jackson) Pollack. Additionally, the levers on all of the consoles inside are designed to resemble door hands on the 1937 Oldsmobile two-door sedan — perfect for tourists.
Tickets are still available both online and at the door. Due to the wacky parking situation (the Dye plant is situated on a one-way section of Cedar Street), the event will have a private valet service. The silent auction aspect of the fundraiser includes collectibles, Mackinac Island adventures, tours of the city in antique cars, original art pieces with a historical Lansing theme and house portraits by a local artist Leisa Collins. And of course, all proceeds go toward a permanent Lansing Historical Museum.
“Every fundraiser we have gets us one step closer to the goal,” Marvin said. “Optimistically, it looks like it will take about five more years."
But if she can continue to gain access to buildings like this, it will probably make the wait that much more bearable.
Historical Society of Greater Lansing’s 3rd Annual Auction/ Fundraiser
4-6:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 5 Board of Water & Light John F. Dye Water Conditioning Plant 148 S. Cedar St., Lansing $15 lansinghistory.org