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Wednesday, October 9,2013

Keeper of the brick forest

Neogen CEO James Herbert honored for 30 years of restoration work on east side

by Lawrence Cosentino

Due to a reporting error, it was mistakenly stated that James Herbert will receive the first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award from Preservation Lansing. He will actually be the third recipient; last year, historic preservationists Linda Peckham and Bob Morris both received Lifetime Achievement Awards. 

You can’t put a finger on Neogen CEO James Herbert’s contribution to Lansing’s urban fabric. You need all your fingers and approximately three toes.

Since 1982, Herbert has bought and restored 13 east side buildings, from schools to warehouses to homes, ranging in age from 50 to 110 years old, and drafted them into service for his $2 billion company, a world force in food and animal safety research and manufacturing.

On Wednesday, Oct. 16, Preservation Lansing will cap its second annual awards ceremony by giving Herbert a Lifetime Achievement Award. Most of Saturday’s awards will go to individual projects, but in Herbert’s case, a special award was in order, Preservation Lansing member Jennifer Grau said.

None of Neogen’s restorations are splashy, Grau said, but their cumulative effect is huge. While big developers save a Sequoia-scale monument here or there, like the Ottawa Power Station or the Knapp’s  Building, Herbert is helping to keep the city’s basic brick forest alive.

“These are not landmarks, but there’s an impact they’ve had on the community that goes beyond a single building fix,” Grau said. “They have not leveled a block to create a center of industry. They have blended their industry into a community.”

The awards ceremony, with Jazz Age trappings like a Model T cars parked outside historic Eastern High School, will also honor four outstanding local residential and commercial projects with a specially made Pewabic tile.

Herbert said he didn’t plan to put together an ad hoc urban campus in 1982, when he and former Dow Chemical CEO Ted Doan started Neogen. They only wanted to stretch their initial $75,000 as far as they could.

“We didn’t want to invest money in shiny stainless steel,” he said. “We were more concerned with brainpower.”

Herbert need heavy-duty plumbing that could handle drains and sinks for laboratories and a mix of office space and open labs. Lansing’s Oak Park School, built in 1916 and “built to last,” in Herbert’s words, was on the market and in good condition, aside from a leaky roof and “14 coats of paint” hiding its rich oak trim.

Another big east side school, the 1913 Allen Street School, 1614 E. Kalamazoo St., became Neogen’s Center for Microbiological Excellence in 2006. Herbert’s office, an old classroom with a huge radiator and a fireplace, is tucked inside its labyrinthine halls.

At Allen Street, Herbert’s team saved the maple floors, oak cabinets and trim and many other features. The huge coal bin in the basement became a dry, out-of-the-way space to tuck standby generators and air compressors.

“You find so many little things about these buildings you can use with a little imagination,” he said.

Soon after buying the Oak Park School, Herbert bought the building next door, 600 Lesher Place, built in 1910 by Ransom E. Olds as a home for foundlings, and turned it into administrative offices.

The “scattered urban campus” model, with buildings of various size tucked into a residential neighborhood, suits Neogen well, Herbert said. Five homes within a block of the two Oak Park anchor buildings now house smaller Neogen marketing groups or other units of six to eight people.

“There are times when you’d like to have everybody in one building that’s 80 feet wide and two miles long, but these houses work pretty nice,” he said. “We fixed them up and kept them looking like houses. In most of them we were able to save the wood floors and the big wide trim.”

For manufacturing space, Herbert jumped a few blocks south to Shiawassee Street and bought two brick warehouses (720 and 740) that once housed Massey Harris Tractor parts and other goods.

“That was a little bigger challenge,” Herbert said. “The structures were solid, with heavy beams, but not quite like those nice terrazzo floors we worked with before.”

Herbert also offers Neogen employees, many of them young scientists and sales people looking for starter houses, help on their down payment if they choose to live within a mile of the mile of work. He said about a dozen employees have taken advantage of the program, “fewer than we’d like.”

With about 800 employees worldwide, Neogen has “just about filled” its latest acquisition, the Allen Street School, Herbert said.

“We’re still growing in Lansing and will continue to look for similar buildings in nearby areas,” he said.

Herbert hosts national and international guests at a converted 1889 house on 102 Marshall St., next door to Herbert’s own house on Jerome Street. Some of the guests come from a 100-employee Neogen operation in Ayr, south of Glasgow, Scotland, two miles from poet Robert Burns’ birthplace. Mention the Ayr facility and Herbert’s history grin widens considerably. Oswald Hall, an old college building dating from 1769, came complete with a huge bust of Richard Oswald, its first owner, inscribed “PEACEMAKER.” Oswald negotiated the Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War.

Lansing can’t compete with that, but Herbert said that he and Neogen are firmly rooted in Michigan anyway.

“Lansing has been a wonderful spot for us in the 31 years we’ve been here,” Herbert said. “It’s a good place to call home.”

Preservation Lansing

2013 Awards Ceremony 5:30-7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 16 Jon Young Auditorium Eastern High School 220 N. Pennsylvania Ave., Lansing Jazz Age (1920s) costume encouraged FREE to the public, but reservations are required. Contact Barbara Brooks at brooksbj150@gmail.com, or (517) 290-8060.

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