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Wednesday, January 29,2014

The chair, the babies and the mayor’s ties

‘Lansing Votes’ meanders through six moments in the city’s history

by Lawrence Cosentino
The most underhanded political ad in the history of the universe is quietly tucked into “Lansing Votes,” the new pop-up exhibit from the Historical Society of Greater Lansing.

“Carl A. Morlok for City Constable,” reads the ad, dating from 1931, among the items on display at the Lansing Civic Center beginning Monday.

Underneath Morlok’s serious mug and scary name — fine assets for a city constable — appear the adorable, oh-my-God-they’re-like-little-snow-peas faces of four identical baby girls. In 1931, everybody knew that Lansing’s famous Morlok quadruplets, only a year old, needed new shoes and ribbons and whatnot.

The words “We will appreciate your support” float above the girls’ four identical tufts of hair. Morlok’s opponent never had a prayer.

But more on Morlok anon. “Lansing Votes” features six moments where a “vote” of some kind made history in Lansing, starting with the Michigan Legislature’s vote in 1847 to make Lansing the state capital. (It had been Detroit.) Other hallmark votes covered by the exhibit are the creation of the Carnegie Library, the creation of the Lansing River Trail, keeping the General Motors plant, Mayor Crego´s landmark urban renewal project and electing the aforementioned father of four. It’s a loose concept, loosely handled, but a great excuse to stroll through some local history.

It makes more sense when Valerie Marvin, president of the historical society and mastermind of the exhibit, is around to explain.

“Some projects, like the 1902 vote to fund the Carnegie Library, came up as the result of a direct popular election,” Marvin said. “Others came about as we elected City Concilmembers or mayors.”

One of the more poignant items is a cracking, mustard-hued vinyl lobby chair, held together with clear tape. Once the acme of “Mad Men” modernism, the chair was found a few weeks ago, unchained from a wall in the third-floor men’s room at City Hall and returned to the lobby for this exhibit.

It’s the sole lobby chair left from of the glory days of Lansing’s City Hall, a modernist slab of glass and steel erected in 1958 in the International Style.

Nobody voted for that chair — or the new City Hall, for that matter — but Lansing did elect a strong proponent of urban renewal, Ralph Crego, as its longest-serving mayor, from 1943 to 1960.

A garish red and orange painting of the Civic Center by local artist Dorothy Durst Barden catches the spirit of Crego’s reign, when the city’s growth seemed like it would go on forever.

(Barden signed her name in gender-neutral nom de plume of Barden Durst to give her work more credibility in the male-dominated architectural world.) The Crego section of “Lansing Votes” is heaped with memorabilia from the era of urban renewal. Programs and posters for concerts (including two by Dennis Preston), circuses, an ice show and even a wedding conjure the heyday of the old Civic Center, built in 1955 under Crego’s aegis to replace the old Prudden Auditorium.

Lansing’s growth slowed in the 1970s.

The Civic Center was demolished in 1999. Modernism yellowed in the rays of time, turning City Hall itself into a wraparound exhibit for “Lansing Votes.” The sharp chair went into shabby exile.

But Crego reshaped the city. The implicit message of “Lansing Votes” is that elections have consequences.

“So many people feel that their vote has no value,” Marvin said. “We’re trying to show that it does.”

One of the exhibit’s historic “votes” was spearheaded by people who couldn’t vote.

In 1902, Andrew Carnegie offered to build Lansing a library worth about $35,000, if the city provided the space and agreed to pay to operate it. Several thousand people turned out for a Saturday election at City Hall. The measure passed by a 3-to-1 margin.

The exhibit has a lot of interesting material from the period, including a roughhewn but elegant century-old librarian’s desk with books and supplies.

The irony of the library vote is that women were in the lead on the issue, but most of them couldn’t vote. Mary Spencer, librarian for the state of Michigan, applied to Carnegie in the first place. Before that, women’s groups worked to establish a library for decades. The exhibit also features an elaborate $5 share in the “Lansing Library and Literary Association” dating from the 1870s.

“Women pushed this issue, but unless they had property in their name, they couldn’t vote on it,” Marvin said. “You just had to cajole your husband, I suppose.”

Another exhibit in “Lansing Votes” honors the persistent efforts of Lansing’s City Council in the 1970s to buy up the riverfront, clear it of decades of industrial abuse and piece together the Lansing River Trail.

The trail’s beginnings go back farther than most people think.

“Lansing Votes” includes a rare copy of an expansive 1922 city plan by St. Louis expert Harland Bartholomew. The plan advised the city to stop manufacturers from building on the Grand River and suggested a pleasure drive linking Lansing parks. (Pleasure driving was big back then.) Moores River Drive, which links Moores Park and Frances Park, is an artifact of the plan.

But along most of the Grand River, the plan was never followed. The river became a back-door dump for large and small industry for decades until the process began to reverse in the 1970s with the slow growth of the River Trail.

The tug of war between the industrial hub and “city in the forest” takes its most recent turn in the exhibit’s last part. A modest table of objects marks the city’s all-out drive under Mayor David Hollister to keep General Motors from pulling out of the city after the demise of Oldsmobile in the 1990s.

While gazing at two of Hollister’s themed “car ties” and a window sticker for the very first Cadillac CTS in 2003 (19 mpg in the city, 26 on the highway), it’s easy to forget that no popular vote was directly involved in this episode, either. In fact, many westside residents, upset by decades of toxic fumes from GM’s paint booth, would have relished a crack at the ballot box.

Nothing in exhibit hints at the bitter fight over environmental permitting that came with keeping GM in Lansing.

“That’s certainly part of the story, but we don’t have a good artifact that tells that exact piece,” Marvin said.

“Lansing Votes” doesn’t delve into contro versies — at least not live ones. By now, it’s pretty well settled that libraries are a good thing, women should vote, urban renewal was a bust, the river trail is a gem and we’re glad Lansing was picked for the capital. And one more thing — we love cute babies.

The Morlok vote is the least consequential in “Lansing Votes,” but it’s the most entertaining.

When Sarah (Sadie) Morlok gave birth to four identical quadruplets at Lansing’s Sparrow Hospital on May 19, 1930, the blessed event was splashed in papers around the world. Everything about them was news-bite size. The quads were named Edna A., Wilma B., Sarah C. and Helen D., for “Edward W. Sparrow Hospital.” The middle initials indicated their birth order.

Under the strange logic by which the public bestows its largesse on a freakishly fertile couple, provided all the births happen at once and the parents are white, a slew of benefactors stepped up to help the family. Mayor Laird Troyer hired the girls’ unemployed father, Carl Morlok, to the vacant office of city constable. A local dairy donated milk. The city leased a home to the parents for a year for free.

When Morlok stood for reelection in 1931, the cute curls of the quads made it a landslide. The proud papa, who was working as a part-time janitor a year earlier, took 37 of 39 precincts. Elections do have consequences. Thousands smiled and said, “Awww.”

Lansing Votes

Opening 5-7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 3 Historical Society of Greater Lansing Lansing City Hall Through April 30 Guided tours Wednesdays at noon info@lansinghistory.org (517) 282-0671

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