Tracking down Michigan’s best modernist architecture

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If all the world’s a stage, then author Susan J. Bandes’ new book, “Mid-Michigan Modern,” is the curtain call. In 2016, MSU Press published the first edition of “Mid-Michigan Modern,” which is the definitive guide to modernism architecture in Greater Lansing. It was meant to be the all-inclusive guide and has since sold out.

The new book is an expanded edition and includes a new chapter, expanded figures, photographs and is in paperback, so the price is not so hefty for the telephone book-sized publication of more than 330 pages, 50 more pages than the original with 16 more color plates of homes.

“I started receiving suggestions for things I left out as soon as the first edition was published. I started doing deep dives on the computer,” Bandes said.

Bandes said she was buoyed by COVID and a recent retirement from MSU.

“I had a lot of time on my hands,” she said. 

And she would need it. The expanded edition includes a new chapter on structures on the Grand River and Red Cedar River, a new epilogue and an expanded appendix. In addition, Bandes sought out landscape architects and women architects for the book.

Bandes said her research discovered two female architects.

“Unfortunately, I was unable to locate any structures associated with them,” she said.

Since the publication of the original book, Bandes said two iconic modernist structures have been torn down. She pointed to the former Arby’s, then Biggby on Grand River, which was torn down the past year along with the Glencairn Elementary School. 

The new edition also includes two homes on Lantern Hill in East Lansing that were designed at the same time.

“They relate to each other. For example, the driveways are at the far end of the lots, which provide lots of green space,” Bandes said.

Bandes said she knows that there are still a lot of modernist homes still out there and not in the book.

“I could do a whole chapter on the homes in Indian Hills Estates,” she said.

Bandes said the hey day for modernism occurred after World War II.

“There was income, optimism, the surge of automobiles and the growth of suburbs, which led to the expansion of modernism,” she said. “We were looking at a less rigorous and informal life style, and there was an openness to floor plans and rooms became less about being used for one purpose.”

For those who are not familiar with the original book, it details some of the most significant modernist homes and structures in the area. These include Lansing City Hall, Capital Area District Library Central, the Michigan Medical Society, designed by Minoru Yamasaki, the architect of the World Trade Center, the “Airplane House,” built for Talbert Abrams, one of the inventors or aerial photography, and the Liebermann’s building in downtown Lansing, which was designed by George Nelson and has been restored recently as space for a gallery and offices. 

Although a little unwieldly for walking and biking, the new edition serves as an incredible field guide for touring Lansing-area modernist structures, which mostly can be seen from the roadside. Some are hidden down long private driveways. In East Lansing alone there are more than 130 structures that can be viewed from the street. Bandes has compiled a bike tour of East Lansing modernist sites that can be accessed on the State Historic Preservation Office Michigan Modern website.

Like elsewhere across the country, modernism in Lansing still has a buzz going for it. A few years ago, the Historical Society of Greater Lansing hosted a home tour of the area’s Frank Lloyd Wright homes in the Okemos area, which attracted 1,200 visitors from across the country.

Many readers will be pleasantly surprised that homes detailed in the book are just down the block from where you live or are on your drive to work. That is the case for me. Just four houses down from me, the Paul and Rosamunde Hammond House overlooks the Tecumseh River Pond, which can be viewed from the expansive wall of windows. A few blocks from that are two homes built on adjacent lots that ooze modernism. Both homes were built by architects for their families.

As an added plus in her epilogue, Bandes has compiled an interesting history of women’s urinals, which she calls an indelicate history and a product of the modernist era.

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