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Weighing the fate of an empty Eastern High School

Will it fall or flourish?

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School’s out forever at Lansing’s old Eastern High, but the building would be hard to blow to pieces, even to the music of Alice Cooper. A massive pile of masonry a city block long, topped with a heavy slate roof, Eastern High School is a civic symphony on the importance of education.

As you walk along Pennsylvania Avenue, the curvy tracery on top of the street-level windows suggest a grand set of books opening, or a series of curtains rising on the stages of life.

But books close and curtains come down. As Eastern High School moves to a newly refurbished, technologically tricked-out HQ a few miles east — the former Pattengill Middle School — the fate of the 1929 edifice, one of the most significant historic structures in the city, is up in the air. Eastside community members, historic preservationists and city officials don’t want to lose another of Lansing’s key landmarks, but the school’s owner, next-door Sparrow Health System, is holding the building’s prognosis close to the chest.

Options

How close? Asked whether saving Eastern High School is a priority or even a consideration, Sparrow spokesman John Foren sent City Pulse a paragraph-long statement saying the health system has “launched a strategic master facility planning process that includes beginning to assess the Eastern High School campus and consider options.”

Sparrow has owned the three-story, 237,000-square-foot building and 18 acres of surrounding campus for three years. The Lansing School District leased the building and grounds to use as a school until this summer, and plans to vacate the building one year from now.

The statement did not mention preserving the former Eastern High in any way. Instead, it lists three priorities shared in common between Sparrow and the Lansing School District: “the continued health, education and economic growth of the area.”

Foren said Sparrow would make no further comment beyond this statement, at least for now.

That’s no comfort to Nancy Finegood, who has been tracking the fate of Eastern High School for years. She is newly retired as longtime director of the Michigan Historic Preservation Network.

“It’s one of the most significant buildings in Lansing,” Finegood said. “The interior and the auditorium are a work of art. The detail is just spectacular. There are so many opportunities for that building to be saved and reused.”

Members of the Michigan Historic Preservation Network sat in front of a bulldozer only once while Finegood was president, to try and save the 1905 Madison-Lenox hotel in downtown Detroit, torn down in May 2005 and turned into a parking lot.

“Eastern might be worth it, too,” Finegood said. “My great fear is that they are going to demolish it, and it will become parking.”

Brian McGrain, Lansing director of economic development and planning, said the city recognizes the historic importance of that building.

“It has wonderful architecture and it’s been a central point of the east side for a century,” McGrain said. “We would be astonished, as would the rest of the east side, if they did something like leveling it.”

Bob Christensen, National Register of Historic Places co-ordinator at the State Historic Preservation Office, called Eastern “one of the maybe 25 or so key buildings in Lansing, from an architectural standpoint.”

Eastern alumnus and Lansing attorney Jack Davis said he’s talked informally with Sparrow officials about the building over the years.

“We definitely would like to preserve parts of the building, for sure,” Davis said. “We’ve had a few conversations with Sparrow about it.”

The alumni association has not taken an official position on the disposition of the building, but Davis said he’d like to see “at least part of the façade” saved.

“There would be significant concern if there was any thought of actually tearing down the building and building a new building,” Davis said. “I think that would be quite a problem.”

James Lynch, president of the Lansing Eastern High School Alumni Association, was less sanguine. Lynch said he’s “pretty upset” over the building’s uncertain fate.

“I’m disappointed in Sparrow that they’re noncommittal, and I would be totally disappointed if they tore that thing down, because it should be on the Historic Register,” Lynch said.

Mighty slab

Mark Rodman, the new director of the State Historic Preservation Network, moved to Lansing from Colorado only six weeks ago, but he’s already following the fate of Eastern.

“You have so many great historical resources in Michigan, and Eastern is a big one,” he said. “It represents what was going on at the time across the nation, as far as building schools. You’re taking historic styles and trying to replicate them in grand fashion to make a statement that education is important to your community. It makes a huge statement.”

The school was designed by the Chicago architectural firm of Irving K. and Allen B. Pond, known for rich detail and inventive blending of styles. From the massive limestone blocks at ground level to the copper gutters and heavy slate roof tiles, it’s a mighty slab that would not be built the same way today.

It’s no surprise that experts can’t pigeonhole Eastern High into any particular style. There are elements of Arts & Crafts, Elizabethan revival and straight-up old-school school-building. Pond & Pond, which specialized in academic buildings, also designed the student union buildings at MSU, Purdue University and the University of Michigan.

When it comes to adaptive re-use, Rodman said school buildings are “extremely well built, durable and adaptable.”

It doesn’t hurt that most classrooms are about the size of a small apartment.

“Most of the time, they’re used for housing, but they’ve also been used as businesses, incubation centers, for businesses, community centers, art schools, all kinds of things,” Rodman said. “Sometimes you have to be a little creative to meet modern standards, but they are easily adapted and you see them re-used all across the country.”

Architect Lis Knibbe’s Ann Arbor-based firm, Quinn Evans, has rehabilitated historic buildings all over the country, including Lansing’s Knapp’s Centre in 2014. Knibbe was the lead architect the recent conversions of Ypsilanti High School, built in 1929, and Fremont High in Newaygo County, built in 1926, into low-income senior housing.

“If anything, Eastern is nicer than those,” Knibbe said. “This one is a more handsome building.”

Christensen said such projects are “going on all over the place” and cross his desk on a regular basis.

“It’s hard to think that rehabbing Eastern would not be feasible,” he said.

Although there is no official word yet from Sparrow, Davis said he’s heard hospital staff talk informally about making use of Eastern’s assets.

“So far, Sparrow has indicated that they really have a need for a facility that has a large auditorium and instructional space,” Davis said. “They have grown so much, they have such a large staff than they need a place where a lot of people can have instructional meetings.”

Rodman said the building is well suited to be used as training facilities or as housing for nurses and other medical staff. “It puts them right near the hospital and provides a social network with other health care providers,” Rodman said. “You could convert some of the building into lab space, whatever you need.”

But Davis cautioned that with the new leadership at Sparrow, everything he’s heard so far could change.

Swan retired in 2018. Sparrow’s most recent CEO and president, Emory Tibbs, left in March after being accused of sexual assault while an executive at a Virginia hospital. (The Virginia hospital said in April an investigation cleared him.) James Dover will become president and CEO of Sparrow on June 17.

If Sparrow undertakes a major renovation, layers of financial help are available.

Area preservationists agree that Eastern could easily make it onto the National Register of Historic Places. The designation would qualify the building for a credit of up to 20 percent of “qualified rehabilitation expenses,” which Rodman described as “the majority of things you would do on and inside the building in terms of repair.”

Rodman and his staff are also lobbying the state Legislature to restore state historic tax credits, repealed in 2011, and are optimistic that the bills will pass soon.

Several other development tools are available for a project on the scale of Eastern, including Community Revitalization Program funds from the Michigan Economic Development Corp. and other grants.

“If they combine them all, it can become a magic potion,” Finegood said.

Historic integrity

That leaves the question of what happens next.

Yvonne Camaal Canul, superintendent of the Lansing School District, said she’s been trying to set up a meeting with Sparrow for months to carry out a project that is indirectly related to the fate of the building.

The district plans to remove some decorative parts of the old building, such as tiles, woodwork, sconces or other decorations, to be incorporated into a 3-D mural by muralist Brian Whitfield for the cafeteria wall at the newly renovated Eastern High.

The bits have to be removed before the school’s lease expires a year from now.

“It’s just been difficult to pin down who is the person we’d be talking with,” she said.

Camaal Canul said the school district only wants to take a few token items, not “cannibalize” it.

That still leaves wide open the bigger question of the fate of the building.

When asked what input the hospital has solicited or plans to solicit with community members, Foren again referred City Pulse to Sparrow’s prepared statement: “Our process is driven by the needs of our Patients and the region, and our mission to deliver quality, compassionate care, to everyone, every time.”

The conversation over Eastern isn’t new. Lynch said he met with former Sparrow CEO Dennis Swan to talk about the building’s fate shortly before the school district sold it to Sparrow. Lynch’s father, Lance Lynch, was chairman of the Sparrow’s board of directors for 16 years.

“The only reason I got to him was because of my dad,” Lynch said. “I had an in, and tried to use it, but he was elusive. He told me if the district offered the building, they would talk.”

Swan did meet with community members and preservationists early in 2016, after the sale, to talk about the future of Eastern. Joan Nelson, director of the Allen Neighborhood Center, was there.

“The meeting was called because a number of us were concerned about whether that façade was going to go away,” Nelson said.

Nelson said Swan and “several of his senior management folks” were also present.

“It’s not just the community of people that admire old buildings here, but the whole east side had strong attachments and feelings about that buildings and really hoped Sparrow would preserve it,” Nelson said.

Swan told the group there would be a “transparent, inclusive process to discuss the disposition of the building,” according to Nelson.

Lansing School District Superintendent Yvonne Caamal Canul was also there.

“There was no affirmation by Sparrow they would save the building,” Caamal Canul said.

The purchase agreement says that Sparrow will “preserve the historic integrity” of the building, but that could mean any number of things.

“Preserving the building was never a part of the conversation,” Caamal Canul said.

Nelson said the meeting took place at a sensitive time when “some people were really mad” about the sale of the school to Sparrow — mad enough, Nelson said, to withhold support of an upcoming bond issue.

“Now Sparrow holds all the cards,” Nelson said.

Time to listen

Eastside resident Jennifer Grau thinks the discussion over what will happen to Eastern is “a unique opportunity to explore enhancing the east side of Lansing in a way that’s different from other hospitals in the area.”

Grau is a professional facilitator who specializes in “challenging public conversations.”

“I live in walking distance of that building,” Grau said. She emphasized that Sparrow owns the building outright and with no local historic district in place, can do as it pleases with the building.

“They are under no legal obligation to do this, but they might find that there is value for them, as an institution, in thinking carefully about what opportunities the building presents that might truly distinguish the hospital in its professional capacity and community engagement,” Grau said.

Grau and Nelson said there has been a sea change in the relationship between Sparrow and the east side from the early 1990s to today, as the hospital phased through a series of major expansions, from the Sparrow Professional Building across Michigan Avenue to the Dennis A. Swan Expansion Tower to the Herman-Herbert Cancer Center.

“For many years, Sparrow had a love-hate relationship with the neighborhood,” Nelson said. “Every time another several houses were taken down and a surface lot created, things got worse.”

Relations improved in the 1990s, with Sparrow’s support of the East Side Summit and its successor, the Allen Neighborhood Center. Along the way, they’ve worked together on various projects such as Sparrow’s Walk to Work program.

“Sparrow and the East Side have learned to talk with one another and the relationship is pretty amicable at this point,” Nelson said.

Grau is fresh from researching a talk she gave in March for the International Listening Association about the changing relationship between Sparrow and the east side.

“Eventually, the two organizations started listening to each other,” Grau said. “We re-framed the conversation around, ‘How can we strengthen the community together?’ We both are pillars of the community.”

Camaal Canul also sees the potential dialogue over Eastern High as a chance for Sparrow to foster good relations with the community.

“Why would I go in and bulldoze a facility that has so much community passion about it?” Camaal Canul said.

“And if I were CEO, I would keep the auditorium. It’s a great place for large meetings with your staff, for the community to use. There are millions of possibilities.”

She added pointedly that the planned 2022 opening of a $450 million health care campus operated jointly by McLaren Health and MSU raises the stakes for Sparrow.

“I wouldn’t want to anger a community that could go to a brand new McLaren facility just a few miles down the road,” she said. “Sparrow can’t afford to alienate any segment of this community with a competitor looming high and large at MSU.”

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