May 6 2015 12:00 AM

Harper House tour offers glimpse inside Lansing´s biggest mansion

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Back in the 1930s, Lansing wheel magnate Harry Harper and his wife, Ragna, threw “tulip time teas” at their cozy 35-room crib at 1408 Cambridge Road each May. They weren´t formal affairs. The Harpers were downto-earth types. About 500 to 600 guests would hang out near the sunken pool, admire the grounds, tour the house and munch on sandwiches.

This Tuesday, Harper House’s current owners, Brian Huggler and Ken Ross, will revive the tradition with a “daffodil time” get-together (there aren´t many tulips, Huggler admitted) and a guided tour of Lansing´s largest remaining mansion. The tour is a fundraiser for the Historical Society of Greater Lansing.

“Opulent” is not quite the word for Harper House. The handsome, Tudor-ish pile of Indiana limestone has more than its share of remarkable features, but over-the-top-ness was not Harper’s style.

“They never had children, and you can tell they put a lot of themselves into the house,” Ross said.

Far from being a privileged scion of wealth, Harper rose from bookkeeper to president of the Prudden Wheel Co., precursor to the huge Motor Wheel Co., the world´s largest manufacturer of wheels in its heyday.

In a way, Harper lucked into the house. He sold half a million dollars in stock to pay for it, just before the Great Depression would have turned the stock into worthless fire starter. The house was finished in 1929.

One of its most atmospheric touches is a backyard sunken pond in a magnificent, semiruined grotto with a dark Gothic gazebo and jagged rock walls. Like most things in and around the Harper House, the strikingly pitted, honeycombed stones have a backstory.

A few years ago, Tom Beckett, the nonagenarian son of the house´s architect, Harold Beckett, stopped by on a nation-spanning tour of his father’s work. Beckett told Huggler that his father discovered the stone while prospecting a dry riverbed in Ontario and talked the railroad into laying some extra line so he could quarry and ship it to Michigan. The stone looked so good at Harper House (you expect to see a stegosaurus femur inside somewhere) that the R.E. Olds family had the same stuff brought to their now-demolished home on the near west side.

The rugged stones in the yard, and numberless features inside the house, are there to compensate for the lack of ancient-ness in automobile-era Lansing and slip you into another world.

Inside the house, Greek and Roman themes — satyrs, nymphs, amphorae and whatnot — are everywhere. Unusually carved and painted ceilings add a graceful touch. The living room ceiling is garlanded with delicate, leafy patterns, restored and painted by Brian Kirschensteiner, preparator at the Broad Art Museum.

By all accounts, the Harpers were unpretentious folk, mansion and all. Some of the smaller rooms, like the library, are so inviting they make you want to set up camp for a weekend. Visitors will want to find a pretext to retreat to a small first floor bathroom, decorated with painted wallpaper in blood-dark reds and burnt golds straight out of Pompeii. A recessed, half-moon table, custom built to fit the space, is original to the house. Its claw feet rest on a mesmerizing mosaic tile floor.

“This space is more intensely decorated than anything in the house,” Ross said.

One day, Ross was puttering in the garden when a woman drove up. She was the granddaughter of the Harper House´s gardener, who lived in a room above the carriage house.

The woman told Ross that she heard a lot of stories about the Harpers from her grandfather, all of them good. The couple often talked about tough times they had been through and stayed down to earth even as they rocketed to wealth. When a delivery man showed up with groceries, they would crack open a few beers and chat with him.

Huggler and Ross enjoy their house —especially when they´re having a crowd over — but most days, they can´t help looking at it with owner eyeballs.

Fortunately, the house hasn´t been subjected to any shortsighted makeovers, as many historic houses are. Most maintenance, Ross said, has been “un-sexy” stuff like tuck-pointing the masonry and endless attention to the beautiful but elderly slate roof.

“When I look out the window, I could be admiring the daffodils,” Huggler said.

A great yellow wave of them are washing at the edge of the sunken pond, with a fountain in the shape of a woman.

“But I´m really thinking, ‘Oh my God, what´s wrong with the pond? The girl´s not spewing water.’”

"The Secrets of Harper House"
Tour and fundraiser
Historical Society of Greater Lansing
6 p.m. Tuesday, May 12
$50
1408 Cambridge Road, Lansing
(517) 282-0671
lansinghistory.org