March 23 2016 12:41 AM

East Lansing's historic Taco Bell is where preservationists should focus

Where are the outcry, the petitions, the citizen rallies to preserve a unique slice of East Lansing's architectural history?

While forces in Lansing are agitating to save Eastern High School, railing about Board of Water & Light plans for a substation on the site of the “historic” Scott house on Malcolm X Street and bemoaning the loss of the now closed Emils and nearby buildings on Michigan Avenue, East Lansing is woefully silent on the potential loss of its landmark Taco Bell in the heart of the downtown business district.

What makes the Taco Bell historic? Even to the casual observer it is unlike any other building along Michigan Avenue, a 20th century artifact, a harbinger a fast-food culture that shaped the lives of generations of Michigan State University students.

Is it worth preserving? Certainly it is more distinctive than the mixed-use high-rise planned for the site. The National Park Service provides a list of architectural characteristics to help identify buildings with irreplaceable value to their communities. Consider how its guidelines apply to the Taco Bell.

“Every old building is unique, with its own identity and its own distinctive character. Character refers to all those visual aspects and physical features that comprise the appearance of every historic building. Character-defining elements include the overall shape of the building, its materials, craftsmanship, decorative details, interior spaces and features, as well as the various aspects of its site and environment.”

Certainly the Taco Bell is distinctive. The building's design alone proclaims its identity.

It needs no sign to herald its function.

The shape of the 2,100 square-foot Taco Bell — a characteristic outlined by the Park Service — certainly qualifies. With its arched windows and mission style roofline, its blazing red sloping metal roof, the faux adobe brick facade, with shutters framing the Grand River Avenue street entrance, the building if lost to the community will not be duplicated.

But there is more to historic preservation than architecture.

“There are many other facets of an historic building besides its functional type, its materials or construction or style that contribute to its historic qualities or significance. Some of these qualities are feelings conveyed by the sense of time and place or in buildings associated with events or people,” says the Park Service.

To ask those who have attended MSU about Taco Bell is to unleash a flood of memories — cheap dates and cheap food. And quick.

These aren't to be dismissed. The Park Service outline on historical buildings continues:

“A complete understanding of any property may require documentary research about its style, construction, function, its furnishings or contents; knowledge about the original builder, owners, and later occupants; and knowledge about the evolutionary history of the building.”

We know that the Taco Bell was built in 1972, designed as a fast food restaurant. The company operated from the location until the mid-2000s, when it moved to the ground floor of a soulless apartment complex opposite Bailey Street. We also know that more modern stand-alone Taco Bells retain some of the characteristics of their forerunners but struggle with modernity.

If this preservation oversight weren't happening in East Lansing, it would be tempting to attribute the snub to the anti- Mexican rantings poisoning the presidential primaries. But East Lansing is an immigrant friendly community and supports many international cuisines.

Why not embrace this diversity? Where better to site a museum of international foods than the Taco Bell? The Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, just across the street, could benefit from a companion with a more accessible mission.

East Lansing is facing another preservation challenge at the Tasty Freeze a mile east of the Taco Bell. This one-of-a-kind building is empty and seeking a tenant, always a bad sign. The land is more valuable than the building.

But tired as it is, the Tasty Freeze, like the Taco Bell, with its extensive glass windows, colorful roof, broad blue banding and iconic sign, is unique with a distinctive character, materials and site. It bespeaks summer nights to generations. It will not be duplicated. Besides, what might replace it? More apartments.

Another serious preservation threat is in Lansing, the now defunct A&W Restaurant at the intersection of Saginaw Highway and Cedar Street.

The A&W sign was removed earlier this month, but the bright orange roof and brown trim identify what was one of three restaurants at the busy corner. Only Rally's Fast Food remains. The former Arby's at the southeast corner has been remodeled beyond recognition. Preservationists weep.

The A&W Restaurant, like other fast food providers, proclaimed its identity boldly. There is no mistaking it for a McDonald's or Burger King. And there is actually more to the building than hot dogs, floats and burgers. The arrowhead design provides a covered entrance and protection for drivers. An arched entrance repeats the arrowhead theme. The colorful metal roof is functional and ornamental. As with the other threatened structures, the A&W is unique.

They convey what the Park Service calls a sense of time and place or a building associated with events or people. Can we say the same about the Scott house?

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