I feel compelled to respond to Mayor Verg Bernero’s August 8 City Pulse column regarding the future of Lansing City Hall. As the unnamed MSU art historian who has written about mid-Michigan modern, I am, indeed, a champion of the city hall complex. I am not, however, the only one as the mayor implies. City Hall has been admired by many others and for many years. In Buildings of Michigan by Katherine Bishop Eckert, past State Historic Preservation Officer, (University of Virginia Press, 2012), it is one of only a handful of Lansing buildings that is signaled out. The others include the Knapps Building and the former Board and Water and Light, now the Accident Fund, building. Both are superb examples of recent restorations and repurposings that won the Governor’s preservation awards and have given the Lansing region two highly lauded examples of saving our architectural heritage.
In the National Register of Historic Places nomination (2009) of the Downtown Lansing Historic District, City Hall is described as “a highly polished example of the International Style and a key historic and architectural landmark in Lansing.” The description on the Michigan Modern website, the extensive site where the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) provides recent research on mid-century architecture, adds that it is “notable for both its architecture and for its role as the central element of Mayor Crego’s urban modernization plan of the 1950s.”
In the last 20 years, international interest in modernism has been growing specifically to raise awareness of this heritage before too many examples are lost. DOCOMOMO- International and US chapters as well as SHPO are at the forefront of this movement. Books and exhibitions like the one at the Michigan History Museum (through August 27) further this effort.
The current city hall and police headquarters buildings, begun in 1956 and completed in 1958, replaced an earlier city hall that was to the north designed by prominent Lansing architect Edwyn Bowd. By the 1950s, its Richardsonian Romanesque style was out of favor and it was torn down. If only it still existed, it would be championed as one of the most interesting buildings in mid-Michigan! Lansing lost many more buildings when I-496 was constructed and cut through the heart of the city, demolishing 800 19th and early 20th century residences and changing the character of the adjacent neighborhoods. Another 600 were demolished for the state complex west of the Capitol. With an understanding of architectural history and urban development, these as well as the original city hall might have been saved. I hope we do not repeat these mistakes.
Admiring a building and working in it are quite different things, and I appreciate that a fifty-year old building needs to be updated to maintain its integrity but, we have excellent examples of rehabilitated buildings that assure that they will function into the future. Many cities including Detroit and Buffalo, are saving their varied architecture in ambitious restoration projects.
I would further argue that the architects of Lansing City Hall complex, Lee and Kenneth C. Black, were highly esteemed as one of the most significant 20th century Lansing firms. They designed the Auto Owners’ building (now the Ingham County Courthouse, 1954), and after his father’s death, Kenneth designed the Lansing Public Library (renovated last winter). He designed numerous residences including his own on Cambridge Road. An earlier Lansing architect, Darius Moon, is now revered but half of his buildings were torn down before historians began to tell his story. I hope the same will not happen to mid-century architect Kenneth C. Black and that in the future, we will be able to point to his important contributions and witness his stylistic and technical development in the city’s architectural heritage including the city hall complex.
As a historian, I think about context and how an object- whether a painting, sculpture or building- fits into its time and gives meaning to it. Lansing City Hall was built in a modern style using the latest glass and steel construction because then Mayor Ralph W. Crego wanted to project an image of the future, of the forward thinking city government. Its location across from the Capitol was highly intentional. The two buildings that form the complex and the plaza in front were a conscious reference to recent news-making International-style buildings in New York- Lever House and the United Nations. City Hall used the same stainless steel curtain-wall construction, a first in Lansing. The contrast of transparency and opacity, of vertical and horizontal, of varied color and texture inside and outside, and the humanizing plaza, are subtle architectural effects. Destroying this building and replacing it with a non-descript design will result in the loss of a sense of where we have come from and how the past informs our present and future.
(The writer is a professor of art history at Michigan State University and the author of “Mid-Century Modern: From Frank Lloyd Wright to Googie.”)