July 19 2018 10:34 AM

Historic homes near downtown face uncertain future


    As the bowling ball of time rolls forward, two historic but isolated 19th-century houses are wobbling like a 7-pin and 10-pin on the east and west fringes of Lansing’s downtown.

    The 1876 Richard and Deborah Glaister House, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in March 2017, was sold in June to Set Seg, a nonprofit insurance company with offices at 415 W. Kalamazoo St., about 20 feet west of the house. The new owner says it’s exploring “all options.”

    The stately house, at 402 S. Walnut St., was built and owned by the master masons who built the State Capitol two blocks away. Now it’s the lone survivor of a vanished neighborhood.

    The house’s longtime owner, 93-year-old Alice Sessions, narrowly missed protecting the house by securing a listing as a local historic district. Sessions lived in the house, on and off, from age 15 until shortly before her death April 15. (Sessions was featured in City Pulse’s annual People issue in January.) She turned down multiple offers to buy the house over the years, invested $30,000 into repairs in 2017, and received a Preservation Lansing award that year for her efforts.

    Dennis Rogoszewski, chief financial officer at Set Seg, said the nonprofit has no plans for the property yet. It paid $250,000.

    “It’s an old house,” Rogoszewski said. “We have to see what condition it’s in, what’s in there. I’m assuming there are some things in the house that are not the healthiest.”

    Dale Schrader, a member of Preservation Lansing who has rehabbed many homes on Lansing’s East Side, helped Sessions draft a letter nominating the house as a local historic district last fall. “I really believe it was her intention to save that house,” Schrader said. “She knocked on my door, left a note about it, then came back a second time. I went through it with her personally on three or four trips to her house.”

    Sessions sent the letter to Lansing Mayor Andy Schor Jan. 22. Four days later, her son, Richard Sessions, wrote Schor, asking him to withdraw the request because the house was in trust, with Richard as co-trustee.

    Putting the house in a local historic district, Richard Sessions wrote Schor, “could limit our flexibility to sell this asset to meet my mother’s living and health care needs.”

    Alice Sessions died with the house still up for sale, but Richard Sessions did not honor his mother’s request.

    Reached at his home in Colorado last week, Richard Sessions declined to comment.

    The National Register description of the house lists dozens of period details, from the oculus window in the front gable to carved plant motifs inspired by designer Christopher Dresser. The two-story, red brick Italianate house is a style that is relatively rare in Lansing.

    “Despite long years as an apartment building the house retains much if not most of its original finishes,” the National Register listing observes.

    Being listed on the national register is a carrot, not a stick, and does not interfere in any way with a private property owner, according to Robbert McKay, historical architect at the State Historic Preservation Office.

    But the listing opens the door to a federal rehabilitation tax credit to help restore and maintain historic buildings.

    “We’re always available to talk with the new owner and talk about what programs there are and how to use them,” McKay said.

    McKay said getting the home listed as a locally designated district “would have given the property substantially more protection.”

    “Clearly, the location puts additional pressure on it, and not good pressure,” he said.

    Meanwhile, on the east side of downtown, the same pressure is bearing down on a two-story brick house built in 1870, now home to the Michigan Dyslexia Institute, next to the Lansing Brewing Co.

    Gary Woodbury, president and CEO, said the nonprofit is looking for a more streamlined space that is easier for its out-of-town clients to find.

    The house at 532 E. Shiawassee St., at the corner of Larch Street, has a wealth of Victorian details and features, including a unique two-story, stacked bay window that dominates the north face like a glass wedding cake. In the early 20th century, the house belonged to the Curtis Meats family. A three-story meat-packing plant loomed over the house’s west side until Larch Street was widened and the plant was torn down.

    Heidi Butler, local history librarian at the Capital Area District Library, said “the house is fantastic but the location is a real problem, and masonry homes are notoriously hard to move.”

    Realtor James Caster said he’s looking for a buyer that would repurpose and rehab the house. He has listed the building for $250,000.

    “It’s nobody’s intention to sell it to somebody who’ll turn around and turn it into parking lot,” Caster said. “That’s not in the cards, and it would be a tragedy. I don’t know who in their right mind would pay that kind of money to park cars there.”

    However, Woodbury said he “can’t control” what the next owner will do.

    A logical buyer would be developer Pat Gillespie, who owns much of the surrounding land and has been instrumental in activating the northeast sector of downtown into a bustling Stadium District, but Gillespie said he’s not biting.

    “We’ve had some interest, but not right now,” Gillespie said. “We don’t know what we’d do with it.”

    The house was restored in the 1960s and 1970s by Knight and Phyllis McKesson, a pair of colorful political activists who held various offices over the years and lived in the house for 20 years. A sign in front of the house advertised “Public Relations and Other Flim-Flam.”

    Both the Glaister and the Shiawassee Street houses are not only architecturally significant, but also resound with decades of Lansing history. In a 2017 interview, Alice Sessions recalled roller-skating as a teenager from the house to the Arbaugh department store downtown. Lansing Mayor Ralph Crego boarded at the house when he was a newlywed. Two of the stonemasons who built the house, and the Capitol, worked without a mask and died from inhaling silica. Their father, Richard Glaister, was so distraught he committed suicide “right in my kitchen,” Sessions said.

    A folder of documents and memorabilia from the Shiawassee Street house includes a letter from a family friend of the McKesson’s, Ed Sabrosky, describing his grandmother’s three-day Polish wedding, which took place in the house, “with plenty of kielbasa, pierogi and libations.”

    “The men would throw silver dollars at Grandma’s dinner plates and if they broke one they danced with the bride,” the letter reads. “We’re talking WEDDING here.”