April 6 2011 12:00 AM

Sifting through the scraps of a celebration on Grand Avenue

At 8 a.m. on a recent Saturday, a tall man in an orange vest walked in front of the new headquarters of the Accident Fund Insurance Co. of America, picking up bits of trash.

Three days later, on March 29, a slew of dignitaries would sit in rows of white folding chairs near this spot. One after another, they would hold forth about the marvels of the newly renovated complex, a mammoth Art Deco power station rescued from ruin. There would be high talk about Lansing’s future, Michigan’s renaissance and so on.

But Joe Gunther was thinking smaller. Gunther is planning to retire this fall from the Christman Co., the lead contractor on the project. He’s spent much of the last two-and-a-half years on the $182 million project, but right now, there wasn’t much left to do.

Didn’t he have flunkies to pick up trash?

“With time-and-a-half, you’re not giving the job to a flunky,” he said. “This is the fruit of putting all that sweat equity into the job.”

The west wall of the building loomed over empty Grand Avenue like a giant sundial. As Gunther made his way south along the sidewalk, picking up odds and ends, the light wheeled around the corner of the old Ottawa Street Power Station to meet him. The morning’s first ray glinted on his white hardhat.

That glint couldn’t have happened two years ago, when a huge parking garage covered the sidewalk, burying the historic building and turning Grand Avenue into a cave.

Gunther smiled. He helped build that parking deck. “It was ’87, ’88. See that spot?” he asked, pointing near the planned site of the ribbon-cutting ceremony. “A guy died over there. Carpenter.”

Gunther admitted the street and the building looked better without the deck.

At the press conference last week, the dignitaries basked in the same new patch of sun, blown to mid-day proportions.

After the speeches were done and the ceremonial ribbon dangled in two halves, a pack of big shots toured the building.

Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero looked pensive as he gazed down at the city from the ninth floor. He got friskier as the tour went on.

At each stop, Bernero seized the opportunity to talk about how dirty and run-down the place used to be. He uttered the phrase “pigeon droppings” several times.

On the fourth floor, Bernero surveyed an overhead crane and skyhook, now welded in place as museum pieces.

“I could get a pretty penny for those on eBay,” he cracked.

The general manager of the Lansing Board of Water and Light, J. Peter Lark, seemed protective about the building, even though it no longer belonged to the utility.

Lark made it clear he didn’t need a major renovation to appreciate the plant’s architectural charms. He stood next to Bernero in the plant’s old lobby, a gleaming time capsule of 1939, and reminisced about coming here to work when the downtown water chilling plant was still running in the basement.

“I’ve always loved this building,” Lark said.

Bernero couldn’t fall back on pigeon droppings here, in a first-floor lobby.

“I remember these doors were covered in soot,” Bernero said.

Lark started walking away. Since the Ottawa Station was built in 1939, the utility boasted of the plant’s cleanliness — not only in the lobby, but in the turbine rooms and everywhere else.

“There wasn’t any soot here,” Lark said, shaking his head.

When the tour wound down, a few of the project’s designers and builders took some air on the roof of the hall of turbines, now the city’s coolest patio, high over the Grand River.

It was strange to see Chad Teeples, project manager for Christman, in a suit.

The job was done, but Teeples couldn’t stop fussing. He pointed to a light fixture that looked unfinished.

“Are we going to paint those for real?” he asked one of his workers pointedly.

Teeples said it’s hard to leave a big job.

“These guys lived with it for two and a half years,” he said. After a project this big, what can Christman do for an encore?

Teeples pointed to the city’s other big power station, the Eckert Plant to the south, clearly visible from the Ottawa Station’s patio.

He grinned broadly, stepped off the porch and vanished into the bowels of the building.

On the Saturday before the press conference, Joe Gunther didn’t look like he was having much trouble leaving the job. He picked up the litter with the relaxed air of a man with a rest ahead. The Ottawa/Accident Fund restoration will almost certainly be Gunther’s last big project.

“I’ve been all over the country,” he said. “It’s been a great career.”

For Gunther, Christman’s mid-1990s restoration of Lansing’s State Capitol was a high point.

Before starting work, Gunther used to sit on top of the Capitol dome and watch airplanes circle toward the airport to the northwest.

Whenever he saw a plane land, he would begin to count to himself.

“I’d go, one … two …three … FITZ! That’s the tires hitting the tarmac,” he said. “You could hear the echo up there.”

Sunday mornings were his favorite times.

“It was so quiet,” he said. “I would sit and listen to the city slowly come to life.”

He bent over, snagged a stray piece of plastic fencing and dropped it into a white bucket. By now he was in full sun.