Taming of the flame
|By Lawrence Cosentino|
Lansing’s Ottawa Power Station refit nears completion
Where turbines roared, phones will ring. Where coal was crushed, claims will be processed. Where pigeons roosted, meetings will be taken.
The white-collar taming of the 1939 Ottawa Power Station, Lansing’s giant Art Deco flame of steel, glass and brick, into the headquarters of the Accident Fund Insurance Co. of America is well on its way.
All nine floors of the 190,000-square-foot power plant are in place. Workers are routing computer cables, heating and cooling vents and assorted spaghetti into the floors. A glassy new 105,000-square-foot addition is almost finished and a parking deck to the north is going up fast.
The service car that rattled up and down the plant’s north face like a big red zipper is gone. Interior elevators now swoosh to the top. A glass-encased set of suspended walkways between the old and new buildings started going into place two weeks ago.
Last Friday, I took a ride to the ninth floor — the tip of the flame — with project manager Chad Teeples. It was like standing on top of a city-sized sundial. As the world turns, cubes of light sweep across the walls and floor from dueling banks of windows less than 10 paces apart.
“Beautiful view,” hardhat Brent Humble said as he worked on the ceiling. “Can’t beat it.” The Capitol dome was just visible under his legs.
“It’s a dynamic space,” Teeples said.
Two and a half years have gone by since work on the project began with the dismantling of the plant’s giant smokestack in December 2007.
The base of the smokestack, bulbous as a bomb, still protrudes from the ninth-floor roof.
Back then, two and a half years seemed like a long time to wait for Friday’s elevator ride. Maybe that’s because it came on top of a much longer wait, going back to the plant’s 1992 de-commissioning and extending through a series of false development starts.
But Friday, looking down from an airy room that didn’t exist a year ago, I found the transformation shockingly sudden. Most work on the Lansing-based insurance giant’s new corporate campus is expected to end this Thanksgiving, followed by a month or two of inspections and last-minute fixes.
Accident Fund employees can start hauling in the computers, coffee urns and kid photos in early 2011. The parking deck is scheduled for June 2011 completion.
The project is on budget at $132 million, according to the Christman Co., the general contractor. The parking deck is expected to cost another $31 million.
The theme here is adaptive reuse, on the grandest scale ever seen in Lansing. Variations on this theme play out everywhere on the site.
On most floors, rugged girders and bare bricks are left to play against crisp white drywall and new glass. An 85-ton rolling crane, once used to service the plant’s turbines, is ready to slide into permanent retirement on the second floor, as a museum piece.
The roof of the Hall of Turbines, at sixth floor level, will become a patio with a spectacular view south onto the Grand River. The patio is recessed just enough to preserve the plant’s clean Deco lines to eyes far below.
Skylights visible only to a helicopter have been cut into the step-up tower’s broad shoulders, letting sunlight stream into the fourth floor past riveted beams three feet thick.
On the first floor, stainless steel stairways with classic Deco curves, protected by plywood for now, will be fixed and polished. (One of them leads smack into the new second floor, but remains, just for show.)
Sharp observers across the Grand River have noticed crisscrossing lines behind some of the plant’s stately windows. Diagonal metal braces have been retained, reinforced and added throughout over the building, for good reason.
Teeples said workers took more than 14,000 tons of junk out of the old plant — the legacy of its heavy-duty past — but only put back about 4,000 to 5,000 tons of new stuff. Even with 1,200 Accident Fund employees on site, after a heavy lunch, the building won’t come close to its old weight.
“Instead of wanting to be planted in the ground by gravity, it became quite light, more like a sail,” Teeples explained.
I looked at him. It was a windy day.
“It’s not going anywhere,” he reassured me.
However, after the plant was scooped out, before the new floors and extra bracing were in place, there was a delicate period.
“I felt much better when the ninth floor was in,” Teeples said. “The job became a different animal. We’d begun to plant the building again.”
In another complicated round of give and take, designers had to make the building energy efficient while maintaining its historic look. Few buildings this big have juggled a listing in the National Registry of Historic Places with a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification.
On the ninth floor, and all over the old plant, bare masonry alternates with insulated, covered-wall sections.
That’s because the prime directive of historic preservation isn’t to fool people, but to make a building’s “story” clear.
“I was very impressed,” Converse said. “You see how plumb and level and square it is.”
“They do dams, earthworks and other big infrastructure projects, but I like the buildings,” he said.