One house, 100 stories

By Lawrence Cosentino

Potter House tour meanders through the halls of history

James McClurken doesn’t carry himself like a lord of the manor. He slips from room to room in the gigantic Potter House in the Country Club of Lansing neighborhood with the air of a caretaker who knows where all the bodies are buried. He doesn’t stride into a room; he materializes.

“There are some Catholics who won’t come inside because exorcisms were performed in the house,” he said with a grin. Potter House, one of the city’s biggest and most idiosyncratic homes, served a stint in the 1960s and 1970s as lavish crib for three successive heads of Lansing’s Roman Catholic diocese.

The next owners, R.D. and Marlee Musser, whose family owns the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, turned the chapel into a lounge and converted the altar into a rolling bar. They left blood-red walls, blue ceilings, and a bedroom with a portrait of George H.W. Bush over one bed and George W. over the other.

“We thought we might need another exorcism,” McClurken deadpanned.

McClurken lives and works in Potter House with his life partner, pianist and recording engineer Sergei Kvitko. But he considers himself more of a steward.

“We own it, but it really belongs to the community,” McClurken said.

McClurken met last week with Lansing Community College architecture Professor Jim Perkins and Valerie Marvin, president of the Historical Society of Greater Lansing, to plan Fridays public tour of the house, with commentary by Perkins. The benefit will help the society establish a historical museum.

On the morning of the meeting, a housecleaner told McClurken that music suddenly started playing upstairs without anyone touching the stereo. “The spirits are back,” she told him.

It’s a big house: 15,000 square feet, plus a 2,000-square-foot ballroom, perhaps the largest single residential room in Lansing. But it’s frightfully cozy for a massive Tudor pile. The library is snug with heaped books and dark wood trim, the dining room is scaled to a small family, and even the ballroom (now Kvitko’s recording studio) is a darkly glittering stucco tunnel unlike any space in the city.

Each room and hallway is enriched by innumerable details, from painted animal murals to Scottish thistles, Moravian star light fixtures and odd Zodiac tiles from Flint Faience.

Much of the detail work, including the murals and the delicate, seven-colored acanthus leaf moldings, had to be restored after brutal makeovers from previous owners.

“I want to make sure you get a picture of this,” McClurken said, teleporting silently to the front porch. (How does he do that?)

“This is our little piece of Sarah.”

Sarah Potter, the guiding spirit of Potter House, gave her favorite cat a 10th life by enshrining her likeness in concrete on the front door lintel.

Ray and Sarah Potter commissioned the house in 1926 from Lansing architect Harold Childs. Ray Potter was a timber scout, businessman, banker, benefactor of Sparrow Hospital and founder of the Greater Lansing Foundation, predecessor of the Capital Region Community Foundation. His father, James Potter, donated Potter Park to the city of Lansing; his grandfather, Linus, settled Potterville. Sarah Potter was a mainstay of the Lansing Womans Club and an indefatigable hostess. When Ransom E. Olds hosted Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ford in his home, Olds asked Sarah Potter to be the hostess.

The Potters had no kids, but they used their rambling digs to entertain almost continuously, a tradition McClurken and Kvitko have brought back since they came to Potter House in 2007. Hundreds of people drift through for the couple’s New Year’s Eve bash.

Potter House can handle a shindig. It was built to industrial, not residential, standards, with bones of steel and concrete.

“There’s no settling here, no warping or twisting of wood,” McClurken said. The doors are built of two-inch walnut on three-inch knife hinges. “There’s nothing that doesn’t work after 84 years.”

Even so, McClurken compares keeping the house to a second job. When he and Kvitko moved in, they had to deal with three disastrous leaks, caused by rampant ivy, and consequent wall and ceiling damage. Truckloads of tangled brush, including 20 long-dead elm trees, had to be hauled away.

Every year, McClurken and Kvitko pick a room and wade into the house’s ongoing restoration. In 1961, Bishop Joseph Albers redecorated the house in a modern style, stripping the hardware off the walls and painting the whole house institutional green, including the copper fireplace hood. Fortunately, the bishop stored the fixtures in the attic.

Subsequent owners, the Mussers, introduced a paint scheme so radical McClurken thinks it scared off prospective buyers. McClurken retained tiny traces of Musser’s extreme dcor, including a crimson light switch.

The house’s demands don’t leave McClurken much money for philanthropy — he sets aside about $1,000 a month for repairs — but he is glad to share the house itself. A consultant specializing in Native American issues, he seems to take a tribal view of home ownership. A slew of organizations, including Woldumar and Fenner nature centers, have held fundraisers at Potter House.

McClurken figures that thousands of people have been through the place since he and Kvitko moved in.

He’s proud that only last week, the Potter Park Zoo held its first fundraiser at its namesake house. He relished the prospect of a carnivorous binturong (Asian bearcat) roaming his backyard.

“You were greeted at the door by an eagle owl,” he said, lighting up like a 9-year-old kid. “They brought a blue-tongued skink. That’s the only animal in the world with a blue tongue.” He plans to host another zoo fundraiser this fall.

So far, McClurken’s favorite event was the first fundraiser for Chad Badgero’s Peppermint Creek Theater Co., stage managed so that the guests burst into song every 15 minutes.

“I love having the community here,” he said. “Otherwise, there’s really no sense in being here.”

Far from lording it over the manor, he just stands by and digs the way other people dig his house. This spring, he finished restoring 12 original steel-lined garden beds in the front and back yards. When he’s outside puttering, passersby sometimes ask him what he charges for his services as gardener. Some are surprised by an impromptu tour of the house, courtesy of the dirt-spattered owner.

“Sergei hates it when I do that,” he said.

Potter House Tour

Fundraiser for the Historical Society of Greater Lansing

6:30-8:30 p.m. Friday, May 18

1348 Cambridge Road, Lansing