LCC's wrecking ball to strike again

By Lawrence Cosentino

Three houses from the 19th and early 20th century are to come down for a green space with signs. One was the home of department store owner F.N. Arbaugh. City official surprised.

Lansing Community College will tear down three downtown houses this summer that preservationists deem historic and replace them with a “welcoming plaza” on the north side of campus.

A posse of 15 preservation experts toured the houses Friday and deplored the impending loss of three more century-old-plus buildings in the heart of the city.

LCC bought the three properties, on the southwest corner of Capitol Avenue and Saginaw Street, in May for a total of $400,000.

“The fact of this building coming down upsets me more than us losing our office,” Bonnie Faraone, wife of attorney Michael Faraone, told the group. The Faraones have kept their law office at 617 N. Capitol, built in 1888, for eight years. “We’re just a person who’s going to pass through time, like everyone else,” Faraone said. “This thing has survived 124 years.”

The three houses were once part of one of the city’s most fashionable residential districts. 617 N. Capitol has lost much of its Victorian look over the years, but it’s easily spotted because of its curvy, red-painted, tongue-like porch. The neo-classical behemoth on the corner, 205 W. Saginaw, was built in 1902 and moved in 1949 from 400 Townsend St., and is now vacant. The first floor, heavy with oak walls and trim, was built by F.N. Arbaugh of downtown Lansing’s Arbaugh Department Store.

The third house slated for demolition, 211 W. Saginaw, was built in 1898 and is divided into six apartments.

Demolition is slated for August or September. Tenants have until July 1 to leave.

LCC spokeswoman Ellen Jones said the college “will create a park-like entry with green space and monument signage welcoming visitors to campus, the neighborhood, and to the heart of the city.” LCC has already erected two “welcoming signs,” concrete slabs surrounded by decorative plantings, on the east side and southeast corner of campus.

City planning director Bob Johnson was surprised by the purchase.

“There could have been more communication on this, not only with us, but with the community as well, the adjacent neighborhood,” Johnson said. “Obviously, we want to support the community college, but we have to be thoughtful in terms of taking some significant structures off line. Another option is relocation or restoration of the houses.”

Johnson isn’t looking forward to the change to the landscape.

“If it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” he said. “I don’t see that corner needing any modification to it, personally.”

At 617 N. Capitol Friday, Bonnie Faraone showed the preservationists elaborate parquet floors, ornate heating grates, a huge sliding “pocket” door and other historic nuggets.

By general agreement, the massive corner house at 205 W. Saginaw, with its wedding cake stack of columns, was the show-stopper of the three.

“This one is terrific,” architect Dan Bollman said.

Under the eye of an LCC security guard, Nathalie Winans, chairwoman of Lansing’s Historic District Commission, ventured inside. The interior was sprinkled with fallen plaster, the house’s wooden moldings, wainscoting and window frames were intact. A curved balustrade graced the second floor.

“Solid oak,” Winans said. “Original, working windows, easily repairable.” Bollman said the oak was “quarter sawn,” an expensive cut rarely used today.

“The staircase is in spectacular condition,” Winans said.

Next door to stately 205 W. Saginaw, the house at 211 W. Saginaw, divided into six apartments, is the least well preserved of the three houses. Yet even here, the group found features to admire, including a curved, leaded glass bay window on the third floor.

Tenant Michael Williams, who has lived on the top floor for 11 years, invited the group inside.

“What I like about this apartment are the angles,” he said. “No squares.” The house is capped by an unusual array of turrets and barn-like peaks.

“I hope you can save these houses,” he told the group as it shuffled downstairs.

The impending demolition raised the question of LCC’s impact on downtown development.

“They have preserved some buildings,” Johnson said. “Give them credit for that.”

Not very many, according to James Perkins, architecture professor at LCC, who worked on two houses saved “all or in major part” by LCC.

The college restored the Rodgers-Carrier House, designed by famous Lansing architect Darius Moon, and the Herrman House next door.

“Those are the only two houses I know of that have ever been saved, all or in major part, by LCC over the years,” Perkins said. “All others, including many of the 19th century commercial buildings that lined Washington Avenue where the main part of [LCC] campus is today, have all fallen to the wrecker’s ball.”

Last year, LCC demolished a century-old house at 216 W. Saginaw, across the street from the three houses the group visited Friday, to make room for a parking lot. (Owner Dale Schrader salvaged the oak front door for his rehabbed gas station, now the coffee shop Artie’s Filling Station at 127 W. Grand River near Old Town.)

Richard Bowlin, who owned 617 N. Capitol and 211 W. Saginaw, said it was a “godsend” that LCC approached him to buy the properties. Bowlin is 74 years old. “I would like to retire. I wanted to sell these years ago, but there’s been no interest in them.”

As for the historical preservation, Bowlin said that was out of the question after houses were moved to make way for Interstate 496 in the mid 1900s. “Those houses were essentially demolished when the state highway department put 496 through Lansing. … Whether it’s historical or not is really not an issue.”

But Bob Christiansen of the State Historic Preservation Office said there is an unintended effect. Christiansen looked south on Capitol, where the massive porticoes of the stately 1912 Newbrough House, next door to 617 N. Capitol, still dominate the block.

“I’m also concerned, if you nibble away, you’ll leave these standing by themselves,” he said.

Winans agreed.

“It’s not just the idea of having historical significance, or a historical building,” she said. “It’s urban fabric.”