A monumental rebirth

By Lawrence Cosentino

Concrete art slabs from Lansing's past find a home in a west-side neighborhood

England has Stonehenge. Easter Island has heads.

Lansing’s Leitram Street, only a block long, has six massive, mysterious concrete slabs, each weighing over two tons.

Gently monumental relics of the earthy 1970s aesthetic, and of urban renewal in Lansing, resurfaced in the Genesee Neighborhood this spring after seven years of oblivion.

Developer Gene Townsend rescued the funky, textured panels by sculptor W. Robert Youngman from downtown Lansing’s Washington Square Mall when the mall was demolished in 2005. Thanks to a neighborhood-wide effort and a timely grant, the slabs have settled into a permanent second home.

“It’s historic to Lansing and it’s public art again,” local resident Tamiko Rothhorn said. “People walking by really notice it.”

Last fall, a flatbed truck heaved them into place on the corner of Leitram and Lapeer Street. This summer, the corner lot has been landscaped and gardened to showcase the art at full advantage.

It’s a second life for heavy art that once carried a heavy load.

“Heralding a new excitement — a new vitality for the heart of downtown Lansing — the new WASHINGTON SQUARE,” trumpeted an urban renewal brochure from the mid-1970s, “for a community of progressive citizens dedicated to the betterment of urban life!” The wall slabs were part of a major Washington Square renewal project with high aesthetic goals. Youngman, a sculptor based in Illinois, was a natural choice for designer. A lot of Youngman’s big Michigan work from the 1970s is still around. He cast 26 concrete columns for Detroit Metro Airport’s Michael Berry International Terminal, built in 1974, and made a dozen large panels for Manufacturers’ National Bank Operation Center in downtown Detroit, now Comerica Bank, at 411 W. Lafayette Blvd.

Youngman was big on modern art and architecture, but not the blank and sterile kind. The transplanted Leitram Street panels have a rolling texture that calls to mind stacks of logs, ripples on a lake and other rural sights, seamlessly harmonized with the shafts and linkages of human industry. A scattering of concave bubbles and convex doughnut shapes add a playful touch.

Youngman liked to work with big, heavy things. He worked in his father’s smithy shop from the age of 7. As soon as he got a degree in graphic design at the University of Illinois on the G.I. Bill, he went right back to the blacksmith’s shop, where he began to make abstract sculptures.

“He was drawn to his roots,” his daughter, Taresah Youngman, said. “He always had strong ties to his childhood and where he came from.”

He followed the big city art world but wasn’t drawn to it. When he went back to school, he became the first person to get a master of fine arts degree in sculpture at Southern Illinois University. The school didn’t have a department, so he did his work in the blacksmith’s shop.

He got sucked into concrete (figuratively speaking) at Ivy Tech in Anderson, Ind., where he was founder and head of the Art Department. The transition from metal felt natural to him. Concrete mixed nicely with another Youngman passion — architecture — and opened up a new textural canvas.

“He loved to play around with the casting process,” Taresah Youngman said. “Concrete is organic. It’s little, ground-up pebbles, kind of like sand.”

Although almost all of Youngman’s best-known work was abstract, he didn’t shy from figurative art. He taught drawing at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, where he spent most of his career as a professor, and kept sketching almost every day until he died of Alzheimer’s in 2010.

“He was really good at illustrations,” Youngman said. Most of Youngman’s Michigan work was poured in Detroit and moved to the site on flatbed trucks. He worked in a northwest Detroit warehouse, listening to old-time country and gospel or classical music. The setting was urban, but the vibe was small-town Illinois smithy’s shop.

Later in Youngman’s career, Taresah helped her dad on many projects, including his last and most famous work: the 228-ton Mall Water Sculpture, known to students as the Engineering Fountain, on the main campus of Purdue University. The fountain became an emblem of campus as soon as it was built in 1989, and students still run through its soaring parabolas of ribbed concrete on graduation day.

Youngman’s Lansing wall sections, a fountain and other features were in place in Washington Square by 1975, but the mall never became the public gathering place city fathers hoped for. Retail was almost non-existent. The sidewalks rolled up at 5 p.m. each night.

For years, Townsend was one of the few after-hours habitues in the mall who wasn’t drinking out of a paper bag. He was fascinated by Youngman’s method of casting sculptured surfaces by pouring concrete over sculpted sand.

“I loved to go down there and stand around,” he said. “It was art. There was a fountain, arches, benches, all made from this technique. It wasn’t just some walls. It was outdoor rooms, architecture in the purest, most original sense.”

When the mall was demolished in the mid-2000s to extend Washington Square north, Townsend persuaded the city to let him drag the slabs to the Genesee Neighborhood, where he then lived as a member of Genesee Garden Cohousing.

It wasn’t easy. About 30 cubic feet per slab, at 150 pounds per cubic foot, adds up to over two tons of concrete for each.

“But there’s holes in them,” Townsend was quick to add. They sat in a driveway for seven years, where rats loved the holes. For a while, the co-housing group listed the slabs on Craigslist, but found no takers.

Last fall, Genesee Gardens Cohousing scored a grant in the first round of the Michigan Association of Realtors’ Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper challenge grants for “placemaking” to improve neighborhoods. Realtor Nancy Kelly sponsored the project.

The panels went into place the first week in October, in the pouring rain. Cook Brothers Excavating discounted the cost of the work from over $4,000 to $2,500, the amount of the grant.

Patricia Crawford, a landscape architecture professor at Michigan State University, volunteered her time for two half-day planning sessions. The neighbors decided that the duplex at 528 Leitram, at the corner of Lapeer, was the only lot in the co-housing group that could showcase the sculptures. Rothhorn and her husband, M.C., own the house and rent it out.

(He liked the sculptures right away, while she is still warming to them.)

“They did a very good job of balancing the realistic constraints of the site and showcasing the stones so that the larger Lansing community can enjoy them,” Crawford said.

“It’s adaptive re-use at its purest form. You respect the history, the aesthetics of what it means, but it’s seen and used in a new way.”

Lynn Orta, an enthusiastic neighbor and architect of an elaborate parking-lot garden on nearly West Saginaw Street, helped with the gardening. Several other neighbors had a hand in the landscaping, including the Rotthorns, Donny Comer, Zhe-wei Dai and Michael Hamlin. Zhe-wei’s parents, Nai-nai and Yei-Yei, pitched in as well.

Karen White, another cohousing resident, took an interest in the sculptures and their creator and even contacted Youngman, the sculptor’s daughter.

Youngman said she was “torn” about the relocation when she first heard about it.

“My dad was very much a designer in how he thought about the site where his piece would be,” she said. She was worried that the project was taking the sculptures out of context, but when she saw a few photos of the slabs in a garden setting and saw the neighborhood’s appreciation for her father’s art, she quickly changed her mind. A plaque explaining the history of the slabs will go up soon.

“I think he would have liked it and felt good about it,” Youngman said. “To be a part of that community project would have touched him. Besides, it would be in a landfill otherwise.”