Appreciating the appreciators

By Lawrence Cosentino

Preservation Lansing award nominations recognize the city's best historic restoration jobs

This story was corrected on Sept. 12 to correctly spell Louise Breisch's last name. Also Emily Horvath's relation to Breisch was incorrect. Horvath is her great-grandniece.

Lansing City Clerk Chris Swope and his partner, Bradly Rakowski, have lived in their 1926 Lansing home at 1402 N. Genesee St. in the West Side neighborhood for 10 years.

How long have they been restoring it to original condition? Oh … 10 years.

“It’ll be another 10 years at least,” Swope said.

“We’re going out feet first,” Rakowski added.

They are so serious about the job, they bought scaffolding on Craigslist. No wonder they are shoo-ins for a Preservation Lansing award this year, in the category “residential, large.” (They’re the only ones nominated in that category.)

You don’t need Michelangelo-scaled equipment to qualify for the yearly awards, which recognize great historic preservation jobs, large and small, residential and com mercial, in Lansing. But it doesn’t hurt. The second annual Preservation Lansing award nominations range from a low-cost, elbowgrease-intensive makeover on the East Side to the stunningly restored Grand Trunk Western Depot in REO Town.

Nuts with nut picks

Swope and Rakowski’s home falls somewhere in the middle of the “love and money” scale. They’ve spent more money than they care to say, but they don’t farm out the hard work. They spent hours scouring out the grooves between the boards under the eaves with a nut pick. Who knew those things even had a use?

Swope and Rakowski aren’t just nuts with nut picks. They’re making the most of a rare chance. They are only the second owners since the house was built in 1926. Louise Breisch was 21 when she and her mother, Emma, had the 4,500-square-foot house built. She lived there 77 years. Her great-grandniece, Emily Horvath, lives just a block and a half away. Like many homes in the mid- to late-20th century, it was divided into three apartments. Swope and Rakowski took it back to the original floor plan, getting rid of the walls and reversing a staircase.

The house is castle-like, but stylish, not grim, with a lot of flourishes. The dramatic witch-hat slope of the roof is part illusion. The slate roof tiles are cut larger at the bottom and taper to the top, creating the impression that the house is taller than it really is.

When Swope and Rakowski moved in, they found a trove of Louise Breisch’s documents, including three sets of blueprints for the house. The Breisch family owned a Lansing mill. They found turbine blueprints and the deed for the mill from 1877, and best of all, Breisch’s personal calendar from the 1930s to the 1990s.

They learned that the quarter-sawn oak floors that cover the whole first floor — some boards are 15 feet long — only cost $300. The price would be astronomical now, if so much fine wood could be found at all. They also found out from the diary that the garage had a fire in 1984.

Swope and Rakowski aren’t artisans, but they take a lot of pride in the restoration. “When you walk through, you cannot tell where we’ve added an arch or where our woodwork meets the old woodwork,” Rakowski said.

They both see historic restoration as a kind of trust. “Louise built it, we re stored it, and the next people will enjoy it,” Swope said.

Cranberry and cream

Some projects on these pages look daunting, but you don’t need cisterns for pockets to restore an old house.

Sometimes fresh paint, a modest stack of lumber, a jumbo bucket of nails and a lot of patience will do.

Noelle Colon and her husband, Javier, have lived in the 1925 two-story house at 213 Rosamond St., about three blocks from Sparrow Hospital, for 18 years. Spiffing it into a cranberry and cream delight hasn’t been expensive, but it’s taken a lot of scraping and painting. The results are so cheery and crisp that their neighbors petitioned Preservation Lansing by the dozens to get them nominated in the “residential small” category.

“Everybody has been so nice to us,” Noelle Colon beamed. “We have a lot of great neighbors.”

The Colons thought about putting up vinyl siding, a cardinal sin among restoration mavens. Instead, they restored and painted the original wood facing, replacing the rotten boards and about 90 percent of the rusted-out nails, which they believed were original to the house.

“What we did ended up being a lot less expensive” than vinyl siding, Noelle Colon said.

They re-puttied and restored the old pulley-style windows and built new wooden shutters to replace all the plastic ones.

“I don’t like plastic,” she said. “And I love the old windows.”

They’ve also done a lot of interior work.

Colon wielded a heat gun to curl 12 layers of paint from the kitchen cabinets, which she believes to be original to the house. She’s also stripping glue and linoleum off the maple hardwood floors.

“It’s nasty work,” she said. But it’s not costing much. “It’s basically our hard work, doing it and being meticulous about it.”

Colon did a little bit of research on the house along the way. She found out that almost immediately after the house was finished, the carpenter who built it moved to East Street in North Lansing, only to be killed in a gas explosion in his new house. The Colons don’t plan to move anywhere.

Their competitor in the “small residential” category, Dale Schrader, is on his fifth house restoration in the Old Town area, but it’s a big one — a 3,200-square-foot corner house at 1101 N. Seymour St., built in 1908. This time, he’s going to move in and make it home for himself and his wife.

Schrader is the one who renovated the 1923 Sinclair service station into Artie’s Filling Station coffee shop at 127 W. Grand River Ave. near Old Town. That small but labor-intensive project scored him a surprise Preservation Lansing award last year for best commercial renovation under $1 million. Schrader is a dark horse this year because the Seymour Street house has vinyl siding, but he nominated himself for the award anyway.

It’s a large Victorian house, only without the Victorian trappings. The outside wasn’t too bad, Schrader said, but the inside was a bit of a nightmare. Years ago, the house was divided into four apartments — five, if you count a basement apartment. Schrader is undoing that by restoring the original floor plan. That means tearing walls out, and perhaps tearing some hair out.

“We had to gut the entire house and start over with all new electrical, all new plumbing,” he said.

The cost so far? “I’m afraid to say,” he said. But this one means a lot to Schrader.

“It’s our home,” he said. “We’re going to live there a long time. Hopefully it’s a trend. We’ll see more people decide to stay in Lansing.”

‘How’s the depot?’

At the other end of the cost scale from “small residential” is the sole nominee — and sure winner — in the “commercial over $1 million” category: the storybookcastle Grand Trunk Western train depot on South Washington Avenue in Lansing’s REO Town, newly restored for $2.8 million by BWL to its 1903 glory.

Through four wars and a century of economic ups and downs, the Jacobean Revival station with the peaked roof saw thousands of partings and arrivals before it was decommissioned in 1971. The worst railroad accident in Lansing’s history happened there Oct. 7, 1941, killing a newsboy and upending cars loaded with fresh fruit. President Gerald Ford had a steak sandwich there in 1976, after it was turned into a restaurant.

In the last 10 years, the depot decayed into an abandoned ruin where junkies shot up in the dark. Its broken roof tiles, dangling boards and gutted windows looked ripe for the wrecking ball in July 2010, when BWL unveiled plans for a new, gas-fired power plant to replace the aging Eckert Station nearby. The station was folded into the project. It’s used for employee training, meetings of BWL’s board of commissioners, but is also available for public events.

Two design firms, Ann Arbor’s Quinn Evans and Cornerstone of Grand Rapids, shared the design work on the restoration. Two Lansing-based companies, Granger Construction and Christman Co., did the exterior and interior work, respectively.

The depot’s thousands of curved clay roof tiles were too far gone to repair, so the design team contacted the roof’s original manufacturer, the Ohio-based Ludowici Roof Tile Co., a 120-year-old company with Old World roots that go back to Renaissance Rome. The roof’s 75-year warranty had run its course and then some, but BWL jumped at the chance to spring for another round of roof tiles from the original makers.

“Those tiles are exactly the same as the ones that were put on in 1902,” BWL’s Pete Kramer said. Gleaming copper flashing and gutters, also true to the original design, will help the roof make it through another century, Kramer predicted.

The Grand Trunk Western Railroad Association gave BWL the original plans to the depot, and restorers also used period photos for reference. The main interior floor, seriously damaged by water, was torn out and completely rebuilt. Elegant tile mosaic in the entryway, buried under carpet, was repaired and cleaned. Heavy oak window frames and wainscoting were painstakingly repaired and refinished. Designers cleared the airy interior of restaurant-era clutter and squeezed modern HVAC equipment into a crawlspace and attic.

Workers found history everywhere, in cluding clear evidence of the repair work on the west end where the train hit the station in 1941.

BWL General Manager J. Peter Lark said the little station upstages the $182 million power plant next door when he goes around the state and the country to talk about the plant. “The question I keep getting is, ‘How’s the depot?’” Lark said. “People have a real abiding interest in depots, more so than power plants. We’re going to get a lot of worth out of it.”

Making lasagna

You can still put on a stovepipe hat, stand at the railing under the original tin roof at the North Lansing Comfort Station and wait for something — as long as it’s not a train. Built in 1914-‘15, it’s a twostory shoebox wedged into the densest part of Old Town. Fittingly, the Michigan Historic Preservation Network moved into the refurbished station in February.

Now headed for its 100th birthday, the station was a waiting room and bathroom for passengers on the old interurban rail system, the Michigan United Transit line between St. Johns and Lansing.

A small pan of “lasagna financing,” with several layers piling to about $400,000, financed the project, one of two nominees in Preservation Lansing’s “commercial under $1 million” category this year.

Nancy Finegood, director of the Michigan Historic Preservation Network, said the building needed a new roof, new heating and cooling systems and modest masonry work, but the bones were solid. The wood floors, most of the doors and the railings are original.

The dough for the lasagna came from a city faade grant, a federal grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, a Community Revitalization Grant through the Michigan Economic Development Corp., and one of the last state historic tax credits granted before Gov. Rick Snyder ended the program in 2011.

Finegood also used some in-house jiujitsu to stretch a buck. It came in handy that the Preservation Network conducts two-week job training programs around the state to teach unemployed contractors how to restore wood windows.

“We held a class here,” Finegood said with a sly smile. “They rehabbed all the windows except the two in front, and built all the storm windows.”

Now four Preservation Network staffers work on the second floor. The other tenants are the nonprofit Michigan Community Legal Resources on the second floor, and Bradly’s Home & Garden at street level. That’s the same Bradly Rakowski, co-owner of the Genesee Street house that’s also nominated for an award.

“I’m in the old Comfort Station bathrooms,” he said with a grin.

Finegood is a past master of cobbling loans and grants together and hooking up would-be restorers with specialist contractors, but there are limits to her legerdemain.

“Our biggest frustration is that there’s nothing to help residents anymore,” she said. The residential tax credit lapsed in 2011.

“It was pretty substantial,” Finegood said. “If they were in a local historic district, they could take 25 percent of their expenses toward income tax.”

The closest thing to a state historic tax credit today, Finegood said, is the Community Revitalization Program, a smallscale grant program that serves only commercial properties.

“We probably get 10 calls a week, saying, ‘How can you help us?’ We just throw our hands up in the air because there’s nothing available anymore.”

‘It’s history’

The Comfort Station’s competitor in the “commercial under $1 million” category is a slice of a 1906 commercial building, once Coscarelli’s Fruit Market, at 1147 S. Washington Ave. in REO Town.

With a bike lane where a hitching post used to be, the Vintage Caf is a throwback to the vibrant streets of a century ago.

“It’s brightly colored, and the colors are historic, but the main features are preserved,” said Daniel Madrano, who co-owns the caf with his wife, Kait. There’s a new cornice, a striped awning right out of “The Godfather” and “milk can” lights.

Daniel Medrano is director for facilities management at McLaren Health system (he builds hospitals), so he knows a thing or two about building. But he farmed this work out to experts.

“I’ve been more an executive, so I’m not a hands-on guy,” he said. “If I did the work myself, it would come out kind of crooked.”

The 1000 block of commercial buildings on South Washington was built by Edward Sparrow, of Sparrow Hospital fame, about 1906. It went up almost at the same time as the nearby REO Motor Car Plant. The surrounding Riverpoint Area is one of Lansing’s oldest, but time has not been kind to the block.

“The things they tell you not to do in restoration have been done,” Medrano said. At the caf, the storefront cornice was taken off and cheap cladding and exterior lights were added.

“I wanted to completely restore the interior, and I wanted to return it to the sense of space and history of REO Town,” Medrano said.

Attention to detail is the heart and soul of historic restoration. The caf’s recessed entry, surrounded by glass display windows, still has the classic black-and-white honeycomb tiles that graced so many stores and businesses in the early- and mid-20th century. When the city repaved the sidewalks on South Washington Street in REO Town this summer, engineers wanted to level off the entrance. The cement would have covered the tiles.

Kait Medrano persuaded them to pour the sidewalk with a gentle slope that saved them, perhaps for another century.

“Thousands of feet walked over those tiles to buy fruit,” Kait Medrano said. “It’s history.”

During the heavy summer construction, workers knocked a few of the tiny tiles loose. They found them and glued them back into place.

The Preservation Lansing Awards, 5:30 p.m.-7:30 p.m. Oct. 16, Eastern High School Auditorium, 220 N. Pennsylvania St., Lansing. Gala celebration in Jazz Age style — guests are encouraged to dress accordingly. FREE to the public, but reservations are required. Contact Barbara Brooks at, or (517) 290-8060.

2013 Preservation Lansing award judges:

Nathalie Winans, president of Lansing’s Historic District Commission Diane Sanborn, treasurer and co-founder of Preservation Lansing Sean Looman, engineer at Lansing Board of Water and Light who handles BWL’s historic properties Dan Bollman, architect and Michigan Historic Preservation Network member Cassandra Nelson, member of the Lansing Historic District Commission with a master’s degree in historic preservation Barb Brooks, Preservation Lansing member and owner of a century-old house in Lansing.

(Preservation Lansing co-founder Gretchen Cochran said she is only “driver of the van” and not a voting member of the panel.)