Sun setting on Eastern

By Lawrence Cosentino

Exploring the possibilities for repurposing an East-Side gem

The arched windows of Lansing’s Eastern High School are webbed with fine tracery that reads like cursive script on a ruled tablet of limestone and brick.

“It is a beautiful space,” Lansing School Board President Peter Spadafore said. “It just doesn’t meet the needs of the 21st-century learning environment.”

“School’s out forever,” Alice Cooper whooped in 1972. “School’s been blown to pieces.”

Welcome to Nancy Finegood’s nightmare. As Lansing’s school district draws up a sweeping modernization plan, due later this month, Eastern’s fate is unclear.

Finegood, director of the Michigan Historic Preservation Network, said saving the massive 1928 landmark is “worth a fight.”

“My organization has only sat in front of one bulldozer, but Eastern might be worth it,” Finegood said. (That was the 1905 Madison-Lenox hotel in downtown Detroit, torn down in May 2005 and turned into a parking lot.)

No bulldozers are rumbling toward Eastern yet, but Spadafore made it clear that the clock is running on the 237,000-square-foot school that sits on a sprawling 48 acres. If anybody has any ideas on what to do with the building, it’s time to “put pen to paper,” he urged.

“No one on the board is opposed to re-purposing (Eastern), but we’re at the point where we’ve got to do something,” Spadafore said. “There’s a lot of sentiment and a lot of good ideas out there, but this conversation has been going on for years. We’re now at the phase where we need to start talking practical and real solutions.”

If it’s crunch time for Eastern, the district hasn’t been beating the bushes for help. “I don’t think it’s been promoted,” Finegood said. “We’re right here in Lansing. If there is a (Request for Proposals), I’ve not heard or seen it.”

Spadafore said the district hasn’t issued an RFP and is waiting for prospective buyers and developers to approach the district. He said no formal plan for re-using Eastern High School has crossed his desk.

Last week, Spadafore was busy scheduling a retreat for the board to consider its options for Eastern and its other buildings. Meanwhile, Superintendent Yvonne Caamal Canul is sifting through a Jan. 9 report from a facilities task force recommending that the school board “replace, liquidate and/or maximize” Sexton and Eastern high schools, along with the administration building at 519 W. Kalamazoo St., Otto Middle School and the vehicle maintenance center in Lansing Township.

At the Jan. 9 presentation, Caamal Canul said the task force’s unofficial recommendation to place specialty campuses at Eastern and Sexton high schools was not feasible, nor is it possible to keep Eastern going as a “comprehensive high school.”

Bob Trezise, president and CEO of the Lansing Economic Area Partnership, has heard from “several” people concerned about Eastern’s fate.

“If Eastern High School were suddenly on the market, we would be 100 percent adamant that nothing happen to the school itself,” Trezise said. “That is far too significant and beautiful a building to ever tear down. We don’t make those mistakes anymore.”

Options, possibilities

But who would take on such a Herculean project?

Trezise is eager to get the building onto the tax rolls, perhaps as home to a high-tech company, a la Neogen or Niowave, or as housing for seniors or the oft-courted “young professionals.”

Last October, Preservation Lansing held its awards ceremony at Eastern High, just to dangle the school in front of decision-makers like James Herbert, CEO of Neogen, one of the night’s honorees.

Under Herbert’s aegis, Neogen has rehabbed and occupied 13 old buildings on Lansing’s East Side, including the 1916 Oak Park School, a few blocks east of Eastern High, and the 1913 Allen Street School at 1614 E. Kalamazoo St., now Neogen’s Center for Microbiological Excellence.

In an interview before the awards ceremony, Herbert said the company has “just about filled” the Allen Street School.

“We’re still growing in Lansing and will continue to look for similar buildings in nearby areas,” Herbert said.

A spokesman for Herbert said he hasn’t yet looked into the feasibility of adding Eastern High School to the high-tech archipelago he is building on the city’s East Side.

Eastern High School lies in the literal shadow of another big East Side player, colossal Sparrow Hospital, just across Jerome Street. As the hospital pushes the limits of vertical expansion, the sprawling grounds of Eastern must look inviting. But would Sparrow’s health team resuscitate Eastern or pull the plug?

Lansing Schools spokesman Bob Kolt confirmed that Sparrow has expressed interest in the property.

John Foren, a spokesman for the Sparrow Health System, said Sparrow has invested $250 million in community projects in recent years — “things like the build-out of the Sparrow Tower, opening of clinics” — but he didn’t comment on whether preserving Eastern was a priority.

With a major hospital across he street, it might make sense to convert Eastern into an assisted living facility, or housing for relatives of hospital patients. Across Michigan Avenue from Sparrow, the Ronald McDonald House, a home for families of sick children, is often at capacity.

Then again, hospitals also need plenty of parking.

Foren declined to comment on any of these ideas.

“(The school district is) working through a process and we defer to that,” Foren said. “I’m from this area. I understand the importance of Eastern to this community. But there are no solid plans right now.”

Spadafore was circumspect, saying only that Sparrow is a “logical partner for that property.”

Developer Pat Gillespie grew up on the East Side. He completed a spectacular renovation of the Marshall Street Armory in 2011 and has big ideas for Eastern and its spacious campus.

“It’s a cool site, a big site,” Gillespie said. “I’d love to have an opportunity to do some creative stuff with it.”

Gillespie envisions a “dynamic master plan community” combining housing for hospital visitors and others with a medical complex that includes “an academic component.” He pictures over 6,000 Sparrow employees ditching their loading dock cigarette breaks and using the huge indoor track next to Eastern, a new fitness center and surrounding green space.

“We’d love to have an opportunity to play around with something like that,” Gillespie said. He said he’s been waiting for the district’s final plan to be announced to approach the district. He wasn’t aware they were looking for ideas.

Repurposing schools

While Trezise pushes a private sector use for Eastern, there are precedents for public re-use of historic school buildings.

Last week, Valerie Meyerson, director of the Charlevoix Public Library, took a few minutes to ogle Lansing’s Eastern High School online.

“It looks like my building — same era, same brick and stone work, same little bay window,” Meyerson said. “It’s a beau tiful building.”

Nearly the same age as Eastern, the 1927 Charlevoix Grade School, about 20,000 square feet, was closed in 2002. It’s now a state-of-the art library and community gathering spot.

When Meyerson toured the Charlevoix school with a site selection committee, her first reaction was, “No way.”

“The school was in horrible, horrible condition,” Meyerson said. “The roof was bad, there were issues with the masonry. The school district knew they were going to build new, so they put no money in the facility.”

Eastern is in a similar spot. Preservation Lansing leader Gretchen Cochran said the building is already a victim of “demolition by neglect,” with crumbling plaster and exposed lath in some parts of the interior.

“Outside there are places where the grout has fallen out of the brick, and you know water damage is going to happen, if it hasn’t already,” Cochran said. “Who knows what’s happened where we can’t see, like the roof.”

But public sentiment for the old Charlevoix school was strong.

“In Charlevoix, people love their history,” Meyerson said. “It’s small-town America, it’s all about the schools.”

In a leap of faith, the city bought the property before the library asked for a millage to fund the renovation. The library and the city made a deal to share parking space. The city paid for a five-figure feasibility study to see if the building could be saved.

“We had architects, structural engineers, environmental engineers,” Meryson said. Environmental cleanup alone amounted to a quarter of a million dollars.

A bond millage passed handily and raised $7.5 million. Public and donor support was so strong the library raised $1.5 million in a capital campaign.

The building was gutted to a shell. The entire exterior was re-grouted and cleaned. The library expanded from a “teeny library with old books” into a community gathering center. About 170,000 people visit every year to attend concerts, lectures, technology training, craft classes and so on.

What about that auditorium?

Meyerson got everything on her wish list, down to the Arts & Crafts light fixtures and wood detailing, but she envies Eastern’s exquisite auditorium.

“We have a community room with a portable stage and sound system, but we could do so much more if we had an auditorium,” she said.

Eastern’s auditorium raises the possibility of a community and/or performing arts center, a longtime Lansing dream. But Trezise said it would be an expensive proposition for the city.

Tim McCaffrey, director of East Lansing’s Hannah Community Center, said any city should go into such a venture with “eyes wide open.”

“There will be ongoing operating costs the community will have to face,” McCaffrey said. The 100,000-square-foot East Lansing High School, later John Hannah Middle School, was converted into the Hannah Community Center after a $7 million bond issue was approved by East Lansing voters in 1998. The center has a 500- seat theater, a senior center, fitness and aquatics centers and hosts a wide range of classes and services.

With all its activities, the center’s third floor is still unoccupied.

“We had more building than we had money, in terms of all the things we wanted to do, but it’s still a vibrant facility in the areas we use,” McCaffrey said.

Lansing has a string of major architectural rescues under its belt, but Trezise worries about the shrinking toolkit for investors in old buildings. State historic credits and brownfield credits were eliminated in 2011.

“That’s the only way we did Knapp’s, the power station, Motor Wheel, the Mutual Building, all the others,” Trezise said.

However, it’s likely that any rescue of Eastern High School would qualify for grants and/or low-interest loans under the Community Revitalization Program, which replaced the brownfield and historic tax credits.

Another substantial incentive, the federal historic tax credit, is a slam-dunk for Eastern.

Bob Christensen, National Register coordinator of the State Historic Preservation Office, said there is “no question” that Eastern is Federal Register material.

“The two old high schools, Eastern and Sexton, are fantastic architecturally,” Christensen said. “Both should be kept indefinitely, hopefully as schools, but if not, they should be kept and used for something else.”

Finegood said her organization would be glad to help the school district by adding Eastern or any other decommissioned school to its online listing of historic Michigan properties for sale. She also offered to pass along any RFPs to developers who specialize in historic preservation.

But Christensen is worried that the school board will consider Eastern and Sexton “expendable” and go for the quick sale. “They should be marketed deliberately, with a view toward getting them in the hands of people who will preserve them,” he said.

“I completely understand that concern,” Spadafore said. “It is a beautiful piece of architecture.” But he didn’t say whether the board would be willing to hold out a few extra months and wait for a developer who would preserve the building.

Christensen suggested that it’s time for the conversation to heat up.

“People need to be talking to the school district now, not when they take a vote to sell it,” he said. “Get them warmed up to the idea that these are important landmarks that must be disposed of carefully, with a real view toward preserving them.”