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From the late ’20s to the mid-’40s, an unusually spiky and durable spore of high European style, incubated at a 1925 Paris exhibition of industry and art, hitched a ride to the New World on the streamlined hulls of transatlantic luxury liners and zeppelins.

Daniel Sturm/City Pulse
The former Michigan National Building (temporarily named Boji Tower) towers over West Allegan Street.
The group of architectural styles informally referred to as Art Deco gave a soaring, graceful panache to a generation of American buildings, from skyscrapers and waterworks to haberdasheries and diners. Deco’s elegant distractions — its massive solidity, dizzying verticality, snappy streamlines, and glittering coronas of ornamentation — were perfectly suited to a tough, dapper era when bums wore hats, the government paid unemployed artists to paint murals, and the Prometheus of American industry wore a dinner jacket under newly broken chains. It’s also an era that can still be experienced, in glorious, 31/2-dimensional Real-o-vision (time has shriveled a bit since the ’30s) simply by strolling a few strategic blocks of downtown Lansing. The following mini-tour combines an appreciation of these supremely confident architectural landmarks with a peek at their somewhat less assured future.

New York and Chicago led the way in putting up sky-scraping ziggurats like the incandescent Chrysler Building and the neo-Gothic Chicago Tribune tower, but by the end of the 1930s most mid-size American cities had their own Art Deco treasures. Often these landmarks came in readily distinguishable regional variants such as the pastels-and-palms Miami style, a hyper-exaggerated Los Angeles mode, or the Western-flavored “Cowtown Moderne” of Fort Worth, Texas. When Judy Garland knocked at the emerald doors of an entire Deco city in 1939 Hollywood, the style had completed its infiltration into the depths of the American consciousness.

That same year, Michigan’s capital had laid the foundation for a unique Art Deco heritage all its own. This heyday began with the completion of a classic ziggurat skyscraper in 1931, and culminated in the heady period from 1937-1940, when two stunning public works installations and a landmark Streamline Moderne department store sprung into being practically at once. Taken together, these four buildings present a breathtaking architectural distillation of the four ancient elements — earth, water, fire and air. These were not cowtown copies or Hollywood fantasies, but raw slabs of Deco Elemental, strong and stylish stuff worthy of a burgeoning center of industrial design and production.

Deco-era skyscrapers evoke nothing so much as towering heaps of cubed planet, usually marble and brick, visibly stacked up to the skies in the step-back or ziggurat style. In contrast to the impersonal glass-and-steel towers of a later era, Deco skyscrapers are hewn as if from the shoulders of giants, their stony facades forever burnished with the sweat and muscle of thousands of he-man, pre-OSHA workers.

Such is the mold from which Lansing’s former Michigan National Building was formed. (The building has been temporarily designated the Boji Tower after its new owners, but has yet to receive a permanent new name.) The tower was built for R.E. Olds and completed in 1931, the birth year of its famous ziggurat cousin, New York’s Empire State Building. Both structures deliberately emphasized their then-novel height with mile-high, King-Kong-in-free-fall vertical lines.

The 23-story tower at 124 W. Allegan St. has long been the second most celebrated landmark in Lansing, playing pepper to the Capitol’s salt for more than 70 years under three different owners. The tower changed hands most recently in 1998, when developers Ron and Louie Boji bought it from Michigan National Bank. In November 2001, the huge red letters that once beamed that institution’s name over hundreds of square miles of flat Michigan plain were removed from the tower’s famous clock face. The transition made architecture buffs nervous about other changes that may be in store for Lansing’s only skyscraper, but Boji spokesman John Truscott claims that the owners are keenly aware of the building’s historical significance. The aging wiring, plumbing and heating have all been repaired, along with many Deco fixtures like the circular Astaire-and-Rogers light fixtures on the first floor.

Nevertheless, once the dust settles on the nearby Boji Complex development now barely under way, the Bojis plan to fatten the venerable tower to the east and north by extending already existing additions to the top. If the real-estate market looks bullish enough, this long-range plan will almost certainly be implemented, irrevocably altering the profile of the building, not to mention Lansing’s skyline. Truscott says that all colors and materials would be painstakingly matched to those used in the existing building, and even predicted that the additions would bring the tower in line with the vision of its first owner. “R.E. Olds originally wanted a building like the Fisher Building [in Detroit] and the extensions would make it closer to that,” he explains.

A downtown tour takes visitors to such wonders as the BWL Ottawa Power Plant (upper left), the Knapp’s building (upper right) at Washington and Washtenaw and the Dye Water Conditioning Plant on Cedar.
Only time will reveal whether Boji’s success will enhance or detract from the city jewel he now stewards. The builders of Lansing’s Deco Elemental monuments may have subdued the elements, but decades of commercial flux present a far more daunting challenge. Just a block away from the king-size column of cubed stone lolls one of the city’s most curvaceous buildings, embodying, by contrast, the lightest of elements. The slick yellow and blue façade of the Knapp’s Building at the corner of South Washington and West Washtenaw seems to have been sculpted by air — as in aerodynamic, Airstream trailer, air whipped into malted milk at a soda fountain. The style is called Streamline Moderne, a kitchen-counter variant of Art Deco that fired a thousand bullet-shaped diners into mid-century American streets.
Another thing that’s airy about the Knapp’s building is its lack of tenants. “The building is vacant,” says Mark Clouse, a spokesman for the current owners, Eyde Developers. Completed in 1939 as the J.W. Knapp Department Store, it was billed in the contemporary press as “the most modern building in the Midwest,” but has spent recent years as the biggest, shiniest, most neglected toy in Lansing.

Ironically, the airiness of the structure comes not so much from windows as from a lack of them. Its sleek curvilinear design is realized in exterior plates of heavy maul macotta, or opaque-even-to-Superman concrete faced with enamel. Dense layers of glass bricks (a staple of Art Deco architecture through a series of cheap revivals culminating in Rally’s Hamburgers) give the building an external lightness but allow little real light into the building. The oppressive lack of visual egress is now the building’s bane. While windows may have been out of the question in the self-contained fantasy world of a mid-century department store, modern business tenants want to see outside their cubicles.

Therefore, says Clouse, the Eydes faces a tough choice as the building sits idle for month after month. “We would like to maintain the façade,” he says, “and there has been no final decision yet. But there may have to be changes, depending on who the next tenant will be.” While such words set off warning bells for thousands of passionate Lansing Knappsters, Clouse is quick to point out that just saving the building in some form is an achievement. “We hope to retain as much of the original as we can,” he says, but barring the intervention of a well-endowed, ready-to-kiss Princess of Historical Preservation, the building’s admirers may have to content themselves with a partially charming, partially warty object of affection in the near future.

Thankfully, Lansing’s most spectacular specimens of Deco Elemental are well insulated from the winds of commercial success and failure. Two downtown facilities built and maintained by the Board of Water and Light offer world-class examples of the monumental Deco style at its most audacious.

An advertisement from a former Lansing graphic-arts firm pictures an Art Deco future for Lansing.
Walking up to the 20-foot-tall door of the austere, concrete-bunker-like Dye Water Conditioning Plant at 148 S. Cedar St., standing under its towering relief sculpture of Aquarius the Water Bearer, and ringing the ridiculous little button-sized doorbell is a truly humbling, Dorothy-in-Oz experience. These days, nobody will even answer, because the plant is fully operational and hence closed to the public until our major cities can stop worrying about their water supply.

This means that the easily frustrated may want to stop reading here, because the Dye Plant is among the finest specimens in the nation of a fascinating subspecies of Art Deco called “PWA Moderne,” after the Depression-era Public Works Administration. Inside the facility, the frivolous zigzags of Deco meet the muscle-bound romanticism of Socialist Realism in a compelling fantasy-reality of mid-century industrial design. Retro-futuristic control panels (modeled after the consoles of 1938 Oldsmobiles) and vast, austere spaces evoke an Orwellian, or at least an Orson Wellesian, world of ominous, brooding technology (see photos).

The plant’s upper level is dominated by two huge murals commissioned for artist Frank Cassara by the PWA’s Federal Arts Project (they were restored by the artist himself in 1990, when he was nearly 80 years old). One tableau, depicting the liquid element as a destructive force, is a ravishing swirl of floodwater and suffering bodies positioned around a Calvary-like telephone pole. Another shows water as a beneficial force, and a third mural, by painter Charles Pollock (brother of Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock) offers a mad panorama of scientists and lab technicians.

Until these treasures are reopened to the public, blame water itself for keeping the Dye Plant off limits. The life-giving element stubbornly continues to seek its own level decade after decade, making the plant’s hydraulic technology as efficient for filtration and cooling as it was when the plant opened in 1939.

In 1938, the Board of Water and Light Ottawa station was in its early stages.
As striking as Lansing’s Deco embodiments of earth, air, and water remain to the present day, the city’s most wildly successful architectural achievement was a bold design that tackled the most volatile of elements head-on. In 1940, when the Board of Water and Light’s Ottawa Power Plant became operational, form and function definitively consummated that eternal courtship that still heats up your kitchen toaster. The entire building, some nine stories tall, is a huge, stylized plume of fire, representing the combustion of coal that took place inside the plant until it was retired as an electric generator in 1992. The bold stylization of the most mercurial of the four elements, on the grandest possible scale, remains one of the most remarkable and creative uses of the step-back, ziggurat style of the Deco skyscraper ever realized.

The concise stylistic unity of the Ottawa plant beggars comparison. Every detail of its exterior echoes the central theme — huge windows themselves shaped like flames, brickwork that changes hue from darker to lighter as the solidified fire tapers upward (this last characteristic is splendidly visible from across the Grand River on the wooden deck adjoining the Lansing Center). The only feature that mars the overall effect is the huge smokestack balanced on the razor-edge top floors of the building. Since the stack was retro-fitted onto the structure only after ground-level stacks proved inadequate, it can and will be lopped off in due course, even though its familiarity has misled some to mistake it for an essential part of the design.

“The building is just a jewel, completely unique,” says Board of Water and Light spokesman John Strickler, detailing the utility’s strenuous efforts to insure that the Ottawa plant stays a part of the Lansing skyline. “To begin with, you probably won’t ever see a power station in the middle of a downtown area again.” Now that more than $4 million have been spent scooping out tons of turbines, boilers, and other debris from the building’s shell, Strickler hopes the central location will lure a deep-pocketed developer into filling it with life again.
Although the Board applied for, and got, another $4 million from the State of Michigan for renovating and landscaping the surrounding area, a suitable development has still not come along. In 1995, an investor proposed a partnership with Oldsmobile to create a “vision center” where executives would receive elite training. For a while, a Chicago-based developer was negotiating with Magic Johnson about a sports bar and multiplex theater. There have been several proposals for multi-use developments, usually involving apartments on the upper floors and restaurants and/or retail below. As yet, none of these proposals have amounted to anything. The only action the place has seen in the past decade came when the Board itself installed a water-chilling plant and a set of cooling towers, tucked into the less-visible west face and sealed off with sound barriers against the day the developers finally come.

An old photo provides a view most won’t ever see in the Dye Water Conditioning Plant at 148 S. Cedar St.
But Strickler admits that it may not be realistic to expect private investors to tame the colossal orange flame all by themselves. “Some combination of public and private financing will probably be needed,” he says. The building’s ultimate fate rests upon the creativity and entrepreneurship of actors yet unknown.

The fates of these four Lansing landmarks demonstrate how the tides of time recede with a differential capriciousness, leaving structures such as Knapp’s and the Ottawa Plant high and dry of their cultural context, while others such as Boji Tower and the Dye Plant stay in the groove indefinitely. Every building has a clock that ticks inexorably until it either dies under the wrecking ball or the embalming fluid of “history” chills its veins forever. Lansing is particularly fortunate to have such conspicuous and distinctive members of an aging but still-erect Deco cohort, a “greatest generation” of buildings that solved the most daunting architectural and cultural challenges with unmatched fortitude and imagination. Just follow this tour with a visit to postmodern Lansing-area brick piles like the Library of Michigan, the Chamber of Commerce or, God forbid, East Lansing’s new City Center, and see how hard it is to keep whistling “Blue Skies.”

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