Feb. 17 2016 11:32 AM

Eastern's sale to Sparrow raises 'red flag' over fate of historic building

The Lansing School District sold Eastern High School, built in 1928, to Sparrow Hospital in January, with no provision to save the historic building. Preservationists, alumni and concerned members of the community fear its days are numbered.
Lawrence Cosentino/City Pulse

Last week, architect Elisabeth Knibbe punched up a few images of Lansing's Eastern High School on her computer.

A row of arched windows, embroidered with Indiana limestone, appeared on the screen.

"Oh, wow. It's really beautiful," she said. While historic school buildings are being rehabbed and repurposed for housing and other uses all over the state, the fate of Eastern after its January sale to neighboring Sparrow Hospital is uncertain.

Knibbe works at Quinn Evans, the Ann Arbor firm that has helped restore historic landmarks around the country, from Lansing's Ottawa Street Power Station to Washington, D.C.,'s Old Executive Office Building to Michigan's Capitol. She made her mark in Lansing as the lead architect on the 2014 renovation of the downtown Knapp's Department Store into the Knapp's Centre.

She scrutinized Eastern's meaty brick and creamy masonry, delicately ornamented and topped by copper gutters and a slate roof. "You can't replicate anything like that today," she said.

In January, the Lansing School District sold the three-story, 237,000-square-foot school and 18 acres of its surrounding campus to its next-door neighbor, Sparrow Hospital for $2.475 million.

The sprawling health complex now owns "one of the maybe 25 or so key buildings in Lansing, from an architectural standpoint," according to Robert Christensen, National Register of Historic Places coordinator at the State Historic Preservation Office.

Owner, yes. Proud owner? Hard to say.

In reply to an email inquiry about the future of the building, Sparrow spokesman John Foren did not even mention the building.

Asked whether preserving all or any part of Eastern High School was a priority, Foren replied that Sparrow is committed to "the continued health, education, and economic growth of the area." He declined to comment further.

The purchase agreement is almost as vague.

Masonry details on Eastern High School's exterior reflect a mix of styles typical of the Chicago architectural firm Pond & Pond.
Lawrence Cosentino/City Pulse

The school district can lease the building rent free for up to five years while a new school is built. After that, Sparrow has agreed to "honor the historic integrity of the structure," according to a Jan. 21 press release announcing the sale, but the terms give Sparrow a freer hand and say nothing at all about the "structure." It only says that Sparrow "shall develop a plan, which in (Sparrow's) reasonable discretion protects and preserves the historical value of the property."

Even School Board President Peter Spadafore, who approved the agreement with the rest of the board, doesn't know what that means. He said that when it comes to saving Eastern, he is "hoping for the best.”

"Let's keep our fingers crossed," Spadafore said.

Knibbe knows hospitals need a lot of parking.

"That would really, really be a lost opportunity," she said.

Across the state, old neighborhood schools from the 1920s are being renovated into modern schools or converted into housing, offices and other purposes. Knibbe was the lead architect on two such projects in Michigan, turning Ypsilanti High School, built in 1929, and Fremont High in Newaygo County, built in 1926, into low-income senior housing.

"If anything, (Eastern) is nicer than those," Knibbe said. "This one is a more handsome building."

Christensen said a stream of proposals to rehab historic school buildings have crossed his desk in the past decade.

"It's going on all over the place," he said. "Eastern would certainly lend itself to housing, or a mixture of housing and office space. It's hard to think that rehabbing it would not be feasible."

Raiding the nuggets

James Lynch, president of the Eastern Alumni Association, said his group is "very disappointed" that the school board punted on preserving Eastern.

"People understand they had to sell the school, but people are less than thrilled about the agreement," he said. "It's so vague, nobody knows."

Spadafore tried to put the best face on the deal. He expects Sparrow, "to whatever degree possible, will work to ensure the community has some sort of respect or homage to the history there."

What form might "respect or homage" take? Spadafore said the district would work with Sparrow "to perhaps transfer any meaningful internal architectural features or pieces to a new site."

"There's a lot of great tiling and woodwork and stuff like that, and those could find their way to a new home in (a new) Eastern High School," Spadafore said.

Raiding the shell for historic nuggets, the way you'd pull copper pipes from a demolition site, didn't sit well with Lynch.

"That would definitely be a red flag for me," Lynch said. "If they're just going to tear it down and build an ugly parking ramp there, that's not good."

The heavy tread of Sparrow, one of the region's major employers, has a way of quieting the room. Before the sale, Bob Trezise, CEO of the Lansing Economic Area Partnership, talked as if Eastern would never come down.

“If Eastern High School were suddenly on the market, we would be 100 percent adamant that nothing happen to the school itself,” Trezise said in March 2014. “That is far too significant and beautiful a building to ever tear down. We don’t make those mistakes anymore.”

Last week, Trezise declined to comment on the prospects for the building.

Nancy Finegood, director of the Michigan Historic Preservation Network, called Eastern High a "magnificent building."

“My organization has only sat in front of a bulldozer once, 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.)

Finegood's group offered to help the school district get its request for proposals for Eastern to preservation-minded developers, but she said "the (request) was not shared with us."

Eastern High School's library in the 1960s.
Courtesy Capital Area District Libraries

"My great fear is that they are going to demolish it, and it will become parking, or something new and completely incompatible," Finegood said.

Elusive style

Christensen's memory of Eastern High School goes back to the early 1980s, when Garrison Keillor broadcast an episode of "A Prairie Home Companion" from the auditorium.

"It's hard to say what style to call it," Christensen said. (Knibbe called it "kind of like collegiate Gothic.") "It's sort of arts and crafts but it has allusions to English styles. It's really distinctive and inventive. It goes back to 16th century, 17th century styles — extremely nice."

The school was designed by the Chicago architectural firm of Irving K. and Allen B. Pond, known for rich detail and inventive blending of styles. Pond & Pond, which specialized in academic buildings, designed the student union buildings at MSU, Purdue University and the University of Michigan. (Their father was warden of the state prison at Jackson, Mich.)

To get another expert eye on Eastern's charms, I took a walk around the school Sunday with Lansing preservationist and designer Amanda Harrell-Seyburn, a former contributor to City Pulse's "Eyesore/Eye Candy of the Week."

Like Knibbe and Christensen, Harrell- Seyburn was hard pressed to pin down the school's eclectic style, but that didn't dampen her ardor for the building.

"I'd be OK with Elizabethan Revival," she said. "But it's just good, early 20th century American high school architecture."

Harrell-Seyburn found it "very important" that the details on the facade were meant to be viewed close up, from the sidewalk, not by a driver passing by.

Schools from the 1920s like Eastern aren't just beautiful buildings. They reflect an era in history when schools were a part of the urban streetscape, before they became prison-like, blocky behemoths tucked into vast, mall-sized parking lots.

"This is a neighborhood high school," Harrell-Seyburn said. "People walked here every day. Most high schools today are not neighborhood based. You get there and back by car or bus."

Viewed up close, the squiggly details and window tracery came alive and the limestone blocks looked huge — 3 feet long and 2 feet high.

"We can't afford to build buildings of this quality anymore," Harrell-Seyburn said. "This is full-on masonry, a solid wall, not cheap quarter-inch depth veneer they use now."

We walked from one end of the facade, facing Pennsylvania Avenue, to the other, stopping to look at the stairwells at each end of the school, clad in white stone.

"It's expensive to switch the material, but they're framing the building on either side," she said. "It's very classical, with origins back in the Vatican and other Renaissance buildings."

Every arched and crenelated entrance was, in her words, "a celebration."

"It's the quality of materials, the level of detail," she said. "Those copper gutters will last forever. No one goes out and does a new high school with a slate roof."

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