In retrospect, it’s amazing that Lansing’s Scott House made it all the way to a wintry Monday morning two days ago, when its demolition began to make room for a Board of Water & Light substation.
Built in 1918, the house was an unlikely remnant, not even native to the fabled neighborhood where the city’s most opulent row of mansions once stood — a rich patch of urban tapestry cigarette-burned away 50 years ago by the I-496 freeway and encroaching parking lots of an expanding Oldsmobile plant.
How did the Scott House last so long?
Mainly, by not being the Scott House. The house that was being torn down this week was not the original Scott House, a massive Southern-style mansion with 30-foot-tall Ionic columns that stood in the same spot until 1966.
When owner Gertrude Scott ordered the original Scott House to be razed, she rescued it from 50 years of vicissitudes borne by its successor, ending mercifully in this week’s demolition, from the vinyl siding slapped over its crumbling stucco to the bats in the attic, the neglect and all the other piecemeal indignities that come with being the ward of a cash-strapped city and the last tooth in a mouth kicked by history.
Scott, the widow of REO Motor Car Co. executive Richard Scott, saw the world that was coming, the world of freeways and parking lots unleashed by Lansing’s bespectacled, garden-loving Victorian auto pioneers. She didn’t want the 1905 house to linger in that world. The shade of the elms was giving way to a new urban landscape, lakes and rivers of baking asphalt.
And who wants to keep doddering along when all of your neighbors are gone? The old Scott House sat between the homes of Judge Edward Cahill, to the east, and the Orlando Barnes mansion — the famous “Barnes Castle,” a 26-room Victorian pile straight out of “Dracula” and probably the biggest house ever built in Lansing — to the west. Across the street, to the north, from the Scott Mansion was the home of Gladys Olds Anderson, daughter of R.E. Olds, at 720 S. Washington Ave., a two-story, brick mansion with high-peaked roof and a dark contrast to the dazzling whiteness of the Scott Mansion.
All of these neighbors would be gone by 1970, when I-496 swept through town, wiping out some 800 structures and creating over 30 dead-end streets.
Judge Cahill’s house next door was purchased and razed by the Scotts themselves, to create a sunken garden that will also be swallowed up by the BWL substation and moved a few hundred feet to the southwest, according to BWL spokesman Steven Serkaian.
The house Lansing lost this week, the house that bore the cross of isolation, was originally the Jenison House, a more modest, Tudor-style mansion that stood for years at 915 Townsend St. until it was moved to the Scott House’s old spot nearly 50 years ago.
For a while, the house’s spaciousness and friendly facade made it a fine city asset. The city took it over in 1945, when the owner, Orien Jenison, died in 1945.
Jenison was a prominent Lansing citizen with deep roots in local history. His father, also named Orien, walked to Lansing from Jackson one Christmas Day in the 1850s to do business in the city shortly after it became the state Capitol. (The roads were too bad for the coach to run that day.)
The city swapped out the Jenison property to General Motors, which needed parking space there, and moved the house to the old Scott House lot in 1978.
Over the years, many groups used the Scott Park Art and Garden Center for meetings, including a coin club, a herpetology (reptile) club, Friends of the Cooley Gardens, the Greater Lansing Garden Club, and posts of the American Legion, the Disabled American Veterans and the Military Order of the Purple Heart.
They paid about $100 a year to use the house.
For much of that time, an informal swarm of bats met nightly in the attic, darting into the lower rooms now and then to liven up the club meetings.
The garden, a small but unique city jewel, was restored in 1985 and 1992 by the garden club, but the house gradually deteriorated, from its wooden beams to its electrical and plumbing systems to the vinyl siding that sagged to reveal the crumbling stucco. The parks department used part of the house for storage. A City Pulse reporter who visited the house in 2010 found the attic “full of sports trophies and dead insects.”
In 1996, the city commissioned an inspection and estimated it would cost $534,000 to restore the building. In 2010, then-Parks director Murdock Jemerson said it would cast $1.5 million to $2 million to restore the house.
The BWL’s substation plans aroused a belated flurry of support for the house, which was perched at the fringe of a huge parking lot across from a freeway and unknown to most residents of the city. But the second Scott House, like the last, woodpecker-riddled tree standing in a pond flooded by industrious beavers, was just too isolated and far gone. If it had been the Olds’ house, the Barnes Castle, or even the original Scott House, the BWL might have been pressured to change its plans.
Another pressing priority, the closing of the aging, polluting, coal-fired Eckert Plant, persuaded the City Council to approve the substation plan. Serkaian said the utility was prepared to pay a “qualified bidder” $100,000 to move the house a second time, but the city did not find a bidder. Serkaian said the demolition is expected to be done by the end of the week.