Feb. 10 2010 12:00 AM

Ignite will warm up downtown landmark



Sleek as an ocean liner, bright as a sunfish, the Knapp’s building still turns heads in downtown Lansing, decades after its heyday as a bustling department store.

Soon, the vacant yellow and blue landmark will go back into service — as a marketplace of ideas.

Lansing’s third round of Ignite, a showcase for new-urbanist creativity, will be held at the five-story Knapp’s Office Centre March 5.

Since 2006, the Ignite phenomenon has spread around the world and taken root in Lansing as well. Over 400 people jammed the Temple Building for Lansing’s second Ignite last Sept. 26.

In a rapid-fire format dubbed “Attention Deficit Theater” by an Oregon newspaper, Ignite speakers get five minutes to hook the audience on a pet topic, from personal experience (surviving the first year of marriage) to general interest (eating whole foods). Politics, religion and hucksterism are forbidden; humor is encouraged.

“The atmosphere is just awesome,” Ignite organizer Justin Caine said. “None of it’s corporate. No Amway. It’s all grassroots.”

Caine considers the Knapp’s building more than worthy to host Ignite.

“We want that feeling of an unpolished, raw, idea-sharing platform,” Caine said.

Knapp’s began life as a department store in 1937, before suburban malls replaced downtowns as shopping meccas. Mark Clouse, general counsel for the Eyde Co., remembers zooming up and down the escalator.

“My parents shopped there. I’ve grown up with that building,” Clouse said.

When the Lansing-based chain went out of business in the mall-crazy 1980s, devel opers George and Louis Eyde bought the Art Deco landmark and turned it into an office complex. The state of Michigan was a tenant until 2003, but the building has been empty since.

Two months ago, Andrea Ragan of the Lansing Economic Devlopment Corp., walked through the building with Clouse and thought immediately of Ignite.

Using a building that’s “at an exciting redevelopment point” is an integral part of the event, Ragan said.

“It still looks like a department store,” she said. “The first floor is wide open with large pillars.” The mezzanine is still there, only without the ladies’ lingerie.

Hosting Ignite, Ragan told the Eydes, would be a way to build community support for future work on rehabbing the building. They readily agreed, pending this week’s city safety inspection.

Since 2003, the heat at Knapp’s has stayed on, mainly to keep the fire suppression equipment in order. In urban pioneer spirit, Ignite organizers told the Eydes they wouldn’t mind using portable toilets, as they did at September’s Temple building event. Clouse said the first-floor restrooms should be up and running.

Hopes are high that the event will ignite enthusiasm for putting the 190,000-squarefoot Streamline Moderne masterpiece back into service.

The building gets its dynamic curvilinear look from huge plates of heavy maul macotta, or concrete faced with enamel. The interior is not as dark as one might expect, Clouse said, owing to layers of prismatic glass-brick windows designed to suck light inside.

The streamlined skin is breathtaking, but it needs care, and to preserve it means limiting what can be done with the building.

Clouse said there are no definite plans for redevelopment yet, but a multi-use solution, with retail on the first floor, offices above and residences on top, is most likely.

Clouse compared Knapp’s to another downtown Art Deco masterpiece, the Ottawa Power Station, now being restored as the headquarters of the Accident Fund Insurance Co.

“It took a lot of effort from a lot of partners, including the city and the state, to do that, and I think the Knapp’s building is the same kind of thing,” he said.

Ignite Lansing

7 p.m. March 5 Knapp’s Office Centre 300 S. Washington, Lansing Free, but tickets must be reserved in advance. www.ignitelansing.com