May 5 2010 12:00 AM

Lansing’s Ottawa Power Station refit nears completion


Where turbines roared, phones will ring. Where coal was crushed, claims will be processed. Where pigeons roosted, meetings will be taken.

The white-collar taming of the 1939 Ottawa Power Station, Lansing’s giant Art Deco flame of steel, glass and brick, into the headquarters of the Accident Fund Insurance Co. of America is well on its way.

All nine floors of the 190,000-square-foot power plant are in place. Workers are routing computer cables, heating and cooling vents and assorted spaghetti into the floors. A glassy new 105,000-square-foot addition is almost finished and a parking deck to the north is going up fast.

The service car that rattled up and down the plant’s north face like a big red zipper is gone. Interior elevators now swoosh to the top. A glass-encased set of suspended walkways between the old and new buildings started going into place two weeks ago.

Last Friday, I took a ride to the ninth floor — the tip of the flame — with project manager Chad Teeples. It was like standing on top of a city-sized sundial. As the world turns, cubes of light sweep across the walls and floor from dueling banks of windows less than 10 paces apart.

“Beautiful view,” hardhat Brent Humble said as he worked on the ceiling. “Can’t beat it.” The Capitol dome was just visible under his legs.

“It’s a dynamic space,” Teeples said.

Two and a half years have gone by since work on the project began with the dismantling of the plant’s giant smokestack in December 2007.

The base of the smokestack, bulbous as a bomb, still protrudes from the ninth-floor roof.

Back then, two and a half years seemed like a long time to wait for Friday’s elevator ride. Maybe that’s because it came on top of a much longer wait, going back to the plant’s 1992 de-commissioning and extending through a series of false development starts.

But Friday, looking down from an airy room that didn’t exist a year ago, I found the transformation shockingly sudden. Most work on the Lansing-based insurance giant’s new corporate campus is expected to end this Thanksgiving, followed by a month or two of inspections and last-minute fixes.

Accident Fund employees can start hauling in the computers, coffee urns and kid photos in early 2011. The parking deck is scheduled for June 2011 completion.

The project is on budget at $132 million, according to the Christman Co., the general contractor. The parking deck is expected to cost another $31 million.

The theme here is adaptive reuse, on the grandest scale ever seen in Lansing. Variations on this theme play out everywhere on the site.

On most floors, rugged girders and bare bricks are left to play against crisp white drywall and new glass. An 85-ton rolling crane, once used to service the plant’s turbines, is ready to slide into permanent retirement on the second floor, as a museum piece.

The roof of the Hall of Turbines, at sixth floor level, will become a patio with a spectacular view south onto the Grand River. The patio is recessed just enough to preserve the plant’s clean Deco lines to eyes far below.

Skylights visible only to a helicopter have been cut into the step-up tower’s broad shoulders, letting sunlight stream into the fourth floor past riveted beams three feet thick.

On the first floor, stainless steel stairways with classic Deco curves, protected by plywood for now, will be fixed and polished. (One of them leads smack into the new second floor, but remains, just for show.)

Sharp observers across the Grand River have noticed crisscrossing lines behind some of the plant’s stately windows. Diagonal metal braces have been retained, reinforced and added throughout over the building, for good reason.

Teeples said workers took more than 14,000 tons of junk out of the old plant — the legacy of its heavy-duty past — but only put back about 4,000 to 5,000 tons of new stuff. Even with 1,200 Accident Fund employees on site, after a heavy lunch, the building won’t come close to its old weight.

“Instead of wanting to be planted in the ground by gravity, it became quite light, more like a sail,” Teeples explained.

I looked at him. It was a windy day.

“It’s not going anywhere,” he reassured me.

However, after the plant was scooped out, before the new floors and extra bracing were in place, there was a delicate period.

“I felt much better when the ninth floor was in,” Teeples said. “The job became a different animal. We’d begun to plant the building again.”

In another complicated round of give and take, designers had to make the building energy efficient while maintaining its historic look. Few buildings this big have juggled a listing in the National Registry of Historic Places with a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification.

On the ninth floor, and all over the old plant, bare masonry alternates with insulated, covered-wall sections.

energy-efficient tinted windows would spoil the historic look, clear
windows with a special heat-absorbent coating were used. They brought
the unexpected benefit of making interior work faster and safer. “The
old windows were so grimy we didn’t realize how much light they
blocked,” Teeples said.

the outwardly clashing priorities, the Ottawa refit is a titanic art
project at heart. Every major design feature pays homage to the power
plant’s unique masonry shell, which symbolically burns upward from
black marble at the bottom through red, orange and yellow bricks,
layered and blended with stunning artistry.

drop nine floors into the old power plant, iron team leader Judd
Converse and his crew cut hatches in the roof and dropped girders
averaging 9,000 pounds — all to save that precious shell.

first day, I walked into the basement, looked up and didn’t know what
to think,” Converse said. “I’ve been an ironworker for 25 years and
I’ve never started a job at the roof before.”

new annex, modern yet modest, was designed to cede the spotlight to its
great aunt. To the north, it presents a reddish brick face that blends
with the old plant’s masonry. From all other sides, it’s a demure cube
of transparent glass.

the old plant, a new second floor seems suspended in air, several feet
from the west wall. That way, the floor line won’t interrupt the
vertical grandeur of a dozen two-story-tall windows, each window
replicating the plant’s step-up design.

project’s most drastic departure from historical accuracy is a bank of
new windows cut into the original plant’s east face. It’s the only
design element linking power plant and annex, other than the connecting

feature was carefully negotiated with the National Park Service.
Without the windows, the old plant’s new third floor would have been a
dungeon. Yet the new windows match those of the modern annex, not the
yellow-framed windows of the power plant windows above and below.

That’s because the prime directive of historic preservation isn’t to fool people, but to make a building’s “story” clear.

somebody comes here 100 years from now, they shouldn’t be confused
about what the story of the building is,” Teeples said. “They’ll know
that the addition, and the new windows, weren’t original to the

not all about beauty. The Ottawa refit has given the designers and
builders an education in rugged Depression-era construction.

“I was very impressed,” Converse said. “You see how plumb and level and square it is.”

contrasted the building techniques of 1939 with today’s assembly of
prefabricated sections. “They built everything out here on site,” he
said. “They got raw material in place and riveted it, and they were
tremendously close on everything.”

Klein, senior project superintendent, gave the same assessment. “The
perimeter shell is in really good condition, except for a few bad
spots, which we repaired,” Klein said. “The interior columns are sound
and can be re-used.”

walk to the fourth floor confirmed Klein’s confidence. At that level,
the plant’s support beams are a dozen or more layers thick — a knotty
red lasagna of steel andrivets. The beams have been left bare next to a showy central staircase, as if to flaunt the building’s old muscle.

175 workers a day have been swarming the plant and annex for the past
several months, and will remain there until the end of the year,
Teeples said.

prosaic parking deck occupies much of his attention now, but even that
job has its moments. On Friday, the action at the deck site looked like
the raising of an Egyptian obelisk. Rumbling mixers injected cement
through a 200-foot-long proboscis to an augmented crew (usually about
50 on the deck, but 75 for Friday’s big pour) charged with directing
and smoothing thefresh pavement.

watched from the fourth floor of the annex as the work went on, framed
by a towering crane above our heads and the blue Grand River threading
its way north. A 10-year-old in the body of a man, he’s a huge fan of
the Discovery Channel’s “Build it Bigger.”

“They do dams, earthworks and other big infrastructure projects, but I like the buildings,” he said.

has several taped episodes waiting at home, but he’s too busy to look
at them now. He can pull them out after Thanksgiving, when Lansing’s
biggest build is done.