March 31 2011 12:00 AM

How the Ottawa Street Power Station fired up and flamed out


The same thing that made the Ottawa Power Station a marvel of industrial design in 1939 makes it a spectacular office campus in 2011. It’s a head-turning-hot hunk of architecture.

Why shouldn’t a power station look as hot as it feels?

In the heyday of Art Deco, from the 1930s to the 1950s, form and function made steamy love everywhere, on kitchen counters, in cars and on top of buildings.

Lansing latched onto this trend in a big way when it built an 81,500-kilowatt plant in the middle of a downtown business and retail district in 1937.

State of the art equipment, hidden smokestacks and a stunning stylized-flame design made the Ottawa Power Station the city’s most cherished landmark. Slowly, it sank under the silt of time, neglect and architectural indignities, until its full-blown resurrection as the world headquarters of the Accident Fund Insurance Co of America.

Until the Ottawa Power Station was completed in 1939, the city operated a district heating system serving downtown, supported by two older steam plants. One of the older plants was the original Ottawa Street Power Station, built by the Michigan Power Co. in 1908 on property that had once belonged to stove-building behemoth E. Bement & Sons, the city’s largest manufacturer.

Even then, industry and recreation jostled for limited riverfront access. In the 1880s, the boathouse of the fashionable Grand River Boat Club sat at the foot of Ottawa Street.

Over 100 years later, this segment of the Grand River will open to the public again this spring, as a fetching new stretch of the River Trail and a welcome accessory to the plant’s revival.

The city got hold of the Ottawa Street property and the old power plant in 1919. The Moores Park Plant, now the Eckert Station, in south Lansing was supposed to provide power for Lansing for many years, but electricity demand shot up by 40 percent a year in the decade following World War I.

By 1930, the Moores Park Plant was a muscle-bound knot of four generators totaling 65,000 kilowatts — 25,000 more than the station was designed to handle.

To slake the city’s thirst for electricity, the old Ottawa station was torn down in 1937 to make way for a modern marvel the city hoped would serve burgeoning downtown demand for decades to come.

To design the state-of-the-art station, the city turned to the heavyweight firm of Edwyn Bowd and Orlie Munson.

Bowd, born in England, was the top designer of public buildings in Michigan, outside of Detroit. He specialized in magnificent churches, including Lansing’s First Baptist Church, but his most spectacular creation would be a temple of combustion.

The Bowd-Munson firm seemed capable of producing an epic building in almost any style, from the massive columns of the Cooley Law School Temple Building (1924, Classical Revival style) to the Knapp’s Department Store building (1939, Streamline Moderne style). Many buildings on the MSU campus, such as Berkey Hall (1947), Spartan Stadium (both the 1923 original and the 1959 makeover), and Jenison Field House (1940), bear the strong stamp of Bowd-Munson. Look at Jenison’s side entrance wall and you’ll see a squashed echo of the Ottawa Station’s step-up design.

However impressive their previous buildings, Bowd and Munson outdid themselves with the Ottawa Power Station, coming up with a broad step-up ziggurat designed to evoke a huge flame rising over the Grand River. The remarkable masonry scheme symbolizes the combustion of coal, which went on at the rate of 800 tons every three days in the plant’s heyday.

As the eye follows the walls upward from the river, the masonry changes in color from coal-black granite at the bottom, radiating into waves of purple-gray, red, orange and yellow brick. The colors do not change in distinct layers, but gradual, Impressionist gradations, with outliers (yellow bricks on an orange field, orange in red, and so on) dispersed to enhance the illusion of flame. Thus, the plant is both a monumental sculpture and a fluid painting in masonry.

Huge stacked-design windows echoed the building’s silhouette, further tightening the unity of form. Many smaller details added to the design, among them a huge set of burnished metal doors emblazoned with Oz-like lightning bolts.

The plant cost $4 million, all from ratepayers. No bonds or government funds were used.

The Christman Co., lead contractor for the 2011 redevelopment, handled the excavation and foundations for the Ottawa plant in 1937.

Although it’s often noted that the plant was completed in 1939, that’s not true of the whole building. Stare at the plant’s west wall from across the Grand River long enough and you’ll see a subtle seam running right up the middle of the building. Only half of the plant was finished in 1939, owing to the outbreak of war and resulting material shortages. The north portion, a near-mirror of the south, was built in 1946.

As a combined electric generating and district heating plant, the Ottawa plant benefited from its downtown location. In the early 1940s, the plant provided steam heat for 411 businesses and 223 residences in or near downtown.

But the city’s demand for electricity spiked again after World War II, and more turbines were added to the Ottawa Station in the 1950s. The system was strained, and fluid dynamics further complicated the picture, according to Jack R. Hill, a recently retired 37-year Lansing Board of Water & Light employee. Hill served in many positions, including plant manager of Eckert Station and assistant superintendent of maintenance for all facilities, including the Ottawa plant.

“The buildings around [the Ottawa plant] were growing in size and causing downdrafts,” he said.

“Ottawa Street, Lansing — The Stackless Station of Tomorrow,” trumpeted the trade magazine Power in October 1939. Alas, tomorrow was over by 1954, when a giant stack was added to the building — the first of several brutal compromises imposed upon the plant’s design.

In 1973, the BWL’s Erickson Power Station came on line and Eckert had taken over the Ottawa plant’s steam duties, making it feasible to shut down the Ottawa plant entirely.

The turbines at Ottawa hummed through the ‘80s, although the building’s aesthetic appeal was cruelly crowded by a parking structure next to its west faade.

Finally, Hill said, environmental regulations made it too costly to keep the plant running, especially with a refurbished Eckert plant and state-of-the-art Erickson station waiting in the wings, further from the city center.

The Ottawa Power Station was decommissioned in 1992. “It was kind of heartbreaking to have worked on all the equipment that was in it for years and years, and watch it being cut up and hauled away, but that’s progress,” Hill said.

In 1999, Hill and other BWL officials suggested retrofitting the plant with a chilling plant to serve downtown government agencies. Hill welcomed the Ottawa plant’s return to limited service in 2001, even though cooling towers now sucked on the plant’s west shoulder like three fat lampreys.

“I’m an engineer, not an architect,” Hill said. “I saw no reason not to reuse the building.”

After the plant was decommissioned, a parade of redevelopment proposals crossed then-Mayor David Hollister’s desk, none of which panned out.

Among the most hopeful, Hollister said, was a 1996 proposal to develop the plant as a training facility for General Motors Corp. employees. The proposal was crafted by John Rock, a GM vice president and general manager of the Oldsmobile division and Rich McMillan, who ran G.M.’s corporate training program.

“There was going to be some restaurants and other pieces,” Hollister said. “There were a lot of moving parts.”

Among the sticking points was GM’s request for a second downtown hotel, even though Lansing was locked into an exclusivity agreement with the Radisson.

GM changed its mind and decided to consolidate its operations in Detroit. “We worked on that about 18 months, then it went away,” Hollister said.

The GM proposal reached the stage of renderings and models. “On a scale of one to 10, I thought we were seven or eight. That one really felt like we had it going.”

A year later, Chicago developer Thomas Coates showed interest in the site, along with former MSU basketball great Magic Johnson. The proposal mixed commercial and retail, along with a movie multiplex bearing Johnson’s name.

“The guy just lost interest,” Hollister said of the developer. “That got up to 5.5 or 6.”

In 1999, Hollister flew to Columbus to meet with a developer who had developed a power plant in Seattle.

“He thought it wasn’t viable,” Hollister said. “The region was just too small for the development he thought would be required and the building would require such a huge investment.”

Hollister said that proposal got to “about 3.”

In 2001, Convergency Centers Corp. considered setting up a huge, minimally staffed matrix of computer equipment. The Oldsmobile/GM Heritage Center and R.E. Olds Museum were set to piggyback on the project.

The BWL’s Hill said that was the most realistic of the proposals he saw. For one thing, the building’s non-energy-efficient windows would have helpfully vented the heat from all those computers.

“From my engineering background, it was almost like perpetual motion,” Hill said. “We sell ‘em the electricity to use for their computer services, and then we sell ‘em the chilled water to carry their electricity heat away.”

The dot-com bust put an end to that proposal, too.

Meanwhile, Hill made his rounds, keeping the building secure and making sure the roof didn’t leak.

“The biggest issues we had was just keeping the hole plugged and the pigeons out,” Hill said.

There were other proposals along the way, including casinos.

“It just didn’t feel right in my gut,” Hollister said.

The main thing lacking in each deal was a large enough anchor tenant. This defect was spectacularly remedied by the Accident Fund’s announcement in fall 2007 that it would convert the plant into its world corporate headquarters, relighting the colossal downtown flame.