‘Do it right’

A psychiatric facility vs. old Eastern: Need it be a choice?


“What was it like in the early days when Eastern first opened its doors?” begins a history written for Eastern High School’s 50th anniversary in 1978.

“Pennsylvania Avenue was almost as wide as it is today, but the boulevard islands were much wider green carpets towered over by stately elms and maples. …Sparrow Hospital was much smaller than today.”

That neighbor grew into Sparrow Health System, with multiple buildings stretching along both sides of Michigan Avenue and outposts dotting Greater Lansing and mid-Michigan, 115 sites in all. Two years ago, University of Michigan Health came calling, and last year U of M Health-Sparrow was officially born, expanding U of M Health into a $7 billion organization with more than 200 care sites across the state.

Meanwhile, as Sparrow grew, Eastern High School’s physical condition declined, a victim of a financially challenged school system. “It was $60 million to $80 million just to bring that building up the code,” remembered Peter Spadafore, who was president of the Lansing School District eight years ago. “And that wasn’t even building it out to a modern high school.” In January 2016, the board voted unanimously to sell Eastern’s 18 acres to Sparrow for $2.475 million.

For eight years, Sparrow and then U of M-Sparrow kept mum on plans for the campus. Eastern graduated its last class in the old building in 2019, reopening in the expanded former Pattengill Middle School, thanks to a $120 million bond issue voters approved in 2016.

Then, last Friday, U of M Health-Sparrow was forced to break its silence. Based on documents the health system filed with the state, Crain’s Business Journal in Grand Rapids reported that U of M-Sparrow was pursuing a $97.2 million plan for a 120-bed psychiatric facility on the old Eastern campus.

In a statement, the health conglomerate emphasized the need. “Nearly 140 adult patients and about 17 adolescents sit in Michigan emergency department waiting rooms every day waiting for appropriate services,” it said. “In addition, 60 percent of patients admitted to the emergency department for behavioral health needs are waiting for a bed to become available. The U-M Health plan seeks state approval for 120 behavioral health beds.”

Where does an architectural gem, the historic Eastern High School, fit in?

“U-M Health’s plan is designed to help address the behavioral health crisis by using the site of the former Lansing Eastern High School, which adjoins UM Health-Sparrow Lansing,” the statement said. “The high school has been closed for years and its dilapidated interior makes it unsafe and cost-prohibitive to locate any services there.”

An undated photo of old Eastern’s auditorium, which seated 1,660, according to a history of Eastern written for its 50th anniversary in 1978.
An undated photo of old Eastern’s auditorium, which seated 1,660, according to a history of Eastern written for its 50th anniversary in 1978.

Does that mean the nearly 100-year-old building is a tear-down? U of M Health-Sparrow wasn’t saying. “We cannot comment beyond our statement since the project is still under discussion and must receive final approval from the Board of Regents,” spokesperson John Foren said Monday.

Lansing City Council Ryan Kost, whose 1st Ward includes both Eastern and the hospital campus, feared that the  intent is clear.

“We’ve seen so many historic buildings in Lansing go. But the conversation always starts with, ‘We’re thinking about doing something, but we haven’t set anything in stone.’ So, when I hear they might tear it down, I have a strong feeling that that’s the direction they’re headed,” Kost said.

If that happens, Kost went on, it will be a betrayal.

“We were always under the understanding that Sparrow never had any intentions to tear it down,” he said last week. “I had a conversation before and after the merger with U of M about that building, and, at the time, I was told that they were going to keep the facade and gut the inside to use it for an undetermined use. They were going to do like a second-story skywalk across that little side street,” Kost said.

In 2019, a City Pulse article reported on a meeting after the 2016 sale that community leaders and preservationists held with then Sparrow CEO Dennis Swan on the building’s fate.

“The meeting was called because a number of us were concerned about whether that façade was going to go away” remembered Joan Nelson, then the director of the Allen Neighborhood Center on Lansing’s east side.

“It’s not just the community of people that admire old buildings here, but the whole east side had strong attachments and feelings about that building and really hoped Sparrow would preserve it,” Nelson said then. She said that Swan promised a “transparent, inclusive process to discuss the disposition of the building. But then Lansing School District Superintendent Yvonne Caamal Canul, who was also there, said that Sparrow made no promises it would save the building.

As the 2019 article said, “The purchase agreement says that Sparrow will ‘preserve the historic integrity’ of the building, but that could mean any number of things. ‘Preserving the building was never a part of the conversation,’ Camal Canul said.”

U of M Health-Sparrow’s statement last week acknowledged those strong attachments to which Nelson referred. “U-M Health plans a variety of ways to preserve the history and value of Lansing Eastern,” it said, without elaboration, “understanding the community’s connection to the school. U-M Health plans to work closely on the plan with school alumni and community members in the next few months before a final proposal is put forth to the Board of Regents.”

That may just mean saving some artifacts. Preservationists see the need for far more.

“It’s one of the most significant buildings in Lansing,” Nancy Finegood said in 2019, soon after retiring as the longtime director of the Michigan Historic Preservation Network. “The interior and the auditorium are a work of art. The detail is just spectacular. There are so many opportunities for that building to be saved and reused.”

Finegood recalled the only time she sat in front of a bulldozer in an ill-fated effort to prevent the demolition of downtown Detroit’s 1905 Madison-Lenox Hotel.

“Eastern might be worth it, too,” she said.

As Lawrence Cosentino wrote in City Pulse in 2019, 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. “From the massive limestone blocks at ground level to the copper gutters and heavy slate roof tiles, it’s a mighty slab that would not be built the same way today.

“It’s no surprise that experts cannot pigeonhole Eastern High into any particular style. There are elements of Arts & Crafts, Elizabethan revival and straight-up old-school-building Pond & Pond, which specialized I academic buildings, also designed the student union buildings at MSU, Purdue University and the University of Michigan.”

Eastern may have fared better in hands other than Sparrow’s. Local developer Jeff Deehan has turned the old Holmes Street School into housing and is doing the same for a school in St, Johns.  “Save Lansing Eastern High School, by all means. We’d do that project in a second.”

Mark Rodman, who succeeded Finegood at the Michigan Historic Preservation Network, told City Pulse in 2019 that school buildings are “extremely well built, durable and adaptable. Most of the time, they’re used for housing, but they’ve also been used as businesses, incubation centers, for businesses, community centers, art schools, all kinds of things.”

One of those “things,” then Mayor Virg Bernero said in 2013, could have been a performing arts center. In remarks at a Preservation Lansing event held at Eastern’s 1,660-seat auditorium, Bernero offered that vision. But afterward, when asked about it, he said forget about it: The sale to Sparrow was a “done deal,” even though it was still three years off.

What can be done now?

Council member Kost promised to “fight tooth and nail” to save historic Eastern. “But we don’t have a leg to stand on, because it’s an agreement with the school district. And the school district, as I understand it, never put any language in there to stop them from doing this eventually.”

Lansing Mayor Andy Schor’s initial reaction to the news that a psychiatric facility may rise on the old Eastern’s campus included no mention of the historic school building.

“We talk about the need for behavioral health services all the time,” he said Friday. “We have a mental health task force to bring together partners, and we work with all of our partners to try to address the mental health issues of our region. UM Medical’s increase in behavioral health bed capacity here in Lansing will address a tremendous need in our city, region, and state. I greatly appreciate the growth and investments that UM Health Sparrow are making in our city, and their future plans for expanded behavioral health services and so many other things.”

Schor, a U of Michigan graduate, ended his written statement with “Go Blue!”

But on Monday, Schor’s office addressed the preservation issue after City Pulse asked what power if any the city had to insist on preservation.

“The Mayor has talked to UM Health Sparrow leadership several times about the importance of this building and what it means to so many in our community,” his office said. “In every instance he has strongly encouraged them to do everything they can to save this structure and incorporate it into future designs. He expects that UM Health leadership knows the importance of the building, and will share with the community the cost differential between rehab and demolition as well as hear ideas to preserve this beautiful building. We need the behavioral health beds, and we expect a conversation with the neighbors, alumni, and community about the cost to have these beds within the existing building. While the Mayor would like to see the building remain standing and wants the needed proposed behavioral health services, he won’t do anything that could violate law or ordinance or that we can’t defend in any potential future litigation against the City.”

Preservationists decry the threat to old Eastern. “Buildings are like fashion,” Mary Olds Toshach, president of Preservation Lansing, said. “They tell the story of the time they were built.”

But there’s more to it. “There’s the cost of demolition and its effect on the environment,” she said. “Where do we put all that stuff?”

And there is placemaking. ‘We could be a town of Butler buildings,” she said, referring to premanufactured metal construction. “But will people come and see us? No.”

Toshuch encouraged U of M Health to talk to members of the university’s renowned architectural school — coincidentally where old Eastern’s sibling architects studied — about opportunities to save the building. She wondered that if school classrooms can be converted into studio apartments, why can’t they be turned into hospital rooms.

Bill Castanier, who heads the Historical Society of Greater Lansing, suggested organizing a bus trip to a U of M Regents meeting to press Lansing’s case for saving old Eastern.

He and others would likely express skepticism that the interior is as bad off as U of M Health-Sparrow’s statement suggests. As Joan Nelson put it, “It’s been five years. It’s not like it’s been closed for decades.” Asked if a tour was possible to see the condition, U of M Health-Sparrow’s Foren said Monday, “We’re not at a point where we can do this now because it’s early in the process, but we’ll certainly consider it down the line.”

Nelson offered this advice: “Sparrow has been with us for 100 years, but U of M is new to the neighborhood and the community. They would do well to engage with Lansing citizens about this decision. And that includes with eastside neighbors, with the Preservation and Historic Society folks for whom Eastern is pretty special and the political leadership of the city. So, in short, the possible use of the former Eastern High School as a behavioral health facility is a good idea. Clearly those are services that are in need. So, yeah, do it — but figure out a way to do it right.”



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