(Because of a reporting error, a photo caption in an earlier version of this story gave the wrong name of the artist who painted the mural on the Temple Lofts' garage. The artist is Dustin Hunt.)
There’s no secret to demolishing a temple. In the Old Testament, Samson did it by grabbing the middle two pillars and giving them a shove.
Saving a temple is a more complicated task.
Monday marks the official opening of the Temple Lofts, a 31-unit apartment complex deftly stuffed into the historic walls of the former Bethlehem Temple, known to many locals as the Temple Club concert venue from 2001 to 2006. In the spring, the ground floor will be home to the newest Strange Matter Coffee emporium. The project’s nonprofit developer, Michigan Community Capital, will also set up shop on the first floor.
To take in this feat of adaptive reuse, start with its most conspicuous feature: the four 18-foot-tall Ionic columns on the façade. They look mighty, but they don’t support anything. Sorry, Samson.
This brazen visual trick, a hallmark of turn-of-the-20th-century neoclassical architecture, went largely unnoticed until this fall. To the shock of passersby, all four wooden columns, riddled with rot, were taken off the building, but nothing came crashing down. New fiberglass columns were installed several weeks later.
And that’s just the surface. Beneath the Temple building’s grand exterior nests a $10.7 million Matryoshka doll of tricky financial and architectural maneuvers.
Dancing on the edge between preservation and practicality, developers scooped the brick shell of a historic landmark like a pumpkin, stuffed it with living space and dragged the Temple into the 21st century, succeeding where many others failed.
From worship to Wu-Tang
“There is a time to every purpose under the heavens,” teaches the book of Ecclesiastes. The history of the Temple building is best described as two long stretches of worship, one six-year freakout and, finally, a no-nonsense, “This Old House”-style intervention.
Behind this resurrection lies a simple question. Why bother?
Karl Dorshimer, president of the Lansing Economic Development Corp., put the Temple building in the “top 10 of historical buildings in Lansing to be redeveloped.”
“It has a great aesthetic presence on a prominent gateway to Lansing,” Dorshimer said.
Preservation architecture specialist Amanda Harrell-Seyburn, an associate of East Arbor Architecture in Ann Arbor, went further. “Most of Old Town consists of background buildings, and this is a foreground building — a big, prominent civic building, and that’s very valuable,” she said.
The church was a big step up from the denomination’s previous house of worship, a settlers’ cabin just east of the North Lansing Dam dating back to the 1840s, known informally as “God’s barn.”
The city and its Methodist flock were growing by leaps and bounds. A second church, made of stone and brick, was built in 1905 at the Temple site, for a cost of $9,255. (The organ alone cost over $2,000.) An even bigger building, the present-day Temple Lofts, was dedicated in 1918, retaining the stained glass windows from the earlier stone church.
First United Methodist moved out of the building in 1962. In 1965, a growing African-American church, Bethlehem Temple, moved in, giving the building a tag — the Temple — that still sticks.
In 2000, Bethlehem Temple moved to its present home, a barrel-vaulted complex at 1518 S. Washington Ave. in REO Town, leaving the Temple building vacant.
That same year, Old Town developer Diane Burns spent $925,000 renovating the space into a music venue.
After decades of temperance and prayer, the building embarked on a bar-fueled binge in October 2001 — a six-year run as the Temple Club.
Among the acts that played the club were Clutch, KRS-1, the Reverend Horton Heat, Hard Lessons from Detroit, Slum Village, Patton Oswalt and members of the Wu-Tang Clan. Despite supplementing concert revenue with weddings and other events, the owners couldn’t sustain a venue with a capacity of 800 and the club closed in October 2006.
An artist’s collaborative used the Temple building from 2013 to 2015, but finding a permanent use for it was starting to look like a permanent headache.
Financial alphabet soup
The intractable Temple building became “the subject of countless final projects” in urban planning and architecture classes at MSU, according to Daniel Bollman, founder and principal at East Arbor Architecture in East Lansing.
“It’s intrigued everybody,” Bollman said. “It’s this gorgeous landmark building, but despite the attempts to revive it, it remained a white elephant. It just wasn’t moving.”
The partnership of Alan Hooper, Sam Short and Aaron Mathews, the team that redeveloped Zoobie’s Old Town Tavern, a block east of the Temple, tried to revive the Temple as a restaurant and bar in 2013. They got as far as securing brownfield tax credits, but couldn’t put together the whole financial package.
“It was built around 100 years ago for a special purpose as a house of worship,” Dorshimer explained. “The building functioned well for its original intended purpose, but its interior layout did not fit modern uses. Recent attempts to renovate it could not make the numbers work for a profitable redevelopment.”
The restrictions that come with federal historic tax credits made the Temple daunting as a strict preservation project.
“They were trying to keep the big, open space,” Marilyn Chrumka of Michigan Community Capital said. “One thing that makes this project work is 31 apartments, paying rent.”
In 2019, Michigan Community Capital, a nonprofit specializing in tackling difficult projects, bought the building for $500,000.
The nonprofit’s CEO, Eric Hanna, determined that adaptive re-use, with due respect for the historic shell and selected interior touches, was the way to go. However, shoehorning 31 apartments into a former church doesn’t fully explain how the nonprofit pulled it off. For that, it will be necessary to do a brisk backstroke in financial alphabet soup.
Last week, Chrumka explained the nonprofit’s mission as she walked through the Temple Lofts, looking for problems to trouble-shoot in the run-up to Monday’s open house and grand opening.
Tiny strips of blue tape on appliances, moldings and in closets marked areas that needed attention.
“We are drawn to the projects that are going to make a big community impact, that have a fraught history where other developers have tried and failed,” Chrumka said.
Michigan Community Capital started out in 2004 as the Michigan Magnet Fund, a nonprofit formed by the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, the MEDC, Cinnaire and other private and public entities for the purpose of bringing competitive federal tax credits into the state.
The fund has been wildly successful, winning over $320 million in federal New Market Tax Credits credits in the past four years and investing the credits in projects all over the state.
When Hanna joined the fund in 2018, he added a development arm, an insurance provider and other services to the fund and expanded it into Michigan Community Capital.
Hanna’s vision is to use all of those tools to help neighborhoods “with good organic fundamentals,” like the east end of Old Town, to “get to the next level.”
“Often that starts with a conspicuous and consequential building that is an eyesore but has potential,” Hanna said.
The development arm of Michigan Community Capital is still young, with the first projects completed in 2020, but it’s swiftly making its mark across the state, as Chrumka’s busy November calendar attests. Two weeks ago, on Oct. 24, Chrumka cut the ribbon on a project even bigger than the Temple Lofts, the renovation of a hulking, 100-year-old factory in Ludington, Michigan, into a 67-unit apartment complex, Lofts on Rowe.
“The buildings are expensive and complex, and the reason they haven’t been gobbled up by private developers is that they don’t make financial sense,” Hanna said. “They need a developer who is doing it for reasons that are other than financial, and that’s us.”
Most for-profit developers need to show double-digit returns. Otherwise, investors might as well put their money into the stock market, which is less risky than real estate, according to Chrumka.
As a nonprofit with no investors to placate, Michigan Community Capital can do an end run around that barrier and sustain a minimal rate of return.
“We’re making less than 2 percent cash return across our whole portfolio,” Chrumka said. “A for-profit developer would not have done the Temple Lofts project.”
For the record, financing for the $10.7 million Temple Lofts project broke down as follows: $2.2 million from the developer, Michigan Community Capital; a $3.8 million loan from the Illinois Facility Fund; and a $4.8 million equity investment from the Michigan Strategic Fund, via the Community Revitalization Program administered by the Michigan Economic Development Corp. The Michigan Strategic Fund will get 50 percent of the cash flow from the project until the investment is paid off.
The developer also secured a $250,000 low-interest loan from the Lansing Area Economic Partnership to help fund upfront costs of the brownfield development.
The Lansing City Council approved a brownfield plan that will reimburse the project for $2,055,000 over 30 years, not with upfront payments, but from taxes paid by the owner each year as the development begins to take in money.
In on the ground floor
Beginning in April 2021, a crew of about 20 workers gutted the Temple until nothing was left but the masonry shell, which they shored up with more than 300 steel beams.
The tear-out was a mess. The project budget had a built-in contingency fund, but demo workers found more lead and asbestos than expected, and removal costs exceeded the fund by $500,000.
Floor by floor, starting from ground level, concrete was poured and integrated into a new metal framework that bears all the weight of the building. The old brick walls are attached to the metal framework, but they have been relieved of their century-long burden and no longer bear any weight.
Taking advantage of an 11-foot-tall attic, workers were able to create a five-floor building, with four floors of apartments and a ground floor for office space.
Every window had to be replaced, along with innumerable exterior details. The grand new columns were built by Georgia-based Melton Classics (billed on its website as “single source solution for all your architectural column needs”).
Inside the building, many apartments are flooded with light from huge half-circle windows inherited from church times. Restored stained glass windows from have pride of place on every floor.
“We tried to preserve the character of the church without it being too churchy,” Chrumka said. “We loved the windows.”
Most of the stained glass is displayed in conspicuous public areas, but there’s one hidden treasure tucked into a stairwell. The image of a burning torch (featured on this issue’s cover) is so exquisite that the developers kept it intact, even though it’s in a stairwell landing and had to be protected with a layer of expensive industrial tempered glass.
Chrumka said the Temple Lofts are aimed at the middle of the market. Developers hope that by offering a range of apartment sizes, from studio apartments at $790 a month to two-bedroom units at $1,330 or less per month, the project will attract an economically diverse range of tenants.
To add a crucial missing element to the project, Hanna approached Cara Nader, owner of Strange Matter Coffee.
“We were impressed by Eric’s enthusiasm for historic preservation, and for this project,” Nader said. “He might have talked us into a couple of things.”
The first-floor café, with a planned opening in spring, will give the building’s tenants a place to catch coffee, grab a drink and a snack on the way home from work.
“Strange Matter is the ideal tenant for us — locally owned, female owned,” Chrumka said.
The 900-square-foot cafe will have the usual array of baked goods and specialty donuts and coffee drinks, along with small-plate food and, in due course, beer and wine (but not liquor).
Harrell-Seyburn said the café is a crucial part of the project and will help knit the Temple building with the surrounding community.
“You take this great community building, and you make it residential, which is private,” she said. “Suddenly, it becomes off-limits to the public. Put in a coffee shop, a store, a restaurant, and the public gets to embrace it, participate in it.”
Gateway to the east
Despite the recent influx of new businesses like Grace Boutique and Metro Melik 517, it’s been hard to extend foot traffic from the heart of Old Town eastward to the intersection of Cesar Chavez and Cedar and beyond.
“There’s a disconnect between the dense, commercial part of Old Town and that stretch to the east,” Dan Bollman said.
The automobile century left the Temple stranded in a sea of asphalt.
“Three of those four corners are dedicated to vehicles,” Harrell-Seyburn said, referring to parking lots for L.A. Insurance and Preuss Pets and a mega-sized Speedway gas station.
To beckon pedestrians and motorists alike, the project designer of Temple Lofts, Integrated Architecture of Grand Rapids, accented the café space with oversized windows and an inviting walkway with a crisp modernist awning.
“That commercial corner was done in a sensitive way, a beautiful way, respectful to the design of the building,” Harrell-Seyburn said. “It’s something visually appealing for people who are walking on foot — something that can pull them through the intersection into that next strip of Old Town.”
With its new residents and an inviting café, Dorshimer believes the Temple Lofts will spark a new wave of activity on the east edge of Old Town.
“I expect this redevelopment will continue east on Cesar Chavez Avenue and provide additional positive benefits to the North Lansing area,” Dorshimer said.
If it does, Michigan Community Capital will be in the mix. The nonprofit has purchased the entire Temple Club block, parcel by parcel, with long-term plans to build another mixed-use building “that takes up the rest of the block,” Chrumka said.
However, an uncertain real estate market, sharp inflation and rising interest rates are forcing the nonprofit to put its grand design on hold, at least for now.
“Our alphabet soup of financing tools can’t keep up with 30 to 40 percent construction cost increases, which is what we’ve seen the past two years,” Chrumka said.
In the meantime, the former Old Town Diner east of the Temple Building has been leased to Maria’s Cuisine, a Mexican restaurant. The former Replay Video building on the corner of Larch Street and Cesar Chavez has been a handy storage area during Temple Lofts construction work.
“We put some money into cleaning it up, and it’s available for rent, but we haven’t found a tenant yet,” Chrumka said.
Last week, Harrell-Seyburn and Bollman walked around the project and eyed it carefully from the preservation standpoint.
“Over the years, I’ve seen different renderings, and I was involved with it with my students at Michigan State,” Harrell-Seyburn said. “I think this is the best version I’ve ever seen, and I’m so happy it was the one that was actually executed.”
Harrell-Seyburn carefully pointed out a difference between a preservationist and a preservation architect.
“A preservationist often wants to keep the building as it always was, trapped in time forever, and there’s a place for that,” she said. “This building needed to be ushered into the next hundred years.”
“This building is a lesson,” Bollman said. “The buildings that change, and can be modified and adapt over time, are the ones that survive.”
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