Heritage Hall: Elijah E. Myers, Harriet Tenney and the 21st century

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Heritage Hall, the new entrance and exhibit space of the Michigan State Capitol Building, opened to the public in the summer of 2022, with its formal grand opening Tuesday. The conceptualization, construction and opening are great achievements that illustrate the commitment the Legislature and the people of Michigan have to keeping the  Capitol as a place where the government performs its constitutionally mandated functions, and the history of not only the building, but much of Michigan itself is preserved. These are, and have been from the building’s beginning, the chief functions of the Capitol that now will be shared with Heritage Hall, a fascinating and important space.

In Michigan, like much of the rest of the United States, the idea of historical preservation has long been contested. Perhaps this is the result of a nation having to invent itself, being born of war and revolution, both upending phenomena prone to ushering in novel ways of living and governance. Even now, with many historic preservation efforts underway and having been successfully completed, Americans still grapple with what should be “saved” and what should be “let go.” Oftentimes, the decision to preserve or allow to perish comes down to values and what a group of people perceives to be important.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks at the dedication of Heritage Hall on Tuesday.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks at the dedication of Heritage Hall on Tuesday.

A notable moment in which the State of Michigan and its citizens publicly acknowledged and recognized the need to preserve the history of the state came in 1874, with the establishment of the Pioneer Society of the State of Michigan. In 1876, the Pioneer Society created a governing committee charged with the acquisition, creation and publication of historical literature related to the so-called pioneering generation. These were the first generation of folks who moved to Michigan beginning in the 1820s, and by the 1870s, they were growing old. The realization of the coming passing of the generations initiated a concerted and well-organized effort to preserve their stories, in their own words, before it was too late. The society interviewed men and women from all walks of life and also asked the interviewees to donate significant personal effects. A good example of this is in the papers of Lucius Lyon, one of the land surveyors of Michigan when it was part of the Northwest Territory.

Heritage Hall, the Capitol’s new entrance and exhibit space, was created to preserve and teach the history of the building and the state at large. The site opened in the summer of 2022, with its formal grand opening Tuesday.
Heritage Hall, the Capitol’s new entrance and exhibit space, was created to preserve and teach the history of the building and the state at large. …

In Michigan, the Civil War, lasting from 1861-1865, delayed the construction of a proper Capitol. In March 1871, Gov. Henry P. Baldwin convinced the Legislature to appropriate money for a new building. The Legislature solicited bids for a new Capitol to be constructed in Lansing, itself only having been founded in 1847. Springfield, Illinois-born architect Elijah E. Myers submitted his bid, titled “Tuebor,” Latin for “I will defend,” which was also incorporated into the state coat of arms and the state seal. Michigan awarded Myers the contract, and construction commenced in 1872, with most of the work finished by the autumn of 1878. The building officially opened to the public and the Legislature alike on Jan. 1, 1879. It cost $1.2 million, roughly the equivalent of $47 million in 2022, a considerable sum at the time.

Historic preservation and the display of history in a demonstration encouraging the public to become engaged with the past has always been an essential element of the building’s design and usage. Myers included two key features into the building for this purpose: space on the first floor for a display of historical artifacts, and the building itself, resembling the U.S. Capitol with the dome as the most prominent feature. Construction of the U.S. Capitol dome continued through the Civil War at President Lincoln’s insistence, thereby becoming symbolic of the preservation of the Union and freedom. The inclusion of a dome on Michigan’s Capitol and elements taken from the U.S. Capitol architecture, therefore, symbolize the same.

One of the most prominent features of Heritage Hall is a large display window one immediately notices on the left side of the building upon entrance. One of the dozens of Civil War regimental flags is visible on the other side of the glass. It is with that very flag, and the dozens of other Civil War regimental flags in the state’s possession, that the idea of historic preservation and remembrance began.

On the 4th of July, 1866, Gov. Henry Crapo presided over the Grand Review in Detroit, a somber but celebratory affair in which the veterans of the Civil War paraded their colors for one last time, presenting them to the governor with the command to take care of the flags. Crapo promised to uphold the charge and to forever display them to the public. The purpose was for future generations to see the very flags they carried into battle, some dying while clutching them, to preserve the Union.

When lawmakers and staff begin moving into the building in autumn 1787, the flags were among the thousands of items brought in. Just as Myers’ design had called for, a large space was set aside on the first floor to serve as the Office of Adjutant General. Within this space, the flags were on display, forming an essential component of the military museum. By 1910, demands for space eliminated the museum and the Adjutant General’s Office space in the Capitol altogether, the latter being moved to another office building. According to Capitol historian and curator Valerie Marvin, the flags were relocated to display cases in the Capitol Rotunda specially commissioned by the State Board of Auditors, where they stayed until 1990. The Michigan Capitol, therefore, from its inception, was one of the United States’ first Civil War museums.

Harriet Tenney must be acknowledged as equally instrumental in the idea of using the Capitol as a repository and display of some of the state’s history. The State of Michigan appointed Tenney as state librarian in 1869. She was also involved in the Ladies Aid Society and Lansing Woman’s Club. Tenney, according to Marvin, acquired “curios, relics, and geological specimens” even before the Capitol was finished. These items first ended up in the old State Office Block (a building that stood a short distance away) and were moved into the new Capitol.

Marvin explains that it was the Pioneer Society that proved essential in the utilization of space for historical interpretation. Under Tenney’s leadership, the State Library of Michigan grew into an expansive book repository that could be used by lawmakers to research a variety of subjects pertinent to legislation. By the 1920s, Tenney and others had not only created a substantial library; they also curated the Pioneer Society rooms on the fourth floor. The work of historical preservation being conducted by Marvin, Matt VanAcker and other state historians and supported by the recently created Michigan Capitol Commission is comparable to the very first such efforts.

One of the more remarkable aspects of Heritage Hall is how smoothly it integrates into these earlier usages of the Capitol. The displays have an abundance of artifacts, some long held by the state without an appropriate place to display before the opening of Heritage Hall, others discovered or acquired more recently. This includes a mock office appearing as one would have looked in 1879 when the building opened, replete with a desk purchased from furniture maker Kappes and Eggers in Chicago, the firm from which, according to Marvin, the state purchased the original walnut desks for the House Chamber. Other items from that era are also on display, as are seemingly random items discovered during recent renovation work, including an old Campbell’s soup can and, curiously enough, a cattle bone.

The design of Heritage Hall is one of its most endearing qualities, and I suspect it will also become one of its most enduring.  The underground placement allowed for a restoration of some of the original landscape design of the west Capitol Lawn, long neglected and eventually turned into a parking lot with a parking ramp underneath the side abutting Walnut Street. Going off of a much smaller underground structure built in the 20th century to house maintenance vehicles, the Capitol Commission dug down and in, rather than building out and up.

This yielded the unique ability to juxtapose one structure built 150 years ago with an early-21st-century construction while nearly entirely concealing the now-conjoined structures built so far apart from one another. The effect is appreciated when peering up through the ceiling light to the Capitol Dome, seemingly appearing out of nowhere bisecting the west and north wings, and when ascending the stairs on the far south wall of the room, up two flights’ worth, and through the doors into a building from many generations ago. It is as if one is opening the doors of time itself. Walking through the building above, one is treated with a rich collection of fine art, mostly in the form of portraits of governors and other key people who contributed to Michigan’s existence.  

Little remains of Elijah E. Myers’ prolific works, once found in dozens of cities and towns across the United States. In Michigan alone, Myers had several commissions, many long since demolished. In the Mid-Michigan region, in addition to the Capitol, Myers designed the original Lansing Central High School and the Central United Methodist Church (both on Capitol Avenue), the President’s House at Michigan State University in East Lansing and the Carnegie District Library in Howell. Central United Methodist still stands at the northwest corner of Ottawa and Capitol avenues, as does the Howell Carnegie Library on Grand River Avenue in downtown Howell. Michigan State University demolished the President’s House in the 1940s, and old Central High School fell to the wrecking ball in 2006.

Old Central High School lost nearly all of its original architectural ornamentations and designs when the structure was dramatically remodeled and expanded in the early 1900s. By then, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie movement and other prominent early-modernist architectural styles had caused much of the public to disdain, if not outright despise, Victorian architecture. Remodels such as what Old Central High school underwent seemed to deliver a final vote on what the new generation thought regarding the tastes of their parents and grandparents. By the time the wrecking ball took down the building in 2006, only with much of the building’s bricks lying in a pile of rubble did some of Myer’s original Second Empire style design elements reappear, peeking out of an obscurity bestowed upon them 100 years earlier, now being revealed for one final moment before disappearing forever outside of photos and postcards.

Hatred of Victorian-era architecture coincided with outright neglect. By the 1960s and ‘70s, Michigan lawmakers dreamed of the day the “joyless classical monument,” as author Wayne Andrews described the Capitol in his 1967 book “Architecture in Michigan,” could be abandoned once and for all for a new, modern structure. If there is a silver lining to the cloud of early-1980s state budget shortfalls, it may be the abandonment of those plans. Focus instead turned to preserving the existing structure. The state’s financial situation improved by the late 1980s, as did political support for restoration rather than replacement.

When the Capitol Restoration Project of 1989-1992 began, the state moved the flags out of the Rotunda, the first time since 1879 that they had not been in the building. Through all of the damage caused by neglect, splitting of floors and the wear-and-tear of a building over 100 years old, the regimental battle flags remained in the same display cases, standing guard for 90 years. Inadvertently and somewhat ignorantly, they were left to slowly fade and deteriorate by the forces of nature, including UV light and humidity. To save them, the flags were moved to the then-newly-opened State Historical Museum, where a special space was set up to house them.  

It is a fitting end to the latest era of efforts within the Capitol to preserve and display the state’s history that one of the first displays in Heritage Hall is devoted to the conservation of one of the beloved and priceless flags. Heritage Hall stands amid an effort, now 150 years old, to mark the treasure of Michigan’s past, the stories of its people and the effects they have left behind, displayed in a magnificent structure embodying all that Michiganders have done through the years — creations, accomplishment and decisions that endure by becoming part of the memory of the past. It is a memory now handed down to those who would otherwise never receive the knowledge.

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