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James MacLean’s new book on Lansing architect Darius Moon can be read in more than one way. You can either study each building, as pictured and described on the page, or read about the lady inside the building, tied to a chair as tongues of flame surround her.
Be sure to look at the footnotes. That’s where the good stuff is hiding.
If you want to build a mental map of Moon’s fascinating work, building by building, “Darius B. Moon: The History of a Michigan Architect, 1880-1910” is the longawaited key to a phantom kingdom embedded in Michigan’s capital city. From the castle-like turrets and fancy stick work of the Rogers-Carrier House on the Lansing Community College campus to the stately Turner-Dodge House to the gorgeous sandstone storefronts of Old Town, MacLean has lovingly researched and documented them all — whether they’re still standing or long gone.
My advice, however, is to throw order to the winds and explore this eccentric book the way you’d comb a beach or rummage through a curiosity shop. Almost by accident, Maclean, head of community outreach at Capital Area District Libraries, has mapped out a fascinating ramble through Lansing history.
Yes, there’s a lot of talk about corbels, gables and quoins. That comes with the territory.
But there’s also stuff like this.
In the late 1870s, Helen Mead, a married woman, was rumored to be having an affair with a young doctor in Mason. The doctor left his practice in Mason because of the scandal, but returned a year later to marry Mead, who had divorced her husband. When he showed up in Mason, people threw eggs at him.
Meanwhile, Elias Culver, the jilted husband, served two terms as mayor of Mason. He remarried, to a woman named Nellie. It didn’t turn out well.
“Nellie’s death was rather gruesome,” MacLean writes.
Distraught over ill health and failed investments, Nellie lit a candle, tied herself to a chair, turned the gas on the stove and drank a bottle of chloroform. She died as a result of the fire.
This tiny bubble of a soap opera rises up from the book’s last entry, on a house at 229 State Street in Mason renovated by Moon. Most of it is in a footnote on the very last page of the book.
“There are a lot of great stories in this city,” MacLean said.
The book is enlivened by walk-ons from leading Lansing citizens like George Ranney, Edward Sparrow, R.E. Olds, Johnson Hagadorn and other luminaries who hired Moon as his local fame grew. We also meet lesser known figures such as lumberman William Brown, member of a fraternal organization called the Concatenated Order of Hoo-Hoo — check out his fantastic Moon house with sideways window at 1003 N. Washington Ave. — and businessman George Keith, who grew enormous potatoes. Alas, Keith’s home is no longer standing.
The leading player in this story, Moon himself, walks on and off the stage, revealed mainly through letters and professional documents. MacLean found biographical material sparse. Most of Moon’s fragmentary diaries appear to be lost. But the image of a proud, diligent, family-loving man peeks through the bricks.
“It’s incredible that he had very little education beyond country schools,” MacLean said.
Moon was a demanding, hands-on designer, and paid a physical price for it. While inspecting the renovation of the Rikerd Lumber plant at 130 Mill St., he stepped on a loose board and was “precipitated to the ground,” according to an account in the Lansing State Republican. Bruised and broken, he “regained consciousness upon being taken to his home.” Part of his ear was torn off in another building site accident. (It was reattached.)
MacLean’s 400-page book is a love letter to the dedicated architect and his hometown.
“It kind of took over my life,” MacLean said.
The veteran librarian used his key-holder privileges to spend many Sunday mornings alone, poring over microfilm. MacLean’s notes, including data on nearly every building of note in Lansing built from 1880 to 1910, filled a row of binders several feet long.
In the hustle to chase down every Moon design, MacLean sometimes felt as if he were racing time. He took a picture of a Moon house on Allegan Street in 2009, came back for another photo two weeks later and found it was demolished. Other Moon houses were torn down during the decade MacLean worked on the book.
“Part of the problem is that nobody knew who designed what here, and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to get this done,” he said. “We need to know.”
Several of Moon’s most spectacular buildings have been lost, most notably the Olds mansion. MacLean said it’s a credit to Olds, as well as the architect, that the auto pioneer hired Moon.
“He easily could have hired someone out of Detroit or Chicago, but he went local,” MacLean said.
Big as it is, the Moon opus is only the beginning of a larger project. MacLean is almost finished with a history of three young Lansing architects: William Appleyard, Rufus Arthur Bailey and Frederick Thoman.
Another book, on leading Lansing architect Earl H. Mead, is about half done.
“About six months into this, I realized I should be accumulating anything I can find on anything that was built by local architects,” MacLean said. “So that’s what I did.”