By Isaac Constans
Listen Up, Lansing Staff Reporter
There is no such thing as total solitude in downtown Lansing. Even when the lights are out, the businesses closed, and the streets empty, the stoic faces of gargoyles and other curious creatures perched on buildings keep constant watch over the city.
“You know, my favorite (building) is the old Michigan National Tower, the Boji (Tower) now,” Rafeeq McGiveron, who has worked in downtown Lansing for 19 years, said. “I mean you look at the reliefs on it, man, I love those. There’s like a cat, or a jaguar or something, with a dead rabbit in its mouth.”
According to Carolyn Loeb, a Michigan State art and architecture historian, the range of styles reflects the primary periods of growth for a downtown area.
“The real development of the downtown that we still see traces of today, although of course it’s a shadow of its former self, stemmed basically from the teens and twenties and thirties (20th century),” Loeb said. “That was, I guess you could say, the heyday of the downtown, when you had the tower built.”
Both the Boji Tower and the Comerica Bank Building, formerly the City National Building, are examples of the art deco style that is highly visible in downtown Lansing. The Boji Tower was constructed in 1929 and the Comerica Bank Building was constructed starting in 1931, marking the most pulsating time for art deco, and both host impressive reliefs.
“It’s a remembrance, it’s a tribute, and at that time, the trend was toward this more elaborate bits of detail,” Laurie Hollinger, who has profiled numerous downtown buildings, said, referring to the gargoyles inside of the Comerica Bank Building. “Some of the gargoyles inside are modeled after real people. You’ll see a little old bald guy hugging a bag of money, and that’s one of the founders of the bank there.”
Perched at the corner of Washington Square and Michigan Avenue, the bank is a clear favorite amongst architectural enthusiasts for its design. Just below the second story windows, the words “The Oldest Bank in the City of Lansing” are prominently engraved into the east-facing side.
Inside the bank also hangs a depiction of a 19th century dentist, amongst other engravings, because there used to be medical offices housed there. When considered communally, these reliefs and statues have an overarching theme.
“A lot of it refers to industry, in the sense of industriousness and hark work,” Loeb said about the bank’s diverse figures. “And that produces wealth and (the bank) is where it’s collected.”
Another gem for architecture enthusiasts came just a bit further on the timeline. The Knapp’s Centre (formerly the J.W. Knapp Company Building) began construction in 1936, and it is the clearest example of the art moderne architectural style in Lansing, according to Loeb.
“The gem of downtown, as it remains, is the Knapp’s … with the curving façade and the sort of tile, very colorful patterns on the exterior.” Loeb said. “It’s been many years in the making of how it is presently focused.”
These older architectural styles are countered by the imposition of newer forms and post-modernist buildings, according to Loeb. And while this can be done tastefully, it all depends on the time of construction.
“In the fifties and sixties, when modern architecture was first introduced, tastes had changed and people didn’t value the older buildings so much,” Loeb said. “That’s why so many were torn down. And then there was just the sense of building in this new style and who cares about accommodating or compromising with older styles that might exist.”
The proceeding wave of architecture tried to reconcile for the abandonment and ignoring of older forms. Post-modernism centered on adding to the old landmarks and contributing to a general style.
“Beginning in the seventies and eighties, picking up steam on the way, the notion of contextual architecture became stronger when architects did pay attention to the character of the buildings around them,” Loeb said. “This is linked also with the idea of post-modernism, which itself was interested in adapting elements of older architecture to new buildings.”
Tom Artley has worked downtown on-and-off for ten years and finds that the recent additions to the city add to the atmosphere.
“It’s got a nice blend of old and new,” Artley said of downtown Lansing. “And I feel like it’s improved a lot during ten years.”
Robert Rodway, a student at Lansing Community College, agreed. He thought that the newer architecture helped give off the impression of a big city.
“I grew up in the greater Flint area and this is a lot better than greater Flint, for sure,” Rodway said.
Loeb sees the newer architecture as quite independent and distinct from the older forms, however.
“Today, I think you find both, certainly when you go downtown and see the newer buildings,” Loeb said. “Very few of them, even if they were built in the past 30 years or so, acknowledge the older architecture of Lansing.”
Loeb finds there to be very few exceptions to this rule, citing the incoherent blend around the Capitol as a prime example. For her, the collage of parking garages, office buildings, and old banks is a sign that the impressions of the fifties and sixties linger.
However, that is not to suggest that the unlikely mix is entirely undesirable. It’s a larger theme of urban development that exists in the Midwest.
“The same patterns would follow throughout the reason, having to do with timing of settlement or timing of development, whether that be timing of economic development or timing of industrial development,” Loeb said. “And the styles are picked up sequentially as you go throughout the country.”
For people like Rodway who are from larger cities, the resemblance of Lansing to other urban centers is reassuring.
“I’m not educated in architecture, but it definitely has a Midwest vibe,” Rodway said. “It’s Chicago-esque, almost, at least some buildings are.”
The motley arrangement of buildings is something that frees Lansing architects’ creativity flow. In cities with more stringent taboos against violating building norms, a strict culture can stifle ingenuity. Lansing’s mix of architecture styles defines the city, according to Loeb.
“In downtown Lansing, it’s so broken up that people feel freer doing what they want to do,” Loeb said.