Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A tour of downtown Lansing

Over Labor Day weekend, my husband and I spent an evening on a historical "scavenger hunt." As part of the "History Hunt," sponsored by the Historical Society of Greater Lansing, we walked around the city's downtown area, taking pictures of various buildings and attractions. The Historical Society provided the clues, we hunted down the buildings. When all was said and done, we ended up winning one of the prizes (go team!!!), which, in our case, was a private guided tour of the state Capitol. I'll write about that excursion in a few weeks, but in the meantime, this post describes a few of the places we visited during our history walk.

(Note: The pictures in this post aren't the ones we took that day. Most of the clues asked us to capture very specific images, so in the interest of not posting a series of photos that show random archways and concrete slabs, I've hunted down photos of the buildings themselves.)

Away we go...

1. Boji Tower
120-130 W. Allegan Street

Auto bigwig Ransom E. Olds financed construction of this building, which, at 364 feet and 25 stories, is Lansing's tallest. (Fun fact: It's also the building where I work.) The structure began its life in 1931 as Olds Tower, then became Capital National Bank Tower in honor of a bank that Olds helped create. From 1954 to 2001, the building was the Michigan National Bank Tower, then went nameless for four years until the Boji Group, a development company, bought it in 2005 and named it Boji Tower. Built in the Art Deco style that was popular during the 1930s and 1940s, the tower is made of brick and limestone, and now contains primarily office space. It's also home to the Michigan Senate's hearing room.

2. First capitol building in Lansing
Historical marker at South Washington Square near Allegan Street

This building no longer exists, but was located on land now bordered by Washington Avenue, Capitol Avenue, Allegan Street, and Washtenaw Street. When Michigan became a state in 1837, its first capital was Detroit. However, the state constitution stated that this was a temporary location, and in 1847, Lansing---a wilderness community in the middle of nowhere---became the state capital. Construction of the new capitol building began that same year, and in 1848 the two-story wooden structure opened its doors to the state legislature, supreme court, and governor. It served as the state's primary governmental building until 1879, when the current capitol replaced it. The first capitol then became a factory, but burned down not long afterwards, in 1882.

3. Michigan Theatre
217 S. Washington Avenue

In 1921, this building opened as the Strand Theater and Arcade. It boasted one of the largest vaudeville stages in Michigan, as well as a bowling alley, billiard room, and banquet hall. Eventually, audiences lost interest in vaudeville, so the building's owners phased out live performances and began showing an increasing number of motion pictures. In 1941, the aging building underwent renovation and reopened as the Michigan Theatre. It remained a movie house until 1980, when it closed for good. Part of the building was demolished, but the rest remains in use as office and retail space.

4. Kerns Hotel
100 block of N. Grand Avenue
Historical marker located on the Grand River's east side, near Michigan Avenue

Another building no longer in existence, the Kerns Hotel (located behind the frontmost structure in this photo) burned down a few weeks before Christmas, on December 11, 1934. During its last night in existence, the 25-year-old, four-story wooden structure housed 215 guests, including several state legislators. At 5:30 a.m., the fire alarm went off, and firefighters rushed to save the hotel's occupants, many of whom escaped via ladders and nets. When the flames burned out, 32 people (including seven legislators) had died, and 44 more (including 14 firefighters) had been injured. (Two people would later die from their wounds.) According to the Lansing Fire Department, the Kerns Hotel incident is the worst fire disaster in the city's history.

5. Cooley Law School Stadium
505 E. Michigan Avenue

On April 5, 1996, Lansing's hometown minor-league baseball team, the Lugnuts, played its first-ever game, against the Rockford Cubbies, in what was then known as Oldsmobile Park. (Two days earlier, the new stadium had held its first "official" game, a matchup between the Michigan State University and University of Michigan baseball teams.) The park had replaced a row of storefronts along Michigan Avenue and, city officials hoped, would attract thousands of people to Lansing's downtown area. Their wish came true; seventeen years later, Lugnuts games remain a popular diversion for area families and sports fans. General Motors bought initial naming rights to the stadium (which is why it became "Oldsmobile Park" when it opened), but Thomas M. Cooley Law School obtained the rights in 2010, so the park is now known as Cooley Law School Stadium.

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