Lansing voters go to the polls on November 7. They’ll select a new mayor and four members of the city council. Residents will also be asked to decide on the fate of an old house that’s seen a lot of Lansing history.
To hear the soft rattle of cars over the railroad tracks on South Washington Avenue in REO Town is to hear the story of Lansing itself.
On this street, an automotive empire was built. Oldsmobile is long gone, but memorialized today in a colorful mural. It’s across the tracks from the stately new BWL co-generation plant, which dwarfs yet somehow spotlights the old 1902 Grand Trunk rail station.
Hipster and historic, the old and the new have always shared block space in REO Town...and it’s happening again.
At the corner of Washington Ave and Malcolm X Street, the Board of Water and Light’s new central substation is rising to life beside an icon of old Lansing.
The Cooley-Haze House was built in 1903, when streetcars ruled the roads and the curved-dash Olds was the hot new upstart. For the last 30 years, the Colonial Revival era building housed the Michigan Women’s Historical Center. But since the organization moved to Okemos last April, the city-owned building has been vacant.
Now, on Election Day, the city is asking voters a question: sell the Cooley Haze house or scrap it?
On the day I toured the house, it felt much the same way as it probably did when it was finished 114 years ago. No electricity. No running water.
Whoever buys the house must adhere to strict federal historic preservation standards. But that doesn’t mean the house can’t evolve.
“Certainly the building can be rehabbed into something useful, functional,” says Cassandra Nelson with the group Preservation Lansing. “It could be a private home, it could be an event space, it could be a restaurant, it could be offices...it could be any number of things. But the new owner will have to maintain the integrity and the character-defining features of the building.”
The Cooley Haze House is the last survivor in what was once a row of mansions along this street. The Jenison House, also known as the Scott House, was demolished to make way for the incoming BWL substation, and the adjacent sunken garden is being relocated. The utility is promising to restore and even upgrade the recreational aspects of this parcel once the plant is complete.
Lansing Parks and Recreation Director Brett Kaschinske believes the project is a catalyst for new investment.
“We have new development going in at the old Deluxe Inn site, and you saw that announcement there,” Kaschinske says. “That’s after they found out about the central substation. This is really going to open up the access to the river that really wasn’t there when we had the previous park setup.”
The Deluxe Inn was torn down in 2010, ending its decades-long reputation as a seedy hotbed of criminal activity. There’s plans for a new hotel on the parcel where the quirky REO Town now stands.
A refurbished Cooley Haze House could be a key element as a gateway to Lansing’s venerable neighborhood.
“So, it is really that storytelling house,” says Kaschinske. “I think the areas around here could definitely tell the story of the Scotts, of the Cooleys, of the Hazes, of R.E. Olds, of Malcolm X. All of this can really fit in to be that unique place making opportunity that folks in Lansing are looking for.”
The fate of the Cooley Haze house is now in the hands of the voters. The ballot proposal could garner a significant response. This is an off-year election, but a big one for Lansing. The city will choose its first new mayor in 12 years.
“We expect somewhere between 20 and 25 percent turnout,” says Lansing city clerk Chris Swope. “That’s including both people voting on Election Day and the absentee ballots, which are running at about 6,500 ballots issued so far.”
Cassandra Nelson with Preservation Lansing hopes enough city residents will care enough about the Cooley Haze house for it to keep its place in the midst of a growing new REO Town.
“It’s not very political, you know,” says Nelson. “This doesn’t involve my tax money or roads or something to get angry about. And so really we just need to make people aware that this is a thing they need to get out and vote for to help us save this house.”
Lansing voters go to the polls on November 7.