The first capital of Michigan in 1835 was Detroit. But a provision in the state Constitution required that after a period of twelve years the government be moved to a more central location. There were concerns about Detroit being too close to British Canada and subject to invasion like what happened twenty years earlier in the War of 1812. And outside of Detroit there was grumbling about the new state’s largest city having too much power if it was the capital as well.

So in 1847 there was jockeying among the likely candidates in the central part of Michigan to be awarded the state capital by the Legislature. Ann Arbor was in there pitching. And Jackson. And Marshall. One constituency that wasn’t represented was Lansing, where there were less than 20 people living around a sawmill. There was no obvious choice, however, and after months of wrangling an exasperated Michigan House of Representatives picked Lansing. When the decision was announced there was open laughter at what was believed to be a prank. But it was no joke.

The people of Lansing, named by settlers of a Tomkins County town in New York that was named for Revolutionary War hero and legal author John Lansing, readied themselves to be the capital city. Heck, Lansing wasn’t even the county seat of Ingham County and it remains the only capital city in America in a county that isn’t the county seat. Even with the designation as the capitol of Michigan, the city wasn’t incorporated until 1859, with 3,085 inhabitants. In those early years Lansing was never sure it would actually stay the capital of Michigan until the legislature set aside over a million dollars to build a new capitol in 1872. 

By that time Lansing had developed along three villages: a Lower, the oldest part; an Upper, and a Middle, where the government grew. The government triggered growth but Lansing developed an industrial base in its own right. There was dense timber stands to harvest and agricultural implements to build, especially wheelbarrows. But nothing kick-started Lansing like Ransom E. Olds, one of America’s foremost automobile pioneers credited with constructing the world’s first practical automobile. With Olds building more cars than anyone in the world in the first years of the 1900s, some 200 manufacturers established themselves in the area. A town that entered the new century with 15,000 people entered the Depression thirty years later with 80,000.

As Lansing reinvented itself through the remainder of the 20th century education and healthcare and banking played a larger role in the economy. Few towns have been as active in urban development. An expanding government hungry for land cleared large swaths of homes and suburban exodus and highway construction claimed dozens of more blocks. Few landmarks remain that have witnessed it all happen and many are clustered around the Michigan State Capitol and that is where we will begin our walking tour...  

Michigan State Capitol
Capitol Avenue between Allegan and Ottawa streets

This is the third building to serve Michigan as state capitol. The first two, one in Detroit and one in Lansing, each were eventually destroyed by fire. It cost less than $50,000 combined to construct those two buildings - $1.2 million was earmarked for this capitol building when its cornerstone was laid in 1872. The architect was 39-year old Elijah E. Myers who moved to Michigan from Springfield, Illinois for the project and never left. Myers would go on to design the statehouses in Colorado, Texas and the Idaho Territory - more than any other architect. Myers favored the Renaissance Revival style and here he constructed four stories of buff sandstone with a cruciform floor plan to house the two legislative chambers and governor’s office. The cast iron dome was at first painted to match the light tan of the building, then spent decades painted a bright white and is currently back at its off-white hue. The grounds contain a prominent statue of Austin Blair, Michigan’s Civil War governor, and several notable trees, including an Eastern White Pine, the state tree. A catalpa tree that was planted during dedication in 1873 is now anointed as the largest living catalpa in the United States. 


Hotel Olds
111 South Capitol Avenue at southeast corner of Michigan Avenue

After Ransom Eli Olds began building gasoline-powered runabouts in Lansing in 1896 he quickly became the town’s leading citizen. Olds drifted out of the automobile business in the 1920s and into real estate. For the Hotel Olds he hired the leading Chicago architectural firm of Holabird & Roche who delivered a 13-story Beaux Arts confection that rapidly became the social and political center in town after it opened in 1926. The Hotel Olds was promoted as being “absolutely fireproof” and boasting a bath in all 300 rooms. With its days as a prestige hotel at an end the brick-and-stone building was renovated into office space for the State of Michigan and renamed after Governor George Romney.


Lansing City Hall and Police Building
124 West Michigan Avenue at northeast corner of Capitol Avenue

This 9-story International Style government home came on board in 1959 from the pen of Kenneth C. Black. The dark green aluminum panel curtain wall is set inside a frame of limestone on a base of granite columns. The complex, that includes a hard-scaped plaza, was the centerpiece of a push in Lansing to modernize its buildings in the 1950s. One of the most prominent victims was the previous city hall, a monumental Richardsonian Romanesque government temple from 1896. 


Central United Methodist Church
215 North Capitol Avenue at northwest corner of Ottawa Street

The Methodists were meeting, in the log cabin of Joah Page, before the town was formed. In 1850 a second congregation of Methodists organized in Middle Town and erected a meetinghouse here in 1862. It was replaced in 1890 with this brawny Richardsonian Romanesque stone sanctuary. Central Methodist is the only known Michigan church designed by Elijah E. Myers, creator of the Michigan State Capitol across the street.


St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
218 West Ottawa Street at northeast corner of Seymour Avenue

St. Paul’s began as a mission in 1849 and the first Episcopal meetinghouse was constructed in town ten years later. This brick structure is the third for the congregation, erected in 1914 to replace a Carpenter Gothic church raised on this site in 1873.


Saint Mary Cathedral
219 Seymour Avenue at southwest corner of Ionia Street

Circuit-riding priests ministered to the needs of Lansing’s Catholics until 1862 when a parish was established in town. In 1913 this handsome Norman Gothic stone building was constructed as the parish church on plans drawn by Edwyn Bowd. In 1937 the church was designated as the Cathedral for the new Diocese of Lansing.


First Baptist Church
227 North Capitol Avenue at southwest corner of Ionia Street

The Baptists organized in Lansing in 1848 but it took a decade of scuffling before a white frame meetinghouse was raised on this corner. In 1892 the congregation hired a new architect in town, Edwyn A. Boyd, to design a new church. Boyd used dressed fieldstone to execute his Romanesque Revival design with turrets, powerful arches and contrasting stones. He would go on to become the most prominent architect in Lansing for almost half-a-century.


Michigan Bell Telephone Building
220 North Capitol Avenue

The first two floors of this building to house offices and switching facilities of Michigan Bell were constructed in 1907. In the 1920s and 1930s the telephone company was partial to constructing the large buildings required for their exploding business in the stripped down classicism of the Art Deco style. This is a fine representative.

Mutual Building
208 North Capitol Avenue

This heritage building hard by the State Capitol was constructed as headquarters for the Michigan Millers Mutual Insurance Company in 1928. One of Chicago’s leading designers of commercial buildings, Pond & Pond, Martin & Lloyd, crafted the six-story office building with Elizabethan influences. Michigan Millers Mutual Fire Insurance Company was founded in 1881 by flour mill owners. The company grew rapidly out of its first headquarters around the corner and kept growing out of this building as well. Following a half-century of deterioration after Millers departed in the 1950s, the brick-and-stone structure received a recent $12 million facelift by construction giant Christman Company to be their national headquarters. 


The Lighthouse
118-120 West Ottawa Street 

In 1890 this property was developed first by the Lansing Women’s Club with a two-story red-brick clubhouse and then by the Michigan Millers Mutual Insurance Company next door. The Millers building was designed by local architect Darius B. Moon, a self-educated poet, artist and craftsman who designed some 260 structures in the Lansing area between 1860 and 1922. This was one of the first buildings designed by Moon after he tried his hand at architecture. Moon would later concentrate almost exclusively on residential projects so this remains one of his few commercial efforts. He blended elements of the Italianate and Romanesque styles to create downtown Lansing’s best souvenir of most picturesque Victorian era. 

Ingham Building
116 West Ottawa Street

The Michigan Territorial legislature created twelve counties in 1829, naming eight of them for members of recently elected Andrew Jackson’s cabinet. Lansing falls into the one tabbed for the Secretary of Treasury, Samuel D. Ingham, who battled with the President over the need for a central bank and paper money and resigned after two years in office. Before assuming Ingham’s name this classically-flavored low-rise office tower began life as the Water Light Power and Heat Building in 1928.


Bank of Lansing Building
101 North Washington Square at northwest corner of Michigan Avenue

This Art Deco tower, sheathed in grayish-white limestone, was completed in 1932. Lansing architects Lee Black and his son Kenneth infused the skyscraper with Romanesque themes, including intricate carvings in the door surround by New York sculptor Ulysses Ricci. Bas relief etchings in the bronze entrance door depict images of Lansing. Lee Black started practice in 1913 and this was one of the first projects he worked on with his son who had received his architectural training at the University of Michigan. The Blacks would continue designing important buildings in Lansing for another three decades until Lee retired in 1958.  

Prudden Building
109 West Michigan Avenue at southwest corner of Washington Square

Ransom E. Olds would never would have set up shop in Lansing if William K. Prudden wasn’t here first. When Olds’ factory in Detroit burned he went on the prowl for a new location and came to Lansing because that was where his biggest wheel supplier was, the W.K. Prudden Company. Prudden, a Georgia native, was a horse fancier who bred and raced trotters. He was obsessed with getting more speed and at the age of 39 gave up his real estate business to produce rubber-tired wheels for the purpose of racing sulkies. When the automobile came along Prudden was in a ideal position as a supplier and was soon the world’s largest producer of both wood and steel wheels. The Prudden office building wound up at the intersection of Washington and Michigan, occupied by many of Lansing’s most important businesses. After that building was crippled by fire in 1920 this 11-story Renaissance Revival structure, from the pen of local architect Samuel Dana Butterworth, replaced it.

Hollister Building
106 West Allegan Street at northwest corner of Washington Square

This is the oldest large commercial structure in Lansing with a toe in the 19th century. There were actually only three such structures - the Oakland Building burned in 1923 and the Downey Hotel that was demolished in 1936. The Hollister was constructed in the 1890s and later expanded, growing past an alley that then crossed through the building. In a multi-million dollar facelift the building has recently been stripped of its modernization and transported back to its 1950s appearance.

Strand Theatre
211-219 South Washington Avenue

Lansing once had a thriving theater district where patrons could choose from live performances at the Empress, the Orpheum, the Vaudette, the Garden, the Colonial and so on. In 1920 the Strand Theatre was built as a vaudeville stage. Chicago architect John Eberson, who would become known for his “atmospheric” theaters that transported theater-goers to fantasies of the mind provided the rich Neoclassical visage of the Strand. This was one of Eberson’s early creations that would produce more than 300 performance houses in the following 25 years. The Strand followed a typical arc for downtown theaters - live performances to popular movie house when “talkies” arrived (it was the Michigan Theatre after 1941) to decline against television and suburban flight to closure in the 1970s. The ending at the Strand featured a bit of a twist, however. The theater was demolished but the facade was restored with limestone to match the original terra-cotta and the lobby revived for shops and offices. 

J.W. Knapp Company Department Store
300 South Washington Avenue at southwest corner of Washtenaw Street

This was the site of Lansing’s finest 19th century hotel, the Downey House. The 70-year old building was cleared away in 1936 to make way for the town’s largest department store. Orlie Munson provided the sleek Streamline Art Moderne design whose curvilinear comes from huge plates of concrete faced with enamel called macotta and prismatic glass brick windows. Alternating horizontal bands of yellow macotta and glass block are interrupted by vertical blue macotta pylons, rising from the building’s four principal entrances. Joseph W. Knapp opened a dry-goods, coat and carpet store in Albion in 1893. He moved the operation to Lansing in 1897 but did not live to see his company’s move into these landmark quarters; Knapp died in Florida in 1933 at the age of 74. The Knapp Company was sold in the 1950s and after several ownership changes the iconic downtown store was padlocked in 1980.

The Arbaugh
401 South Washington Square at southeast corner of Kalamazoo Street

Frank Arbaugh and Basil Cameron were studying together to become educators at the State Teachers’ College in Indiana, Pennsylvania when Cameron left to help his uncle run a small department store in Lansing. Five years later when the elder Cameron became ill Arbaugh joined the business and bought a half-interest for $1,500. With youthful energy and ideas the store thrived. Cameron and Arbaugh became the first store in town to accept employee paychecks from the nascent Olds Motor Works as payment. In 1904 the partners began work on a building the likes of which had not been seen in Lansing before with five stories and a basement and 38,000 square feet of shopping space. The Lansing Journal gushed that the town’s newest department store building was the “finest in Central Michigan, and without a peer in the entire state.” The original building is a masonry bearing wall structure with heavy timber post and built-up beam construction, In 1915, by which time Arbaugh had bought out his partner, a modern steel skeleton structure was seamlessly added to the southern end. After the business was sold out of the Arbaugh family the historic store operated as Wurzberg’s for awhile before disappearing, literally. The retail operation closed in the 1970s and the building was hidden behind walls of glass panels and converted to office space inside. In 2004 the glass curtain came down and the building converted to residential space.  


Capitol Area Library
401 South Capitol Avenue at southeast corner of Kalamazoo Street

Architect Kenneth C. Black used pre-cast concrete panels finished with a quartz aggregate that makes his rectangular building glisten like a jewel in the sunshine. The panels are molded with the insignias of eight American publishers in a repeating pattern. A Japanese garden completes the modernist confection that opened in 1964.


Masonic Temple
217 South Capitol Avenue

The town’s Masons organized in 1849 as Lansing Lodge No. 33. In 1924 the fraternal organization hired go-to architect Edwyn A. Bowd to build a larger temple than their current two-decades-old meeting hall. Bowd responded with Lansing’s best Neoclassical structure. While the seven-story building is constructed of buff brick, Bowd crafted a temple front of limestone shielding a recessed entrance fronted by fluted Doric columns. Anthemion and acroteria motifs decorate the roofline and metal grills in the pediment frieze. The Masons, with a declining membership, sold their landmark building after 50 years to the Cooley Law School which reconfigured much of the interior for classrooms and offices.

Stoddard Building
123 West Allegan Street at southeast corner of Capitol Avenue

This curtain wall, International Style building from 1959 now functions as the Michigan Senate Office Building but it began life as the Stoddard Building for the headquarters of the Michigan National Bank. Howard J. Stoddard organized Michigan National by pulling together six banks from mid-sized Michigan towns in 1941. At the time, this was the second largest bank merger in the United States. Stoddard innovated consumer services such as Saturday banking and drive-through windows. The 11-story building is another creation of Kenneth C. Black.

Olds Tower
124 West Allegan Street at northeast corner of Capitol Avenue

Of all the early automakers Ransom E. Olds was in the best position of any car builder to establish an empire like Henry Ford or Walter Chrysler. But he lacked the competitive drive to build that sort of mega-business. In 1893 Olds sold his horseless carriage to an English company for use in India. It was America’s first automobile sale. In 1896 he organized the Olds Motor Vehicle Company in Detroit with a group of investors but resigned his presidency when the board wanted to build luxury vehicles. Olds diversified his business interests: real estate, a peat fuel company, a gold mine and banking. Before 1904 was out Olds was back in the car business. He formed the R.E. Olds Company but was threatened with litigation from his former company he founded. He changed the name to REO Motor Car Company, an acronym of his initials. REO became established as an industry leader but Olds was more of an innovator than an empire builder and failed to keep up with changing designs and mechanical advancements. He traveled extensively, vacationed much of the winter and spent a great deal of time at auto shows. Olds relinquished the title of general manager in 1915 and gave up the presidency of REO in 1923. He bankrolled the construction of the Hotel Olds and in 1929 broke ground on the state’s tallest building next door. The the brick and limestone-faced Art Deco tower has been the tallest building in Lansing since its completion in 1931.