City Has Mansion But Use In Doubt

The following is the text of an article in The State Journal of Thursday, November 28, 1974. Upon request, the Secretary can provide a copy of the article with its accompanying photo of the House.

City Has Mansion But Use In Doubt

by Mike Hughes

The Dodge Mansion, once a glittering part of Lansing's social scene, is today a decaying reminder of days past. The City has agreed to buy it. The article today, and a second Friday, tell about the old mansion and some proposals for its future. It is a bigger-than-life enigma, an awesome, rambling question mark.

The Dodge Mansion has been around for 124 years, and right now people aren't sure what to make of it. The City agreed to buy the place six months ago, but that still left one question: What do you do with it? Now that question is still around. "Everybody on the council has probably got something different in mind," James Blair, chairman of the council's parks committee, said. By varying accounts, the mansion should be: A Bicentennial era museum ... an art gallery ... a meeting place for service clubs ... a North Lansing historical center ... a youth hostel ... a tactile museum ... just a big old building in the middle of a very nice park. Or then again, maybe someone will come up with a new idea. Councilmen would like to decide by spring.

Whatever happens, the building offers some intriguing possibilities and problems. It is a giant-sized chunk of local history. The mansion was built for James Turner back in 1850. Turner was a big, powerful man - 6-4, 245 pounds, at various points a railroad boss, a mayor, a state senator, and a state treasurer. His new home was in that same grandiose image. That was just seven years after the first log cabin was built in Lansing, and Jim Turner's home (now in the inner city) was out in the wilderness. His wife used to tell of the Indians and bears that would come up to the front door. The most notable Indian was Chief Okemos himself, a close (but temporary) friend of Turner. The chief would visit often, but Turner was a teetotaler and the chief definitely was not. According to the legend, Turner threw away a bottle one day and the chief left, never to return.

Lansing grew up all around the mansion, gradually nudging it into the inner city. But the family retained eight acres of stunning riverfront land. As Patricia McLain Pemberton (Turner's great-granddaughter) later recalled, "As children we loved to play on the riverbanks. There were ravines and wildflowers and big tree roots that made caves. We had picnics there in the summer and sledding parties in the winter. It was a glorious place to grow up." That "glorious" place stayed in the family for more than a century. Frank Dodge - Turner's son-in-law, a lawyer, a railroad man, and a notable figure in his own right - bought the place in 1899. "You could say that was the second great period for the house," Ford Ceasar, a local historian, says. Dodge even expanded on the awesome tastes of his father-in-law, adding a third story to the building. The mansion became a glittering turn-of-the-century social scene.

After four generations, the home was sold to the Great Lakes Bible College, which used it as a dormitory. Later it went on the market again, and that's where the City came in. Already stinging from the loss of several major historical buildings, groups urged the City to buy this one. The federal government agreed to pay most of the bill. In April, the council decided to buy the place for $189,000.

"We didn't buy the Dodge Mansion," Blair insists. "We bought the land. We bought an eight-acre piece of property and the building happens to be on it. We feel it's not right to tear it down." Would the City pay $33,000 an acre for parkland? It could in the inner city, parks director Ted Haskell says. "We paid even more than that for Kingsley Place, where we had to buy houses and take them down." The land (along W North Street) was assessed at $189,000 not including any buildings, Haskell says. And the federal government apparently agreed, because it came up with its share from Open Spaces funds.

That still leaves the City with the job of making it into a park. Haskell hopes to get much of the work done during the winter, with the help of employment-program workers. To begin with, all three outbuildings will be torn down or hauled away. That will leave sprawling stretches of open space on both sides and in front of the mansion. Haskell talks about adding picnic tables and play fields. To the rear of the building is a steep, heavily-wooded bank leading to the river. Haskell hopes to carve some natural looking "vistas" and to create some footpaths to the river.

In theory, at least, the park will be a giant first step towards reviving some aging, fading neighborhoods in North Lansing. It is already a key part of the Community Design Center plan for the area. And suddenly an entire neighborhood will be able to share part of the Dodge family's "glorious place to grow up."