Is Old Dodge Mansion a Beauty or a Beast?

The following is the text of an article in The State Journal of Friday, November 29, 1974. Upon request, the Secretary can provide a copy of the article with its accompanying photos of James Blair and William Brenke.

Is Old Dodge Mansion a Beauty or a Beast?

by Mike Hughes

Like a lovable pet hippopotamus, the Dodge Mansion is a difficult thing to forget you own. Lansing councilmen insist that they didn't really pay any money for the mansion: They paid $189,000 for eight acres of stunning riverside park land.

But the mansion happens to be in the middle of that land, and it isn't easy to ignore. "It's in our park and we want to make sure it looks nice," James Blair, chairman of the council's parks committee, says.

So that leaves the most intriguing question: What do you do with a 124-year-old mansion in the middle of a park? And that's where the disagreement starts.

When the council voted to make the deal, proponents estimated that it would cost $40-50,000 to fix up the mansion. Later, however, a $60,000 contract was awarded for the exterior work alone. That brought some stiff criticism from Councilman William Brenke, who insists the building is a "white elephant." "You'll not feed that white elephant peanuts," Brenke said. "You'll feed it dollar bills."

Brenke is still an outspoken critic of the idea: "we paid $60,000 for a leaky roof and a failing foundation. And no one to this day has found a use for it. In my home, we find a use for something before we buy it."

But other councilmen insist the criticism is unfair. No matter what the building is used for, they say, it should be returned to its original style and class. The $60,000 will be used for basic, necessary things - shoring up the foundation, putting on a new roof, repointing the brickwork, fixing the columns and windows.

That work is expected to be finished before next spring, and by then councilmen hope to have decided on a use for the building. As some see it, there is a stunning potential.

"I think we can open it for a museum scaled to a Bicentennial theme," Councilman Lucille Belen said. "We could furnish it according to that era, and ask people to donate artifacts . . . We could set up a museum that people would like to see."

Ford Ceasar, a local historian, has similar ideas. He talks hopefully about linking the mansion to the colorful history of North Lansing. Pat Smith, director of the Community Design Center (CDC), sees the mansion as a start for reviving the area. "I'd love to see it used as an art gallery or a museum, some high-use thing that would attract a lot of people." The CDC plan for the area bills the mansion as a "North Lansing Historical Center."

And other ideas have popped up. You could use the mansion for a fine arts center, a senior citizens center, a community hall, or offices for the city, social agencies, or the parks department. All of those run into one obstacle, Blair says. They might leave the city with the cost of remodeling the interior, buying furniture, and taking care of heat and maintenance. After sinking a quarter-of-a-million dollars already, some councilmen may be reluctant to go much further.

In short, if a private, nonprofit group offers to take over the mansion and run one of those programs, the councilmen will probably listen eagerly. But the city is still hesitant to jump into the business itself.

So far, there have been a few offers to consider. They include:

- Impressions 5, a "tactile museum," is looking for a home. The museum creates exhibits that people can really reach and touch. It has just received a $9,000 Michigan Bicentennial grant, but it is still homeless. For now, the group stores its things at the old Marble School in East Lansing, prepares mobile shows, and would like a permanent home in the mansion.

- Another group, the American Youth Hostels Association, has shown some interest in using the mansion for a hostel.

- Now the Jaycees have come up with a plan to use the center as a gathering point for service clubs from throughout the city.

"Many service clubs have quite a hard time finding a place to meet," Scott Hillery, a Jaycee, says. The Jaycees, for instance, can get a meeting room for free - but only by ordering dinners or drinking at the bar.

The mansion might take care of that, Hillery says. There are enormous meeting rooms on the first and third floors, a kitchen on the first floor, and a series of second-floor bedrooms that could be used as offices.

Duncan Black, an architect and a Jaycee, examined the building and decided that it is fundamentally solid. "The materials are all there and available for restoration," Black says. "It will just take someone to do the work."

None of the work would be complicated, Black says. "It would involve removing paint, insulating the roof, re-painting, and restoring."

From there, a general plan was worked out: The Jaycees would start by restoring the first floor and possibly the third floor. ("This could be our Bicentennial project," Hillery said. "It would involve a massive amount of manpower.") The various service clubs would share the building. Each would schedule meetings, use one of the second-floor rooms as an office, restore its own office, and pay for part of the heat and maintenance.

All of that leaves an assortment of questions: Would other service clubs be interested? Would other groups (besides service clubs) be able to use the meeting rooms? And how much would it cost for maintenance and utilities?

For now, the Jaycees say they are only considering the possibility. "It's something that caught our attention and we thought we'd suggest something," Hillery said.

And councilmen are being just as cautious. For now, they're still waiting for ideas about what to do with a big old house in the middle of a park.