Findin' A Place in the Sun

August and September, 2011.


I can't remember how I found out about this place, but in August 2011 I was tooling around Lansing with DopeNess and we decided to wander the campus to check it out. I ended up coming back a few weeks later once I realized the history behind the place.


The architectural style of the main building immediately made me think of the Flint School for the Deaf that I had explored six years prior. Ironically enough, the histories of the two institutions were in fact intertwined, as they both used to be the same institution originally.


According to a historical plaque nearby, Michigan began educating the blind in 1859 at the Michigan Asylum for Educating the Deaf and Dumb in Flint. However,
In 1879 the legislature established the Michigan School for the Blind, which opened here on September 29, 1880, with 35 students. The next year, five students were its first graduates. At first students learned by lecture / demonstrations, but in 1884-85 the school introduced braille reading and writing. The first deaf / blind student was enrolled in 1887. By the 1950s the school boasted its largest enrollment, three hundred children in kindergarten through grade twelve. Student activities have included music, drama and track. In 1961 and 1963 student wrestlers won class B state championships.

Another marker explained that this structure was once called "Old Main," and was the focal point of the 40-acre campus of the Michigan School for the Blind. The Neo-Classical Revival-style building was designed by Edwyn A. Bowd of Lansing, and originally housed the entire student body as well as the school offices. It was subsequently enlarged and remodeled several times.


According to the city of Lansing's website, this school's first use however was as the Michigan Female College, and was built in 1858. That institution was the brainchild of "one of Michigan's most distinguished and admired women of the 19th century," Abigail Rogers, and it has national significance in the "First Wave" of the women's movement, or feminism.


In 1867 the 31st Annual Report of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, described the Rogers sisters and how they founded the school, which originally operated inside the Michigan State Capitol building in 1855, until a permanent building could be found:
Educated and experienced in the administration of college level education, Abigail and her sister Delia Rogers determined to open a school of the highest grade for young women in the State Capital "to keep before the public mind as constantly as they could, the duty of the State to provide for the education of its daughters as it had already provided for the education of its sons." Their goal was to achieve permanence by ultimate acceptance and adoption when the State should come to recognize and act upon its obligations to the neglected half of its children. By 1867 over 1,000 students from Michigan and nine other states had attended the school. The course of study was both Classical and Scientific.

According to the city website, Abigail Rogers, and both the Female College and the School for the Blind were associated with the history of the Turner family and the Turner-Dodge House, as well as Lansing's Lower Town, now called Old Town. The Turners were one of Lansing's pioneer families. The website quotes a Frank M. Turner, M.D., from Historic Michigan, Vol. III, An Account of Ingham County in 1924 as saying of Abigail Rogers,
Her great work, the work on which she spent her whole life was the admission of women in to the University of Michigan and the Michigan Agricultural College on an equal basis with men. She did not live to see this for she died in 1869. All women who have been admitted to the University of Michigan and Michigan Agricultural College since her death must remember that Miss Rogers' life long efforts opened the doors of higher education to them.

Finding a permanent home for the Female College was where the Turner family came into the story. The property and a subscription of $20,000 was secured through the efforts of early Lansing merchant James Turner and other business associates of his. Construction began on the north wing under the supervision of Abigail Rogers, who herself was busy obtaining many in-kind donations of money and services from the Detroit area.

This building was completed in 1858, and was named "The Abigail" by James Turner, after Miss Rogers. Mr. Turner also named his daughter, Abigail Turner-Dodge, in honor of the Female College's founder.


According to Michigan, A History of the Wolverine State by Willis Dunbar, other female colleges or "seminaries" already existed in Kalamazoo, Monroe, and Marshall, Michigan, and there was one in Detroit as early as 1830. Ironically, it was shortly after Abigail Roger's death in 1869 that Michigan State University agreed to begin admitting women, and the University of Michigan followed suit in 1870. It was at this time that the Female College closed its doors, as its services were no longer needed.

Note the cornerstone says A.D. 1915
An Ingham County Historical Marker (yes this is the third one!) on the front of "The Abigail" (Old Main) indicates that after the Michigan Female College, this school was home to the Odd Fellows Institute of Michigan, from 1871 to 1880. According to Michigan Genealogy: Sources & Resources, by Carol McGinnis, it was established "to care for elderly Odd Fellows, their wives, widows, and orphans." The home relocated to Jackson in 1901.


The Lansing city website goes on to quote the Pioneer History of Ingham County, which details an account from 1873 on how the Female College became the Odd Fellows Institute. It says that the citizens of Lansing donated 45 acres of land and the north end of the Female College to the IOOF Grand Lodge, and Miss Delia Rogers herself generously donated a large portion of the land, plus a library of 1,500 volumes, "and a fine philosophical apparatus." The account continued to explain that in 1871 an addition "of 57 feet square, constituting the main front, was put up at a cost of $30,000."


Getting back to the School for the Blind, according to an article in the Lansing City Pulse, the School for the Blind and Deaf in Flint was in need of a second facility around this time, reasoning that blind and deaf students needed different services--and, "as one story goes," the kids there had taken to playing "disability-specific pranks" on each other. So in 1879, this campus became the new Michigan School for the Blind, and served students from pre-school age to their mid-20s.


Between 1912 and 1915, Edwyn Bowd was hired to redesign the campus according to the article, though it almost makes it sound as if the "Abigail" / Old Main had been demolished and rebuilt. He designed the blond-colored brick high school in 1912 (seen in the 6th photo from the top), the superintendent's house in 1914, and Old Main in 1915 (as seen on the cornerstone in an earlier photo).

Looking at the series of images on this webpage, one can see what the original building looked like in 1858 when it was first built. It also states that William P. Appleyard was the architect of the original "Abigail."


Edwyn Bowd’s involvement, the article said, "adds a lot of local significance." He designed dozens of local landmarks, from Christ Community Church to the Ottawa Power Station, and the old Lansing City Hall. William Appleyard himself was a local Lansing architect (of an admittedly earlier era), who believed in proper ventilation for structures, and presented a paper in 1886 at the "Sanitary Convention" in Howell, Michigan (which was attended by many important "Sanitarians," including none other than Dr. J.H. Kellogg of Battle Creek), on the methods and importance of proper building ventilation. Mr. Appleyard is also credited with designing Eustace Hall at Michigan State University.


According to the book The Works Progress Administration in Detroit by Elizabeth Clemens, renowned plaster artist Gustave Hildebrand also did plaster carvings somewhere here at the Michigan School for the Blind in addition to his more well-known WPA work in the Brodhead Naval Armory in Detroit. I feel that I covered the building pretty well, but I did not find any such plaster carvings.


It was also during the School for the Blind's occupation of this campus that these sprawling mid-century buildings were added.

.pdf document on the city of Lansing website provides a far more detailed history of the school than I could hope to here.


Anyway, as I was listening to WWJ a few days after DopeNess and I had been at the school, I overheard that the lady who founded the Motown Museum had just passed away. That lady was Esther Gordy Edwards, sister to Motown Records founder Barry Gordy. My ears perked up when they mentioned that she was also the one who helped Stevie Wonder enroll in the Michigan School for the Blind in 1962, and that it was there that he was trained in classical piano.


Stevie had already released his first hit album by that point, Little Stevie Wonder the 12 Year Old Genius, which contained the number one hit single, "Fingertips," on the pop and R&B charts. Some of his greatest hits (and incidentally, some of my favorite songs as well) were probably either written or released while he was a student here, such as "Uptight" (1965). 


It is exciting to imagine that when Stevie's formal lessons were over, the funkier side might have come out after the teacher had left him alone, and nebulous, improvisational snippets of some of his future hits may have echoed off these very walls years before they ever were heard on the radio.


According to an April 2013 article in the Lansing City Pulse, the School for the Blind closed in 1995 and moved back to Flint, following years of declining enrollment due to state budget cuts and "changing educational philosophy." 


Enrollment had been on the backslide since the 1970s, and by 1996, Lansing public schools were teaching all disabled students in the mainstream student body anyway, so this venerable old campus was obsolete. For a short time it served as a training center for the Department of Corrections. The state sold the campus to the Lansing Housing Commission and the Mid-Michigan Leadership Academy, a charter school that still occupies a fraction of the site.


Redevelopment ideas and smaller uses came and went throughout the 2000s, but demolition threats (especially regarding the more modern outbuildings) were also constantly aimed at the former school over the years of vacancy. 


A member of the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office (MSHPO) spoke against partial demolition, referring to the ruling on a 2007 application submitted to the National Register of Historic Places for the eastern “quadrangle” of the campus, consisting of the library, the superintendent’s house, the Abigail and the high school. The ruling was that the campus would qualify as a whole, but not piecemeal.


Most recently the Ingham County Land Bank planned to use a blight removal grant to demolish the mid-20th-century dorms and service buildings sprawling across the west end of the campus. 


In April of 2013 some preservationists opened the campus for tours to inform the public of the school's history, and generate interest in the site which had lain mostly dormant for 17 years by that point. 


One year later, in April of 2014, it was announced that the campus would be renovated and turned into low-income apartments.


Definitely a colonial look to the Abigail building:


I don't remember if I tried very hard to look for tunnel access to the other buildings, or if I even ventured into the basement of the Abigail.


Heading back outside, I decided to wander the rest of the campus. The Dining Hall:


Typical residence halls:


There was a lot of wide open space, and it was still being mowed:


This branding most likely remained from the days of the Department of Corrections use of the facility:


Very "mid-century" indeed:


At least one thing could be said--the place was still in top-notch condition for having been mostly vacant for almost 20 years.


What kind of playground equipment would you build for a school full of blind children?


Something that feels interesting, or would be intriguing to someone who experiences everything by touch.


I had to walk all the way around it and take a photo from every side; you just can't convey the whole thing in one photo.




Notice that there is braille inscribed at various places on the side of it:


It appears to have been abused a little bit in the interim however.


The plaque reads, "Aqueous, Martin Eichinger, Sculptor. 1981. Commemorating the Centennial of the Michigan School for the Blind, Dr. Nancy Bryant, Superintendent." It is followed by the poem "Child of the Sea," by Isabel Demmon. All words on the plaque are accompanied with braille.



References:
The Works Progress Administration in Detroit, by Elizabeth Clemens, pg. 52
The Sanitarian, Volume 16, edited by Agrippa Nelson Bell, pg. 398

1 comment:

  1. I attended the school from 1965-77, it was a beautiful place to grow up. I use to give tours of the school and enjoyed explaining some of the things that were done for us, things like the track, the rollerskating rink, the basketball court, the sidewalks and so many other odd little things they did for us.

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