LANSING – Freight trains regularly rumble by the former Grand Trunk Western Depot these days. So does the Amtrak Blue Water passenger train, but it now stops in East Lansing.
The city’s ornate depot is no longer a stop for passenger trains, as it was during its years of service from 1902 to 1971. And the building is no longer a restaurant, either, as it was for a number of years after the trains stopped stopping.
When the restaurant pulled out, the old depot fell into disrepair with little hope for re-use. But its future got a lot brighter when the Lansing Board of Water and Light (BWL) opted to incorporate the depot into their plans, since it sits on the site of their REO Town Cogneration Power Plant.
“This old depot has been a part of, and witness to, history,” said BWL General Manager J. Peter Lark. “Its charm remains intact despite being in heavy disrepair. We intend to again make the depot a focal point in this historic part of Lansing.”
Lark said the depot was the site of at least one presidential visit – during a whistle-stop campaign by President Gerald R. Ford in 1976. “On this same property, auto pioneer Ransom E. Olds founded his Reo Truck Company at the turn of the 20th century,” Lark said. “Generations of soldiers and sailors no doubt left for duty from this train depot. If any old structure in Lansing is deserving of restoration, it’s this one.”
Dick Peffley, the Lansing Board of Water and Light’s executive director of water operations and special projects, said the BWL found the old depot “in tough shape.”
“The depot is like a lot of remodels, you can’t see what’s behind the walls until you open them up,” he said. “There wasn’t much of anything salvageable on the interior. What we found is that the only thing solid on the building was the brick, and it needed a lot of work.”
Peffley said the depot’s exterior brick was in surprisingly good condition. It was cleaned and tuck-pointed as necessary. Historically accurate glass was installed in the windows, and many of the original wood panes were retained. A new terra cotta roof and flashing were 90 percent installed earlier this month.
There was some hazardous material clean up. And the interior of the 4,000-square-foot depot, which is mostly an open room, will be re-fitted with new plumbing, heating and electrical systems. The entire renovation of the depot has a $2.5 million budget.
The new use for the depot will be as a boardroom for the Lansing Board of Water and Light and as a meeting room for the REO Town neighborhood. Given the fact that it was renovated only because a power plant was built around it – the resurrection of the depot is one of the more unlikely historic preservation projects that one will find in Michigan.
“The depot was built in 1902-1903 by Detroit architects Frederich Spier and William C. Rohns, who also built the Dowagiac, Niles and Durand stations,” says Great American Stations.com. “The depot is an excellent example of Jacobean Revival style, featuring a classic square tower with decorative crenellations, a beautiful covered outdoor waiting area, and architectural details such as a steeply-pitched terra-cotta roof and decorative brick with stone trim around the windows and doorways.”
According to a history prepared by the Michigan Historical Museum: “Nearly 30 passenger trains stopped in Lansing each day,” at the time the Lansing station was built. “By taking an early morning train, city residents could visit any town within 100 miles and return home the same day.” Service was provided to Detroit, Jackson, Petoskey, Port Huron, Chicago and Cleveland.
Grand Trunk passenger service ended at the depot in 1971. When Amtrak service from Port Huron to Chicago started in 1974, re-occupying the Lansing depot was not an option, since it had already been converted into a restaurant. The depot was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, and has been empty since the 1990s, when the last effort at using it as a restaurant failed.
BUILT IN 1902, Lansing’s old Grand Trunk Western Depot is being renovated on the site of the new REO Town power plant.
THE DEPOT’s gutted interior.