BWL’s train depot restoration draws attention and appreciation from Lansing community

Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero delivered his 2013 State of the City address in the newly restored Grand Trunk Western depot adjacent to BWL's new REO Town power plant. / Courtesy photo
Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero delivered his 2013 State of the City address in the newly restored Grand Trunk Western depot adjacent to BWL’s new REO Town power plant. / Courtesy photo

From The Lansing State Journal:

Beginning in late 2007, J. Peter Lark dedicated almost six years of his life to developing a 21st-century answer to the Board of Water & Light’s need for a power plant that produced affordable electricity and steam while significantly reducing the emissions associated with burning coal.

Almost 10 months into the commercial operation of BWL’s gas-fired REO Town cogeneration plant, BWL’s general manager seems to have succeeded on most counts.

During one of the area’s worst winters in memory, there were days when the coal-fired Eckert Power Station sat idle across Washington Avenue from Lark’s new


“We believe we have the cleanest, most efficient electricity-and-steam-producing unit in the country,” Lark said. “You’d think when I was walking around town people would say, ‘Wow, that’s really neat that you saved us burning 350,000 tons of coal,’ but I don’t hear that.”

Customer discontent about BWL’s ice-storm-outage performance during December 2013 aside, Lark said he has been on the receiving end of positive community reaction — but not for the reason he expected. Most often, people thank Lark for restoring the 112-year-old Grand Trunk Western Rail Station that shares a small fraction of the power plant’s 5.3-acre home.

“Public reaction has centered to a greater extent on the depot than the combined-cycle cogeneration plant,” he said. “That was a little bit surprising to me.”

Lark says longtime residents share “heartfelt memories” of a time when the depot served as a point of departure and return for vacations, military service and education. Some recite its importance to the industrial complex Ransom E. Olds built across the tracks.

But, it hasn’t been used as a train depot since 1971. Almost 38 years have passed since President Gerald R. Ford dropped by during a whistle stop campaign tour in 1976.

By then, the depot was four years into its second life as a restaurant.

Regardless of their age or memories, area residents have welcomed the rescue and restoration of a historically important and architecturally interesting structure. The depot was listed on the State Register of Historic Sites in 1977 and the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.

Nevertheless, the building fell into disrepair after the last of a series of restaurants closed its doors more than a decade ago. The rest of the 5.3 acres was vacant in 2009 when BWL began looking for a site for a new power plant.

“I don’t want to give you the idea we purchased this property so that we could restore the depot,” Lark said. “The overarching reason we selected this particular property was its proximity to both the (existing) steam line and the electric transmission lines. Against that backdrop, this seemed to be the very best property because if we located (the new plant) even one mile away, it would have cost us many millions of dollars more. …

“The fact that a National Historic Register property was on site was not a deterrent and was a welcome addition in that it would give us the ability to invest in restoration that would enhance the Lansing community, particularly the REO Town community.”

In abandonment, the depot was encircled by a chain-link fence that was easily breached. Some windows were covered with plywood but the panes in almost all of the unprotected windows were shattered, opening the building to people, critters and weather. The east side of the depot was a dumping ground for plastic, metal, wood and clothing.

Lark said he nevertheless loved the depot’s exterior at first sight.

“But then we went into the interior,” he said. “I guess the fairest way to say it is there was a lot of detritus. It really was a building in poor repair. I enjoyed the idea that we were going to have such a handsome building as part of our REO Town development, but it wasn’t pretty on that first day. There was a lot there that made the eye wish it was averting its glance. But you could see the bones were good.”

The BWL spent more than $2.8 million restoring the depot to serve as the home for board meetings and employee training. From its terra cotta roof to the dark wood ceiling, period light fixtures, windows, walls and wainscoting, the restoration is stunning.

“Everybody who’s come has registered a ‘wow factor’ about the depot,” said Lark, ticking off a list of dignitaries that has included Mayor Virg Bernero, U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Carl Levin, U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers and Gov. Rick Snyder. “They’ve all been very impressed.”

Although the depot immediately accommodated board members and political bigwigs, BWL moved slowly in acknowledging public interest and requests for access to the depot.

Almost a year after Bernero used the then-virtually-restored depot as the backdrop for his 2013 State of the City address and six months after the adjacent power plant became operational, the BWL website referred to how the depot would be used once the plant went online.

The depot’s history is summarized on a bronze plaque on an exterior wall, but there is little inside that illustrates the activity that began in 1902. The building was open to the public for four hours on Oct. 9, but BWL doesn’t offer tours.

“We are kind of busy here,” Lark said.

He said he expects BWL to make more historical information available to satisfy visitor curiosity “over the next couple of years.”

Meantime, board meetings are open to the public and BWL recently created an online request form for groups interested in holding an event at the depot.

“It’s still a little bit of a work in progress as to how we’re going to finally deal with expressions of interest and requests for access,” Lark said. “It is a working facility. People can’t assume that it’s always available.

“Proprietary operations such as a for-profit corporation wanting to use it for a holiday party, that’s not what we’re thinking of. We’re not thinking of weddings or for-profit businesses using it at no cost to them. We’re thinking of the REO Town neighborhood, the city of Lansing, community-based efforts to improve the commonwealth.”

Terra cotta serendipity more than a century in the making

Terra cotta serendipity more than a century in the making

The eye-catching terra cotta roof atop the former Grand Trunk Western Rail Station is a product of a serendipitous moment within the $182 million REO Town power plant project the Board of Water & Light completed midway through 2013.

Built in 1902, the depot was in disrepair when BWL acquired the building and the 5.3 acres upon which it sat in January 2011. BWL’s decision to restore the depot to its original state represented $2.8 million of the project’s cost.

“Our original goal was to preserve and re-use as many of the existing tiles as possible and only purchase enough to replace the damaged and missing tiles,” said Pete Kramer, the mechanical engineer BWL hired to manage the parallel construction and restoration projects. “Unfortunately, the tiles that were left were not able to be salvaged in sufficient quantity and needed to be replaced.”

The tiles were 110 years old, but the manufacturer’s name was still legible — Ludowici Roof Tile Co. of New Lexington, Ohio.

“We didn’t think 110 years later that shop would still be in business, but it seemed worth a call,” said J. Peter Lark, general manager of BWL. “Not only were they in business, they were the kinds of people who save all the plans for all of the business they ever did.

“They had the original plans for the depot from 110 years ago. And they shipped us a complete new set of (14,600) terra cotta tiles right off the old plans.”

Their installation in 2012 created what Lark considers “the coolest part of the depot.”

The new roof cost $520,000, of which $298,000 was for the new tiles. They came with a 75-year warranty. Kramer said their life could exceed 100 years because modern installation techniques included use of better-draining material under the tiles.