The Knapp's Building: What If?

Too expensive. It's a hard building to repurpose because of its internal structure. It's too difficult to work with Lansing building codes.

These are just some of the reasons we've heard why the iconic Knapp’s building in Downtown Lansing hasn't been renovated.

In its heyday, the modern-looking art deco Knapp’s building was a bustling, five-story department store. After it went out of business in the 1980s, several entrepreneurs made attempts to breathe life back into the building, but in 2002, the building was closed and shuttered.

While a symbol of Lansing's once-visible prosperity, it’s now one of the last — and perhaps one of the most visually interesting — buildings left to renovate in Downtown Lansing. A few ideas for it have emerged, including discussions about possibly creating a cultural center in the building. But so far, nothing seems to have gelled.

Two years ago, the Michigan State University (MSU) interior design program restructured its senior thesis project and started requiring senior interior design students to repurpose vacant but architecturally valuable buildings near Lansing and East Lansing to better serve the community.

This year, the students worked on the Knapp’s building.

“The local people really remember this building as being one of a kind when it was built, and I tend to think they would want to see this building used because it hasn’t been used for so long,” says Doina Ilies, a visiting interior design instructor.

During the 2008-2009 school year, she worked with Professor Young Lee to help 40 students redesign the interior of the building.

After extensive research, the students worked in small groups to design a general concept for the 120,000 square foot building. During the second semester, they each picked a 30,000 square foot section to design on their own.

Though many of the students were unfamiliar with the building – and Downtown Lansing for that matter – they took on the lofty task of redesigning a shuttered but architecturally significant building. Here’s a look at some of their ideas.

Condos/Health Food

Brooke Arciniega worked with her MSU group to create a living space in the Knapp’s building, but when the second semester rolled around, she modernized what she considered a “dormitory” design and created condos.

“I did a lot of research on the Lansing area,” Arciniega says. “There’s a lot of really cool things going on right now in Lansing. There’s the ballpark district — the Lugnuts bring in a lot of student life — and I thought the area right where the Knapp’s building is located didn’t have too many residential options.”

Arciniega says 10-15 studio and two bedroom condos could fit between floors three and five. For the first floor and mezzanine level, she developed a healthy eating concept including a health food store, a healthy eating lunch spot and an informational kiosk.

“This would provide shopper information on why it’s important to buy local,” she says.

Arciniega took her inspiration for the health center from Whole Foods, which she says is toying with placing residential units above the one of its stores.

“If we had a building like that in Lansing, it would give students every reason to go down there,” she says.

Multi-Use Commercial Setting

“Our purpose was really focused on multi-use,” says MSU interior design graduate Lindsay Vickers. “We included a doctor’s office, hotel, restaurant and furniture dealership-type office. We thought, what could we do that would work together?”

Vickers’ concept puts the restaurant, retail space and a “conversation area” where the public could hang out and chat, on the first floor. A hotel reception area sits on the mezzanine level, allowing guests to peer out over the restaurant/conversation space.

Her group also put a hotel, conference center and banquet center on floors two and three. Vickers’ design has the furniture dealer on floor four and the doctor’s office, which would be private and accessed by elevators, on the fifth floor.

“There’s a great opportunity to improve on that building and take something that’s historically significant and making it useful today,” she says.

When Vickers split from her group, she tweaked her design, keeping the restaurant and conversation space on the first floor, she added a sculpture garden and graphic design company.

Family Center

Amanda Hunt, also an MSU interior design graduate, and her group used their design to cater to Lansing families. With a childcare center, hands on museum, spa, family friendly restaurant and two floors of hotel space, the entire family could comfortable spend an entire weekend having fun with this concept.

When Hunt had a chance to create her own concept in the spring, she took out the hotel and turned it into a multi-level restaurant, bar and music venue. She placed them on the top floors, which she planned to highlight by building a glass roof to let in natural light.

“It’s really cool and they could do something for the area with the building,” Hunt says. “I didn’t understand why it’s such a big space and why no tenants or owners take part in it or redo it.”

Hunt created two balconies, one looking onto the stage and another overhanging a wine cellar and winding staircase.

Fuel the Body

“My idea was to create a really dynamic space that was emotionally uplifting and promoted physical wellness in the community,” says MSU Interior Design graduate Michelle Dietrich.

For Dietrich, this included placing an organic grocery store and yoga studio on the first floor and mezzanine level of the Knapp’s building.

“I also added a recycling center for the building to help promote sustainability among the community and tenants,” she says.

To fill up the large first floor space, she also added a coffee shop, which she assumed would attract surrounding professional clientele.

Next year, Lee wants to expand the program, possibly looking at revitalizing historic buildings in Old Town Lansing.

“We are in hopes for better local economy and serving the local community through the viable living and working spaces proposed in our student projects,” she says.

The Eyde Company owns the Knapp’s building and did not respond to requests for comment.

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Ivy Hughes is the managing editor of Capital Gains and can be reached here

Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.


Knapp's Building Photographs © Dave Trumpie


#1 Brooke Arciniega

#2 & 3 Lindsay Vickers

#4 Amanda Hunt

#5 Michelle Dietrich

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