Street performers in Old Town - Photo Dave Trumpie <span class='image-credits'></span>

Living in history: Opening the doors on some of the secrets of the Potter House

When Sergei Kvitko was transforming the third floor of the home he shares with his partner, Jim McClurken, into a recording studio 10 years ago, he ran into a distinct problem.

“We were using a crane to bring my piano in through one of the upstairs windows, but it was about a quarter inch too small,” he says, a hint of panic in his voice all these years later. “They tried a few different angles, and then they finally just forced it though. I don’t think I’ve ever been more nervous in my life.”

That anxiety was justified. That isn’t just any piano – it’s a 9-foot Steinway concert grand he named Bucephalus, after Alexander the Great’s horse. And Kvitko’s esteem for the piano runs to the emotional depths usually reserved for flesh-and-blood.

“I actually started crying the first time I played it,” Kvitko says. “I couldn’t even bargain with the person who was selling it. I just knew I needed it.”

And his studio, Blue Griffin, isn’t just in any house – it’s situated in the former ballroom of the classic English Tudor-style Potter House, 1348 Cambridge Road in Lansing’s Mooreis River Drive Neighborhood. The house is big: 17,000 square feet, including that 2,000-square-foot former ballroom, which may be the largest single residential room in Lansing. And it may be a “perpetual work in progress,” as McClurken calls it, but this is no museum.

“We didn’t buy this house for square footage,” says McClurken. “We bought it for fixing up and for sharing.”

That “fixing up” comment is somewhat of an understatement. McClurken is currently overseeing the renovation of the home’s water pipes, which required crews to bust through the concrete in the basement. Coal dust that had settled on the ground in the house’s early years was paved over at some point, but eventually began to eat away at the pipes. Other work has involved restoring the home’s original door handles and cabinet knobs that had been relegated to a storage room, redoing the garden patio, and removing unfortunate paint schemes and décor flourishes done by previous owners that hadn’t aged well.

“We’re trying to bring it back to a level of sophistication that we think the original owners would have liked,” McClurken said. “We’re not beholden to the past, but we certainly want to be respectful to it.”

The house was commissioned in 1926 by Ray and Sarah Potter, two of the city’s historic movers and shakers. Ray Potter made his fortune, as many early Lansing settlers did, as a timber scout. He was also a banker and a businessman, as well as one of the original benefactors of Sparrow Hospital. Potter Park Zoo was named for his father, James Potter, who donated the land to the City of Lansing, and his grandfather, Linus Potter, settled Potterville in 1844. Sarah Potter, meanwhile, was a socialite, and one of the early members of the Lansing Woman’s Club where she found her calling as an event hostess.

“She loved having the community here, and it’s a tradition we brought back after so many years,” McClurken says. “There’s really no other sense to live here. This house is a social center, and a great way for Lansing to enjoy arts and music in a personal setting.”

Their annual New Year’s Eve bash/concert in the ballroom has become a tradition for their friends and invited guests. And it’s also become the place to host fundraises, with beneficiaries including Potter Park Zoo and Peppermint Creek Theatre Company. Last week, McClurken and Kvitko used their home to host a fundraiser for Lansing nonprofit Art in the Wild, which is dedicated to water quality awareness. The event was the group’s third annual public sale and silent auction, and featured art pieces from a wide range of local artists.

For nearly 20 years, the Potter House was also a regular stop on the Greater Lansing Housing Coalition’s annual home tour. On those tours, the GLHC highlighted for local architecture and design buffs. Alas, the GLHC announced this spring that it will close by year’s end due to lack of funding, so visitors to these homes will now have to be by personal invitation only. For anyone who wants to visit the Potter House, however, that won’t be a problem.

“If I’m ever working on the house and someone is walking by and starts asking questions about it, I usually just stop what I’m doing and invite them in for a tour,” McClurken says. “I love showing people around.”

The tour includes a visit to the dark wood-trimmed library, heaped with books both old and new. The massive dining room has been comfortably scaled to accommodate a small family. And the Great Room features a ceiling mural of zoo animals (of course). Scottish thistles, Moravian star light fixtures and Zodiac tiles from Flint Faience swirl into and out of sight as the tour winds through the surprisingly intimate home.

Those details also make for conversation pieces for the home’s regular litany of guests. Blue Griffin is a mecca for classical musicians from around the globe, who use the home as the most upscale short-term lodging joint in town while they’re here recording songs or entire albums.

“We obviously have plenty of room,” Kvitko said. “Artists usually spend a few days here recording, and sometimes they get out to tour the city. It’s a great way to introduce them to Lansing.” 

Kvitko came to Lansing from Russia in 1996 to study piano with Ralph Votapek at MSU. He began dating McClurken shortly after arriving, and they moved into the Potter House as renters in 2006. Two years later, they purchased it. Kvitko still performs concerts around the country, including earlier this year when he took the stage at Carnegie Hall in New York. And even though he’s not a Lansing native, he has no plans to relocate to a “big city” to continue that aspect of his career or to be closer to the artists he records – the Potter House is now his home.

“All of the things that are important to me – my work, my art, my friends – they’re all here,” he said. “My life is in Lansing. This is home.”

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Allan Ross is a frequent contributor to Capital Gains.

Photos © Dave Trumpie

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

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