Save The Stack: Campaign to save historical landmark perseveres

For 100 years the smokestack of the original Gibson Guitar factory has towered proudly over the Northside Kalamazoo skyline heralding the city's place in music history. 

And though it seemed just a couple of years ago that the time-worn structure's days were numbered, the folks behind the "Save the Stack" campaign are continuing to seek public funds in hopes of ensuring this local landmark will continue to stand for many more years to come. 

Organizers are hoping public interest translates into dollars as the restoration project carries a hefty $570,000 price tag, according to Jeff Mitchell who helped start the campaign a few years ago.

"There's just some kind of aura about the place that gets people excited," said Mitchell who heads up the "Save the Stack" committee. "There's an almost irrational affection for music. The fact that the tool all these great musicians used to make magic was made right here is something so many people show such enthusiasm about."

The long list of Gibson aficionados includes the legendary likes of Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, Pat Metheny as well as the "Father of Rock ‘n' Roll" himself -- the late Chuck Berry. 

"Any guitarist you can name has in their arsenal a Gibson. The list goes on and on," Mitchell said. "Many artists have done shows in Kalamazoo over the years just to see the birthplace of their instruments."

The factory has housed the smaller Heritage Guitars that was established by Gibson employees who chose to stay in Kalamazoo when the company officially shifted all its production to Nashville in 1984. It's part of the Kalamazoo Enterprise Center site that is in the midst of a $12 million renovation.

Those renovations include the upgrade to modern heating equipment that will leave the stack without a function. That, combined with the deteriorating condition of the stack is what led the property's owner, PlazaCorp Realty Advisors, Inc, to make the decision to tear it down two years ago before an unexpected outcry had the company reconsidering its plans. 

"Music history buffs understand that this is the location where many of the most legendary guitars in history were made, through what many deem the golden years of Gibson," says Andy Wenzel, PlazaCorp's Director of Acquisitions and Development.

"Local residents are proud of their part in that history and one will often hear, 'my grandmother worked there' or 'my dad worked there," he says, adding that it's a common sight to see excited visitors to the factory posing for pictures in front of the stack that is easily recognized by its distinctive cascade of giant white letters spelling out the Gibson name up and down its exterior.

The real estate powerhouse has fully embraced the campaign kicking in over $80,000 toward restoration costs. According to Wenzel, PlazaCorp "has a history of renovation in lieu of demolition and usually funds these activities privately or through public incentives." 

Over the years, deferred upkeep and prohibitive maintenance costs led to considerable deterioration of the stack. With an eye on future restoration and amidst growing safety concerns in regards to the crumbling structure, workers dismantled the top 30 feet of the stack late last summer. The bricks have been carefully stored until they can be reassembled atop the stack should the fundraising drive prove successful. 

"It's down to just the ‘O' and ‘N' so we're under some kind of pressure to get this taken care of," says Mitchell pointing to a tentative deadline of spring 2018 to raise the necessary funding for the project. So far, $87,000 has been raised, including the gift from PlazaCorp.

Mitchell is certainly no stranger to the iconic property. He does, after all, serve as director of the Kalamazoo Academy of Rock, a rock band program for young musicians that has called the factory home since 2009. 

"As a music fan, to know that Jimmy Page's two Gibson Les Paul guitars were made right near my band room is really something," he said. "The Northside of Kalamazoo was neglected for years and now it's coming back and this would be a big piece of that," he says. 

Mitchell is himself a keyboardist but says he can "get around a little bit on the guitar." He cites Page as well as Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa as a few of his favorite axe-men and is the proud owner of a 1965 Gibson LG-1 Acoustic model. 

Even as time grows shorter for the "Save the Stack" campaign to reach its financial goal, Mitchell said that he and his fellow supporters are determined to keep the dream alive and referred to plans to schedule a series of fundraising concerts at local venues -- possibly with each show featuring a different musical genre such as rock, blues, jazz, and country. A fundraiser earlier this month at Green Door Distillery was well received as more than $400 was raised toward the effort.

In addition, PlazaCorp has drafted a letter on behalf of the committee that it plans to send to the major guitar publications and Rolling Stone magazine in hopes of attracting donations as well as press coverage for the campaign. 

Even Mitchell's students are getting in on the act with at least one of them hoping to enlist the support of rocker Jack White, a Michigan-native who has gone on record as saying that his 1915 Gibson Acoustic L-1 is his personal favorite guitar. White recently purchased a home in Kalamazoo.

"I have a 13-year-old who lives in that neighborhood who has indicated plans to leave notes in the mailbox asking for White to come to our assistance,"  Mitchell says with a laugh. 

It's no surprise that people are so passionate about this pile of bricks according to Mitchell. "That stack is a symbol and a monument. It's really one of the greatest historical landmarks in Michigan as far as culture and history," he said. "I want for Kalamazoo to be recognized for being such an important place in the history of music."

Only time will tell if there will be enough interest and financial support to see this project to completion but the die-hard members of the campaign such as Mitchell insist that the effort to preserve and restore the Gibson smokestack is a more-than-worthy cause. 

"Is history important? Is music important? Is keeping a connection with our history and not just tearing it down important? I think it is," he said.

"This is about keeping a legacy alive."

Christopher Horb has been a freelance writer since 1998. His work has appeared in multiple publications, including the Kalamazoo Gazette and the Lansing City Pulse

Interested parties may donate and find additional information about the project through the committee's official website. The group also posts status updates through The Gibson Smokestack "Save The Stack" Kalamazoo, Michigan Facebook page. 
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