Battle Creek architect makes a name for himself in historic preservation work

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.

Randy Case never intended to make a career as an architect focused on historic preservation, but his early interest in preserving the historical integrity of buildings and houses spanning centuries and generations in Battle Creek and elsewhere was a pull too strong to ignore.
 
“It’s not something that architects were trained to do in the mid-’70s when I graduated,” Case says. “It took training and doing the work.”
 
While some people couldn’t understand why he consistently lobbied to save old structures from being demolished, he says others did and on Friday his dedication will be recognized when he will receive the AIA (American Institute of Architects) Michigan 2022 Gold Medal during a ceremony at the Masonic Temple in Detroit. The award is the highest honor that can be bestowed on an architect in the State of Michigan.
 
Case, founder and owner of Architecture + design Inc., says he is honored and humbled and likely would not be receiving the award were it not for his wife, Sue, who continues to be his biggest supporter. She runs the day-to-day operations of the business and the different teams of people he has worked with throughout his career on various restoration projects.
 
The latest project, The Milton apartment building in downtown Battle Creek was awarded the 2022 Governor’s Award for Historic Preservation during a ceremony in early May in the rotunda of the State Capitol in Lansing. Case shared the award with MDH Development, LLC; The Christman Company; and Integrated Architecture, each of whom played a significant role in the renovation project.
 
“I’m very proud of The Milton because it had so much impact on downtown and everybody stepped up and everybody realized it was an important element within the community,” Case says. “It was a great team and we had a great developer who was patient and hung in there through the whole thing.”
 
When asked to name a few projects that he is most proud of, he says, “I’m proud of just about every building we’ve done. We recently restored the Peabody Building in Albion owned by the Dobbins family, who owned and developed the building. It was a horrible-looking building on the corner. Since that building was done, a lot of good things have been happening in Albion. 

“It’s all about placemaking and community by design. Good projects only come from good owners. In our work, we strive to enhance a community and fulfill a need. I’m also proud of the work we did to turn the former Grand Trunk Railroad depot into the Community Action Agency building. The fact that we were able to save these buildings and keep them alive is gratifying to me.”
 
The majority of Case’s work has taken place within a 100-mile radius of Battle Creek.
 
“I never wanted to get real big,” he says.
 
But he always wanted to have his own architectural firm.
 
After leaving his native Fruitport to attend the University of Michigan where he earned a Master of Architecture degree in 1975, Case and his wife, Sue, came to Battle Creek at the urging of a friend who helped him get a job with Guido Binda, who owned his own architectural firm in Battle Creek.
 
“A friend of mine, Gene Hopkins, who I met during college had gotten a job with Binda’s office. There was an opening there. He called me to let me know and put in a good word for me,” Case says.
 
After two years there as an intern architect, Case went on to take a job with another architectural firm in Battle Creek. Case put a good word in for Hopkins at that firm and Hopkins went to work with him there. The two would remain friends and Hopkins wrote a letter supporting Case’s nomination for this year’s AIA Michigan Gold Medal which is included in a packet of information detailing his architectural career.
 
Five years after coming to Battle Creek and fulfilling the requirements of his apprenticeship, Case and his wife, who had given birth in 1979 to their daughter, Kristi, opened their firm in an older home they purchased on Union Street.
 
“We had a living room that became my office and a music room that became our living room,” he says.
 
Their office footprint began to get tight with the addition of two employees and in 1984 the couple began looking for a larger space. Their timing was spot on as downtown Battle Creek was nearing the end of its life in what used to be a pedestrian mall for Michigan Avenue and there was a mass exodus of retail stores to the Lakeview Square Mall, which opened in 1983.
 
Case says, “Downtown Battle Creek was in a downward spiral.”
 
Emboldened by a strong belief in the downtown area, Case says he and his wife wanted to play a part in the correction of that downward trajectory. They soon happened upon the historic Potter Block, which was structurally sound, but visually unappealing.
 
“The sidewalk had been roped off in front of the building so pedestrians would not be hurt by falling glass from the upper floors. It was full of pigeons who occasionally crashed into what few windows were still intact as they made their frantic departure from the dark floors three stories up,” says an AIA Michigan press release.
 
“The 20,000 square foot building had no tenants, but the pigeons and demolition had begun on the Williams House Hotel next to Potter Block. Interior clean-up moved out pigeons and many interior walls that had filled the French Flats for operations as a brothel during the World Wars. Randy and Sue’s research into the Potter Block’s past uncovered some colorful history. Originally built as the Potter Block Hotel in 1880, the original building was destroyed after only five years and rebuilt through the years and included at various times a pharmacy, a bakery, doctor's office, antique store, and a brothel on the upper levels.”
 
“They probably did think I was crazy when we bought the Potter Block. Through the years we were able to change people’s minds,” Case says. “Still some people think an old building is just a problem.”
 
The Case’s journey to save the historic structure and the buildings surrounding it defined the roots of downtown and was a life-saving transformation for that entire block. It also housed their firm for more than 35 years, and during that time, Case says he has played a part in saving and restoring “hundreds of buildings” in Michigan.
 
“I just saw older homes and great buildings, but they were underutilized,” he says. “In the 1980s historic preservation was kind of a new term. It was a niche that nobody else was focusing on here in Battle Creek. What people don’t understand is that preservation is the sincerest form of sustainability.”
 
Despite the growing interest and support for historic preservation, Case says he thinks people still don’t have a good understanding of what that term really means and the painstaking work it involves.
 
“People think of it in a romantic way and they don’t think about how the restoration work needs to fit into the style and life of the building. Building a building to look like something from a bygone era isn’t preservation,” he says. “You have to work with what’s already there and maintain and work with what makes that building historically significant. When you apply for historic tax credits there are certain standards you have to meet.”
 
The Case’s rehabilitation work has included salvaging historically significant architectural components from structures. Columns made from horsehair plaster that once graced the front entrance of the Fieldstone Building at 165 N. Washington Avenue found a home in their downtown office space and a white marble fireplace frame from the former Williams Hotel graces the fireplace at their home in Battle Creek.
 
With the time and workmanship involved in creating these architectural elements, Case says, it’s a “sin” to throw them into a landfill.
 
His advocacy for saving pieces of history has earned him numerous honors and accolades, including the one he receives on Friday. He also has made presentations about the importance of historic preservation and the work involved and has taught courses on this subject at Kellogg Community College and has created and coordinated a preservation trades training program at the Calhoun County Career Center for the Michigan Historic Preservation Network.
 
Case has mentored many young architects of all ethnicities, something that he says has been very important to him. He also has had leadership roles with the Michigan Architectural Foundation.
 
Although his advocacy and volunteer work with professional organizations, including the AIA, have taken him throughout the United States, he says he never thought about leaving Battle Creek to pursue opportunities elsewhere.
 
“The people here are warm and caring people and it’s the people I feel most strongly about,” Case says. “People you don’t know say ‘hi’ to you on the street and I’ve been given so many opportunities to get involved with volunteering and do things in the community. People care about this town. When Sue and I came here we thought we could make a positive impact and difference and I think we have.”