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On June 14, 1917, Lansing residents voted on whether to support a bond issue to buy the Frederick Mortimer Cowles Estate on North Washington and Saginaw, raze the structures, and turn it into a city park. Cowles, a prominent Lansing businessman, had died in 1910, and his daughters, Lucy and Lizzie were no longer living in the brick, villa style house that had been the family home. The park had the support of many Lansing businessman, the State Journal, and, not surprisingly, the residents of Lansing Ward Four, where the property was located.
Frederick M. Cowles
A native of New Berlin, Chenango County, New York, F. M. Cowles (b. 1824) came to Aurelius Township, Ingham County in 1842. His 1847 move to Lansing coincided with the state legislature decision to move the state capital from Detroit. A carpenter, he worked on many of the first buildings in the city, including the first capitol. He and his partner, Hiram H. Smith, opened a successful mercantile business at 153 North Washington Avenue. This success afforded Cowles the opportunity to buy the entire block of Washington Avenue between Saginaw and Madison Streets where he built the family home. (Cowles had married Delia L. Ward in 1853. They had three daughters: Alice, Lizzie, and Lucy. Alice later married Nelson Fletcher Jenison.)
Cowles served as a city alderman for many years. One of his major contributions included sponsoring an ordinance compelling residents to plant shade trees on their properties. Cowles loved trees and spent a fair amount of time and money planting flowering shrubs, fruit trees, and evergreens on his own property. This landscaping became a rallying point for the pro-park forces in 1917. The Cowles estate was, according to supporters, the only area in Lansing Ward 4 that could be an open-air park inviting band concerts and other community activities.
Park or No Park?
The Lansing State Journal characterized the $70,000 purchase price of the estate as being logical and equitable. The property would provide a necessary recreational venue and increase the commercial value of the homes and businesses facing Cowles square. Supporters likened it to the open squares of Campus Martius and Grand Circus Park in Detroit. They wanted a place in the congested, business area that would provide residents a natural landscape to enjoy at lunchtime, in the evening, or on the weekend. Moores, Potter, and Waverly parks were too far away to benefit people on a work day, and street car fares required for going to these parks were prohibitive for low income Lansing residents.
Yet many voters did not see the logic and equity of the proposal. The issue became contentious. A portion of the voting public was more concerned about the high cost of living because of World War I and not interested in the burden of another tax-supported picnic area. On Election Day, the anti-park voters won by a slim margin (143 votes). Two more “practical” proposals – a fire substation for northeast Lansing and roads improvement projects – passed. Interestingly, this special bond election required that electors (including women, who could not then vote in national or state elections) must own tax-assessable property or property on a land contract.
W. C. Durant and Durant Park
The fate of the Cowles estate resurfaced in 1919 when William C. Durant came to Lansing to build the Durant Motors automobile plant on Verlinden Avenue. The industrialist and founder of General Motors considered the area north of Saginaw Street and west of Washington Avenue an eyesore. “Underbrush and unkept (sic) grounds surrounded an old, tumbled-down structure that was at some forgotten time someone’s proud residence. . . Some claimed that the place was haunted, others had stories more material, but at any rate it was far from an inviting locality even in the daytime, and a place to be shunned at night.” (Source: Lansing Motorist, November, 1928).
Durant purchased the Cowles estate for roughly $50,000. He hired Charles Andrew Maxson, a landscape architect from Kalamazoo, to draw up the plans to build a beautiful park. Many of the original trees were preserved. What was left of the Cowles house was demolished. North Washington Avenue residents finally attained their piece of green when Durant donated the property to the city of Lansing in 1921. Durant Park was dedicated on June 23, 1921. The city of Lansing erected the original Durant Park Arch in 1924.
Adams, Mrs. Franc L. (compiler). Pioneer History of Ingham County, 1923. p. 454-458.
Michigan Pioneer and Historical Society. Michigan Pioneer and Historical Collections, 1912. Volume 38. pp. 737-738.
State Journal, June 13, June 14, June 15, 1917.
“Gift of Durant Park,” Lansing Motorist, November 1928.