A capital time

Jun 13, 2007 at 12:00 am

Leather-clad bikers in chaps and precocious, four-eyed fourth-graders in school T-shirts may not share space too often, but somehow on the marble and limestone floors, it doesn't seem too unusual.

After all, this is their state Capitol — yours, too, and mine. There are plenty of reasons to visit it, and not just because you're lobbying for repealing the state's helmet law or heading out on a class field trip.

I have a few reasons of my own for heading to Lansing. First, I've never visited the city as a sightseer and feel that, 17 years after moving here, I should at least have an elementary-level education. Second, I'm kind of a museum junkie (OK, geek) and I'd like to check out the Michigan Historical Museum. Third, an assignment for Metro Times Summer Guide looms, and nothing gets a writer going like a deadline.

I know I'm supposed to be a tourist for this assignment, but being a passionate journalist, I just can't help it: Before I take off, I call a source.

Lisa McGraw, the lobbyist for the Michigan Press Association, shares some suggestions: Schedule a tour of the Capitol, visit the Michigan Library and Historical Center, drink a beer at Brannigan Brothers on Washington Square, go to Impression 5 Science Center and the Michigan Supreme Court Learning Center, and see the Vietnam Memorial.

Clearly McGraw manages her time better than I do. I only make the first three stops on her list, but I add hunting for the elusive stars on the new Michigan Walk of Fame, spending quality time in the House gallery with bikers and gaining a newfound respect for my adopted home state.

On a late Wednesday morning, I enter the Capitol and head to the tour desk, where the docent tells me I can join a school group. I wait with Clinton Valley Elementary School's 30 children until Pat St. George, a retired teacher turned guide extraordinaire, begins the show.

The tour starts in a ground-floor room with posters presenting the history of Michigan's Capitol buildings and locations. I find out that Detroit was our first capital, when Michigan became a state in 1837. The capital moved to Lansing 10 years later, a city then described as "howling wilderness." Given the current incompetence of much of the Legislature, "howling" might still apply.

Construction on the current domed building began in 1872. A restoration project from 1989 to 1992 brought the Capitol's stunning Renaissance revival-style artwork and architectural features back to life, and the building was designated a National Historic Landmark.

The Capitol is also a workplace, so as we walk around, St. George reminds us to be quiet and to walk single file. We're not allowed to touch the hand-painted walls or other artworks.

"This is a busy, busy place," she tells us. The kids ooh and ah — especially when St. George points out the real gold on the "Michigan chandeliers."

We wind up the dark yet elaborate staircases, into the galleries above the House and Senate floors and across the marble and limestone checkered floors. A highlight for all of us: finding the fossils embedded in the stone. We bump into each other looking at our feet to find the white swirls in the black stone.

On this day, we're lucky enough to get on the House floor, which only occurs if a representative or senator accompanies your group. Rep. Fred Miller, D-Mount Clemens, is known as one of the most accommodating hosts. The second-term representative meets our group at the beginning of the tour and again at the entrance to the House chamber. He walks the kids to the front, explaining that the House speaker sits in the biggest chair, then he mugs for a photo with the class.

"If I can be a representative, any of you can, when you grow up," he tells us.

Miller invites the students to return someday and attend a House session. "In a democracy, there are no secrets," he says. "Anyone can come in and watch us."

A few hours later, the bikers are doing just that. Organized by the nonprofit group ABATE (American Bikers Aiming Toward Education), several hundred bikers ride to Lansing annually to lobby the Legislature to repeal Michigan's mandatory helmet law and urge Governor Granholm to sign the measure.

In patch-covered leather vests, studded chaps and logo bandanas, the bikers fill the House gallery when the session opens at 1:30 p.m. Also in attendance: "Women of Steel," a division of United Steelworkers, and another student group.

St. George was right; the Capitol is a busy place.

Filled with respect for what's good about government — our beautiful building in Lansing and public access to it, mainly — I head out onto the mall that spreads west of the Capitol. I walk 10 minutes to the Michigan Library and Historical Center. Business-attired state employees whose offices surround this mall pass me along the way. Dozens of school groups touring other local sites shuffle by.

At the Historical Center, the inauspicious entrance leads to a courtyard with a funky, blue-tiled water sculpture surrounding a giant white pine — Michigan's state tree.

Strolling the museum's three floors, visitors trace Michigan's history with examples of rocks from the earliest post-Ice Age formations, depictions of French fur traders, maps of Native American lands, tales of Michigan residents' roles in the Underground Railroad, re-created mines, plank roads and farm sites and the sounds of Michigan musicians.

The museum puts a face or a story to some of Michigan's schools and roads. Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, for example, was a geologist and geographer in the early 19th century. Some of our interstate highways roughly follow established Indian trails.

It's a beautiful, warm, early summer evening, and "Mr. Right Now," as I've affectionately dubbed him, travels an hour and a half to Lansing to enjoy a walk around downtown.

We need a mission, so we look for the stars on the new Walk of Fame. Installed last year in Washington Square, the first 12 inductees are honored, with their names branded on sidewalk plaques, for their contributions statewide or nationally as actors, politicians, businesspeople, artists, athletes, educators, scientists and journalists.

We find three stars at a nearby intersection, but as we head south to scout some more, Brannigan Brothers bar beckons, so we abandon the search, and grab a newspaper to read and relax after a hard day's work.


Greater Lansing Convention & Visitors Bureau, 1223 Turner St. Suite 200, Lansing; 888-252-674; www.lansing.org. Capitol Tour and Information Service, Capitol Square, Lansing; 517-373-2353; council.legislature.mi.gov/capitol_tours.html. Michigan Historical Museum (at the Michigan Library and Historical Center), 702 W. Kalamazoo, Lansing; 517-373-3559; michigan.gov/museum. Michigan Walk of Fame, www.michiganwalkoffame.com; Brannigan Brothers, 210 S. Washington Square, Lansing; 517-702-8001.

Sandra Svoboda is a Metro Times staff writer. Contact her at 313-202-8015 or [email protected]