The Daring Darius Moon: mid-Michigan's Forgotten Genius
Why a Local Architect Shaped the Lansing Area
Darius Moon was a mid-Michigan architect who had a profound impact on the central Michigan region. His buildings are absolutely unique and many are in a class of their own. Although he worked mostly in the residential sphere, he also left behind a footprint in commercial and ecclesiastical structures. He was largely self-taught but acquired a huge store of architectural knowledge and contributed much to the state's heritage. Like Claire Allen, he is best remembered for local landmarks, but his influence stretched far beyond the provincial Lansing domains. He has thus come in for something of a re-examination of his still extant buildings. Unfortunately, many were demolished to make way for the expansion of the state government complex in the 1970's, but enough survive to merit individual assessments.
Morgan Hungerford House
The Morgan Hungerford House (1880), was one of Moon's first Lansing endeavors. Hungerford was an ex-New Yorker who had an important impact on Lansing, much as Roswell Everett did on the south side. He became a justice of the peace and wanted a suitably impressive dwelling to reflect his rising status in the community. The area where his house now stands is today heavily overbuilt with state government buildings, but was formerly quite leafy and bucolic. The handsome historic house is painted in a blue-and-white scheme, although it was not originally those colors. Currently, there is a tripartite division into central, eastern and western sections, and the brick painted blue plan seems most complimentary. The central section is surmounted with an oculus (a circular window). The whole composition is reminiscent of a steamboat bridge house, and suggests a trip along the Mississippi. In recent years, it has been tenanted by the Michigan Environmental Council.
On Capitol Avenue, Moon again showed his eclectic genius. In the Rogers-Carrier House, he favored a blend of materials and styles. Wood, stone and brick were all employed to construct this fantasy concoction. The Queen Anne style seems to predominate the 1892 house, and it was quite an excursion for Moon. Perhaps the most whimsical part of the structure was the round corner turret with curved glass and elaborate porch. First owned by a realtor and then a merchant, it has been in the possession of Lansing Community College since 1966, and narrowly escaped demolition due largely to the spirited efforts of college architecture students to preserve it. This clearly reflects the "save it, don't tear it down!" mood of the country around that time, and Lansing is the beneficiary.
Michigan Miller's Mutual Fire Insurance Company Building
Near the state capitol building is one of Darius Moon's commercial masterpieces. The Michigan Miller's Mutual Fire Insurance Company was started to provide fire insurance to area mills. There was a chance of fires in the industry, primarily due to explosions (always a serious risk in the grain business). The present building, which dates from 1890, is tucked into a corner of Ottawa Street, and is somewhat overshadowed by the House of Representatives Building arched over the street and dating from the late 1990's. It therefore takes some seeking to find it. Once located, a rich façade greets the pedestrian. Red brick, stone and metal are incorporated into the front, and the date is featured in high relief on an upper floor. It apparently was Moon's intention to blend Victorian, Italianate and Romanesque motifs into the exterior, and the overall composition works well. The street floor now contains a Biggby Coffee shop, which provides a haven for busy state office workers and downtown citizens.
Ransom Eli Olds Mansion
The largest residence ever built by Moon no longer exists. This was the Ransom E. Olds mansion, constructed for the founder of the REO Motor Car company, later Oldsmobile. Olds was perhaps the leading personality of mid-Michigan of his time, and a fitting domicile seemed appropriate for him. Indeed, this mansion was even larger than the Turner-Dodge House in the Old Town neighborhood. Moon laid out a design in an L-shaped plan and the structure reached nearly three stories in height. It was of buff colored brick with red sandstone and a green slate roof and was completed in 1904. It was referred to as the "Chateauesque Style", which almost added a new name to the architectural dictionary. The garage featured a novel contraption too-a turntable that could turn around a full-sized car! This unique residence was demolished in the early 1970's to make way for the I-496 connector expressway, which links I-69 and I-96, and is aptly named the Olds Freeway. Moon also branched into industrial design with the Olds Motor Works, no longer extant. Olds also had a factory at Detroit.
Darius Moon House
No survey of Moon homes in the Lansing area would be complete without a mention of Moon's own residence. Originally located at 116 Logan Street and since moved to 216 Huron Street, this house was also designed in the Queen Anne style. It features a typical Moon tower with panels, trim, bracketing and galvanized tin roof crestings. These, in turn, are adorned with motifs such as fleur-de-lis, acorn pendants and fans. This followed the Stick Style with boards applied to wood walls in grid patterns. This house, which dates from 1894, also demonstrates Moon's ability to synthesize and integrate composite styles. He and his wife, Ellen, raised their four children there and it is still a private residence today.
Darius Moon in Reflection
This rather remarkable local genius seems at first to defy classification. He began life as one of nine children and evolved from an apprentice carpenter-really a craftsman-to a contractor to an impressive architect. He was literally born in a log cabin which was also moved around on Lansing's west side. He did elaborate detailing and experimented with a variety of eclectic styles, and in the end produced more than 260 buildings in the Lansing area. He was whimsical yet serious, eccentric yet conventional and also profound. Much of his output was lost in the 1970's to government building expansion in the downtown zone, but his family has fought to preserve his remaining output by having some of them listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This will lead to a greater appreciation of his works, and will also introduce him to the world beyond mid-Michigan through the preservation movement.