2020 : Lewis Cass Building Renamed Elliott-Larsen Building

June 30, 2020 all-day

The building formerly known as the Lewis Cass Building. - SIMON SEAMOUNT, WIKIMEDIA CREATIVE COMMONS

A state office building in downtown Lansing has been renamed to honor the authors of Michigan’s landmark civil rights law, making it the first state building to be named after an African American woman.

The Lewis Cass building, 320 S. Walnut St., is now the Elliott-Larsen Building, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced Tuesday. Signage on the building will be replaced as soon as possible.

The new name memorializes state Reps. Daisy Elliott, a Democrat, and Melvin Larsen, a Republican, who introduced legislation that became the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act in 1977. The comprehensive law prohibits discrimination against people because of their race, religion, sex, nationality, age, appearance and marital status.

“Together, Melvin Larsen and Daisy Elliott’s names have become synonymous in Michigan with the protection of civil rights,” Whitmer said in a press release. “In 2020, we must honor the work of our predecessors who, 44 years ago, outlined in law the vision of what we continue to strive for even today.”

The building’s new moniker replaces one commemorating Lewis Cass, who was Governor of the Michigan Territory from 1813 to 1831, after serving as a general in the War of 1812. He was President Andrew Jackson’s secretary of war and, despite an unsuccessful bid for president, became a powerful political figure representing Michigan in the U.S. Senate and later as President James Buchanan’s secretary of state.

But Cass owned a slave, defended a system that would allow slavery’s expansion and implemented the forceful removal of Native Americans from their tribal lands through Jackson’s Indian Removal Act.

We must take down the names of those who represent regression, and instead hold up those who worked to build a better Michigan for us all, regardless of race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, and gender identity,” Whitmer said.

Recently, there has been a push to enshrine protections for LGBTQ Michiganders in the law. Although the U.S. Supreme Court just issued a decision outlawing discrimination against LGBTQ people in the workplace, there are no state or federal anti-discrimination laws protecting them from being denied housing or refused services.

“There is still more work to do,” Whitmer said. “It’s time for the legislature to expand the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to protect members of the LGBTQ+ community and make Michigan a state where more people want to move to for opportunity.”

The Elliott-Larsen building houses the state Department of Technology, Management and Budget and some Department of Health and Human Services employees.

The history of the Elliott-Larsen building

The Elliott-Larsen building, still referred to in National Park Service documents as the Lewis Cass building, was listed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 1984.

Although it was Michigan’s third state office building when it was finished in 1922 — it was approved for construction in 1918 but delayed by World War I — the Elliott-Larsen building is the oldest still standing.

The Neo-Classical building was designed by architect Edwyn Albert Bowd, who designed churches, school and government buildings throughout Lansing and Michigan from 1890 to 1940, including the Lansing School for the Blind and Olds Hall at Michigan State University.

Construction cost $2.8 million, 3.5 times more than the legislature originally agreed to spend in 1917, according to national registry documents.

Its position a few blocks from the Capitol was unpopular with city planners. One, in a 1921 master plan, described it as “shunted to the side” and “without setting commensurate with it size and importance.”

The building lost its seventh floor during a fire in February of 1951 and sustained major water damage.

It was named the Lewis Cass building in 1952 after it was renovated.

Carol Thompson, “Whitmer renames Lewis Cass building to honor civil rights leaders Daisy Elliott, Melvin Larsen“, Lansing State Journal, June 30, 2020.

Paul Egan, “Whitmer strips name of slave owner Lewis Cass from state office building“, Detroit Free Press, June 30, 2020.

Governor Whitmer Renames Downtown Lansing’s Lewis Cass Building to the “Elliott-Larsen Building” to Honor Sponsors of Michigan’s Landmark Civil Rights Law, Michigan.gov Press Release, June 30, 2020.

Mike Mills, “Gov. Whitmer got it right: Lewis Cass is link to a sordid history“, Detroit Free Press, July 2, 2020.