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Old Buildings With New Uses Inspire Development
 

An industrial landmark finds a new purpose in the heart of Lansing

For a century, Lansing's industrial history was reflected in a prominent Michigan Ave. storefront that was built as a lumber mill before housing a GM supplier. As the city itself transformed, so has the building, now home to a decorative artist who is helping to redefine the neighborhood.

The transformation of a historic lumber mill-turned industrial equipment manufacturer into an art gallery and studio in Downtown Lansing sounds dramatic enough. That's even before one considers that Mill Supply was no ordinary industrial business and the new La Fille Gallery is far from the regular 'ol art studio.

The three-story commercial building on the corner of E. Michigan Ave. and the Grand River was built in 1910 as Rikerd Lumber Co. The second occupant was no less industrial; Mill Supplies Corp. spent more than 50 years building and servicing heavy equipment for General Motors in the 10,000 square foot location.

"When I first came in this building," says current owner Tiffany Klein, "it did feel very hard and cold and industrial. It was very office-y."

And while it may seem odd for such an industrial business to be located in the middle of Lansing's downtown, its presence said a great deal about how closely GM and the auto company's suppliers have been linked to the heart of the city itself. As plants began to close, it was no surprise to see Mill Supplies do the same in 2009 after 50 years of business.

Once vacated, the century-old industrial building positioned across the street from the Lansing Center and between two blocks of bars and restaurants posed a significant, if silent, question to the neighborhood: "What next?"

Enter Klein.


Once vacated, the century-old industrial building positioned across the street from the Lansing Center and between two blocks of bars and restaurants posed a significant, if silent, question to the neighborhood: "What next?"
"I was in Old Town and I outgrew my space very quickly," she says. "I had about 600 square feet there. I just needed a bigger space."

Klein is an artist, though one word hardly seems enough to explain her vocation, just as a small studio could hardly contain her work. She creates fine art, décor, sculpture, furniture and more using plaster, concrete, paint, and whatever spare parts or vintage items she happens upon. She also sells exclusive furniture lines and offers design services. While that may sound like a haphazard and whimsical flock of offerings, Klein has built a serious business in the art and décor world, creating commissioned art for clients nationwide and gaining exclusive rights on furniture and fabric lines in the Lansing area.

"I do about 80 percent commissioned art," Klein says. "There is a need for people to get what they want. The demand is huge."

To meet the demand for her work that often takes the sizable shape of couches, chandeliers and wall-sized canvases, Klein not only needed space to display such pieces, but also to create them.

"Every floor is an empty canvas for me," she says. "I'm a decorative artist. I do whatever the art tells me to do with it."

The building, which Klein named La Fille Gallery, told her apply her art throughout the three floors, while preserving the building's historic integrity.

"I did a lot of embellishing without destroying or covering up what was already here and interesting. I just added to," she says. "It still feels industrial, but it also feels urban. I didn't to do any construction that would alter the natural feel of the building.

"I made the space feel like you're walking into your living room."

Though the history of 336 E. Michigan Ave. may have been in complete contrast to an art and furniture gallery, in just one year La Fille has nestled into the neighborhood as if the space was always meant for that purpose.

"It's a gallery in the middle of bars," says Klein. "The response we get being here has been unbelievable, and I think it's benefited them as well. We refer visitors to the Knight Cap or to Troppo. It's been an asset to Michigan Ave."

Michigan Ave. has been a benefit to La Fille as well. Directly across the street from the Lansing Center and a short walk from of thousands of downtown employees, the gallery has received walk-in traffic far and above what Klein expected. During the recent Women's Expo at the Lansing center, Klein was flooded with browsers.

With a staff of seven and plans to create an in-house resource center for local designers, La Fille Gallery is set to continue
"The building's name means 'that girl,'" Klein says. "I want people to say, 'Have you been to that girl's studio yet?' I wanted to make something that becomes a destination and will be viable for years to come."
growing its presence in Downtown Lansing.

"The building's name means 'that girl,'" Klein says. "I want people to say, 'Have you been to that girl's studio yet?' I wanted to make something that becomes a destination and will be viable for years to come."

Dramatic as the changes to 336 E. Michigan Ave. may have been, perhaps nothing says more about how appropriate the new use of the historic building truly is than the reaction Klein received from its former occupants.

"I did meet the original owners. They worked their whole lives in this building," she says. "They were very teary-eyed. They are so happy that it didn't become anything else but what I made it."

From weekend art browsers to her neighbors in the entertainment business, there's little doubt that the Downtown Lansing community feels much the same way.

Old Buildings With New Uses Inspire Development
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Tiffany Clein
La Fille Gallery, Owner

How did you know the Mill Supply Building was right for you?
Ten thousand square feet is such a large space to occupy. I came to look at it probably four times. I sat by myself and looked around and thought, "Can I do this?"

What attracted me to this building was that it was several floors, so I could have a studio on multiple floors and then show my work on another.

How did your work as an artist evolve into furniture?
My background is in cabinets. What I've done is I've made very good realtionships with different furniture lines that I've personally evolved with. I support fair trade, first and foremost, and if I'm able to get it [in the US], I do.

How does taking an industrial space and turning it into an art gallery make sense?
Looking at it with my construction brain, the amount of money it would have taken to rebuild the building [into anything else] would have been crazy. It was a great building in a great location, if you wanted to put a crazy amount of money in. For me, as a decorative artist, this was a smart decision. I thought it would make a cool space for a studio.

Adding an art gallery to a vacant downtown building obviously benefits Lansing. How do you feel your location has benefitted your La Fille?
Being on Michigan Avenue, I think the exposure has been just huge. My business just jumped – I can't even tell you the number – it was so much. I now have seven people who work for me. I was one person [at first]. It's amazing how fast it's grown and how much demand there is.