History of Leland’s Old Art Building

Snug in a river bend lined with flowers, Leland’s Old Art Building stands within shouting distance of Main Street, but far enough back that a first-time visitor passing by may not notice it.

With its white frame face, dark green trim, and classic small-pane windows, it could be an early 1900s school or meeting hall in any number of small rural villages throughout the country. But to the thousands of residents and long-time visitors who come back year after year, the Old Art Building is Leland – in much the same way that Fishtown is Leland. It’s a welcome home sign and a touchstone. Its wood floors and walls, the fieldstone fireplace, and the curved wooden stage all echo sounds of dramatic readings, dancers’ steps, clattering keys of an upright piano, and the long-ago voices of summer.

In the early 1900s the Walter T. Best Women’s Club organized an effort to build a community center. A driving force in the successful fundraising effort was one Allie Kaiser Best, who was no stranger to the theatrical world. Her late husband was by day the Walter T. Best for whom the building was named. In his stage life he was Maro the Magician – artist, musician, and skilled enough in the conjurer’s trade to earn a slot on the circuit with the Slayton Lyceum Bureau. Thanks to Maro’s public career and a successful music school in Chicago, the couple were able to build a summer home in Leland at the turn of the 20th Century. Maro died in 1909, but Allie, a forceful and independent woman, decided to make her home in Leland. In 1922, under master carpenter John Buehrer the construction was completed, and the building became the venue for social and cultural events.

maro-255x350Allie Best’s long-term dream for the women’s club was not fully realized, in part because of bleak days of the Great Depression and the looming fears and onset of World War II. During the war the ladies of the village gathered in the building to roll bandages for the Red Cross. Later, however, the building saw little use for many years. But a big part of the dream was salvaged in 1939. Michigan State College art professor Erling Brauner had been charged by university officials with finding a good location for a summer art school – an artists’ colony, as he and others envisioned it. As the story goes, he was traveling north on the Lake Michigan shoreline and happened into a store in Frankfort where he saw a large photograph of Leland. Brauner headed straight up the Leelanau Peninsula for the small fishing village he had just seen, and found the Old Art Building – vacant and unused.

Professor Brauner managed to contact the women’s club, and the group, happy to find such an appropriate tenant, voted to donate the building to the college. “People sometimes ask why we couldn’t stay in East Lansing to do abstract painting, but after all, one doesn’t abstract out of thin air,” Professor Brauner would say later. “Even non-representational painters derive stimulation from the light, color, and atmosphere in Leland.”

So began the 50-year relationship that continues to bring nostalgic alumni back to the Leland campus one way or another. Several of the 370 alumni names in the summer art school archives are people who now make northern Michigan their home, as either full or part-time residents. Others were sufficiently smitten by the area that they simply came up to summer school and stayed.

Tuition in the start-up years was $16.50 for the six-week session, whether or not it was take for credit. Undergraduates and graduate students could receive up to eight hours of credit if they worked mornings and afternoons. Classes ranged from as few as 10 members to 20 or more. Leland residents welcomed them, putting them up in spare bedrooms for as little as $2.50 a week if they shared the room with another student. They became part of the community, often enjoying the rounds of summer parties.

msu-1980-oab-extThese summer classes continued for 50 years, but as more and more people discovered Leland and the Leelanau Peninsula, vacation rentals commanded higher and higher rent. Both students and faculty were having a difficult time finding affordable housing, and class sizes began to diminish. In August of 1989, the art department staged a 50-year retrospective exhibition featuring the work of 43 former summer students and faculty members. That year the Michigan Historical Commission added the Old Art Building to the State Register of Historic Places, in recognition of the MSU-Leland partnership. But by that time the program had faded into non-existence due to dwindling enrollment.

The Old Art Building sat vacant again until 1992, when a group of Lelanders, who feared for its future, began talks with MSU officials to rescue the building and revive summer art programs with a more local appeal. They created the Leelanau Community Cultural Center as a non-profit overseer and developed a plan in which MSU would lease the building to Leland Township, who would in turn give the LCCC responsibility for building operations.

Since those formative years after 1992, when the group’s main purpose was to repair and renovate the aging structure, the Old Art Building has blossomed well beyond the hopes of Mrs. Allie Best and friends. From the days when board members prodded and pushed friends for volunteer help and pitched in to scrape and paint and sweep the floors and rake the leaves and water the flowers, the Old Art Building has developed into a full-time enterprise. It has been insulated and rewired; two furnaces were added, along with storm windows; an addition was build to provide restrooms, a small kitchen area, and an office; the stage floor was resurfaced and blinds were added to the large windows in order to enhance daylight theatrical performances and concerts; and most recently a new sound system was installed.

Over the years the beautiful grounds around the building have also received a great deal of attention. New trees and shrubs have been added, along with plantings of native flowers along the riverfront and lovely perennial gardens. Wooden benches welcome visitors to linger and enjoy the peacefulness that surrounds the historic building.

The Leelanau Community Cultural Center now has a growing endowment fund. As improvements continue to be made and programs expanded there has been an ever increasing need for donations. In the year 2000, seeing the need to ensure the long-term stability of income, the LCCC established an endowment fund with the Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation. Having met their original goal of $250,00 in the year 2005, the board has set a new goal of $500,000 by 2010.

There is now a full-time Executive Director and a full time Assistant Director. Becky Ross manages an ever-expanding list of activities, the core of which is the six-week summer program. More than 185 children and 120 adults participated in last year’s classes, which are taught by area artists. The yearly schedule is filled with specialty classes such as senior exercise, aerobics, tap and ballet and ballroom dance, and special events such as Stage Turner dramatic readings; exhibits of furniture, art, and ceramics; music concerts; and private celebrations as well.

Art Leelanau, the LCCC’s annual benefit to raise operating funds typically features more than 100 area artists. Other major shows include the annual summer Artists’ Market with some 85 booths, and the fall Fiber Festival. The board has recently added a part-time staff member to help in the office and coordinate volunteer workers.

How did this all happen? It happened because the Old Art Building is treasured – and many wonderful people have volunteered their time, talents, and funds to ensure that this fine old building remains a vital part of the Leelanau community. We hope that you will continue to support the Old Art Building and the efforts of the Leelanau Community Cultural Center.