With the increased speed of 70 mph on I-496 it is somewhat of a challenge slowing to the posted speed of 35 mph coming off the freeway into the downtown of Lansing. Passing Grand Ave and Washington Ave. we turned left onto S. Capitol Ave. For the first time we didn’t pick one of the three left turning lanes; providing direct routes back into the heart of Lansing or a way to return to the freeway that splits Lansing in half. Instead we chose the lesser used straight lane. Without the presence of a massive, yellow house where The Michigan Women’s Historical Center & Hall of Fame is located I would have thought this to be another over grown part of town. I knew however, that a splendid garden hid somewhere on this block. Even from the parking area, lush with mature trees and creeping ivy, there was no indication of the size, shape or appearance of the Cooley Gardens. It wasn’t until we walked past the entrance sign through an arch of flowering bushes did we find ourselves within a cathedral of beauty. At every side there is some sort of petition; a landscaped wall, large, mature trees, an ivy covered pavilion, providing isolation for the visitor from the harsh, loud environment surrounding this haven.
The land for the Cooley Gardens was donated in 1938 by Eugene Cooley to the City of Lansing to be used solely as a city park. In 1940 Edward H. Laird began designing the gardens, finishing in 1942 and dedicating them to “the horticultural education and pleasure of garden lovers.”
At the time that these gardens were added there was an already affluent neighborhood in place. Within the block stood four elaborate homes; The Olds Mansion, The Barnes Castle, Scott House and the Cooley House. All but two still stands. The Olds mansion, a Darius B. Moon Victorian Era styled home, was demolished in 1971 to complete the new I-496 highway, ironically named the R.E. Olds Freeway. This freeway offered a new accessibility into Lansing from out-lying areas yet created a new isolation from north to south. Areas that once held connections to the downtown area were now severed from the heart of Lansing. Cooley Gardens and business districts like REO Town were abandoned for more centrally located districts. Only through the dedication of residents have these two areas seen restorations and improvements. REO Town has recently had a flourish of activity with budding art centers like Art Alley and Reach Art Studio providing hints of hope and Board of Water and Light beginning their construction of the first natural gas facility. The Friends of Cooley Gardens, a group of residents concerned about this treasure, have been providing restoration and support since 1984. Standing in the peace and tranquility of Cooley Garden and its sister garden The Scott Sunken Garden; sentinels to an era of prosperity, it’s easy to imagine the splendor and possibility of this neighborhood.