September 3, 2009 at 1:00 am

Neal Rubin

Michigan history gets a polish in Capitol Park revamp

Stevens T. Mason shepherded Michigan into statehood and served as its first governor. He's interred under his statue in Detroit's Capitol Park. (Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)

Stevens T. Mason, one of Michigan's more forward-looking governors, stares these days across State Street toward a discount cigarette store.

The bronze Mason does, at least. The real Mason lies buried beneath the sculpture and its pedestal, and he's moving on. He's not going far -- 30 or 40 yards -- but in a sense, he's taking all of Capitol Park with him.

Without the Boy Governor, the park is just an odd little brick-and-concrete triangle with too many weeds and not enough leaves. With him, it's history, and it's getting a makeover.

New benches. New landscaping. New sidewalks. New lights for the old lampposts. They'll clean the squiggle of purple graffiti from beneath Mason's name and wipe the pigeon droppings from his burnished hair, move him halfway up Griswold to the middle of the park, and face him inward to give the place a focus.

Chances are, people will ignore him anyway. Or they'll read the inscription once and then forget it, the way Richard Skelton did. But a brush with history is better than no history at all, and the way it stands now, Capitol Park barely has a present.

Skelton, 70, took the bus in from the west side the other morning, unrolled a fabric chessboard atop a concrete divider and sat down on a weathered wooden bench to wait for victims. Ultimately, he waxed a guy who called himself Boogaloo and played standing up, bouncing gently as he drank a tall can of Schlitz Malt Liquor from a paper bag.

Pigeons pecked at bread crusts. Two workers on break from a restaurant stubbed out their cigarettes and started back. The row of empty buildings along Shelby loomed, and the dying honey locust trees along Griswold grew more barren.

All the while, the coffin of Michigan's first governor lay only a few steps away. Amazing.

Space for history

Mason rests at Capitol Park for the same reason it bears the name. Behind the statue is the cornerstone for the county courthouse that became the headquarters of Michigan's first government. Long after Lansing became the capital, the building burned; a year later, in 1894, it became an open space for Michiganians to relax and pass the time.

Jack Dempsey, the vice president of the Michigan Historical Commission and a downtown lawyer, says his group has pledged to keep history fresh at the revamped park. It will post more modern and inviting signs and markers, and hopes to commission a scale model of the capitol building.

Most important, it will create a $250,000 endowment to help keep the park from becoming again what it is now.

The refurbishing itself is budgeted at $1.1 million, drawn from specific development money rather than pay-the-bus-drivers money. Ideally, says architect Charles Merz, the park will inspire the reuse of the abandoned structures that cast their shadows across it. Worst case, it will at least be a fitting home for the governor who fought the heathen Ohioans for the Toledo Strip.

Home in Detroit

Territorial Secretary John T. Mason was as ill-equipped for politics as his son was gifted at it. When the father wangled a mission to Mexico in 1831, President Andrew Jackson replaced him with the son, aged 19 years, eight months and 28 days.

Then the governor of the territory, Lewis Cass, resigned to become Secretary of War. Another governor was appointed, but before Mason was old enough to vote, he was running the territory and everyone knew it.

He was elected to the job in 1835, then re-elected after statehood in 1837. When things turned sour -- a $5 million state investment went bad, among other things -- he opted to not run again. He even left the state, moving to New York to practice law. By the time he passed the bar in 1842, he was broke, and by January 1843, the 31-year-old ex-governor was dead of pneumonia.

He was interred in his in-laws' vault in New York beneath a stone that gave only his name and date of death. In 1905, at the behest of his surviving relatives, he was brought back to Michigan.

When the Capitol Park refurbishing concludes next spring, he and his statue will be in their third location there. But the precise location within the park is only a detail. As long as he's in Detroit, he's home.

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