WRITER | LISA BECKER CAMPBELL
PHOTO | CHARLEVOIX HISTORICAL SOCIETY
“The only thing wrong with architecture is architects” is a pronouncement made by none other than Frank Lloyd Wright. Earl Young – renowned for building the spectacular “Mushroom Houses” of Charlevoix – may have shared that sentiment.
Young was never a trained architect. He abandoned his attempt to study architecture at the University of Michigan after one year because the “rigid” department focused on Victorian style, which he despised.
An insurance and real estate agent by trade, Young was essentially a self-taught builder who created 30 unique structures of stone over a span of 50 years. Described as incredible works of architecture, art, and science, most of the Mushroom Houses are still standing today and have become beloved treasures.
The homes are largely constructed of indigenous materials such as limestone, fieldstone, and boulders that Young found along the shores of Lake Michigan or hand-selected from local farmers’ fields. An avid nature lover, he enjoyed strolling the beaches of Charlevoix, discovering each stone, then incorporating it into one of the dwellings, which were designed to resemble and enhance their natural surroundings. He endeavored to prove that a small stone house could be as impressive as a castle.
His techniques included keeping treasured rocks buried or immersed in Lake Michigan until he had the perfect application for each one. He had some experience as a stone mason’s apprentice, and his stonemasonry skills paired with his love of nature give the properties their beauty and signature style.
Design elements include a horizontal emphasis, with wavy eaves, exposed rafter tails, and cedar-shake roofs. Door, window, roof, and fireplace treatments are unusually curvy. Many of the homes have discreetly hidden front doors, a technique inspired by Wright.
“These houses are truly fascinating and absolute gems in our community,” according to Edith Pair of Tour Michigan, Inc., which has been providing tours for over ten years and whose knowledgeable guides have an unbridled passion for each home.
“The houses can be described with a folksy, whimsical, or a fairytale feel. They are also referred to as Hobbit Houses or Gnome Homes, which makes them especially pleasing!” according to Pair.
They are beloved for many reasons. One factor is that while Earl Young was born in Mancelona, he was loyal to the city of Charlevoix, building solely in Northern Michigan. He arrived in Charlevoix at age 11 and began crafting his first home, his personal residence, in 1919. He died in 1975, at 86, as a local legend.
The Charlevoix Historical Society also provides sightseeing of what it calls “Charlevoix’s most famous attraction,” according to David Miles, co-curator.
Bus tours are provided by the Historical Society’s “Step-on Guides,” who provide narration aboard buses that come into town from across the country. Some groups may only have time for the Mushroom Houses; others include sightseeing, shopping, dining, and more.
The Historical Society’s walking tours are guided strolls lasting about 90 minutes and affording views of the Earl Young houses within the city limits, plus the Pine River and a few other sights. The houses are private residences; tours do not include the interiors. Roughly half of all of Young’s properties are in the Park Avenue section, and they are historically preserved.
The remaining Earl Young houses are located in Boulder Park, just outside the city limits. The Historical Society is currently advocating for the protection of these properties as well, to keep them as historically correct as possible.
Remodeling the interiors may be necessary to correct structural damage, for example, and is desirable because the homes routinely have small kitchens and baths – another characteristic Earl Young shared with Frank Lloyd Wright.
The excursions provided by Tour Michigan cover both the Bolder Park and Park Avenue regions via electric trams called GEM cars.
Tour Michigan, Inc., 211 Bridge Street, Charlevoix, MI 49720, (231) 445-0770, MushroomHouseTours.com
Charlevoix Historical Society, PO Box 525, Charlevoix, MI 49720, (231)547-0373, CHXHistory.com