Inside architect Earl Young’s ‘hobbit houses’ in Michigan

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Growing up in northern Michigan in the early 1900s, Earl Young was obsessed with boulders. Glacial boulders, to be exact—ones moored in fields, forests, and on lake coastlines across the state thanks to the slow march and retreat of glacial ice during the Precambrian age.

These boulders are the central building material of Young’s dozens of architectural creations in Charlevoix, Michigan, a small town on the northeastern shore of Lake Michigan. Charlevoix has all of the hallmarks of an iconic American summer destination: The ice cream parlor, the fudge store (it’s northern Michigan, after all), and the sandy shoreline.

I’ve been spending summers in Michigan for as long as I can remember; my mother grew up there. And the more time I’ve spent in Charlevoix, the more fascinated I’ve become about Young’s work in the area.

The homes he designed will stop you in your tracks, as one did the last time I was there, passing by on a bike. Call them “mushroom houses,” “hobbit houses,” “boulder houses”; everyone has a different name for them. They’re often described concisely, if vaguely, as “organic.” Though some see Frank Lloyd Wright’s influence, they’re distinctly Young.

“He claimed that the only influence he had was Mother Nature,” says David Miles, a local historian and a curator at the Charlevoix Historical Society, which offers walking tours of Young’s homes. Young was born in Mancelona, Michigan, in 1889, the only child of Adolf and Myrtie Young. The family moved to Charlevoix, about 30 miles north, when Young was 11, where Adolf and Myrtie started an insurance business.

The stonework of the fireplace at Young’s Mushroom House. Courtesy Charlevoix Historical Society

It was during Young’s teenage years there that he became fascinated with nature—and those boulders. “He became immediately bonded with them,” Miles explains. Young, Miles goes on, had the amazing ability to keep, for decades, a mental catalog of the characteristics of every stone he found. This was a useful skill for someone who would go on to use those stones as the foundational element in his designs.

“It was like he could design in his head with these stones—like putting a Rubik’s cube together,” says Miles. And Young did just that later in his career, often with very little sketching. And certainly no blueprints. All without ever becoming a licensed architect.

Young did intend to become an architect, and the desire led him to the University of Michigan School of Architecture in 1908. (At the time, it had only been recognized as a formal course of study at the university for two years.) Then, disillusionment hit: He didn’t agree with anything he was being taught. He was most likely stuck drawing Corinthian columns and studying the grandeur that was Greece and Rome, Miles says. This clashed with his own architectural ideas, which skewed toward natural materials and organic lines. “He lasted exactly one year,” says Miles.

Thus, back to Charlevoix Young went. By this time, his parents had divorced and he joined his mother in the insurance business, which became a realty business as well. It was around this time that Young took the wheel with his education in architecture. “He dove into construction and design books and talked to builders,” Miles explained. He also apprenticed himself to a stone mason to learn how to cut, dress, and set stone. In 1915, a year after his mother passed away, Young married his high school sweetheart Irene Harsha and they began a family.

As the family grew to include four children, the Youngs decided they needed a bigger house. Young designed it himself, and it’s the only house for which there’s any evidence of another person’s involvement, a Petoskey, Michigan-based architect. What likely happened, Miles says, is that Young went to the architect, told him what he wanted, and the architect drew up the plans for him and the builders. “Beyond that, when he started building seriously in 1925, we have no evidence of him ever designing floor plans, blueprints, elevations, anything,” Miles explains. “The man worked entirely out of his head as he went along.”

Over the next 50 years, Young’s buildings took shape across Charlevoix—mainly on Park Avenue, near Lake Shore Drive, and across a plot of land he developed next to Lake Michigan dubbed Boulder Park—popping up like, well, toadstools. Over the course of his life, Young designed 26 residential homes and four commercial properties, most of which still stand today. 10 of these structures have historic protection from the state.

Boulder Manor under construction in 1929. Courtesy Charlevoix Historical Society

A side view of the finished Boulder Manor. Courtesy Charlevoix Historical Society

Among them, there are undulating roofs made of cedar, exposed rafter tails, curved windows that often look like comically drawn eyes, and masterful stonework made with local stone, and, of course, those iconic boulders. Boulder Park is where Young’s talent really shone, where he built several houses and where one of his most famous homes, Boulder Manor, is located.

Earl Young beside the outsize boulders of the fireplace at the Weathervane restaurant, his most famous design. Courtesy Charlevoix Historical Society

“That knocked the socks off of everybody,” Miles said. “Charlevoix’s collective jaw simply dropped.” It took some residents longer than others to come around to the style; however, Miles says that Young himself was more of a divisive figure than his buildings were. (Miles describes Young as belligerent and difficult to work with, and reports that Young went through workmen like “water through a sieve.”) But as time has gone on, Charlevoix understands how much it owes to Young; that the legacy of his work has brought more attention to the town than it could have hoped for.

Young’s residences were given names like Abide House, Half House, Sucher House, and Mushroom House (Miles says this is the most photographed house in Charlevoix), and the most famous commercial property, a restaurant, was called the Weathervane. A four-story grist mill stood once where the Weathervane does now; Young acquired the building in the early 1950s and renovated it quickly, between 1953 and 1954. According to the restaurant’s website, “the top two floors were eliminated and the new roof was fashioned after the curve of a gull’s wing.”

The Weathervane, in a 1954 photograph.

Young took a somewhat unconventional approach to gathering boulders for the homes he built. Akin to what he might have done as a boy, but on a much larger scale, he was traveling to the tip of the Lower Peninsula and into the Upper Peninsula to scout out boulders from farmers’ fields. After negotiating for them, he’d come up with a truck and crane and load the boulders up and haul them back to Charlevoix. At this point, he’d often need to store them for a time before using them: He’d drop them in the lake, or in the woods, and bury them so they wouldn’t be stolen.

Of this practice, Miles says “he was like a squirrel with a stash of acorns; he knew where each one was.” One particular boulder that makes up the capstone of the Weathervane Restaurant’s main fireplace weighed nine tons and sat buried in the ground for 26 years before being used. Young thought the face of the boulder resembled the highway system of the Lower Peninsula.

The word organic comes up so often with Earl Young’s buildings that it’s hard not to look for his inspiration in one very famous architect practicing at the same time: Frank Lloyd Wright. While Young would rebuff the comparison if ever made—Miles said it would “make the hair on his neck stand up”—he surely got wind, and saw photos, of Wright’s Prairie houses. And he would put aside ego to agree with Wright on one thing: the belief that an architect shouldn’t alter a site unless absolutely necessary, that a house should be designed to fit on the site for which it’s destined.

The front facade of Young’s Sucher House. Courtesy Charlevoix Historical Society

But there are other similarities in Young’s homes to Wright: The ceilings are low in a similar fashion, although this might have been due to the fact that both Young and his wife were only about five feet tall. The kitchens and closets seem like a bit of an afterthought. (The people who bought Boulder Manor in the 1970s found that, when they moved in, the kitchen was nothing more than a galley with a hot plate on one end.)

Miles points out that a couple of Young’s homes feature a characteristic of many of Wright’s Prairie Homes in Oak Park, Illinois: He disguised or hid the front doors so you couldn’t see them from the street. Conscious or unconscious, Miles said, there are echoes of the famous architect in Young’s work. But, “he was his own man, with his own ideas,” Miles said.