Dan and Michael See All of the Great Lakes: One Week in Michigan
Daniel Emberley, October 2012
My brother David and Priscilla were getting married in the Worcester suburbs. Since we had to rent a car to get to the wedding locations, we thought it made sense to combine it with a trip to … Michigan. They’re not close to each other, but D.C., Worcester, and Detroit form a big highway triangle. We had a great time. People in Michigan embody Midwestern courtesy and decency, and the state has a variety of small cities and natural places. They can’t compete with California and New York for tourism, but are worth seeing. Details follow.
Do you really want to hear about my brother’s wedding? I thought not. The drive up was uneventful, the engagement BBQ at their house a fun time catching up with family and new family.
David and Priscilla tied the knot, in an Italian restaurant in the town of Clinton. Had never been before, it’s a classic New England village, lovely in the fall. There was even a Museum of Russian Icons adjacent to the Common that we got to check out. Fun to show the nieces and nephew how to get into a museum without paying or getting arrested.
We left Waltham early for the eight hour drive to Niagara, where we planned to break. In Springfield we had breakfast with Patty White and picked up Catie Robbins, who’d taken Amtrak from D.C. to rendezvous with us. Patty introduced us to Bernie’s, a railroad diner that serves big breakfasts all day. We prepped for a day of Turnpike food with corned beef hash and egg white omelettes.
The New York Thruway was its usual boring passage, with occasional glimpses of the Erie Canal. It started drizzling as we approached Buffalo, which was to be a weather theme the whole trip: no downpours that kept us from doing what we wanted, but regular cloudiness and intermittent rain. Niagara Falls is beautiful no matter the weather. We stayed on the American side, crossing over Goat Island for the view of the Canadian Falls. Michael and I had seen before, but this was a first for Catie. It was as close as we got to Lake Ontario, but we’re counting it as a sighting.
In the middle of the Niagara River is Grand Island. Nothing to see, but a Holiday Inn Express that gave us balconies with river views. There are some cool big houses on River Road, but in general it’s generic 1980’s housing or worse. The GPS found restaurants less than a mile away, but that turned into eight miles of driving since we left our cigarette boat at home and had to get off the Island and around to Tonawanda. Buffalo may not have an economy, but it sure has great names. The Beijing Garden take-out satisfied both vegetarian Catie and us omnivores.
We crossed the Rainbow Bridge to Canada and drove across the Ontario peninsula. This is the most direct route between Boston and Detroit, saving 1.5 hours. It is wicked boring, the same Lake Erie plain you cross in Ohio, with less to show for it. We had $40 Canadian from a previous trip that we invested in maple syrup and Quality Street chocolate. Blue Water Crossing connects Sarnia, ON to Port Huron, MI (heard of the Port Huron Statement? I suspect the Vietnam protestors jumped across the border, issued their statement, and jumped right back to Canada). It is one of the easiest crossings to use, and we had no delays. Our Customs agent had lived in the Lansburgh in D.C. on a detail, we proved our residency by teasing him about the high rent and he let us proceed.
Eastern Michigan is rural and poor, even the billboards are looking for customers, when they’re not showing PSA’s about your kids’ potential drug problems. We drove around Flint and up country roads that parallel I-75 to Frankenmuth. This town is known for a pseudo-German tourist strip featuring Famous Chicken Dinners, which we were too late for. However, Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland is completely amazing. This is the world’s largest Christmas store. There’s an airport hanger size building of high quality ornaments, and another of everything else Christmas. My favorite part was the section of nations, where we bought a glass cannoli and Trevi Fountain symbolizing Italy, and pondered who used the Israel ornaments on their Christmas tree?
Onto I-75, through Saginaw, Bay City, and Midland. Midland is the headquarters of Dow Chemical, which Mr. Dow founded to refine chemicals out of local brine springs. The cultural big deals here are the Alden B. Dow Museum of Science and Art and the Midland Center for the Arts, both closed for Monday/Columbus Day. However, the Dow Gardens next door proved totally worth the stop. Alden Dow, the founder’s son, studied with Frank Lloyd Wright and developed his own twist on Prairie Modern in Michigan. He built his house adjacent to and partially in a lake, so you could sit at the dinner table with a water level view. The parents’ house, The Pines, is a typical Arts & Crafts mansion. The gardens themselves were the evolving project of both generations of Dows, with Alden’s red bridges connecting over various brooks. Looked great, even in autumn’s die back.
Downtown Midland introduced us to the diversity of Michigan’s economy. The agriculture sector is very strong, as is hunting/tourism. Many of the smaller cities focus on a specific company/industry, and if that industry is strong, so is the place. Dow Chemical has made sure Midland has a fancy hotel for visiting vendors and customers, decent restaurants, and parks. In the latter, the three-legged bridge the Tridge connects parks and bike paths over the Chipewa and Tittabawassee Rivers. Dinner at Pizza Sam’s was surprisingly good and inexpensive. We got the vegetarian pizza special, a family size salad, Coney dog, chili, and wine. Fresh vegetables, well made food, helped us prepare for the way-too-long drive north in the dark to Gaylord.
We woke up within striking distance of the Straits of Mackinac, separating Lake Michigan from Lake Huron at the Mackinac Bridge. “Mackinac” is always pronounced Mackinaw, but seemingly only spelled that way in Mackinaw City. “St. Ignace” may have been named by French fur traders, but is Saint IG-niss. We drove into Mackinaw City and caught the ferry to Mackinac Island. There are three competing ferry companies, which if consolidated could offer a crossing every ten minutes, but don’t. So much for the benefits of the free market. We used Scheplers, which took us on a bonus detour under the Mackinac Bridge. It’s one of the world’s longest suspension bridges, a vision in beige and green. The 1957 construction gives the only road connection between Michigan’s two peninsulas. While that seems necessary, it’s only busy during hunting season.
Mackinac Island wants to be Newport, or at least the Adirondacks. Eh. We walked the tawdry but trying not to be Main Street, bought fudge, and skipped t-shirts. To our surprise, Fort Mackinac, which dominates the island’s bluffs, was open. They offer a good history of the Indian-French-British-American fur trade, and the importance of the Straits passage. We saw the renovated hospital, a barracks set up for kids to explore, and a shooting demo arranged for the bus tour groups that had forced the Fort to open post-season (thank you!)
We got a mediocre lunch at the Seabiscuit, which gave us the opportunity to try a whitefish Reuben. The Grand Hotel “requests” $10 to walk on the world’s longest porch, or $40 for their lunch buffet, or $75 for dinner, coat & tie required. While it is a massive and pretty Victorian resort hotel, we’ve seen plenty of the same; and passed it by on the public way. It’s sad, the Del in San Diego handles the same problem (elite hotel, day trippers) much more graciously, and in return we dropped some significant money there.
A cool thing to do on Mackinac Island is to walk around the summer “cottages”. We chose the West Bluff walk, which was lovely, taking the Pontiac Trail when the sidewalk stopped. These are like grand White Mountain summer homes, not over-done like Newport, and beautiful. Mackinac Island must be a great place to summer if you have a house there, but as people just in for the day, it has less to offer. The horse poop drove Michael crazy; it’s everywhere, since the Island’s shtick is that they don’t allow cars. We took the ferry back to Mackinaw City, and launched a futile quest for a place to sit for a cup of coffee. Did find a nice small bookstore. The Museum of the Bridge is located above a pizza parlor. It is a labor of love on the part of the owner, and shows a worthwhile documentary on the bridge’s construction.
Which we then drove north to St. Ignace. This was the first European settlement in Michigan, the home that Father Marquette was trying to return to after helping to found Chicago. He didn’t, but his body was later moved here, and we saw a cross that may mark his grave, or may mark some other grave from the 17th Century, no one is sure. A series of well designed signs tell the history of fur trading and European discovery. This little park is next to an 1847 church, now the Museum of Ojibwa Culture. Old exhibits, but a useful take on the local Native heritage. St. Ignace has a small beach opposite the Museum, we dipped our toes in Lake Huron. The beach was strewn with bark that rubbed off trees that 1870’s loggers were floating down to mills. It fell to the Lake bottom, was preserved by the cold, and has been washing up ever since.
That night’s HI Express had balcony views of Lake Huron. Back downtown for dinner, we ate at The Galley. This was delicious and cheap, a very old restaurant from the 1950’s: chowder, fried perch, broiled trout, tons of sides, and three different Michigan white wines from medium dry to too sweet.
The drive to Sault Ste. Marie is surprisingly flat. I wonder what the glaciers, presumably, did to level out these plains. The American town of Sault is small and blue collar. Apparently the Canadian city has 60,000 to their 15,000, and all the action. 60,000 Is small by our standard, but it’s a teaming metropolis in the Upper Peninsula. We came to see Lake Superior, and the Soo Locks. The locks take Lake traffic around the Saint Mary’s Rapids. They’re at least as impressive as the ones on the Mississippi at Rock Island. A freighter was being locked down from Superior to Huron when we arrived. It was cool to see it sink in front of us and proceed out. The St. Mary’s River is so long you can’t see either lake, but we’re counting it as our Superior “touch” anyway. The displays in the visitor’s center are old, but informative about types of vessels, routes, and seaway history.
Next door in an old Weather Bureau building is the Shipwreck Association Museum. It was staffed by an annoying volunteer who talked but didn’t listen, so I distracted him while Catie and Michael checked out the displays. Apparently Lake traffic is way down. We were lucky, the freighter we saw was the only one schedule for the day. Traffic should be up: lake levels are low, so freighters can’t carry a full load and move through the channels, so there would normally be more of them. A sign of a Chinese steel glut? Of the general economic situation? World economic patterns totally affect this corner of the state.
We drove south across the UP to the Mackinac Bridge and via country roads to Cross Village. This area is heavily wooded and beautiful. We stopped at the Legs Inn for lunch, a funky place full of outsider art created by the original proprietor. The name refers to the potbelly stove legs the owner used to decorate the cornice of the building. Wicked good Polish food: whitefish spread, veggie wraps under white sauce, pierogies, mini-kielbasa w beet relish, bigas stew, and a kielbasa reuben. Accompanied by a Belgian blonde, with Polish berry Charlotte for dessert. Go for a drink, if only to see the building.
From Cross Village to Harbor Springs is Michigan Route 119, the Tunnel of Trees Shore Drive. It is gorgeous. The general area and tree color are very like New England, but with more maroons versus the sugar maple crimsons I grew up with.
The drive down the Lake Michigan coast is fantastic, one of the prettiest in the country, lined with small towns where Chicago takes its summer vacations. Along Little Traverse Bay through Harbor Springs, Petoskey, Charlevoix. A draw bridge rose before us in the latter, so we stopped at a coffee shop to check out their lovely downtown. This is where Ernest Hemingway vacationed as a boy and tested his wives’ wilderness skills. Really, it’s in his Nick Adams stories. I would have loved to see Janet Gellhorn outfish him in some creek. Along Grand Traverse Bay, in Traverse City, we thought of our friend Peg, who attended the musically important Interlochen high school nearby.
Our goal was not a cozy cabin, but Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. We arrived just before dusk, so the visitor’s center was closed. It was still plenty light, we got a pamphlet/map and drove the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, M 109, which seems to be the park. Pierce Stocking was a lumber baron who owned this land, realized the rare ecology of the dunes landscape, and preserved it for the rest of us. It was freezing, but at least the rain held off. We had a cold overlook photo experience, and then hiked almost to the dune climb. Or was that the dune you climb, but no one was there to point it out? Families come here, hike in, and let their kids trudge up and slide down one sand dune that the Park Service has agreed to sacrifice to us touristas. Eh, we had too much sand in ourselves already just from the hike in. It was beautiful, like the Indiana dunes further down the Lake, and greener than the ones we saw at Fire Island this summer. At the next overlook we were nearly blinded by sand blowing off the Lake. I’d forgotten the strength of the winds off Lake Michigan. As we drove out we skirted flocks of wild turkeys, convincing Michael he shouldn’t take one as a souvenir.
The Cherry Hut Restaurant is about 30 minutes away in Beulah, in the heart of the Michigan cherry orchards. Repeating theme, it was simple, fantastic food, and cheap. Soups, salads, house-made rolls and cinnamon buns, pork roast, chopped steak, grilled cheese, wild rice, and for dessert, cherry pie with the flakiest crust and real cherries, not canned filling. We stocked up on jams and dried cherries. The placemats had art by Gwen Frostic Prints, which was good, because her studio in nearby Benzonia was closed for the season. We cut east across MI 115 to Cadillac.
Grand Rapids confirmed my theory begun in Midland: if the local industry is strong, so is the city. Major furniture manufacturers Steelcase and Hermann Miller are both based here, and this was the healthiest Michigan city we saw. We started on Heritage Hill, an amazing collection of Queen Anne houses, reminiscent of both Takoma and Cleveland Park in D.C. The David Amberg House was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, not open to the public, but with a cool tiled gable facing the street.
The Ambergs discovered Wright when he was working on a house for their son-in-law, Meyer May, around the block. The Meyer May House is one of the best Wright-designed Prairie style residences that you can get into. We’ve seen similar before, but that’s due to our experience, not to lackluster interpretation here. The house got a well documented renovation in the1970’s by Steelcase Corporation, which uses the house for corporate functions. There’s a large George Niedecken and mural original furniture. The May children were interviewed during the renovation and donated pieces back to the house. Menorahs in the dining room clued us in that the Mays are Jewish, founders of what was the most stylish men’s clothier in Grand Rapids. Brilliant use of iridescent glass in the windows and the joints between bricks of the fireplaces. Most of this work was overseen by Wright’s associate Marion Mahony, who would later design Canberra, Australia, with her husband Walter Burley Griffin.
That was fun but exhausting. We recovered at lunch downtown at Sans Chez, which features organic, local food with lots of vegetables. Sans Chez is the reason Egglands Best, the egg manufacturer, has an institutional line, as they nurtured the then-young-and-local company. Excellent food, in a cool Edwardian building.
The Grand Rapids Art Museum moved into a custom-designed building by wHY Architecture’s Kulapat Yantrasast in 2007. The space is great, reminiscent of Tadao Ando’s Ft. Worth Modern Art, with open galleries, masses of concrete, glass walls, and reflecting pools. The collection, as appropriate for a second tier city, is 2nd rate art by 1st rate artists and 1st rate art by 2nd rate artists. The room of furniture and housewares design is the best part.
Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park offers lots of sculpture by name artists, but not their best works. A Bourgeois spider, Abakanowicz body, disappointing Andy Goldsworthy stone arch. The gardens are extensive and beautiful. An odd section of the Park houses a reproduction of the massive horse Leonardo da Vinci created for the Duke of Milan, destroyed by French soldiers in 1499. There’s a Michigan Farm Garden, with bronze instead of live animals. Great for photo ops of Michael with chickens and Catie with the pig. The Children’s Garden is a blast, with a fountain of the Great Lakes that you can float plastic boats on to model barge traffic. An inside gallery was showing the remains of the local nationally-recognized ArtPrize competition. It was pretty decent, with artists focusing on the human body as totem. A friend originally from Grand Rapids had recommended the Gardens as goofy and worthwhile, accurate on both counts.
In 1975 Grand Rapids raised the dam over the rapids on the Grand River that give the city its name. That prevented fish from swimming upstream to spawn. The answer is the Fish Ladder Sculpture. This looks like the old Silver Spring Metro station, a squared spiral of Brutalist concrete that allows fish to jump up in one-foot increments, and people to walk around and over watching them do it. Pretty cool. Because of the fish run (in autumn, salmon and trout), there were lots of fishermen in the river, as well as joining us watching the ones that got away vaulting up the ladder. As close to Michigan’s hunter-recreation culture as we got.
There’s lots of stuff in Grand Rapids that we missed. A Calder sculpture downtown is the symbol of the city. The Van Andel Museum Center is one of the best history museums in the country. The Gerald R. Ford Museum is here, not to be confused with the Ford Presidential Library, which is at U of M in Ann Arbor. But, we’d run out the clock on our day here. We drove to Lansing, went to a Carrabas for dinner, and did laundry at our Holiday Inn.
We only had a morning for Lansing. It’s an Oldsmobile/GM city, and not doing so well. Michigan State, America’s first Land Grant University, is here, but when I was researching the trip I couldn’t find a reason to tour the campus. The Michigan State Capitol, despite a recent renovation, looked like another Midwestern state capitol exercise in Victorian excess, without the name architects to justify a visit. Instead we drove the Capitol Mall, parking behind the Michigan Library and Historical Complex. This is huge, a Post-Modern monster, that had great installations (a copper mine, lumber baron’s home, S&H Green Stamp Store, Detroit Car Show). They give a great overview of the geography and history of the state. We were glad we did this at this point in the trip, after we’d seen some of Michigan and had context for the exhibits.
We headed east for Detroit. Where to begin? Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River connect Lake Huron and Lake Erie, so the site has been an important passage as long as humans have been in North America. The city sprawls inland northwest from an 1810’s core designed in emulation of D.C.’s L’Enfant plan. This gives Detroit grand avenues, and blocks that are too large, both problems that D.C. wrestles with. The avenues make it hard to create viable commercial districts, and the block size discourages walking and encourages driving. I’m not sure this is a sustainable model for a city even when the economy is strong. In Detroit, it’s not strong. In D.C. the Feds created a centralized downtown split between the White House and the Capitol, a surmountable distance in 20th Century transport terms. Detroit, instead, developed nodes around each major auto plant, which by the 1920’s were themselves bigger than small cities. The end result makes Los Angeles look dense. Abandoned neighborhoods reflect abandoned auto plants. There really are blocks of prairie with just one or two houses, street signs, and hydrants to remind you you’re in a city; I’d always assumed these were a photographer’s trick.
Money is here, just over the legal boundary in the Grosse Pointes and north of Eight Mile. But, we’re in the Midwest, so people one-on-one are polite and friendly. In the absence of a judgment, here are some vignettes. We pulled into an alley to take photos of the famously abandoned Michigan Central railroad station, only to find a cop at our windows, warning us about safety. A Taco Bell seemed to be open, but was empty, with a cockroach laden, but still working, bathroom. The city’s signature park, Belle Island, got new toilet pavilions in 2009, but these are locked, with Port-a-Johns in front. New construction, in the few places where it exists, is ugly and cheap: they would have done better to have held the original decent housing as a reserve for future renovation. Lots of fences, secured perimeters, and streets blocked without reason. One Detroit Center, a signature skyscraper built in 1993 to designs by Johnson/Burgee, is vacant and advertised “for rent” on billboards.
That all sounds pretty negative, but Detroit impressed us as a place with potential. We have seen other cities that have made disastrous decisions, like St. Louis and Phoenix, and written them off. Detroit, though, is at a moment of reckoning where it can create a successful future. When we choose a city to buy a former factory to turn into a residence/studio it will probably be in Houston, but Detroit has possibilities.
We started in the northern suburb of Bloomfield Hills, nasty new money, tract mansions and golf courses. At its heart, though, is Cranbrook. Cranbrook was started by George Booth and his wife, publishers of the Detroit Evening News, as a school of science and art. Booth hired Eliel Saarinen to run the art program, and Saarinen created a forested Arts-&-Crafts/Modern campus. Sculpture and fountains by Carl Milles accent the grounds beautifully. This is where rich Detroit sends their kids for high school; when Mitt Romney chopped a gay kid’s hair off, it was as a student here. The groups of visiting parents and students looked like people we would not allow in the better prep schools back East: rich, but boorish. I know, I’m nothing but a blue-collar snob, but I would not want my nieces to date these jocks.
The Cranbrook Museum had a show of 1950’s designer
Lunch was at Leo’s Coney Island off I-96. This is great, more a Greek diner than the hot dog stand I expected. We got a Coney and a loose burger (broken up hamburger meat served in a hot dog roll), salads, and gyros.
Into Detroit, we headed down Woodward Avenue passed the New Center. This was new in the 1920’s, anchored by Art Deco gems the Fisher Building and the former GM Headquarters (now Cadillac Center). We checked in at the Inn on Ferry Street. In Midtown, off Woodward, this is an amazing street of well preserved Queen Anne houses, five of which make up the Inn. The Freer Mansion is across the street, where all of the art now in our Freer Museum of Art once resided. You can see the annex that was put on to house the Peacock Room. We shared a suite in the Smith Carriage House; Catie had a view of the Freer from her bedroom. The Inn had been an effort to use preservation to jump start redevelopment in town, sponsored by the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) next door.
On Friday nights the DIA is open until 10PM, so we ran over to see the collection. This is among the largest art collections in the country, with better than expected Old Masters, especially Dutch, and American, and good Modern and Contemporary. There are small holdings of Asian art, but brilliant galleries of Islamic, with fantastic pottery. Their 18th Century art is more decorative art and furniture than paintings, they’ve installed these as “Luxury Living”, highlighted by a video table that you can be seated at as film servants set and remove a multicourse meal. The highlight of the museum is Diego Rivera’s stunning murals of Detroit Industry in the former courtyard. We were pleased at not just this Museum’s, but most of the museums we had seen in Michigan, efforts to welcome the public. For open-late-Friday’s the DIA had drawing studios, a concert, tours, and films all making the galleries and collections more accessible to a general audience.
We shopped the stores in the ground floor of the renovated Park-Shelton next door. The Peacock Room offers Sanders Chocolate and cards, a t-shirt factory/sale room next door sells only-in-Detroit designs. We had crepes for dinner at Good Girls Go To Paris, the dining room highlighted by Pewabic tile borders. We didn’t know it yet, but we had just imbibed the most successfully renovated section of inner Detroit. Once off the Woodward Avenue Cultural Corridor it was going to be hard to find successful entrepreneurs or people willing to bet on the city’s future.
Today was dedicated to The Henry Ford. Not Henry personally, but to the history complex he built west of Detroit, on the farms where he grew up. The Henry Ford is a museum of technology, a complex of relocated historic houses, the mansion Ford and his family lived in, and a hotel with recreations of historic homes you can stay in. All of this in Dearborn, the largest center of Arab immigration in America, but which you’ll only experience if you drive out on Michigan Avenue instead of the Edsel Ford Freeway.
Oh, and the world’s largest factory. Still. Ford did not invent the automobile; instead, he created the industrial system that made cars affordable transport instead of novelties for the affluent. He invented the Model T in town, just north of where we were staying on Piquette Avenue. He and architect Albert Kahn then invented the auto assembly line at Highland Park, further north. His climax was to bring the assembly line in as part of a vertically integrated factory on acres of land on the River Rouge. At the Rouge, sand, iron ore, and coal came in, and finished automobiles drove out. Manufacturing on this scale had never been done before, and it created what we think of as heavy industry. Ford rewarded the ability to perform the same steps reliably every day over intelligence. The UAW was born here, helping to cement the idea that a man’s labor, not his brain, is the commodity we each sell.
You could write a treatise on what all this has meant for modern history and the deskilling of American labor. Thank you, Susan Faludi. Nobody does anymore what Ford created here; vertical integration is not the most profitable way to service today’s markets. However, Ford still makes cars, and after buying a ticket at the Henry Ford entrance, we were taken by bus to a corner of the Rouge that has been retrofitted into a Ford F-150 truck assembly plant. The Rouge Factory Tour was a highlight of this trip. I know, I don’t even like cars, but I liked seeing them made. After an orientation video and 360-degree film extravaganza on auto manufacturing you walk onto the catwalk of one of the largest buildings I’ve ever been in. Lines move parts around the floor as union members assemble them into pre-ordered trucks. It is amazing to see the coordination involved, and especially the parts going up and down over and under each other to end up as finished trucks. The Ford family and corporation are both working hard to green-wash their efforts here, and you climb an observation tower to see the world’s largest green roof, which is well interpreted. It’s hard to see an environmentally sound nation where the car is the primary transport, but it’s nice to see them make an effort.
You could spend all day at the plant, and they’d let you, but don’t. We took the bus back and turned right into Greenfield Village. Henry Ford collected buildings, putting them on display in an historic “village”. We had lunch at the Eagle Tavern, moved here from the stagecoach road that connected Chicago and Detroit. Cider, roast chicken, roast pork, pickled carrots and cauliflower, served by candlelight. The only concession to modernity, in the dining room at least (who know what goes on in the kitchens, hopefully restaurant grade dishwashers), was acceptance of our MasterCard. Greenfield Village is mapped out in neighborhoods, but it’s easier to just wander the grounds. The people Ford thought historic are often forgotten today, but wall text or interpreters helped us make sense of what we saw. Luther Burbank, Noah Webster, and Robert Frost are among the Americans honored, along with an English Cotswold cottage and entire complexes of Thomas Edison’s labs from Menlo Park and Ft. Myers. In a railroad corner we saw kids turning an engine on a roundabout. In the Liberty Craftworks section craftmen do a great job demonstrating glass blowing, lumbering, pottery, tin smithing, and textile finishing, but also relating those to kids. Again, you could spend a day in the Village alone, but instead of paying extra for buggy or train rides, we went over to The Henry Ford Museum.
The Museum was Ford’s attempt to commemorate and educate about American technological prowess. This is a huge shed of a building, fronted by an odd façade emulating Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. It’s the best collection of cars, trains, planes, agricultural equipment, engines, and furniture in the world, on the same level as the Smithsonian. You can get up close and personal, and sometimes in, Rosa Parks’ bus, the limo JFK was assassinated in, Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion House, and the Oscar Wienermobile. At the latter I posed as a hot dog. We invested in a plastic Henry Ford from a Mold-A-Rama, the coin-operated injection molding machines that used to be in science museums around the country. Cool.
Back in Midtown, we shopped. The Detroit Artists Market was closed for a private event, but looked funky, more gallery than store. The Bureau of Urban Living and City Bird are two funky home stores on Canfield in the Cass District, a block over from Woodward. We drove around the rear of Cass Gilbert’s Detroit Public Library to see Mildred Sheets 1963 mosaics. The Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, a kunsthalle without a show, looked like it was ready for the wrecking ball. Or was that the legacy of the last artist they’d shown?
Dinner was in the same ‘hood, at Seva. This is a branch of a successful vegetarian restaurant in Ann Arbor. It took us a full walk around the building to figure out how to get in, but we were rewarded with excellent General Tso’s cauliflower, good pad Thai, burritos, and a quesadilla, and okay hummus.
The only real problem of the trip occurred that evening. As is common in historic hotels, there was no refrigerator in our room. Not a big deal, the front desk puts my insulin in a refrigerator off the lobby. When I asked for my insulin to take my evening shot the woman at the desk graciously went to get it, and after fifteen minutes of increasing frustration reported it was gone. Fortunately, she was the manager. She tracked down the person who had been on the previous night, who confessed to having thrown my insulin away. Interesting. It’s not like it has street value or anything, unless you want to play Claus von Bulow. Ms Dominique was livid at her staff, but impressively kept her cool with me, and did everything short of demanding the local CVS give me drugs without a prescription. Fortunately, I take two types of insulin, had the second type with me, and was able to fake it the next two days on that. It’s the first time anything like that has ever happened.
Sunday morning we drove around looking at buildings. The Michigan Central Depot is famous in the field of “ruins porn”, it’s been abandoned for decades, and photographers have made a career shooting its decline. Then downtown to see The Fist (a giant fist memorializing boxer Joe Louis), The Spirit of Detroit statue, the Deco Penobscot and Guardian Buildings, and Campus Martius park. It’s not a downtown you want to walk around, not unsafe, just boring, with the few nice Deco buildings like gems in an aspic of business architecture dreck.
Mies van der Rohe designed an urban renewal complex east of downtown called Lafayette Park. It is supposed to be successfully desirable, integrated, and attractive. We couldn’t convince GPS to take us there, so instead headed over to Belle Isle. This is Detroit’s Frederick Law Olmsted park. It has Beaux Arts and natural elements, and nice views of downtown and Windsor across the river. It did not encourage walking. We drove the circumferential then crossed back to the mainland and continued east on Jefferson Avenue.
We drove by Indian Village, an Edwardian neighborhood of grand homes, some of which have been renovated, with an active citizen’s group that attempts to stave off decay. Our goal was Grosse Pointe, where rich Detroiters have fled for the last century. Its five communities blend into one another up East Jefferson and Lake Shore Road, with the best houses facing Lake St. Clair. They have a mix of great houses and normal ones. I really wanted to hate it, but the people are just too nice. Even in a Firehook-like coffee shop with a line people were patient, smiling, and considerate. As we went back to our car a kid passed us on his bike, but not before slowing, saying hello, and asking our permission before going around us. It was like we’d landed on Planet Courtesy, as outfitted from a Lands End catalog.
The Grosse Pointe Public Library is by Marcel Breuer, but it looked like any other 1960’s brick box to me. The Edsel & Eleanor Ford House in Grosse Point Shores is open to the public, and seems totally worth doing, but would not open for the day until we were on the road out of town. A shame, the Jens Jensen gardens look fantastic.
The in-town city of Hamtramck is one of the few Detroit working class neighborhoods that’s retained its physical and social integrity. It’s a good example of what the ‘hoods used to look like, with well built and maintained multi-family houses. Historically Polish, it is more mixed today, but still where you find Polish restaurants. When I plugged the address for the Ivanhoe Café, aka the Polish Yacht Club, into the GPS it got confused, and took us through an area of single homes on abandoned plots, the clichéd abandoned Detroit. We tried again with the Polonia, and this time succeeded, just in time for lunch. Pierogies, sausage, dill pickle soup, beet soup, and stuffed cabbage. Mmmm.
A lot of the cooler 1920’s buildings, including downtown, on Woodward, and at The Henry Ford, used tiles from Pewabic Pottery. This was an Arts-and-Crafts industry started by artist Mary Chase Stratton. It’s still in existence and training potters and workers in clay on East Jefferson Avenue. They offer tours of the home and kilns, but we invested an hour in their shop, buying original works by local artists.
We got on the freeway and circled the western end of Lake Erie through Toledo and on to Cleveland. Our friends Rachel and Greg teach at Cleveland State, and have a home with their daughter Allison in Shaker Heights. They’d made delicious pumpkin soup and quiche, most of which came either from their gardens or local farmers. They not only fed us, but graciously hosted us for our last night on the road. Thank you.
Catie’s great-grandfather built one of the landmarks of Cleveland’s University Circle. The Methodist Church, opened 1928, is also known as the Church of the Oil Can for its unique steeple design. Catie had never seen it, so we swung by, and were pleased to be welcomed in by people setting up for a funeral. Was great to see inside, it’s a beauty. We made sure to depart before the bulk of the mourners arrived. I thought it looked familiar; just checked online and discovered it is one of the final designs of architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue (University of Chicago chapel, National Academy of Sciences).
From Cleveland it was an uneventful seven hours drive back to D.C. We dropped Catie off, unpacked, and got the rental car that had served us so well back to National Airport.
We can understand why most people who come to Michigan on vacation are other Midwesterners. There is some cool stuff here, and its own special geography. However, it’s not convenient to either East or West Coasts. If you want a vacation to relax, rather than sightsee, you should investigate the northern part of the state. The people are consistently nice and polite. They’re not dumb, but they’re not fast thinkers and talkers as we’re used to. Irony is completely lost on them, to the point that I had to force myself to stop using it even in jest, as it was interpreted as a complaint and pained them. The food, as you’ve read many times above, is great, cheap, and surprisingly locally sourced. It’s great to travel with a vegetarian in the harvest season!
People in Michigan drive fast; at least 10 miles over the speed limit. But, they’re not maniacs, they were consistently considerate whenever we shared the road, or needed to merge or get another driver’s attention. Compared to D.C. it seemed miraculous. One curiosity is the Michigan left, where to go left you first merge to the right, then at a break in the median do a zig-zag back in the direction you want to go. Easy to learn, not sure if it would work with our traffic densities.
We missed, but these seem worth visiting:
Rochester: Meadow Brook Hall (Dodge estate)
Bay City: Bay City Antiques Center
Tecumseh: Hidden Lake Gardens
Allen: Preston’s Antique Gaslight Village
Kalamazoo: Arcadia Bank by Adler & Sullivan, Parkwyn Village by Frank Lloyd Wright
Battle Creek: Battle Creek Sanitarium/Federal Center Main Building, Historic Bridge Park
Paradise: Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, Tahquamenon Falls State Park
Detroit: Motown Museum, Eastern Market
In the planning stages of this trip we decided that Ann Arbor both deserved its own trip, and is a place we are likely to be sent at some point for work, so postponed. We’ll want to follow up on:
University of Michigan: Central Campus walk, Art Museum, Botanic Gardens, Archaeology, Anthropology
Maya Lin’s Wave Field, North Campus
Ford Presidential Library
Palmer House, Frank Lloyd Wright
Domino’s Farms, Gunnar Birkerts