One of the most popular attractions of Charlevoix, Michigan, has gotten even more attractive. An eccentric builder named Earl A. Young created a series of quirky stone houses, many with oddly curvy roofs and cement snow-capped chimneys, in the early to mid-1900s. Now Edith Pair has made viewing them more fun. She acquired a 6-seater open-air cart and took my granddaughters, sister-in-law Anita, and me on a tour.
Earl Young (1889-1975) wasn’t an architect. He worked without plans or blueprints, sometimes drawing in the dirt to show workmen what he wanted. Young was fascinated by stones. Jury’s out on whether that fascination was purely aesthetic or also financial—stones were available for free in and around Lake Michigan. If he found an appealing boulder in a field, he’d have horses drag it into the lake—cost effective storage until he found a use for it.
We viewed the Half House, also called the Honeymoon House. Completed in the 1940s for Young’s daughter as a wedding gift, it ends abruptly in a vertical wall, an architectural middle finger to the neighbor who refused to sell the adjoining property.
Nearby, the Sunset Villa reprises the first house Earl built from the ground up. Completed in 1918, it has changed dramatically from its original Arts and Crafts look. Dr. Michael Seitz, an engineer from Houston, was vacationing in Charlevoix when he drove past the original house. Falling apart after a fire, the house had been for sale for 3 years. Seitz caught his breath in an Ahah! moment.
Back in Houston, Seitz conceived the plan for the Sunset Villa out of Legos and wooden dowels and formed the roof from rubberized drawer liner. Seitz was raised in South Africa and had earlier built a thatched roof house there. Seeing Young’s “First House,” learning Young had once designed a thatched roof, Seitz decided to do the same. He brought in Master Thatcher Colin McGhee. McGhee considers the Sunset roof “amazing–unlike anything in the world,” Seitz says. (The house sleeps 12 and is for rent. In season, $1,500/night, minimum 3 nights)
Inside, wide plank floors are burned white pine; the staircase comes from an old oak tree on the property. Around Charlevoix, the house has been a source of both admiration and dismay. Personal opinion: It would be wonderful surrounded by several acres. (Seitz says the house follows the original footprint.)
Among Earl Young’s last projects was the Weathervane Restaurant and Inn. I’ve always loved the fireplace with a 9-ton boulder shaped like the state of Michigan. Young was rumored to have hidden it for 26 years. In construction, the boulder fell through the floor. Undaunted, Young had it lifted back up. He reinforced the floor and set the boulder as the keystone of the main fireplace.
Tour guide Edith is an artist. She creates whimsical furniture and paintings. (You may enjoy seeing the website that showcases her work as an artist.) In 2006, she opened a gallery in the lower level of the Weathervane. The gallery turned out to be in Earl Young’s drawing room. Diners at the restaurant above visited Edith’s gallery and asked about the local legend who preceded her. She began boning up on him. In 2009, Edith, with a BFA in fashion design from the prestigious school at the Art Institute of Chicago, moved her gallery to downtown Charlevoix. Unable to pay the rent in the midst of a severe recession, and struggling with a drinking problem, Edith closed the gallery.
“I took myself to Brighton,” she says, referencing a highly regarded rehab clinic in downstate Michigan. She’s since joined AA and been sober for 3 years. Meanwhile, gallery visitors asked about tours of the Mushroom Houses. One lady she showed around gave her a tip. Edith realized she could make money conducting tours, and a business was born. For the past 7 years, aside from making art, Edith has done walking tours. This year, she upped her game adding wheels. Business has boomed. Edith’s been so busy that she’s looking forward to a slowdown after tourist season, and to resuming her artwork.
“Creative people who remain in Charlevoix learn what’s called the Charlevoix Shuffle. To survive we do at least a couple of things.” Another way Edith does the Charlevoix Shuffle is by hosting paint parties. Several women get together, enjoy some food and camaraderie, and create their own artwork—wine glasses, a serving tray or a bird house.
Meanwhile, this whirling dervish has had a painting accepted for the B.O.B. Center in the upcoming Grand Rapids Art Prize event.
Edith thanks AA for her success. “Once you give it over, you realize there’s something out there bigger than you. It helps you to be a better person. Being in the program has made me more spiritually fit. I went from living in turmoil to waking every day with a smile on my face. I’m not making millions, but I’m happy.”