Charlevoix’s ‘mushroom’ marvels: Unearth the striking designs of Earl Young
Drive up Charlevoix's Park Avenue to a bluff with sweeping views of Lake Michigan through towering pines, and you'll find a small neighborhood of some of the most idiosyncratic houses in all of Michigan.
Charlevoix's "mushroom houses," with their striking stone construction, curved walls and undulating rooflines, were mostly built from the late-1930s to the 1960s by local developer and designer Earl Young. Over half a dozen are clustered around the corner of Park and Grant, but several also went up on nearby Round Lake, the town's natural harbor.
Young, who died in 1975 at 86, dropped out of the University of Michigan architecture program after a year and never finished his training. All the same, the one-time insurance salesman ended up designing a collection of artfully constructed, one-of-a-kind houses that constitute a small architectural district of remarkable charm.
"Earl was a meticulous, obsessive, detail-oriented guy," said David L. Miles, a curator at the Charlevoix Historical Society who conducts 90-minute walking tours of the homes and will publish a biography of the designer next year.
"In the words of my father, who knew him," he added, "Earl went through builders like water through a sieve. He could drive people nuts." But then, Miles conceded, artists can be stern taskmasters.
Edith Pair, whose Mushroom House Tours takes visitors around in an open-air, motorized cart, notes that Young built almost exclusively in Charlevoix -- bewitched by the huge stones he'd relentlessly scout along the L. Michigan shoreline and elsewhere.
"He used boulders up to several tons," Pair said, "which he'd haul out of the lake with workhorses and chains."
Many of the most-commanding rocks ended up as decorative elements in the striking fireplaces that grace many of his homes, as well as the Weathervane Restaurant, now owned by Stafford's, which Young built in 1954 right next to Charlevoix's famous drawbridge.
Young also built The Lodge motel in 1959 across Bridge Street from the Weathervane, a relatively straightforward affair graced by turrets that's now being extensively rebuilt and renovated into an upscale "landmark hotel" renamed the Hotel Earl. It's expected to open later this year or early next.
You can't miss Young's houses -- or the Weathervane, for that matter -- thanks to their wavy rooflines, which apparently dictated overall construction. In 1971, the designer told the Ludington Daily News that he "built roofs and then shoved the houses underneath."
Right smack in the midst of the mushroom houses, which are located in the triangle defined by Park, Grant and West Clinton, looms a recently rebuilt bungalow Young erected in the early 1920s, long before he stumbled on his mushroom concept.
Today the Thatch House acts like a giant exclamation point drawing attention to the entire neighborhood. With six bedrooms and 5.5 baths on three stories, the Thatch House is available for rent on Airbnb in the summertime for $1,200 a night.
Surrounded by later mushroom or "hobbit houses," as they're also known, the conventional structure that became the Thatch House had fallen into disrepair before developer Michael Seitz bought it. He completely rebuilt it, and added a massive thatch roof made from phragmites, the towering, feather-topped grasses you often see in wetlands.
"The original house didn’t look like any of Earl Young’s other ones," said Jake Peters, Seitz's property manager and carpenter who worked on the reconstruction. "It was a country bungalow – it had an actual roof on it, with no curves or rolls."
When they first started, he added, "plaster was falling off the walls, roof overhangs were rotten and everything was outdated. The basement, which we turned into a three-bedroom, two bath suite and media room, was unfinished."
Two of the stone fireplaces in the Thatch House are original; the third was added during the renovation.
Stand facing the Thatch House, and you'll get a good idea of the breadth of Young's artistry. To the left is the tiny Half House, built in 1947, which really does look like it might belong to some house-proud hobbit.
To the right is Young's most unusual home on Park, which he also built in 1947 for himself and his wife, Irene -- a contemporary design that marries stone artistry and wavy roof to a modernist sensibility.
"Look at the roofline, the shingles, the trim and the stonework," Miles said. "Every one echoes the ground on which that house sits. There’s an interplay between the movement of the land and movement of the house you can see."
Most people just know the famous mushroom houses on Park Avenue, but the adventurous will push beyond that to Lake Shore Drive behind the town hospital, where you'll come upon a Young subdivision called Boulder Park.
While these houses, built in the 1920s and 30s before the mushroom houses, are rectilinear in design and have "ordinary" roofs, they're still striking examples of one man's highly personal approach to Arts & Crafts design.
No tour of Charlevoix architecture is complete without a Boulder Park drive-through.
Thanks to the internet, the fame of the mushroom houses has spread far and wide, and it's not unusual for the Historical Society to get European visitors on its tours. The homes' popularity seems to be accelerating -- dozens of times a day, cars slow to a crawl so their occupants can get a good look.
"In the end," Miles said, summarizing a 50-year career that changed the look of this corner of Charlevoix forever, "Earl left an astonishing artistic legacy."
Tour Earl Young's architectural legacy
Charlevoix Historical Society - (231) 547-0373, 103 State St., Charlevoix
Mushroom House Tours - (231) 445-0770, 211 Bridge St., Charlevoix