They look like hobbit houses straight out of J.R.R.Tolkien’s novels. There are twenty-six of these mushroom or gnome houses as well as four commercial structures in Charlevoix, Michigan. Descriptions like “cute,” “weird,” “charming,” and certainly “unique” all come to mind when one finds these buildings on otherwise typical down home streets.
It was a cold drizzly day in May when we started out to find the mushroom houses. Our hotel’s concierge had told us very little except that these unusual houses were worth the hunt. GPS indicated Park Avenue as a mushroom house address so we found that street and started looking, not even sure what we were looking for. Mushroom houses? Initially, I could imagine a museum lined with glass cabinet displays of tiny houses made like Cesar, boleta and button fungi. But since we were told that, because they were occupied, we wouldn’t be permitted to go inside any of them, I had adjusted my expectation.
The first one we found was so obviously a mushroom house: rippled roof, chimney of large irregular stones, and an oddly shortened door. All that was missing was Bilbo Baggins popping out! The more we explored, the more houses we found and the more interested we became. Who was this man who designed and built these strange houses and for whom a beautiful park was named?
His name, we learned, was Earl Young. He moved with his family to Charlevoix when he was eleven and never left the area except to study one year at the University of Michigan’s School of Architecture. He studied diligently on his own after that year, being somewhat of an eccentric and preferring his own ideas rather than to follow Greek or Victorian or some other style. He was influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright. That influence did not present itself in his designs but in his adoption of the philosophy that “buildings should respect their surroundings.” He didn’t cut trees down but fitted houses amongst them. His passion for the natural also led Young to build with boulders.
He was in the right location to find boulders on and near the shore of Lake Michigan. Some boulders were very large. It seems he was always on the lookout for rocks, stones, and boulders with which to build. He was known to “stake them out” or dig them up and to hide them in the lake for future use. That couldn’t have been an easy task. One boulder he used in building Weathervane Inn weighed 18,260 pounds or nine short tons.
No one seemed to mind our pulling in front of these houses and taking all the pictures we wanted to. In fact, I guess they’re quite used to it. Later we learned that at least four of the 26 houses are rented to vacationers. On Google I even had the chance to see the interiors of one or two—charming, fun, but not very practical. The kitchens are often described as “like narrow hallways.” The short doors are a problem to some as are the oddly shaped rooms. But, all the same, they are quite lovely with wonderful windows, cozy corners and fireplaces. Young’s houses have earned fairly the description of “whimsical architecture at its best.”
This architect wanted to create character in his town and that he did. He started out as a photographer, an interest he continued to pursue. In his family’s business he was a realtor, insurance agent, and also at times sold bread. He wasn’t known for his practicality and might have failed at business had it not been for his levelheaded wife Irene and his very astute mother. He was one of those fortunate people who knew his dream, stuck to it, and had the support of those around him.
I think the rippled roofs may be the most distinct and charming feature of the mushroom houses. Some are less rippled, others made me smile, they were so funny. Always it was the roof that sealed the identity of a structure. Young is quoted as saying he “built the roofs first, then shoved the houses under them.”
Names and/or descriptions of some of Young’s houses are: The Owl House (has two round windows like eyes either side of the front door); The Enchanted Cottage; The Pagoda House (influenced by Asian culture); Boulder Manor; Abide; and Tide Beside Abide (name shortened to Betide). The Hatch House is the one which most intrigued us but, ironically, it was not solely designed by Young. Its thatched roof along with other major renovations were accomplished as recently as 2015 by a South African architect named Mike Seitz. He learned that Young really wanted to make a thatched roof but never was able to do it. So Mr. Seitz re-designed this house with thatch brought from the Netherlands. I read that this, Young’s first house, is the only one that had a blueprint and that Young was dissatisfied because his ideas weren’t entirely adhered to by his workmen. Ever after, he made drawings in the sand for his builders to follow, or so the story goes.
Earl Young died in 1975 at the age of eighty-six. He fulfilled his desire to give Charlevoix a distinct character.
I remember all the houses looking comfortable and peaceful whether facing the lake, snuggled against a hillside, or tucked in amongst tall trees. I’m sure the maintenance requires a lot of gold. But I’m glad someone is doing it so folks like us can ride by and see the mushroom houses of Charlevoix, Michigan.
Visitors are invited to take a self-guided tour with instructions and directions. You can go online to http://www.mushroomhousetours.com to learn more. And while you’re about it, check on the possibility of renting one of those houses for a week or two!