Road Trip Across Michigan

Road Trip Across Michigan

On a road trip across Michigan (yes, Michigan), David A. Keeps charts the legacy of the Modernist movement

Ask a Michigan native where he's from and he'll usually show you the palm of his right hand. Having grown up on the Lower Peninsula, the part of the state that looks like a raggedy mitten, I always point to the fleshy part under my thumb to indicate the Detroit suburb called Huntington Woods, a few traffic lights north of Eminem's storied 8 Mile Road.

When I came of age, in the 1960's, my civic pride revolved around Motor City's flashiest exports, Motown and the Mustang, while the more innovative artistry of Saarinen schools, Yamasaki office buildings, Frank Lloyd Wright houses, Rivera murals, and Eames furniture—all of them scattered around the city—barely registered in my consciousness.

Recently, my friend Katy, a self-described "garage archaeologist," and I mapped out an ellipse around the heel of our home state, from the Detroit River in the east to Lake Michigan in the west, to follow the trail of 20th-century Modernism. Finding the proper mid-century vehicle for this journey was essential. That's how we met Ruby.

Ruby was a red 1961 Oldsmobile Starfire with a white rag top, an enormous steering wheel, chrome switches and knobs, and all the ergonomic qualities and handling capabilities of a Great Lakes powerboat. Being of a certain age, Ruby required supplements: a new heating system that had two settings (Off and Blast Furnace) and a couple of bottles of artificial lead that had to be added to her capacious gas tank every other fill-up. She was still a real looker, though. As we navigated the infamous "Michigan lefts" (special turning lanes that spring up after you've already passed through the intersection), other cars waved and honked in appreciation.

Our first stop was Cranbrook, the prep school and graduate academy of art and science created in the twenties and thirties by two generations of Saarinens, Eliel and his son, Eero. At Saarinen House, where father and son lived, we were instructed to remove our shoes and don foam-rubber surgical booties before being led through the magnificent two-story structure, lest we put too much wear on the early 1920's rugs—designed by Eliel's wife, Loja. It was well worth untying a few shoelaces. Merging Arts and Crafts ingenuity (the built-ins!) with Deco-Moderne flourishes, Saarinen House evokes ocean liners and Park Avenue apartments from the Jazz Age.

By contrast, the Cranbrook Art Museum & Library is a synthesis of Neoclassical grandeur and Bauhaus simplicity. During the late 1930's and early 1940's, when the museum was being constructed, Cranbrook was arguably the nexus of modern design, home not only to the Saarinens but also to Florence Knoll, Harry Bertoia, and Charles Eames (it's where Eames met and married his wife and design partner, Ray).

We would have been happy to spend the day there, enjoying a picnic on one of the vast lawns and watching the play of water on the Triton Pools and Orpheus Fountain—the work of Swedish sculptor Carl Milles—but instead we continued north on I-75, stomachs growling. At Freeway Fritz, a drive-through chicken-and-bratwurst stand in Bridgeport, we realized that leaving the relative sophistication of suburban Detroit would be an adventure into Mitteleuropa villages and high-cholesterol foods.

Despite its prosaic name, Midland turned out to be a superior model of small-town culture. Blessed with the riches of Dow Chemical, which has been based there for more than a century, Midland has the highest concentration in the United States of architecturally significant landmarks designed by one person: at least 100 of its buildings are by Alden B. Dow, who was in the first graduating class of Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin institute. The crown jewel is Dow's own house and studio, built between 1934 and 1941, an improbable ziggurat of glass, copper, and specially shaped cinder blocks.

The rambling interior, decorated in the vivid hues of spring green and crab-apple pink, reveals a harmonious balance of nature and architecture, utility and whimsy. According to the highly knowledgeable docents, Dow reacted to the notorious 1932 kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby by creating a secure warren of bedrooms, with a secret passage through a closet that led into the safety of Mom and Dad's master chamber.

From Midland, the most direct route to Grand Rapids—once the U.S. capital of fine furniture manufacturing—took us on dark, two-lane country highways lit up by flashes of neon from service stations and small-town corner bars. Just north of Rockford, a stronger glow pulled us off the road and into a parking lot with three gleaming stainless-steel, trailer-style diners. In the middle of this complex—called Dinerland—sat Rosie's: the very same 1946 diner, relocated here from New Jersey, where Nancy Walker first demonstrated Bounty, "the quicker-picker-upper" paper towels. It was 8 p.m., and, alas, Rosie and all her staff had left the building.

Spending the night at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, a plush Waldorf wannabe in Grand Rapids (owned by the pyramid-distribution soap empire headquartered in the city), made the Happy Days décor of Rosie's seem all the more appealing. We returned the next morning for Rosie's specialty: rib-sticking breakfasts, including "Cobblestone French Toast" with brown sugar and raisins. As we spoke with Jerry Berta, who founded Dinerland (the other trailers in the park have been transformed into an upscale bar and grill and an art gallery-studio), snow began to fall outside.

It fell inside the Oldsmobile as well, unfortunately, through a gap in Ruby's convertible top. But Ruby held her own on the slippery roads in Grand Rapids, on our tour of the thrift shops on Leonard Street and the museums downtown. (We bypassed the museum dedicated to native son Gerald Ford, which seemed about as intriguing as his accidental presidency.) That afternoon, the sun broke through just in time to fill the skylights of Frank Lloyd Wright's 1908 Meyer May House, which had been restored in 1987—right down to the shower fixtures that reminded us of samovars.

While travel is meant to illuminate the beauty of the world around us, it sometimes also reveals darker truths. Two days in, it was clear that the Modernist buildings and furnishings we had discovered were struggling to justify their existence in a culture and economy obsessed, as Detroit is, with next year's model. Moving across the state turned into a scavenger hunt—everywhere a small but zealous crew of preservationists pointing out the next treasure.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in the town of Holland, where we spent an evening at Alpenrose, a Bavarianrestaurantin the revitalized downtown. We drank wine and ate schnitzel and gulyas soup with proud residents Cal and Bobbi Rotman. They filled us in on the history of Holland, its week-long tulip festival in May, and the local industry, which is headed by Heinz. "If you're in the right part of town," Bobbi said, "you can smell pickles in the air."

The Rotmans, however, have worked for Herman Miller since the seventies; 10 years ago, when the Zeeland, Michigan-based company began reissuing classic furniture by Charles Eames and George Nelson, the couple got hooked on mid-20th-century design. They now buy and sell at several booths in Holland's antiques malls.

"Our kids call us Dumpster divers," Cal admitted, while regaling us with horror stories about people who had drilled holes through fiberglass-shell Eames chairs to drain rainwater. He told us about the chair that looked like a baseball, which he'd bought on impulse because he was intrigued by its stitching. A fellow collector visited the Rotmans' house one day and said, "Get the dog off that chair," explaining that the piece was one of four remaining models of airport seating designed by George Nelson. Years later, someone offered Rotman a second one. It cleaned up pretty nicely, considering that hunters had left it outside in a deer blind.

We spent that night at the Marigold Lodge, a 1913 Prairie School summer mansion on Lake Macatawa that serves as Herman Miller's corporate lodge. (We weren't the first by-invitation-only guests to suggest they convert it into an inn.) It was a perfect starting point for exploring U.S. Highway 31 and its offshoot, the Blue Star Highway (A2), as they snaked through beachfront communities and rustic resorts on Lake Michigan. On this crisp, clear day, we felt right at home as Ruby cruised past low-slung fifties motels (invariably decorated in what I call Low-Rent 1980's). In Saugatuck and Douglas, twin towns known as "the Art Coast of Michigan," dozens of galleries and studios, a public sculpture program, and Oxbow, an artists' colony and summer school affiliated with the Art Institute of Chicago, draw a mix of visitors that includes a sizable number of gay Midwesterners, who consider the area their Provincetown.

After digging into bowls of "Kalamazoo Klam Chowder" at a harborside restaurant, we took Ruby on a leisurely driveeast, past Kalamazoo to Battle Creek. Night falls hard and fast in these parts, and lodging becomes a choice between inexpensive chain motels on utility roads and out-of-the-way B&B's. We opted for the latter, following serpentine directions on foggy, unlit roads through the suburbs surrounding the "Cereal City," which even at night is redolent of roasting cornflakes.

At Greencrest Manor, a French Normandy mansion that has been rescued from disrepair and filled with flowers, art, and antiques, we slept in a Ralph Lauren dream under cozy chintz comforters. Rising early to admire St. Mary's Lake and eat Kellogg's products, we discovered Ruby in cardiac arrest. The proprietors jump-started her dying battery and pointed us back toward Battle Creek. There, after the curator of the Art Center showed us her rented Lustron home, a 1950's Erector-set house made entirely of powder-blue enameled steel panels, we hit the local auto parts store and gave Ruby a transplant.

Backtracking farther to Kalamazoo led us to the Air Zoo, an impressive collection of 76 restored and replicated airplanes. Then we headed north, around the blue-gray waters of Gull Lake to Hickory Corners, home of the Gilmore Car Museum, nine barns containing a fleet of 175 antique cars—boasting an 1899 Locomobile and a 1948 Tucker, one of 51 ever produced—along with a display of 1,200 hood ornaments. Despite the depth of their collection, the curators seemed duly impressed with our Ruby.

Feeling as revved up as the revived Ruby, we took a long, straight shot back east on I-94, through the dark to Dearborn, the city that Ford built, just west of Detroit. The following day, we gave Ruby a final workout, through the multiple interchanges of Detroit's expressways. At the world-famous Pewabic Pottery building, we watched ceramics artisans re-create century-old Arts and Crafts tiles and examined museum-quality ceramic vessels glistening with an iridescence like vitrified smoke.

It felt like a small act of subversion to drive Ruby, a General Motors vehicle, onto the grounds of the Henry Ford Museum, but that is far less a gaffe than cruising Detroit in a foreign car. Not that Ford would have minded. An archivist of catholic tastes, he filled a 13-acre museum with Edison memorabilia, household appliances, and planes, trains, and automobiles of every era and provenance. Nothing, however, surpasses the Ford Museum's recent acquisition: the Dymaxion House, a sheet-metal, spaceship-like structure conceived by R. Buckminster Fuller in the 1920's and built in the 1940's. Only two such houses were prototyped, at the end of World War II, and parts from both were used to resurrect the museum's historic dwelling.

As we peered through the curved windows of the Dymaxion (a gee-whiz name that Fuller derived from "dynamic," "maximum," and "tension"), tour guides pretending to be real estate salesmen circa 1946 pointed out such Jetsons-esque features as round walls ("No corners to sweep, ladies!") and dressers with "ovolving" shelves that deliver clothing into place behind a central pull-down door. Somehow it seemed a fitting end to our journey, standing inside a vision of the 21st century that was now a museum piece, in the daze of a future passed.

Day 1: 220 miles. From Bloomfield Hills, drive north on I-75 to U.S. Highway 10, then west to Midland. Take 47 south to 46 and head west to U.S. 131, continuing south to Grand Rapids.
Day 2: 60 miles. Take 131 north to Dinerland, then backtrack south through Grand Rapids. Take I-196 southwest to Holland and Lake Macatawa.
Day 3: 96 miles. A few miles south of Holland on I-196, catch the Blue Star Memorial Highway (A-2) through Saugatuck. Cross the Kalamazoo River into Douglas, and pick up U.S. 31 south to South Haven. Take 43 east, through Kalamazoo, picking up I-94 east to Battle Creek.
Day 4: 183 miles. Head west on I-94 to Kalamazoo. Take 43 northeast around Gull Lake to Hickory Corners. Backtrack on 43 to 89 W., to I-94 W., to the Southfield Freeway (39). Drive north to Dearborn.
Day 5: 40 miles. Take I-94 east to the John Lodge Freeway (10 south). Go east on Jefferson Avenue into downtown Detroit. For the suburbs, take I-375 north, which becomes I-75 (exit at Big Beaver Road). Go west to Woodward Avenue. For Cranbrook, take Woodward Avenue north to Bloomfield Hills.

Classic Auto Resources Rents vintage cars from the 1950's to the 80's. FROM $499 PER WEEK; 2330 COLE ST., BIRMINGHAM; 248/258-6560;

Townsend Hotel The luxury hotel in Detroit. DOUBLES FROM $225; 100 TOWNSEND ST., BIRMINGHAM; 800/548-4172 OR 248/642-7900;
Amway Grand Plaza Hotel DOUBLES FROM $109; 187 MONROE AVE. N.W., GRAND RAPIDS; 800/253-3590 OR 616/774-2000;
Greencrest Manor DOUBLES FROM $95; 6174 HALBERT RD., BATTLE CREEK; 616/962-8633;

Rosie's Diner BREAKFAST FOR TWO $15; 4500 14 MILE RD. (M-57), ROCKFORD; 616/866-3663
Alpenrose Restaurant & Café DINNER FOR TWO $60; 4 E. EIGHTH ST., HOLLAND; 616/393-2111

Cranbrook Academy of Art 39221 WOODWARD AVE., BLOOMFIELD HILLS; 877/462-7262 OR 248/645-3320;
Alden B. Dow Home & Studio 315 POST ST., MIDLAND; 866/315-7678 OR 989/839-2744;
Meyer May House 450 MADISON AVE. S.E., GRAND RAPIDS; 616/246-4821
Kalamazoo Air Zoo 3101 E. MILHAM RD., KALAMAZOO; 269/382-6555;
Gilmore Car Museum OPEN MAY-OCTOBER. 6865 HICKORY RD., HICKORY CORNERS; 269/671-5089;
Henry Ford Museum 20900 OAKWOOD BLVD., DEARBORN; 313/982-6100;

KTM Collectibles Herman Miller furniture and antiques, located at Tulip City Antique Mall and Harvest Antiques & Collectibles, Holland. 616/772-9017
Pewabic Pottery 10125 E. JEFFERSON AVE., DETROIT; 313/822-0954;
Michigan Modernism Exposition APRIL 25-27, SOUTHFIELD CIVIC CENTER; 26000 EVERGREEN RD., SOUTHFIELD; 586/465-9441;

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