Buchanan, Michigan (Pt. I)

Buchanan's ghost town feel has fostered a renaissance for Chicago antiquiarians rivaling the Michigan hideouts Three Oaks and Saugatuck/Douglas.
Buchanan’s ghost town feel has fostered a renaissance for Chicago antiquarians rivaling the Michigan hideouts of Three Oaks and Saugatuck/Douglas.

Notre Dame’s location in South Bend, Indiana may seem banal at times, especially for enthusiasts of architecture and urbanism. We missed our well-preserved and lively hometown of Holland, Michigan before we even left. However, I’m pleased to report that some very early exploration has provided a more complete and optimistic view. There are things to do around here and more importantly, places to visit (with a 6-month old, you don’t really do anything). One happy discovery came today on a Sunday drive: The sleepy hollow of Buchanan, Michigan.

Buchanan features a unique combination of characteristics, which add to one’s perception of distance from South Bend, even though it’s a 20-25 minute drive. For starters, the city proper is nestled in a topographical bowl. Subtle valley ridges provide a compressed backdrop in every direction, as often encountered in the Ohio River Valley, rather than Southern Michigan’s Fruit Belt. What’s more, the main commercial district, called Front Street, is free of trees (save for a few young transplants), which allows the 19th-century Italianate facades to form stark, ivory canyon walls on either side of the street. The bareness of the facades recalls a ghost town of the American West. An apparition of the town’s namesake, President James Buchanan, might fit right in. A few earth-tone modern buildings, like the Buchanan District Library accompany the antique masonry, but the dialogue between genres feels uncomfortable, rather than intriguing.

Local economic conditions (or for that matter, the current state of nearby Niles, Michigan) don’t loom favorably for Buchanan. However, this one-light town lies within the radius of the Chicago weekender. This fact has helped lead to above-average antique shopping, dining and arts. Merchants like Alan Robandt, Brimfield, and Rustica exude a convincing cosmopolitan moxie, which if sustainable, can boost a town’s appetite for culture and enliven its sidewalks.





Oddly, some towns within the reach of Chicago tourists become cultural travel-stops, while others seem to attract more casual sensibilities, or no tourism at all. There exists a broad range of examples which dot the Lake’s southern shores. The Michigan villages of Three Oaks and Saugatuck/Douglas are geared to sell art and wine, while in contrast the beach towns of South Haven and New Buffalo are more casual. A lesser fate belongs to Niles, which seems to linger in fly-over status.

Meanwhile, there lies Buchanan, the lazy Sunday haunt, where mystery, patina, and design intelligence win the day. This autumn should be a good one.

Photo credit: whitehouse.gov