What a difference a day makes when it comes to Michigan weather. Today’s highway stop for a diaper change quickly escalated into a lengthy architectural detour. The fresh snowfall and crisp winter sun had me in a trance – inching along with my hazard lights on and DSLR held out in the cold, clicking away.
Every time I visit the architectural treasure trove of Ypsilanti, Michigan, I’m met with atrocious weather. Once when I came to visit Eastern Michigan University as a high school senior, EMU had a snow day. I was relegated to a pool hall for the day until my mom could pick me up hours later. Of course, I wasn’t sold on the school, having not seen much other than the empty student center and a strangely proportioned water tower, and yet I’m left with the feeling that I might have enjoyed calling Ypsi home for four years (queue the Iggy Pop).
Today’s weather was no different, but we couldn’t hunker down without some tourism first. Ypsi’s architecture captures an age of seemingly prolonged prosperity spanning from the Civil War to WWII, and includes impressive collections of Classical, Georgian, Romanesque, Italianate, Victorian, Shingle Style, and Arts & Crafts revival and period architecture. Even through the snowstorm, Ypsi read as one of the most complete and coherent historical cities in Michigan.
Although Ypsilanti represents a living collection of historical neighborhoods rivaling Michigan preservation towns like Grand Rapids, Marshall, and Mackinac Island, a figurative soot lingers on the City’s surfaces to remind the tourist of his whereabouts. Ypsi is a small, blue-collar college town in the shadows of Ann Arbor and Detroit – Michigan’s Cambridge and Gotham, respectively. It’s as if all of the City’s pristine Victorian Painted Ladies, complete with their tracery, fretwork, and poly-chrome mannerism, are obliged to disclose that they are also reasonably haunted.
But while some baseline menace may be measurable, one should rest easy. In the case of Yspilanti, darkness and romance pair beautifully. This town smokes Marlboro Reds and has Y-P-S-I carved into it’s knuckles, but it’s also a lovely travel stop for friendly company, lively conversation, endless historical cataloging, and a Coney Dog.
The angled clapboard pattern cladding this folk Victorian home caught our eye
When Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, he became the final casualty of the Civil War. In the aftermath, the City of Chicago renamed a North Side cemetery to memorialize him. Today, the area of Lincoln Park is rich with lore of the Illinois Son, and the old cemetery has grown to include the Lincoln Park Zoo, several water features, historical monuments, and natural areas. The larger area, also called Lincoln Park, includes the famous Elks Memorial, large residential neighborhoods, hotels, and shopping.
As a studio project, we were asked to design a small “aedicule”, or frame for a reduced-scale replica of Daniel Chester French’s seated Lincoln (The Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C. by Henry Bacon). This small frame would attach to the south face of the 1893 Italianate Matthew Laflin Memorial Building, by Patton & Fisher, which currently functions as the Lincoln Park Zoo administrative offices (although we were asked to imagine the building as a fictitious academic library). Attached are some pictures from our site visit and my aedicule proposal.
The Matthew Laflin Memorial Building, by Patton & Fisher, ca. 1893 (AKA known as the Chicago Academy of Sciences). Lincoln Park, Chicago.
Upper south wall of the Matthew Laflin Memorial Building.
South wall of the Matthew Laflin Memorial (Chicago Academy of Sciences), where Lincoln’s aedicule would be installed.
The goal was to at once evoke reverberations of Bacon’s iconic Lincoln Memorial and Chicago’s 19th-century appetite for Greek Revival architecture. The structure protrudes from the Matthew Laflin Memorial Building as a half-ellipse in plan, and is Ionic in Order. The President seated in the elliptical plan is meant to recall a whistle stop tour, while a surrounding elliptical water feature allows for classroom use, where children can learn of Lincoln, and cast a penny into the water (eventually leading to hundreds of tiny Lincoln heads and Memorials shining back at the aedicule). Above the entablature, an adapted reference to the Monument of Thrasyllus under the Acropolis is used to mimic the general shape of Bacon’s blocking course. The blocking course segments, as well as the Ionic Orders (columns and antae) are segregated to the sides, perhaps to speak of a split nation. As the eye wanders upward, a central Greek tripod represents an eventual victory, while Lincoln himself remains at task, unifying the two sides from his seat at the main level. Both the aedicule and the parent building are composed of Indiana limestone with terra cotta mouldings and details.
More Chicago romance (MUST SEE)…
A statue of Lincoln, surrounded by a grand exedra by McKim, Mead & White makes a short appearance, but the entire video is incredible.
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.
Ivory Italianate facades overlooking Front St. (Downtown, late 19th-century).
At Coward Pizza.
Off a sleepy side street, one imagines Union Barracks.