Friday, August 2, 2013

Meyer and Meijer in Grand Rapids

August 1, 2013
Day 5
Our hearty tasty big breakfast at our B&B, Peaches, begins with a crunchy lace tuile, molded into a cup shape and filled with fresh peaches.  Amazingly enough, the rest of the meal lives up to this flamboyant signature dish beginning.    

The Innkeeper, Jane, pops out to chat when she isn’t busy cooking for us (the only guests), and we reshape our tentative plans for the day after she suggests that we might want to visit a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright just a couple blocks away.  
But before we go to that house, a few words about the Peaches B&B house, which is architecturally notable in its own right. 

It was built in 1916 in an unusual style that Jane says is Georgian Manor style.   The entry door is unassumingly tucked around the side of the house, with a porch heavily curtained by wisteria, and fragrant with the aroma of lavender growing in the garden nearby.  The house is 8,000 square feet, including a lower level which originally served as a ball room, and now is a game room.  The first owner lived here for 62 years, and he had a couple of live in maids, a cook, a gardener, and some other help, which probably accounts for how much of the home’s original design elements remain intact, including all the pristinely white tile, the big slippery tub, and the quaint plumbing fixtures in our bathroom.  Jane has been living here and running her B&B for twenty years now, and her tender loving care shows. 

The Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house was built in 1910 for Meyer May, a Grand Rapids clothing store owner.  It stands in stark contrast to the other homes in the neighborhood--where the favorite styles seem to be variations of Victorian/Queen Anne and Neoclassical.
Meyer May was short in stature, and Wright designed the house to fit him, so the ceilings seem even lower than his normal Prairie style (on the front porch, one of the men in our tour who is six feet five inches tall has just one inch between the top of his head and the ceiling).   Like other Wright houses we have toured, the entry door is tucked away, the entry area is dark and cramped, and there is a dramatic opening and brightening of the space when you emerge into the main living area.  No hall closet--the coats of guests were collected by the maid and piled on the “wrap table” in the hall.
There are 117 leaded glass art windows in this house!  Frank Lloyd Wright designed or commissioned all the furniture, light fixtures, and rugs!  He didn’t choose the artwork, but put pegs on the ceiling molding where he would allow paintings to be hung.
The closets were designed with pull-out racks that held clothing on hangers, an unusual system for the time.  Meyer May was the first retailer in this country to display his merchandise on hangers in 1906, and he extended this practice into his home.

But, truly the most amazing thing about this house is the story of its rescue and renovation.  Unlike our B&B, this house had a troubled life.  Meyer Mayer lost his wife shortly after the house was built, and a few years later he married a woman with two children.  He had two, she had two, and the house, big as it was, only had two bedrooms for children.  So they built an addition to the house--one that was in keeping with the house’s style, but was not Wright designed or approved.  Then, the inevitable problem of Frank Lloyd Wright Prairie style homes started eating away at the house--there were leaks in the flat roof areas, and the wide, cantilevered eave overhangs began to droop. May died in 1936, and the house remained vacant and neglected for six years before it sold. Later owners compromised its architectural integrity by adding carports and additional entrances when part of it was subdivided to become student rental housing.  The students didn’t treat the place with kid gloves either.  

Enter the hero of the story--Steelcase--at that time a privately held company headquartered in Grand Rapids.  The owner of the company decided to rescue the house, and he spared no expense.  A fascinating film at the Visitor Center (the house next door, purchased for just that purpose) explained the painstaking process of bringing the May house back from a wreck to a museum-quality renovation/recreation of the home as it looked in the year 1911.  The process involved pulling off the sagging roof and totally restructuring it using a steel frame to provide support (so that it looked the same, but was far superior structurally than Wright’s version--which technically makes it inauthentic, but their goal was reproducing the look, and the end justified the means). 
Museum experts carefully stripped five coats of paint in the front hall to reveal a mural of hollyhocks painted by someone famous.  They had fabric woven to match a sample swatch located in Frank Lloyd Wright archives to ensure the authenticity of the dining room chairs. They hired the company that originally made the area rugs throughout the house to do them again, using the diagrams and fiber samples the rug company still had in their files.  Furniture that was commissioned but missing from the house was constructed using the original plans. They ripped down the addition and saved the bricks, which skilled masons used to rebuild parts of the original structure, using an unusual mortar technique involving different colors of mortar used in the vertical and the horizontal joints. The ornamental copper fittings outside were redone.  Basically, the whole place was taken apart and put back together again to look brand new.
As you can tell, we are enthralled with this home (although it would be hell to live here--Dick can’t help but notice that there is lots of standing water visible on the roofs--leakage just waiting to happen, the bathrooms all need major updating, and the lack of closets would drive us bonkers). 
We can’t decide which we enjoyed more--our morning at the Meyer May house or our afternoon wandering around the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park.  The gardens are mostly settings for the sculptures, which are spectacular.  And a lot of the gardens are wildflowers and meadows. 
The first sculpture we see is in the garden cafĂ©, where a massive Chihuly rendition of  hundreds of glass flowers meanders over the ceiling.
Outside, here are some of our favorites:

 This is a mammoth statue envisioned and drawn by Leonardo da Vinci, but never executed during his lifetime.  A generous donor arranged for a renowned equestrienne and sculptor to execute the design--twice.  He donated one to this sculpture garden and one to an appreciative Leonardo site in Italy.
(I have the attributions for these sculptures in my notes somewhere, but am too tired to look them up right now.)
After a good long walk through the gardens, we are ready for another drive.  We need to start heading south toward Indiana, where we are looking forward to a visit with family in a couple days, and Dick gets a great idea for an interesting destination along the way.  We drive to Shipshewana, a town in the heart of Amish and Mennonite country, just over the border in Indiana. 
We arrive at the Blue Gate Garden Inn to find the last few rows of the parking lot are roped off for some very unusual cars--a week-long rendezvous of Kaiser and Fraser car owners is in process.  The cars were made 1945-55.  I hadn’t ever heard of them, and don’t recall seeing one before.  Dick thinks they are ugly, I think they are so odd that they are cute.

Of course we have to do the tourist thing and eat an Amish dinner.  Stuffed, I recall too late that you shouldn’t eat like the Amish if you don’t work like the Amish.

1 comment:

  1. Great write up on the Meyer May house! I was fortunately there for a tour during the summer of 2008, and the house was the highlight of my trip to Grand Rapids! Brilliant!