The houses may be little, but they’re not made of “ticky-tack” and they definitely don’t all look the same — with hats off to songwriter Melvina Reynolds.
While Park Avenue is a short drive from downtown Charlevoix, it’s tucked away from the fudge shops and tourist traps. It is another world, a funky collection of mushroom-shaped houses constructed of stone with roofs that roll and walls that curve. You half expect Hobbits to emerge to tidy up the flowerbeds.
The homes, first built in the ’30s, are the genius of local developer and designer Earl A. Young and form a quirky neighborhood that has become a must-see trip for architectural aficionados.
David L. Miles, who grew up nearby the mushroom neighborhood, is obsessed with these residential anomalies, and has teamed up with photographer Mike Barton to produce “Boulders: The Life and Creations of Earl A. Young in Charlevoix, Michigan,” an exquisite biography of Young bristling with dramatic photography.
Growing up one block from the Park Avenue homes, Miles wasn’t always impressed with the uniqueness of the homes.
“Young was a friend of my father and he was always part of my childhood. I didn’t understand the importance of his work until I was in my mid-40s. When I went and stood and looked at them, it was like I was hit across the head by a 2x4,” Miles said. “The legacy he left for the town is irreplaceable.”
Miles said he led tours of the homes for a number of years before it dawned on him that Young and his mushroom houses deserved a book. He approached the Charlevoix Historical Society about publishing a book in 2018.
He said working on the book was an eye-opener, and was timed perfectly with the acquisition of several Young family members’ personal collections, as well as a cache of photographs made available from the city assessor’s office.
“For the first time, we were able to construct the chronology of the houses,” he said. “There was an alignment of the planets. Everything came together, and the question became: ‘How could we not do it?’”
Young studied architecture at the University of Michigan, but dropped out to pursue an insurance business in Charlevoix. He would design and build 26 or 27 homes, depending on how you count, Miles said. One of the homes was eventually bulldozed. He also built four commercial structures — including his real estate office, which was torn down. Among the commercial structures is the impressive Weathervane Inn. Built in the mid-’50s, it boasts one of the most impressive Young fireplaces, complete with a nine-ton boulder as its centerpiece.
The book dedicates an entire chapter to the construction of the Weathervane and the effort to save the restaurant from the rising waters of the Charlevoix Channel.
There is also a chapter on the nearby Castle Farms, a massive summer stone home and barns for Chicago’s Loeb family. Miles said it is likely Young was inspired by the stone construction of Castle Farms. “Although Earl would never admit to it, you can see the influences,” Miles said.
Young was not big on using construction or site plans, and the “Mushroom homes” seemed to grow from the earth.
Young, much like his designs, was quirky in how he decided where to construct his next house. According to Miles, he would walk the property to “to feel the spirit of the earth.”
“It inspired him do what he did,” Miles said.
The best way to see the homes is a walking tour, which — until the coronavirus crisis — was the “icing on the cake” of Charlevoix tourism.
“People would see the homes and then go back home and tell other people what they saw,” Miles said.
The homes constructed of stone boulders appear to grow from the earth and the rounded running cedar-shake roofs suggest a fairy tale village.
Earl was inspired by the land, Miles said. His first home was more traditional, but as he proceeded to build them, “his designs seemed to fly.” If he didn’t like how something looked during construction, he would have the workers tear the day’s work down and start over.
In 1925, prior to building the Park Avenue mushroom houses from 1938 to 1954, Young built a small subdivision. Aptly named Boulder Park, it is only a short drive from Park Avenue. A total of 10 Young-style homes grace the subdivision and several other homes were commissioned on the nearby Round Lake.
Like many of the tourists who visit Charlevoix each year looking for the fabled Petoskey stone, Earl also collected stones — some weighing several tons. Miles recounts stories of Young hiding impressive stones by burying them for later use.
Many of these massive stones made their way into fireplaces, which are a signature motif of Earl’s construction.
Today, Miles said many of the homes are rentals and have been renovated.
“Earl didn’t believe in kitchens,” Miles said.
For those interested in walking tours of mushroom houses, it is worth stopping by the Charlevoix Historical Society to pick up a guide for $5. Miles also works at the office several days a week and is a fountain of information. His father, Bob Miles, was a photographer in Charlevoix for 40 years and was an early inspiration for his son’s love of history.