There and Back Again


When you grow up in Columbus, Ohio, entering Michigan–that State Up North to Ohio State fans–always feels vaguely like entering enemy territory–particularly if you have an Ohio State sticker on your car.  I always wonder whether that guy with the “Go Blue” license plate holder who just cut me off is just a jerk, or is reacting to the years of Michigan losses to Ohio State in The Game.  The Ontario plate is no help–I might be a Leafs fan, too.  I’d add a Red Wings sticker, but the back of my car is already rather cluttered…

I’ve been traveling through Western Michigan for years, although a lot less in recent ones. During my graduate school years (and a few years after), every May meant the annual pilgrimage to Kzoo, aka the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. To quote the t-shirts, yes, there really is a Kalamazoo.  It’s one of those city names with a tenuous connection to the indigenous Potawatomi language, probably misheard by the French traders who were the first Europeans in the area.  This part of Michigan, from Port Huron in the east, in the “thumb” of Michiagan’s left-hand mitten, westwards south of Flint, to East Lansing, or past Detroit and Ypsilanti to Battle Creek and Kalamazoo to my eyes has always seemed rather dark, flat, and featureless, punctuated by amusing town and street names (Dort Highway!  Climax!).   Dutch influence is everywhere, in names starting with “van de(r)” or “de”, or ending in -sma, and a particular brand of Dutch Jesus. You know you’re not in Ontario any more when you drive into town and meet up with the (in)famous Michigan Left, which involves turning right, going up half a block, and making what is essentially a sanctioned U-Turn to go left.  It’s been nearly 15 years since I’ve been to Kzoo for the conference, but I still have returned to the city periodically (usually on the way to Chicago) for one reason:  Bilbo’s.

Bilbo’s is a pizza place.  For years they were located in a plaza right on the WMU campus, but in the early 2000s they moved to a new place just off campus.  They used to have a second location on the south side of town, but that closed when the area was redeveloped.  As the name suggests, the restaurant has a Tolkien theme.  All of the sandwiches are named after characters from The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, there is original hobbity artwork decorating the place, and the seating is in wooden booths that look like they could have come from an inn in Middle Earth.  They were, in fact, relocated from the original location, complete with some of the carved graffiti that had come to decorate them over the years.  They have wonderful pan pizza and a salad with a homemade dressing, the likes of which I’ve never found elsewhere. (I always take home a jar or two).

I drove out of my way to go to Bilbo’s on my way to Grand Rapids.  Originally, this trip was planned as a two-day affair with my husband:  First to Kalamazoo, eat at Bilbo’s, go to the local air museum (the Air Zoo), then in to Grand Rapids an hour to the north, check into a Holiday Inn Express, go to the Grand Rapids Symphony concert in the evening for some Shostakovich, and then a stop in to the Meyer May House early Sunday afternoon to check another Frank Lloyd Wright off my list.  But Mother Nature then served up a scary winter storm for Saturday, complete with freezing rain, ice, and snow, and I decided, to be safe, to leave on Friday instead, buy a second concert ticket for that evening in case the original concert was cancelled, and plan to hole up in my hotel room on Saturday and wait out the storm.  Dave, concerned about cat care and suffering an attack of back issues, decided not to go.  So there was no need to go to the air museum–but I wasn’t losing Bilbo’s.   I arrived without incident, the planned all-day rain largely not materializing beyond a pervasive, thick foggy mist, enjoyed my pizza and salad with a side of memories, and took  leftovers with me for Saturday.

The Grand Rapids area is thick with DeVoses.  Richard DeVos was a cofounder of Amway, and his son Dick is a former CEO.  Betsy DeVos, the current Secretary of Education, is Dick’s wife; her brother founded the controversial firm Blackwater.  The family is heckin’ rich.  Billionaires.  The Donald Trump kind.   The concert hall where the Grand Rapids Symphony plays is named for the DeVoses.  They’re huge patrons of the arts in Grand Rapids, and they have endowed a number of positions in the symphony.  And the orchestra, as I learned, has advanced in leaps and bounds over the past number of years.  But I felt, in some small way, like a bit of a traitor to my left-wing leanings for even stepping into a place named after the DeVoses to hear an orchestra that has benefited from the enormous riches of a family of Republican billionaires, including a Secretary of Education that is working to dismantle public education as we know it in the US.  Ugh.

Supporting arts organizations like symphonies and operas and museums is a long tradition all over the world with the super rich, of course, on all shades of the political spectrum.  And arts and politics are inseparable, and symphonies in particular are patronized largely by older white people.  The irony, of course, is that I was going to hear Shostakovich, who dealt with the ‘patronage’ of his art by the Soviet government by layering his music with conflicting meanings and subtle messages.  The 11th Symphony, no matter what interpretation you take, is about confronting tyranny.  It’s about what happens when people suddenly realize, in the aftermath of a massacre, that they can no longer trust their government.  I was rather heartened, during the concerts (I did end up seeing the performance twice) how many of the audience were not the typical blue-haired ladies (although there were plenty of those). There were hipsters with beards, and young women with tattoos, and, in overheard snippets, I deduced that most of them were there for the Shostakovich and understood its message.

Back to Grand Rapids.  The city’s fortune was made on furniture manufacture –both for homes and for offices (more on that later).  It’s the second largest city in Michigan at just under 200,000 residents and a metro area population of about a million people.  Like other Midwestern cities I’ve been to recently, Grand Rapids has a surprisingly vibrant downtown, fuelled by its craft beer scene (winning it the title of “Beer City USA” in 2013).  They have a large art museum in a new building as well as an arena to house the Griffins, Detroit’s AHL hockey affiliate.  Getting into town was a little confusing. I-196 coming in from the south and west curves and waves almost like the river that gives the town its name, and dumped me just north of downtown, which was odd for having come from the south.  I immediately got disoriented (it didn’t help that my iTunes chose that point to serve up The Garden just hours after I’d heard of the death of Neil Peart), but I’d allowed plenty of time and finally found a parking garage across from the concert hall.  I then walked–wandered was more like it, as the streets were a bit of a frosty jungle–south, through trees lit by constellations of white lights, past a public skating rink, past the art museum, and to HopCat, one of the places behind the “Beer City” sobriquet.  Me, I just like their logo, featuring a black cat with a pint of beer.  I had hoped to pick up some more swag there, but it was packed ahead of the Griffins game.  I grabbed the last seat at the bar and had a wonderful salad paired with a local cider that just leapt to life with all of the apples and dried fruit and raspberry vinaigrette.

I’ve already talked about the concert itself, at least the first one.  What I didn’t mention is the lovely performance of the Mozart Piano Concerto #22 by pianist Jeffrey Kahane.  Mozart wrote a lot of piano concertos, and I didn’t think I had heard this one before–until I realized the third movement was used prominently as one of the main themes in the movie Amadeus.  Kahane played with the kind of wit and humour that works so perfectly with Mozart.  A highlight was the cadenza duet with, of all things, the tympani.  There was also a wind piece by Richard Strauss, one of his student works, full of charm and grace, that showed off the orchestra’s woodwinds and horns.

I spent Saturday ensconced in my hotel room, eating leftover pizza and cinnamon rolls, writing about Neil Peart, and working on my embroidery, which I nearly finished. I’ve been inspired by a couple of the snarky crafting groups I belong to on Facebook to push my boundaries of creativity a little.  This one is adapted from a photo of Shostakovich and is embroidered in three shades of grey silk. I had originally intended to use only black, but they were out of black at Gitta’s, which made me rethink my plan.  (The irony of switching from black and white to shades of grey does not escape me).  This will be eventually mounted on some red fabric with gold stars with the quotation “Our business is rejoicing” and the composer’s signature added.

By about 5 pm, it became clear that the storm had not hit as hard as predicted, and the orchestra’s Twitter feed confirmed the concert would go forward.  I took my time getting downtown, and this time, I managed to park in the garage under the concert hall. “I have this figured out!” I thought.  (I was wrong).  For the second performance, the hall was only about half-full. My seat, in the second row of the mezzanine, was outstanding, and although a little of the pure sonic impact of the Shostakovich was diluted by sitting a little farther back, the actual performance was tighter than the preceding night, with none of the trumpet bobbles of that performance. The different perspective meant that, as opposed to the strings on Friday night, what stood out for me on Saturday were all the performers I could not see.  This included the colossal percussion section (seven players manning timpani, bass drum, snare drum, tam-tam, xylophone, triangle, bells, and the celesta), the harp (only one; the 11th apparently can be performed with up to four of them), the brass, and the woodwinds (where I could, this time, watch the marvelous English horn solo towards the end of the final movement.  Another difference was that the contrast between loud and quiet was accentuated, particularly at the end of the second movement and into the third, where the cellos and basses start with almost imperceptible pizzicato before the violas enter with the funeral march.  This gorgeous, understated melody, eventually taken up by the entire string sections, really shone in this performance, as did the eventual emergence of the climax of the movement, which develops once the winds enter.

I also got a much better perspective on Peter Oundjian’s precise, yet passionate conducting style from my mezzanine seat, and his crisp engagement with the orchestra.  From his introduction of the movements at the beginning of the performance to the final, explosive, extinguishing of the lights at the end of the work, his commitment to the message of the work was clear.

I thought I had Grand Rapids all figured out.  But snow had fallen while I was in the concert, and I found myself exiting the building in an unexpected exit on one side.  And, once again, I got lost, needing to stop down a side street and reload Google Maps to get me out of town.  Driving the unpaved, snowy curves of I-196 was an adventure, as I moved along at about 70 km per hour, passed by SUVs tossing snow onto my windshield. Luckily, the drive was not long, and soon I was safe at the hotel.


Sunday morning:  The aftermath.  The storm had moved on.  Relieved newscasters reveled in the apocalypse spared.  Closings seemed confined mostly to churches.  After a little shopping and an Olive Garden lunch, I drove back into town, this time up the razor-straight US 131, turning off at Wealthy St. just south of downtown, easily finding the Meyer May House.  Not only was it open, by the time the tour started just after 1 pm, some 14 people had arrived to see the house.

The Meyer May House was built from 1908-1909 for the eponymous owner, president of a department store in Grand Rapids (which apparently was not related to the much larger May department store chain).   In its mature Prairie style, the house reminds me very much of both the slightly earlier Darwin Martin House (particularly its veranda) and the contemporary Robie House.  Like that latter house, the Meyer May was completed after Wright had left the country (although the docents at the house were incorrect that he had gone to Japan;  in fact, he went to Europe in the wake of his infamous affair with Mamah Borthwick Cheney.)  May’s wife died not long after the house was completed; when he remarried three more children joined the family and an extension to the house in Wright’s style was completed.  In a story with interesting parallels with that of the Darwin Martin House, the May house sat empty for a number of years after May’s death in 1936, eventually selling twice in the 40s before being divided, the additional rooms rented as apartments.

When the house came onto the market in 1985, local office furniture company Steelcase, who had long been interested in the property, purchased the home.  Steelcase’s connection with Wright dated to the 1930s, when they manufactured the Wright-designed office furniture for the Johnson Administration Building in Racine.  A few examples were on display in the visitors’ centre, including Wright’s original three-legged design and the four-legged version he finally agreed to after being convinced (by nearly falling out) of the impracticability of the three-legged design).

This commission more or less started the company’s climb into an office furniture powerhouse, and so when the Meyer May house became available, they purchased it to underscore the connection with the US’ most famous architect.  Over the next two years, they restored the house to its 1909 appearance, including removing the addition and lifting off the roof and stabilizing the entire structure (which, as many Wright prairie houses are wont to do, was drooping) with steel.  They used the leftover brick from the addition to rebuild the house to its original appearance.  They were able to identify the red tile originally used for the roof and found the manufacturer was still making tile (I believe the Martin House used the same source in its restoration).  Unlike some other Wright houses, the Meyer May had retained all of its original Wright-designed windows. Exterior copper sheathing around the windows and the eaves was all replaced, with the patina chosen to replicate what could be seen in photos.

Inside, the restoration team were able to analyze the layers of paint and determine the original paint scheme.  May’s daughter Harriet was able to provide extensive photos of the interior and furnishings, which also led them to the discovery and restoration of a painted mural of hollyhocks on one of the interior columns that had been simply painted over.   It also turned out that quite a few of the original Wright-designed furnishings and other furniture and artworks had been sold locally;  blueprints for others were discovered in archives in Milwaukee and were able to be recreated using these drawings and May’s daughter’s photos.  The archives even had samples of the fabrics used to cover the furniture and of the threads for the Wright-designed carpets.  Both were recreated.  The result is that the Meyer May is the rare Prairie-style house that is nearly completely furnished and restored to its 1909 appearance (with the exception of the kitchen, which is a modern working kitchen used for when Steelcase entertains at the house).  The restoration took only about 18 months–amazing what can be done with the funding of a wealthy company on board.  Steelcase’s ownership meant that the tour of the house–one of the best I’ve ever been on in terms of access to all areas of the home, not to mention the approximately half hour long movie on the restoration process we saw before going into the house itself (and which you can see here)–was completely free of charge.  (It did mean that the gift show was limited to a couple of shelves with postcards and a nice booklet on the house, rather than racks of jewellery, mugs, and t-shirts.  My wallet was pleased).

The first room we stopped in was the dining room, featuring the restored mural.

Moving on to the living room:

Onto the veranda…

The pantry and a bathroom (the house had five bathrooms, unheard-of in 1909):

Up the stairs, including the spectacular nearly two-storey-tall windows on the landing:

Upstairs rooms (master suite, sitting room, children’s bedrooms, maid’s room, and trunk room):

Exterior views:

It was nearly 3 pm, and it was time to make my way home.  Surprisingly, it took only about 4 1/2 hours, the sun setting around the time I crossed into Canada via the Blue Water bridge at Pt. Huron/Sarnia.  As I drove towards home on Hwy 402, the ice-crystal laden sky was full of strange reflected lights, and upon my left and right, a forest of wind turbines loomed up in shadow, flashing red warning lights in unison.  In keeping with the beginning of the journey to a place called Bilbo’s, this reminded me of a scene from Mordor, although perhaps rather colder.  And, being safely on the Canadian side, Michigan now in my rear view mirror, it was much less likely to be an artifact of any contemporary Sauron and his minions.