Exploring Gnome Homes

Photography Courtesy of Mike Barton
Earl Young Mushroom House

Years before Earl Young ever started building homes, the quirky self-taught architect collected huge boulders and hid them in and around Charlevoix. Local historians say he loved nature and searching for the stones he left in lakes, woods and other secret locations for safekeeping. His centerpiece stone for Stafford’s Weathervane Restaurant’s main fireplace, which weighed nine tons, crushed the floor and caught Young’s eye because it resembled a map of the Lower Peninsula, stayed buried for 26 years.

Young never garnered national or international acclaim as an architect. He only lasted one year at University of Michigan School of Architecture in 1908 before returning to Charlevoix to join his family’s insurance business. But Young and his nature-inspired “gnome” homes have been the talk of the town for years and have grown into a popular tourist attraction.

It’s become common to see bikers, walkers and passersby slowing down to gawk at the unusual creations, nicknamed “mushroom houses” and “hobbit houses.” Many appear to sprout from the ground and feature mammoth, multicolored boulders.

Earl Young Mushroom House

Each one uniquely Young, he left his mark with intricate stonework, especially over doors and windows; wide, wavy rooflines; exposed rafter tails; cedar-shake roofs; and a horizontal emphasis in design.

Visitors can drive by the homes or take their own walking tours, but one local entrepreneur has grown her Mushroom House Tours into a full-time business venture and a No. 1 ranking on TripAdvisor.

“They’re just so unique,” said Edith Pair, who now makes a living giving tours of the homes. “They’re like right out of a fairy tale book.”

Mushroom House WindowA Charlevoix native, Pair used to have a gallery in Young’s former office in the Weathervane Restaurant. Visitors often would stop in and ask her questions about Young, and one day, a woman said she would pay her to take a tour of the homes.

Pair spent months doing research on Young and the homes, interviewing many of the owners, and has led daily walking tours since 2009. Last summer, the tours skyrocketed when she purchased a GEM car, and she has plans for a second car this year.

Pair’s walking tour visits half of the homes on Park Avenue, while the GEM car offers an open-air tour of all the homes and includes some Charlevoix and Earl Young history.

“It’s pretty fascinating when you hear the whole story,” she said. “It’s like a perfect thing, perfect for people to take a 45-minute tour. It’s not too long; it’s not too boring. The whole fun of the tour is hearing about them because he was such a quirky guy.”

Pair said Young wasn’t a fan of floor plans, blueprints, elevations or other regulations required of today’s builders. He often worked from memory, designing them as he went along using limestone, fieldstone, boulders and other indigenous materials he found throughout northern Michigan.

Boulder Manor

“He built exactly with the terrain and landscaping that was there,” Pair said. “It looks like the houses grew right out of the ground; everything is very natural and organic.”

Spanning nearly 50 years, from 1919 into the 1970s, Young designed and built 26 homes and four commercial properties, including the Weathervane Restaurant and Weathervane Terrace Inn & Suites on Pine River Lane and the Lodge Hotel on Michigan Avenue.

If You Go:

Mushroom House Tours, Charlevoix
10 a.m.-4 p.m. Daily
Walking tours of Earl Young’s homes offered year-round weather permitting, $10 per person; GEM car holds five people and visits all 28 homes, available April-November, $15 per seat.
(231) 445-0770; mushroomhousetours.com; visitcharlevoix.com

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