Midland - Michigan's Midcentury Modern Destination
It’s June, and every year around this time I start dreaming about road trips. Being born and raised in Michigan, some of my favorite destinations like Traverse City, Mackinac Island, Tahquamenon Falls and Pictured Rocks are “up north.” While driving to these destinations, I’m usually dreaming about soaking in their natural beauty on quiet hikes, sampling local brews and eats, and relaxing under the stars. These dreams are usually in full swing as we drive through another destination that most wouldn’t even think to stop at and explore: Midland.
"Midland? Isn’t that just one of those towns we pass on the way up north?” Sure, to some Midland isn’t worth the effort - they’ve got to get on the last ferry to Mackinac, but to others it’s a hidden gem. I wasn’t aware of Midland’s awesomeness until I had a summer internship at one of the local chemical companies. While there, I learned that Midland isn’t just another town on the way up north - it’s a city that's full of gorgeous, authentic mid century architecture.
Centrally located in the palm of Michigan’s lower peninsula, Midland is a mecca for midcentury modern enthusiasts. Architect Alden B. Dow and his students designed over 250 homes, businesses, churches, and government buildings in the mid-20th century American modern style of architecture. For a city of only about 40,000 people that’s certainly quite a few! No other city of similar size even comes close to the amount or variety of American organic style buildings that Midland has.
Now, you have to understand that the city of Midland is a bit coy about it’s architecture. It’s not like Palm Springs where they offer tours and maps and even festivals where the mid century treasures are front and center. Midland takes a more midwestern approach to visitors getting to know it’s charms. There are no bus tours, no maps in a visitor center pointing out all of the buildings you must see, and the city’s website doesn’t really acknowledge that tourists might be interested in visiting at all - much less for the architecture. Sure, there are tours of Alden B. Dow’s home and studio, but that’s as extroverted as you’re going to see Midland get.
So, how do you get to know Midland’s array of buildings? Like getting to know any humble midwesterner, start with what they’re willing to share with you and go from there. In Midland’s case, start by getting a reservation for Alden B. Dow’s Home & Studio Tour. Alden was the son of Herbert Henry Dow - the main man behind Dow Chemical. Instead of following in his father’s footsteps, Alden pursued architecture, and studied under Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesen in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Upon finishing his studies, Alden returned to Midland and established his own firm where he designed over 100 buildings between the early 1930s and the late 1970s. Alden’s master work was his home and studio which is a classic low-slung organic building that perfectly blends with the wooded landscape and reaches ever so delicately towards the surrounding tranquil pond. Expanding on Wright’s notion that a building should blend effortlessly into its surroundings, Dow’s mantra was "Gardens never end and buildings never begin."
Tours run Monday through Saturday, and it’s surprisingly easy-going and super informative. You’re not told to keep to a plastic runner that allows only a cursory view of the rooms. Instead, you’re encouraged to walk through the home and studio and explore for yourself. You can sit at the drafting tables, wander the grounds, and get a closer look at just about every detail, which is refreshing and quite rare for historic home tours. The tour is a great way to experience the playfulness that Dow infused into his organic architecture. Bold colors, secret passageways for children, and a built-in model train are just a few ways that Alden encouraged imagination with functional design.
After being immersed in the basics of Dow, you’ll have a bit more insight as you explore the rest of Midland’s architecture on your own. As you explore it will start to seem like there’s a little gem of architecture around just about every corner. Most notable are the Grace A. Dow Memorial Library, the Midland Center for the Arts, and Dow Gardens where you’re encouraged to play, explore and most definitely walk on the grass because that’s what Dow intended - for his designs to not only be appreciated, but used and thoroughly enjoyed. It doesn’t stop with Dow, either. Many of his students designed churches, public buildings, and homes in and around Midland that carry on his now familiar style.
Next, you’ll certainly be compelled to drive slowly through the neighborhoods of the city seeking out Alden B. Dow's more domestic designs, of which there are plenty. These homes range from ultra modern to decidedly mid century to more humble Usonian-influenced styles, and did I mention they are literally everywhere you look? Unfortunately, this is where Midland seems to be lacking in making their greatest asset more accessible to architecture aficionados. I can understand that many residents prefer not to have people peering into their homes on a regular basis, so an official map of the homes might be a bit uncouth. Perhaps the city could create an annual home tour weekend or an entrepreneurial resident might establish their own guided tour to provide architecture fans with the opportunity to see these buildings and learn more about them, while keeping the resident’s privacy top-of-mind. In the mean time, Michigan Modern has a handy search feature that allows you to map out some of the significant modern architectural sites in Midland.
Next time you’re on your way up north, consider a side trip to Midland. Be it just for lunch and a quick driving tour around the city or an overnight stay to see it all, there’s plenty to learn and experience in this little city. The peaceful setting and gorgeous architecture could be just the refueling you need to make it to your final destination refreshed and a bit more appreciative of all the little things that make Michigan one of a kind.
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