You can’t go a day in Chicago without hearing mention of seminal architects Louis Sullivan, Mies van der Rohe, or Frank Lloyd Wright. Or encountering some reference to Daniel Burnham’s famous dictum “Make no little plans.” (Not even lunch plans?) Or stumbling into an impassioned debate about whether to call it the Sears Tower or Willis Tower. (Let’s call the whole thing off.) Our grand architectural past is captured in postcards, etched in stone, seared in memory. It echoes off skyscrapers via the mile-a-minute narration of boat-tour docents.
It’s all very impressive. And sometimes tedious.
If you too suffer from occasional Burnham burnout or Frank Lloyd Wright fatigue, if you’re eager to explore other buildings and histories, and particularly if you’re a fan of modernism, set a course for Midland, Michigan (population 42,000), located about 300 miles northeast of Chicago in the palm of the mitten. Arguably the most architecturally unique small town in America, the “City of Modern Explorers” is proud of, yet coolly subdued about, its heritage.
I grew up in southwest Michigan and paid regular visits to central part of the Great Lakes State to visit my grandparents, but Midland never registered as a must-see destination. I knew it only as the home of Dow Chemical and, from driving through once or twice, the site of the Tridge, a picturesque three-way footbridge at the confluence of two rivers (the Chippewa and the Tittabawasee), surrounded by green parkland. After passing through lonely little towns along M-46, Midland seemed a verdant oasis.
It wasn’t until a year ago, when I returned from a trip to Palm Springs, the mecca of midcentury-modern domestic architecture, and started researching similar period homes in the midwest, that I became obsessed with seeing more of Midland, where more than 100 buildings—houses, offices, schools, banks, churches, and civic structures—are designed by a single architect: Alden B. Dow (1904–1983).
A son of Herbert Henry Dow, the big-deal electrochemical pioneer, Alden opted to pursue architecture instead of following his father’s chem trail. An oft-cited fact is that early in his career, Alden and his wife, Vada, spent a summer apprenticing for Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesen in Spring Green, Wisconsin, which sparked a years-long friendship between Wright and the Dows. Returning to Midland, Alden established his own firm and went on to conduct the bulk of his work, from the early 1930s to the late ’70s, in Michigan.
Dow’s masterwork, the Alden B. Dow Home and Studio, is a low-slung structure perfectly integrated into woodsy environs, with long roof lines stretching down toward a tranquil pond. Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1989, the Home and Studio offers public tours six days a week.
On a recent visit, Midland was as green as I remembered, and the Home and Studio immediately mesmerizing. The tour began in Dow’s “floating conference room,” a sunken meeting area situated 18 inches below the pond, where sunlight refracted from the water shimmers across a cotton-candy-pink ceiling. From there, the tour winds through the deceptively huge 20,000-square-foot complex, each subsequent room offering up surprises: boldly colored walls and carpets, Bertoia chairs, Calderesque mobiles, a collection of mechanical toys, a small theater, secret passageways Dow designed with his three children in mind, a model train chugging around a track overhead . . .
A sense of play was integral to Dow’s organic design philosophy, combining imagination and function, as well as the Wrightian notion that a building should blend effortlessly into its surroundings. The Tao of Dow, poetically put, is this: “Gardens never end and buildings never begin.”
There aren’t many rules on this tour. You can’t Instagram interiors (cameras aren’t allowed inside) and you’re required to check any bags, but there are no velvet ropes blocking off certain rooms, no security guards on high alert. Visitors are encouraged to skip across stones Dow cleverly placed throughout the pond, to sit on sofas, and to climb the tiny spiral staircase attached to the architect’s office. This is what Vada had in mind when she decided to open the residence to the public in 1986—to offer it not as a staid museum but an interactive learning lab, says Dow Home and Studio director Craig McDonald.
The Dow family’s philanthropy extends to seemingly every corner of Midland, granting a relatively quiet and conservative city considerable cultural resources. Among them: Alden B. Dow-designed religious structures and recreational facilities, the Grace A. Dow Memorial Library, and the Midland Center for the Arts, home of the Alden B. Dow Museum of Science and Art and its kid-friendly “Hall of Ideas”—a rather ambitious exhibit covering everything from dinosaurs to Dow Chemical, with interactive games and playable rock instruments thrown in for good measure.
The ethos of accessibility extends to Dow Gardens, a 110-acre botanical garden featuring bridges, towering pines, flower beds, and meandering paths. During the weekend I visited, Midland teens were getting their prom photos taken on the grounds. “It’s OK to walk on the grass here,” horticulturist Chuck Martin assured me. “Alden Dow intended for people to enjoy it.”
Though decidedly of this century, Midland’s most high-end accommodations can be found at the H Hotel, which offers an apropos theme—the periodic table of the elements—and overlooks the farmers’ market, the aforementioned Tridge, and the Pere Marquette Rail-Trail, popular with joggers and cyclists. Like many things in Midland, the interior of the hotel, with its white, chicly minimalist decor, is nicer than you’d expect of a town this size (the exterior recalls a hospital, alas). Then you find out it too is owned by the Dow Company—designed as a comfortable place for traveling chemists and businesspeople—and it all makes sense.
The hotel houses a fine-dining establishment, the Table, and a charming French-style bakery, Cafe Zinc. I didn’t check out the luxe Bar Oxygen, opting instead to visit local watering hole Decker’s Lounge for karaoke—because everyone needs cheap beer and a break from carefully considered aesthetics once in a while.
Before leaving town, I was compelled to drive slowly past as many Alden B. Dow-designed houses as possible, while trying not to creep out their residents. They’re everywhere, these homes—some brazenly modern, others more restrained, all looking straight out of a 1960s issue of Better Homes and Gardens.
On the way back to Chicago, I considered whether I should relocate to Midland. Maybe try to convince the Dow Foundation to let me write a book about the city’s architecture. Take up residence for a year, say, in a midcentury-modern A-frame. The daydream was one sign of a good road trip. Travel should make you question your life choices, or even make a few small, half-serious plans, Burnham’s wisdom be damned. v
Midland is about four and a half hours northeast of Chicago by car. The city is walkable and bikeable, but it’s best to drive, since there’s no public transportation.
Where to eat:
The newly opened Crepes et Ami, which began as a food truck at the farmers’ market and now offers the same sweet and savory crepes at its brick-and-mortar location. crepcatering.com. Cafe Zinc for brunch. The generously sized entrees and house-made pastries hit the spot after a late night at Decker’s Lounge. thehhotel.com/dining/cafe-zinc.
Where to sleep:
Make like the visiting Dow Chemical executives and stay at the nicer-than-it-needs-to-be H Hotel. thehhotel.com.