It's Grand in Grand Rapids: A magnificent sculpture park and garden. Gerald Ford Museum. Historic houses and famous architecture.
Friendliness of a small community, pleasures of a city, and a perfect location for exploration of Michigan’s peninsula pleasures makes this city on the Grand River a perfect place to begin a vacation.
Grand RapidsHeritage Hill, a charming historic district and one of the largest in the county with 1,300 homes and 60 architectural styles, dates back to the 1840s. Much of the early money in Grand Rapids came from trees and forest along Lake Michigan’s shore, and these lumber barons built their unique mansions in the area now known as Heritage Hill. The trickle down of the money fueled the economy and soon other houses, each individualized and charming sprung up. Every October these normally private homes open for tours and a peek at their homes.
Frank Lloyd Wright and the Meyer May HouseFascinated by the work of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, the Meyer May House was a real highlight. It is one of the most complete examples of Wright’s prairie style architecture and his attention to the interior decor. It is classic Wright – with open spacious main living areas, and tiny almost cramped bedrooms.
May made his money through the May Department store and in 1908 commissioned Wright to build a house for him and his wife. They moved in shortly thereafter. Wright wanted to achieve a horizontal feel in keeping with the generally flat terrain to fit into the land, rather than sit upon it. Thus Wright turned everything in the exterior of the house into a design element, and took total control over the interior of the house, even the carpets and the furniture. Steelcase, Inc. whose corporate headquarters is in Grand Rapids owns the house redid the roof and thoughtfully and carefully reproduced the interior, even the carpets using sketches of original designs and color samples. They have also opened it for public guided tours.
Voight House Victorian MuseumTo truly understand how revolutionary was Wright’s ideas and designs, one needs only stroll to the Voigt House Victorian Museum – an 1895 beautifully restored Victorian structure that is only slightly older than the Meyer May House, and light-years apart in style.
Voight was a German immigrant who came over in 1847 and built the house in 1895. Having made his money in flour milling, he and his wife retired here amid the wealth and comfort that they didn’t quite have when younger.
The design pure Victorian -- a warren of rooms, each with its own function and purpose. All the formal rooms have mahogany wood furniture (much of it made in Grand Rapids by Berkey Gay) and trim. The private rooms used less expensive oak. Other features included the cove ceiling with stenciling, some of which had been designed by the youngest Voight daughters. The house has been lovingly restored and is a excellent example of life about the well-to-do in the early 1900s.
Guided public tours are available, and they also offer teas several times a year including Christmas (when the house is beautifully decorated for the holidays)
Gerald R. Ford Presidential MuseumThe Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum features exhibits focusing on the history of our 38th President – his family life and varied career. I was particularly fascinated by Ford’s early years and the background on his pardon of Richard Nixon. Ford was born Leslie Lynch King, Jr on July 14th, 1913. Shortly after his birth, his mother left her abusive husband and moved back to Grand Rapids where she met and married Gerald Ford. Her young son was informally adopted, although the formalities didn’t occur until years later. In honor of his adopted father, he changed his name.
Of his controversial pardon of Richard Nixon - there are clips of Ford at the hearing about the pardon, and his stance that it was never a deal, but rather the need to move forward and heal the country. There’s also a mock up of cabinet room and visitors can select a program that reproduces a discussion that took place there – including the pardon of Nixon.
Ford’s final resting place is also here. He is buried on the grounds of the museum.
Political beliefs won’t matter when it comes to appreciating the complexity of the job of President of the United States, and Ford’s term in that office.
Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture CenterSwitching from history to art is easy in Grand Rapids with the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Center. Frederik loved sculpture and his wife Lena loved gardens, and so this loving couple joined not only their lives but their passions to create seasonal gardens, a world-class Sculpture Park, meandering nature trails, and a charming children’s garden. Take a tram tour then explore on your own.
Make sure to stop at the magnificent The American Horse. This 24-foot tall 15,000 pound casting by Nina Akimu is based on the design by Leonardo da Vinci. There are only two in the world – the other is in Milan, Italy. All this courtesy of Meijer who heard about da Vinci’s horse and was determined to make da Vinci’s vision real.
The art runs the gamut of styles and subjects and will fascinate the whole family. The Butterfield Horse of bronze looks just like driftwood – because it was originally made of driftwood and then cast in bronze, and patina was applied to look like wood – but strong enough to be outside through all the Michigan weather. Andy Goldworthy's Grand Rapid Arch is another fascinating piece. There's pieces of contemporary art, with all its quirkiness, and pieces by names that are familiar, and not as familiar -- about 37 works and more on the way.
The Lena Meijer Children’s Garden has a sensory garden, a pond in the shape of the five Great Lakes, and the charming fossil pit seeded with “fossils” for the kids to find.
And MoreThe GRAM – Grand Rapids Art Museum -- that opened in 2007 is 125,000 square-feet of concrete and glass and the centerpiece of the artful urban park. This “Green” building constructed to conserve energy and water overlooks Maya Lin’s Ecliptic depicting the states of water. Lin's piece is a multi-use design – part art, part café, and even a skating rink in winter. The mirrored buildings surrounding the plaza make for great photo-ops.
The Public Museum is a fun place for kids and will appeal to adults as well. It has a bit of everything but the highlights are the 1920 Spelman Carousel in its own roundhouse by the water. Their permanent exhibit Collecting A to Z is a fun collection of bits and pieces from beautiful to bizarre, arranged in letter order.
For nightlife, head over to The BOB (Big Old Building) – this historic building is entertainment central with a comedy club, dance club, pool tables, restaurants, and live music all under one roof. Enjoy a touch of romance in a horse-drawn carriage ride. Grand Carriages takes you over the river and through the city touring downtown and the parks.
Day TripsGrand Haven
When you’re ready to head to the beach, western Michigan beckons with white sand beaches along the shores of Lake Michigan. Head west to enjoy the lakeside town of Grand Haven – a charming community with bike paths and sport-fishing. Their Salmon Festival held each fall celebrates their seafood and their wines. The Boardwalk is two miles of paths along the Grand River harbor filled with restaurants, marinas, charter boats and really good ice cream. Walk out the pier to their famous red lighthouse. Photo-ops abound here.
LodgingThe Amway Grand Plaza and the J. W. Marriott Grand Rapids are both top places to stay -- historic opulence, and modern luxury (respectively) but there are plenty of other lodging choices.