Explore a bevy of museums and historical houses, plus a famous sculpture garden.
By Anna Lee Braunstein, F351629
One of the first avenues given a name in Grand Rapids, Michigan, was Wealthy Street. But money was not the reason. Wealthy Davis was the wife of a local judge. That story is one of many you learn when you visit Grand Rapids.
Grand Rapids is in western Michigan, 60 miles west of the capital city of Lansing. The Heritage Hill Historic District, just east of downtown, includes a portion of Wealthy Street, plus much more. It’s one of the largest urban historic districts in the United States. Its 1,300 homes date from the 1840s and represent more than 60 architectural styles.
One fabulous house was owned by clothier Meyer May, designed by internationally acclaimed architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and lovingly restored by furniture builder Steelcase Inc.
In contrast to the Victorian style displayed by many neighborhood homes, the house commissioned by May and his new bride exemplifies the Prairie School design. The Meyer May House was completed in 1909. Wright didn’t just give the structure its form; he also put his hand to creating its ceilings, windows, and furniture.
The house was described by a Yale architecture professor: “A gentle unity suffuses the interior of the May House, carried by the muted light from the bands of leaded windows and spreading in one even tone throughout the flowing spaces, across the quiet carpets, the light colored wooden striping, and the golden plastered walls.”
After May’s death, the house eventually was divided into rental units and continued to fall into disrepair. But in 1985, Steelcase — one of several furniture companies that call Grand Rapids home — purchased the home and restored it, after years of effort. The Meyer May House shows Wright’s talents to today’s visitors during free, guided tours on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays. It’s interesting to note that Wright did not visit Grand Rapids until many years after the house was completed.
A walking tour map with background info and addresses of 36 other homes in the Heritage Hill area is available at www.heritagehillweb.org.
In 1995 Grand Rapids native and grocery magnate Frederik Meijer and his wife, Lena, celebrated the opening of the town’s most famous attraction, one they helped to create: Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park. A day there is a day spent among glorious art creations formed by nature and by man. Multiple indoor and outdoor gardens showcase native plants of the Midwest and beyond.
No matter the weather, the five-story-high Lena Meijer Tropical Conservatory is one of several gardens you can enjoy. Plants — exotic, arid, and tropical — from around the world thrive there. In spring, butterflies fill the conservatory. The Frey Boardwalk wends through wetlands. Outdoor gardens are dedicated to woodland plants, perennials, and bulbs. The Richard and Helen DeVos Japanese Garden opened in 2015.
In the Lena Meijer Children’s Garden, youngsters can dig in the soil, uncover fossils, build bridges, and chase butterflies. Tree houses, labyrinths, cabins, and more await further exploration. Fruits and vegetables grow in Michigan’s Farm Garden near a scale model of Lena Meijer’s childhood home. Sculptures of farm animals stand in the barn and near the windmill and sugar shack.
More than 50 outstanding sculptures are spread throughout the grounds and in the buildings. Works by Auguste Rodin, Henry Moore, Richard Serra, Dale Chihuly, Edgar Degas, and others float in ponds, tower from hills, loom overhead, and rest in fields. These pieces captivate, delight, and challenge visitors. In addition to the permanent installations, three temporary sculpture exhibitions are presented each year.
Lunch and snacks are available at the Taste of the Gardens Café, which serves locally grown products. Gleaming over diners is Lena’s Garden, a glass sculpture created by Dale Chihuly. A gift shop offers original and locally made items.
The most comfortable way to tour the park is on a narrated, handicapped-accessible tram tour. Tickets are available at the tram office. A kids’ tram tour runs in the summer and fall. Concerts are presented in the summer (June through August), and each season brings its own special presentation. To learn more, go to www.meijergardens.org or call (888) 957-1580.
The Grand Rapids Public Museum is so engaging, it makes you wish you were a resident of the town. Natural history is shown through plant and animal exhibits, interactive dioramas, and hands-on displays. Human history is explored in “Anishinabek: The People of This Place,” which focuses on those who lived here a thousand years before the arrival of Europeans. Since many descendants live in the area, the museum has been able to collect oral histories to enhance the artifacts in this exhibit.
For a look at more recent history, visitors can walk the “Streets of Old Grand Rapids,” and enter and peek into scaled-down dioramas of the town from around the turn of the last century.
Education blends with entertainment at stops such as the gift store, which is called the Curiosity Shop; a 1928 Spillman carousel, which takes on riders of all ages; and the Roger B. Chaffee Planetarium, which is dedicated to the memory of the Grand Rapids astronaut who died in the 1967 Apollo I fire. It recently was upgraded and presents shows for adults and children.
All of this can stir up an appetite, which can be satisfied at the Museum Café. For more info, visit the museum website, www.grpm.org.
When Fred Meijer died in 2011, Gerald R. Ford’s son spoke at his memorial. The friendship shared by the president and the hypermarket store magnate was one of respect and consideration. After Ford’s term in office, Meijer had a hand in the creation of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids. This is a personal, engaging place that tells of Ford’s life and career. The official presidential library (and its papers) are housed at Ford’s alma mater, the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor.
The museum completed an 8,000-square-foot, two-story expansion in the spring of 2016, which includes a new exhibit gallery. “For visitors, the presidency is theirs to see and touch (almost), to use, and to hold accountable,” the museum’s website says. In keeping with this approach, the library exhibits range from Ford’s youth in Michigan to his life in the White House. Visitors can walk through a replica of the Oval Office. The Watergate scandal, which spawned a constitutional crisis and led to Ford’s pardoning of President Richard Nixon, is featured in a separate exhibit. In addition, Gerald and Betty Ford are buried on the grounds.
The Ford Museum is a must-see place. More info: www.fordlibrarymuseum.gov.
Another rebooted building in Grand Rapids is The B.O.B. Originally a grocery warehouse, it was built in 1903. Like the May House, it fell into disrepair and was restored to its present stature as “The Big Old Building,” a great destination for dining and entertainment. Instead of canned goods, its four stories now house restaurants, clubs, and a brewery.
Wealthy Theatre was also brought back from ruin. Since its construction in 1911, it has served as a showcase for live performances and films; a warehouse for an aircraft company; and a foreign-film house. In 1998 it became a community arts center that is helping to revitalize the Wealthy Street area. Today, movies and live shows are presented there.
Grand Rapids has a great reputation for its breweries and dining. Throughout the summer are festivals of art, music, cars, food, and more. Check the Experience Grand Rapids website listed below for dates of activities and special events.
Grand Rapids provides wonderful indoor and outdoor enjoyment. With its glorious gardens, famous buildings, and United States history, it is a destination worthy of a several days’ stay.
The following list may not be complete, so check your campground directory or the RV Marketplace, found at FMCA.com and in the January issue of FMC magazine, for more listings.
Allendale/West Grand Rapids KOA
8275 Warner St.
Allendale, MI 49401
(800) 562-9751 (reservations)
Baldwin Oaks Campground
4700 Baldwin St.
Hudsonville, MI 49426
Conestoga Grand River Campground
9720 Oriole Drive
Coopersville, MI 49404
Hungry Horse Campground
2016 142nd Ave.
Dorr, MI 49323
7501 Burlingame Ave. S.W.
Byron Center, MI 49315