Last summer, 760 lucky people got to walk through eight Earl Young houses. It was the first tour of interiors ever offered.
"We could have put through 1,200 at least; the phone was ringing off the hook for tickets," says David Miles, co-director of the Harsha House Museum, part of the Charlevoix Historical Society. When tickets ran out, "we had tears. We had people upset. We had people arrive from at least 20 states. We had no idea of the interest nationwide. What I didn't know is the emotional attachment to these houses, because a lot of people have been coming to Charlevoix since they were children."
Earl Young tourism is a Charlevoix specialty. The quirky builder erected 30 stone homes in town between 1918 and the 1950s, all so unusual they are often compared to works of art.
Some look like mushroom houses, with undulating roofs capping boulder walls. Some are tiny. Some are enormous. Most have incredible detail -- doorways of stone, window frames made of boulders, chimneys that look frosted by a giddy cake decorator. The early houses are arts and crafts or chalet style, but the later homes are rounded and organic, part Tolkien, part Keebler elf.
And each summer, busloads of tourists drive down Park Avenue, Clinton Street and Boulder Avenue, snapping photos and ringing doorbells.
"We are used to it," says Jennie Silva, who owns 304 Clinton, for which Earl Young did the exterior. "It is a piece of art that is livable. He oddly had a sense of humor."
Karen Stankovich, who owns a Cotswold-style Earl Young house at 14915 Boulder Av., lives in the 1929 main house but in summer rents out a diminutive stone house that appears to have sprouted on her property.
"It was originally a place for the maid and gardener," she says. "Now I'm the maid and gardener."
Despite demand, the next Earl Young interiors home tour will be at least two or three years from now, says Mona Bergeon, Historical Society president. "We need to let the owners indicate when they are going to be ready again."
But that does not mean you can't do your own Earl Young tour, any time of year. Here's what I'd suggest:
• Come off-season. Summer is crowded in Charlevoix, so try winter, when houses are snug against the piles of snow. Virtually every photo ever taken shows Young's houses with gentle green trees and grass. But in winter, you can see the icicle side of the sturdy northern Michigan cottages.
• Stay in an Earl Young house. At least three are vacation rentals.
• Pick up the free self-guided tour brochure "A Guide to Earl Young Structures in Charlevoix, the Beautiful." Get it at the Chamber of Commerce office or Harsha House Museum, 103 State St. Many houses in town have stone exteriors, but only some are genuine Earl Young houses.
• Visit Harsha House Museum's Earl Young exhibit. Start with a virtual tour at the museum's website, www.chxhistory.com. Or book a tour with David Miles (exteriors only, $50 an hour; 1-231-547-0373).
• Buy the 2009 book "Mushroom Houses of Charlevoix" by photographer Mike Barton (Boulder Press, $19.95). It has amazing photos and all the stories -- of which there are many.
Like all local characters, Earl Young, who died in 1975, was larger than life and often brusque. One local architect, Jack Begrow, 80, knew Young and has done many interior renovations and even additions to Young houses, which tended to have irrationally tiny kitchens, closets and bedrooms.
Young's appeal endures because "he had a feeling for the little cottages," Begrow says. The houses, which Begrow calls "early Mother Goose," are happy and serene, "and a little goofy," he says. Begrow gives some credit to Young's wife, who was an artist, for helping her husband make his ideas a reality. Did Young mind Begrow doing remodeling work on the houses? No, because "he figured I had his spirit," he says, and he was meticulous in not disturbing the exterior originality.
Although many people come to Charlevoix believing they have seen other Young houses around the country, it's not true. Young built every one of his houses in Charlevoix except for one in Alma, Mich.
To people in Charlevoix, the houses are pieces of art -- and you have to come here to see them.
"People ask if the homeowners mind tourists coming by, but I say, if you buy an Earl Young house, it comes with the territory," says Miles. "It's an astonishing legacy for one man to have left our city."