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Charlevoix's "mushroom houses" and the man who built them

Sep 15, 2015

Some people create with paint and brushes, others with musical notes or a camera.

Earl Young found his muse in nature and channeled his artistic vision using massive glacial boulders, limestone, and fieldstone.

The result is a collection of fascinating structures that Young built through the mid-20th century in Charlevoix. Many know them as “the mushroom houses.”

Earl Young and his stone houses are the subject of the new documentary film The Wizard of Boulder Park, produced by three-time Emmy Award-winning brother-sister team of Anne-Marlowe Belanger and Brian Belanger.

Brian Belanger directed the film, wrote the script, did the camera work and composed the score. He tells us that he first discovered the houses by chance as he and his sister were traveling to Charlevoix to give a lecture on their first film.

“After passing house after Victorian house on the way, suddenly [I saw] this cottage made of stone,” he says. “I was just awestruck.” 

David Miles, curator of the museum of the Charlevoix Historical Society, gives tours of the area and describes the houses as “gnome houses, mushroom houses, hobbit houses, Hansel and Gretel.”

“You can put any moniker you want on them and still you cannot really encompass them because they are all so unique. Each one is different than every other one,” Miles says.

Young decided early on that traditional architecture education wasn’t for him, according to Miles.

Earl's philosophy was, you do not alter the land unless you absolutely have to.

“He had his own ideas, but they didn’t mesh well with what was being taught at the time. So he dropped out after one year,” he says.

Young independently studied architecture and design texts and learned how to cut stone as an apprentice to a stonemason, Miles says, and over the course of 52 years proceeded to build 31 structures.

Miles tells us that Young’s attention to detail and focus on preserving the natural feel of the land on which he built really made him stand out in the architecture crowd.

“Earl’s philosophy was, you do not alter the land unless you absolutely have to,” Miles says. “The laying of the shingles, the eaves, the trim, the stonework. Everything echoes the ground on which it sits into an integrated work of art.”

Belanger says that he had originally planned to make the film almost entirely about the houses, but the more he learned about Earl Young the more the story shifted focus to the man himself.

The Charlevoix Historical Society and the community gave Belanger access to “hundreds and hundreds of photos … from different time periods.”

But he tells us the pièce de résistance was the 13 hours of home video taken by Young that documented his family life and house constructions.

“That was quite a wonderful cache of information and history to present to the public for the first time,” Belanger says.

Most of the houses have been fairly well taken care of, but Miles tells us that they are currently not protected. He hopes that by the end of the year a historical district will have been established in the area in order to protect the stone houses from potentially damaging alterations.

There will be a screening of The Wizard of Boulder Park at the Charlevoix Cinema Three on September 21, the 100th anniversary of the wedding of Earl and Irene Young.

More information about that screening and more around Michigan can be found at the Charlevoix Historical Society’s website and at www.bonamifilmworks.com.