As a manufacturing city with many locally owned businesses, Grand Rapids housed early residents who earned considerable riches and weren’t shy about displaying them. Prominent families, including those who owned the city’s famed furniture factories, built their mansions on the city’s hillside where they could overlook their domain, from far above the smoke and soot their factories generated.
Heritage Hill (616/459-8950, www.heritagehillweb.org) was their neighborhood of choice from roughly 1840 through 1920. Located just east of downtown, it displays the wealth of Grand Rapids’ lumber boom, with more than 60 architectural styles reflected in its 1,300 residences. Considered the city’s first neighborhood, Heritage Hill is now one of the largest urban historic districts in the country.
As in most of America’s urban areas, today’s Heritage Hill residents are more economically and racially diverse. The neighborhood is overseen by the Heritage Hill Association, an active group of organizers who work hard at maintaining both their property and the area’s sense of community. Among the most spectacular homes are those built by the city’s one-time lumber barons, plus a few others designed or inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright.
The highlight has to be the Meyer May House (450 Madison Ave., 616/246-4821, 10 a.m.–1 p.m. Tues. and Thurs., 1–4 p.m. Sun., free), an anomaly in this predominantly Victorian neighborhood. It was designed in 1906 by Frank Lloyd Wright for a prominent local clothier, founder of the May’s clothing store chain. Vincent Scully, an architectural historian, has called the Meyer May House the most beautifully and completely restored of Wright’s Prairie houses. “To come suddenly into that interior . . . is to be wholly caught up and carried along by something rarely experienced: absolute peace, integral order, deep quiet grandeur and calm—all of it achieved in a house of no more than moderate size,” he has said.
Through the generous funding of Steelcase, the nationally famous Grand Rapids office furniture maker, the house has since been restored to reflect Wright’s original organic building concept, with custom-made furniture, art glass, carpets, light fixtures, even linens.
by Laura Martone from Moon Michigan, 3rd Edition, © Avalon Travel