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.
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 Ave., 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 won't be for at least two or three years from now, says Mona Bergeon, historical society president, when the owners are ready.
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 of them are vacation rentals.
Pick up the free self-guided tour brochure "A Guide to Earl Young Structures in Charlevoix, the Beautiful" at the Chamber of Commerce office or Harsha House Museum, 103 State St..
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, 231-547-0373).
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.
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.
"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."
If you go:
*Charlevoix is 4 1/2 hours north of Detroit on Lake Michigan. These Earl Young vacation rentals are available:
*Four-bedroom house in town, 304 Clinton St. This 1900-era home was remodeled by Young and has signature stonework. Rates Oct. 1-May 31 negotiable; summer rates $1,100-$1,400/week. www.vrbo.com, rental number 128652.
*One-bedroom mushroom-roof stone cottage, 14915 Boulder Ave. The rental is miniscule but cute as a button, with an amazing view of Lake Michigan. Rates April-Oct. $1,100-$1,400 depending on week; www.vrbo.com, rental number 059312.
*Boulder Manor, 14765 Boulder Ave. The big three-bedroom house is for sale for $1.25 million but rents out for $3,500 a week in season and $2,000 a week off-season. Earliest available rental is August 2011 (call Judy Winter at Charlevoix Rentals, 231-547-0025.).
*Weathervane Terrace Inn and Suites, 111 Pine River Lane. Earl Young designed the round stone lobby of the hotel in downtown Charlevoix. Good off-season deals; rates in January are about $75 a night (www.weathervane-chx.com, 800-552-0025).