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Greenhouses and Conservatory at the Meijer Garden and Sculpture Park

Grand Rapids, Michigan

getaway-chicago logoThe auto industry is tanking, but things around Grand Rapids ( seems to be OK. With leads from Fred A. Bernstein’s New York Times article, From Michigan, A Clean Running Museum (March 28, 2007) and Blair Kamin’s October 7, 2007 article in the Chicago Tribune called A temple of green blooms in Michigan, the Getaway Guys visited Grand Rapids and vicinity in the fall of ’08 to see what’s happening. Alan had been to Grand Rapids before, but couldn’t remember when. Neil was pretty sure he had never been to Grand Rapids, but had he? To keep the Guys from being lost or confused, along were Carol Ross Barney, Alan’s knowledgeable architect wife, and Neil’s art historian spouse, Holly Clayson.

Grand Rapids is Michigan’s second largest city and harbors a number of rewarding surprises for getaway adventurers. In addition to its new LEED certified Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM), Grand Rapids is home to the Gerald R. Ford Museum, the Grand Rapids Public Museum and in Grand Rapids Township, the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park. Two additional potential stops are the Grand Rapids Historical Society and the Grand Rapids Model Railroad Historical Society in Comstock Park, MI. With the exception of the Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park and the Model Railroad Society in Comstock Park, the former are easily accessible on foot in downtown. Walking around Grand Rapids is, however, a little confusing. Thoroughfares seem to appear and disappear, sometimes leaving guests to wonder where they are. Even the more astute and focused Holly and Carol were admittedly confused (lost), which led to some interesting curbside discussions about which way to go. “Discretion being the better part of valor,” the Guys followed the gals.

grandrapids1Designed by Kulapat Yantrasast of wHY Architecture and fronted by Maya Lin’s Ecliptic (Neil knew Ms. Lin as a child in Athens, Ohio when he worked with her father, Henry Lin at Ohio University), the Grand Rapids Art Museum ( is at present the only LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified museum in the U.S. It isn’t a big museum, but it has a very interesting permanent collection worthy of close examination and an active exhibition schedule consisting of loan exhibits. Two loan exhibits struck the Guys as outstanding. A Traveler’s Diary, drawings of New York between 1855-1859 by Danish artist Ferdinand Richardt (1819-1895), assembled by the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute Museum in Utica, New York and America Black and White, a photography exhibit of works by the famous African-American photographer Gordon Parks (1912-2006). A protégé of Marva Louis (wife of Joe Louis), Parks achieved fame through his captivating black and white images of people in the news and his work for Life Magazine. grandrapids3Alan dug the Parks pictures. Neil (a former New Yorker) was amused by his familiarity with Richardt’s 1850s locations in and around New York (albeit not of his era). About the permanent collection, the Guys were typically divided in their opinions. Alan favored a couple of Ash Can School paintings by Henri and Bellows, Portrait of Gertrude Kaska, oil on canvas, 1904 by Henri (1865-1929) and Portrait of Leon Kroll, oil on canvas, 1915 by Bellows (1882-1925). Neil was drawn to The Grand Tetons, oil on tin, c.1955-60 by Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) and Harvest, oil on canvas, c.1910 by the German painter Karl Schmitt-Rottluff (1884-1976). Although they couldn’t agree on which choice was best, they both went for a piece of decorative arts called a spoon warmer by Christopher Dresser (1834-1904) from c.1878 and crafted in silver and ebony. Also in the collection are excellent pieces representing Abstract Expressionism from the 1950s and early 1960s. With or without “green” architecture, GRAM is an exciting destination.

grandrapids4Another eye opener is The Public Museum ( Chock-a-block with artifacts salvaged from Grand Rapid’s past, this institution has a comprehensive collection of furniture and furniture making tools from its heyday in the 19th and 20th centuries. Known as Furniture City, Grand Rapids was home to many manufacturers who produced quality products of classic and contemporary design. Employing skilled crafts people (from many countries), they produced note worthy products. By today’s tastes some examples are fuddy-duddy, but their attention to detail and craftsmanship shame the particle board from the likes of Ikea. This museum also has an exhibit called The Streets of Old Grand Rapids. Reminiscent of Streets of Old Milwaukee at the Milwaukee Public Museum, this installation of period store fronts and 19th century commercial interiors is a reminder of shopping as it once was: a time when malls were not known, but merchants knew their clients by name and satisfaction was guaranteed.

grandrapids2Presiding over the atrium lobby, a restored Corliss Steam Engine is hard to miss. A work of art in complexity and utilitarian beauty, this piece of ingenuity capable of producing enormous energy now hangs (seemingly precariously) above visitors. The Guys loved it because it reminded them of America’s inventiveness and cutting edge creativity. Additionally (of interest to the young and young at heart) there’s a meticulously restored Spillman Engineering Company merry-go-round in the Cook Pavilion. For a modest fee, Neil and Holly hopped aboard, but failed to get the brass ring.

Grand Rapids is a place with much to do and see, so after the Earth friendly Art Museum and the Grand Rapids Public Museum and out to the Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park for art and greenery, visitors may be overloaded. If not The Gerald R. Ford Museum ( just north of the Public Museum beckons. grandrapids4Through a succession of well done exhibits about the life, times and tenure of America’s 38th President, this museum is a worthwhile addition to any museum crawl. Neil’s favorite exhibit was “Constitution in Crisis” (Watergate), while Alan liked the recreation of the Ford Cabinet Room. Both displays present multi-media insights into the turbulent times of the early 1970’s. President Ford’s grave is also on the site.

The Guys and Gals stayed in Zeeland, MI, 20 miles from Grand Rapids and five miles from Holland, where they dined at Butch’s Dry Dock. Butch’s menu has a nice entre selection at reasonable prices and a copious wine list.

grandrapids6Hot as Hades during their initial trip in August of ’08, the Guys returned in March of ’09 for a closer look at the Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park ( Not as large as the Chicago Botanic Garden, the Meijer Gardens are nevertheless impressive, particularly the outdoor sculpture collection. With works by Henry Moore, August Rodin, Claes Oldenburg, Alexander Calder, Keith Haring and Anthony Caro (to name a few), the Sculpture Park is outstanding. In addition to its permanent collection (both inside and out), temporary exhibits by such artists as Andy Goldsworthy, Tom Otterness and George Rickey have been mounted. In size and scope the Meijer Sculpture Park is a close rival to the Storm King sculpture collection in Mountainville, New York. (In the Chicago area a more modest [but impressive] contemporary outdoor sculpture collection exists in the Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park at Governors State University.) By a stroke of good luck, Neil and Alan happened to be at the Meijer Garden’s annual (March 1 – April 30) butterfly extravaganza held in the Tropical Conservatory. grandrapids7With innumerable species of butterflies fluttering amok and scads of preschool children with their stay-at-home moms (some dads, too) trying to maintain order, this treat was a delight to witness. It reminded the Guys of their visit to the Butterfly Conservatory at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Chicago.

Grand Rapids is definitely a weekend venue for a getaway. The distance from Chicago isn’t insurmountable, but there’s too much to see and do in one day. April 2009

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