Meyer May House

Side view of the Meyer May House

Side view of the Meyer May House. Image by Jaydec, CC BY-SA 3.0.

During a recent trip to Grand Rapids, Michigan I had the opportunity to visit the Meyer May House designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.  The house was commissioned in 1908 by Meyer S. May and was built between 1908-1909 by Wright.  It is considered an example of Wright’s Prairie School era work.  In 1985 Steelcase, a Michigan based furniture company, purchased the Meyer May house and worked to restore the house to how it looked when the May family moved in 1910.  The house is operated as a historic site by Steelcase and is open to the public for free tours.

My visit to the house was fantastic – it included watching a video about the restoration process and an hour long guided tour of the house itself.  The video of the restoration process can be found in clip format on the Meyer May website.  The video highlighted the archival research that went into finding documentation on the original exterior design, furniture, and interior decorations of the house.  It discussed how photographs were used to supplement blueprint and textual records about the house.  The video also showcased the work of conservators, artisans and experts that went into reconstructing things like paint colours, murals, carpets, and light fixtures that were designed by Wright.

The docent who led my group was extremely well informed about the architectural styles, Wright’s influences, and the house itself. The tour docents are all volunteers and I was blown away by their professionalism and expertise on the house.  It was interested to learn about how the family lived in the home, the impact the family’s personalities had on Wright’s design, and the restoration work that has gone into preserving this history.  I was also a bit surprised by how busy the site was. There was around 15 people in our tour group and there was at minimum three or four other tour groups running at the same time.

I would highly recommend this tour to anyone interested in built heritage or the work of Frank Lloyd Wright.  We scheduled an extra day in Grand Rapids just so we could take the tour and it was well worth the effort.

Parks, Public Art, and Community Gardens

I recently spent a few days in Chicago, Illinois.  This is the second post in a series about the museums, architecture, public gardens, and art I visited while there.  The first post can be viewed here.

One of my favourite mornings in Chicago was spent wondering around Millennium Park and the numerous public gardens in the area. Millennium Park contains a number of great public art pieces, examples of great architecture, and regularly hosts free music events.


Vegetables in Millennium Park flower bed

 I loved the fact that so much of the downtown area had been preserved as green space. The space the Millennium Park occupies was  maintained by the Illinois Central Railroad and prior to 1997 the area was filled with railroad tracks and parking lots. Through a public and private partnership the now 24.5 acre park was turned into a public space built on top of the ‘unsightly’ parking lots. Photographs of the transformation of the land can be seen in the Chicago Public Library Millennium Park Digital Collection

The park is perhaps most well known for its inclusion of the work of architect Frank Gehry in the Jay Pritzker Pavilion and BP Bridge.  Both are beautiful structures and during my visit we took in a bit of the Grant Park Music Festival in the Pavilion.

The park also has a number of public art installations including Cloud Gate (aka the bean), Crown Fountain, and currently 1004 Portraits by Jaume Plensa is on by the Crown Fountain.

Art In The Farm Garden

I was also enthralled by the integration of vegetables into the gardens of Millennium and Grant Park.  A number of the main gardens and flower beds in Millennium Park contain corn, tomatoes, herbs and other veggies.  When harvested the vegetables are being donated to local non-profits. 

Youth working in the Art In The Farm Garden

There were also a number of vegetable only gardens in other sections of the park.  The community driven nature of these initiatives is inspiring.  The Grant Park “Art in the Farm” urban agriculture project is managed by Growing Power which trains and employs at-risk youth in urban agriculture and community food system development.  The gardens were both beautiful and practical.  It was great to see people working in the gardens and actually engaging with the green space. 

The prevalence of community gardens reminded me a lot of wartime community gardens that were started during WWII.  In Chicago over 1,500 victory gardens were started in the city mostly by people who had never gardened before.  An interesting comparison between the 1940s victory gardens and contemporary urban gardening can be seen here.

You can easily spend hours wondering around the parks in Chicago taking in the public art, gardens, and examples of community building.  I also spent considerable time in the Lurie Garden, which I’ll talk about in a separate post.

Photo Credit: Andrew MacKay.

Chicago Architecture From the River

I recently spent a few days in Chicago, Illinois.  This is the first in a series of posts about the museums, architecture, public gardens, and art I visited while there. 

During my fist full day in Chicago I spent part of the afternoon enjoying the Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise.  The 90 minute boat tour featured a journey down the Chicago river and focused on the history and architecture of over 50 buildings in the area.  Some of my favourite buildings on the tour were the Marina City building, 35 East Wacker, and the Civic Opera House.

The Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF) which operates the tours is an organization dedicated to celebrating and promoting the architecture of the city.  The organization was founded in 1966 in an effort to save the Glessner House from demolition.  This initial initiative brought together Chicago residents from all walks of life and resulted in the founding of the CAF.  Today the organization has over 450 volunteer docents who run tours such as the river cruise. Last year 319,661 people participated in tours put on by CAF.

Marina City Building

The CAF volunteer docents undergo a comprehensive training program and it shows.  Volunteer docents are required to complete a five week class on the fundamentals of Chicago architecture and a four week class specific to the tour they will be running.  More details about the training can be seen here.  The docent of my particular tour was enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and conducted the tour with great professionalism.

Overall the tour was a great mixture of history, architecture, and local anecdotes.  The docent covered the basics of architectural style, talked about influential architects in the city, provided detailed accounts of numerous buildings, and filled in the tour with the history of Chicago. I came away from the tour feeling as though I learned a lot but also had an opportunity to simply enjoy the sights.  Even if you don’t know a ton about built heritage or architecture the tour is engaging and designed to be accessible to the general public. 

Photo credit: Andrew MacKay

Kilkenny Castle: Architecture and Design Through the Ages

The Kilkenny Castle located on the River Nore in Kilkenny City was built in the early 13th century.  Throughout the history of the castle the building was renovated a number of times as the building changed owners, making the site today a mixture of architectural styles and time periods.

There are guided tours available at the Castle, however I arrived in between tours so the staff provided a map and sent me off on a self-guided tour.  The layout of the castle was a bit confusing at times, mostly because of the numerous renovations and additions that the building as undergone.  Resulting in the walk through the space feeling disjointed.

This disjointed feeling might also come from the fact that because the Castle was occupied for centuries the interpretation of the site tries to include elements from different time periods.  So the medieval period is seen in the basement of the castle where there are arrow loops, defensive rooms, and a wicker style ceiling. This is contrasted with a dinning room that reflects life in the castle during the 1860s and the library which is decorated in late 19th century style.

Perhaps the most striking architectural addition to the Castle is the Picture Gallery Wing which was added to the building in the early 1800s by architect William Robertson.  The high painted pitched roof is remarkable and the Gallery contains many of the portraits and paintings that were collected by former residents of the castle. 

The Castle is surrounded by gardens and parkland that is open to the public.  Elements of the older gardens have been maintained including a rose garden, sculptures, and walking paths.  Though many of the trees have been removed to provide open park space.

Former Carriage Building

Across the road from the Castle are the former carriage buildings and stable yard which were built in 1790.  The former stable buildings are now owned by Kilkenny Civic Trust and feature a number of craft studies, the Kilkenny Design Centre, and the Crafts Council of Ireland. The buildings are beautiful with a number of rounded arches, circular windows, and copper-domed tower being highlights.  The Design Centre also has a variety of handmade Irish crafts, which I could have spent hours looking at — I ended up buying a hat that was made locally. It was great to see the stables buildings being used and the exteriors of the buildings being preserved.

Photographs by Andrew MacKay

Local Architecture and National Differences

One of the best parts of day two of #ncph2012 was the walking tour of downtown Milwaukee.  The tour was put on by Historic Milwaukee Inc.  This particular tour was especially crafted for the conference and combined elements of various different tours HMI gives. I learned lots about local architecture styles, local history, and the preservation efforts in the city.  I took an abundance of pictures which I will share on this blog at a later date.   Additionally, I volunteered to be a reviewer for the Public Historian and will be writing up a review of the tour and submitting it the journal.

The other major learning experience I had yesterday focused on my current job at the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre.  Coming to the conference I was aware that there are national differences in the Canadian Residential School system and the US boarding school system.  However, I was unprepared for so many history focused people to have no knowledge of either system.  On the plus side, this has contributed to a number of educational moments where I have been able to share a bit about First Nation-Settler Relations.  Many people I’ve spoken to have been very receptive to learning about the IRS system in Canada and surprised at the extent to which Canada is still struggling with this aspect of our history.

Architecture and Heritage Institutions

Resnick Pavilion

Architecture and design can have a huge impact on how a space is used.  This is true in family homes, libraries, art galleries, museums, and buildings of all shapes and sizes.  How space is configured, materials used, the amount of natural light, and numerous other factors impact how visitors perceive a heritage institution.  Architectural features can also enhance or limit display and gallery space.


Architype Review has recently published issues which focus on architecture in libraries, art museums, and performing arts centres.  The architecture featured in these issues varies greatly; some is very modern and innovative while other featured buildings are very simplistic and classical in style.  In addition to providing great images of each structure Architype Review provides descriptive details on the space and its construction.

Some of my favourite featured heritage institutions in Artchitype Review include:

  •   The Safe Haven Library in Thailand.  This library is part of the Safe Haven Orphanage and was built in 2009 using local materials and labour. The structure is fairly simplistic but the building was designed to meet the specific needs to the library.  A great timelapse video which shoes the construction of the library and be seen here.
  • The Lynda and Stewart Resnick Exhibition Pavilion at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  The
    Wild Beast Music Pavilion

    Pavilion is a single-story, 45,000 square foot structure, and is currently the largest purpose-built, naturally lit, open-plan museum space in the world.  The fact that the space is naturally lit and relies upon open space is a very unique feature in the museum world.  

  • The Wild Beast Pavilion in Valencia, CA is a unique recital hall and outdoor performance space.  The space is multipurpose and is used for instruction, enclosed concert space, and open air recital space.  The numerous functions of the space combined with the visually pleasing design is what appealed to me about this particular design.

What are your favourite heritage institutions with unique architecture?

Toronto’s Flatiron Building

This past Sunday, CTV Toronto’s evening newscast featured a segment on Toronto’s Gooderham Building. The building is more commonly known as the Flatiron Building and is one of Toronto’s prominent landmarks. The segment focused on the heritage aspect of the Flatiron, including details of the building being built in the 1890s, the historic manual elevator which still functions today, and the building’s architectural highlights.

The Flatiron building in Toronto was the first Flatiron building to be built in North America. New York City’s Flatiron often gets credit for being the first of it’s kind, however the one in Toronto was build ten years prior. The building was originally commissioned by the Gooderham family for office space. In 1998, the building was bought by the Tippins and is currently used as office and commercial space.

In upcoming weeks, CTV Toronto plans to focus on more heritage buildings in Toronto during their Sunday broadcast. I look forward to tuning in to see which buildings they deem worthy of mentioning. Despite searching I haven’t been able to find the segment from Sunday online.

Photo credit: Wikimedia commons