After spending some time in Wisconsin and taking an all-day letterpress workshop at the Hamilton Wood Type Museum in Two Rivers, it was time to make our way to Detroit. This would complete the first leg of the my summer 2017 travels. We drove up through Green Bay (stopping ever so briefly at Lambeau Field to pay tribute to the massive statue of Vince Lombardi) and into the wilds of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and then down across the Mackinac Bridge (sometimes called locally "Mighty Mac") to Mackinaw City.
I realize there is a bit of linguistic confusion going on. The original Native American place name for the region is Michilimackinac, which means "Big Turtle" in Odawa, a dialect of the Ojibwe language which is spoken by the Ottawa people of this part of Northern Michigan. When the French occupied this land, they shortened the name to Mackinac but pronounced it as "Mackinaw" in a way which was natural to them. The British then came after the French, but changed the spelling to match the pronunciation. Today the city itself insists on AW while the bridge, the straits, and the island insist on AC. All are pronounced the same: "Mackinaw."
As it happened, we parked (quite accidentally) right next to a thematic design bonanza.
Mackinaw Crossings is a classic example of a mid-1990s to mid-2000s themed retail redevelopment project. Billed on the city's website as "a Victorian inspired center where unique shopping, dining & entertainment come together," Mackinaw Crossings includes such amenities as "over 50 specialty shops, attractions and dining. Exciting new children’s playground, free nightly laser show, Rock climbing wall, Archery shooting lane and a 10,000 gallon fish aquarium." The outdoor shopping complex was built in 1997 by Bill Shepler and co-owned for many years with his partners Mike Ryan and Jimmy Wehr.
We entered from the parking lot via Sharky's Mackinaw Outfitters which looked nothing like the "Victorian" description of the rest of the development I later found online. But it works.
The aesthetic here is the archetypal North Woods Lodge, although to my eye the building smacked more of the Pacific Northwest and perhaps the National Parkitecture vibe of Yosemite, Yellowstone, or Glacier.
The sporting goods and outdoor recreation equipment national chain Cabela's has a very similar look and feel, although Sharkey's hews closer to a more historic presentation with authentic materials and construction—it's more "lodge" like.
Sharky's was only the largest retail node on the perimeter of a much more involved district; it is indicated here as number 13 at the far left. The areas I walked through are the purple zone from the parking lot to the green sector which spills out onto the street. As we were in a hurry to get to the ferry for our Mackinac Island day trip, I completely missed the rest of Mackinaw Crossings! But that which I did see and photograph told me all I needed to know.
Looking back towards Sharky's from further inside Mackinaw Crossings, it's evident that there is some 'blending' with regards to the rooflines and materials use that permits this 'lodge' to anchor comfortably to the more gingerbread trimmings of classic Victorian architecture (or at least the contemporary American reinterpretation of it).
Looking forward from Sharky's into Mackinaw Crossings, the Victorian theme starts to slowly takes over. I was actually impressed by (some) of the subtlety exhibited by the designers here. You don't typically see that much restraint at retail developments like this, but there is—dare I say—a bit of a Disney-esque approach to the transitions between building styles.
I've quoted Richard V. Francaviglia from his Main Street Revisited: Time, Space, and Image Building in Small-Town America elsewhere before, and I'll probably continue to do so as encounter these types of streetscapes and townscapes.
One of his key points in Main Street Revisited is that our twentieth-century conception of American small towns is sort of frozen in a Victorian overdrive which is historically inaccurate—and, more pointedly, a direct result of the Disneyland conception of Main Street USA. Francaviglia also notes the differences between the design of Main Street at the original park and the later version at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom:
A comparison of the two streetscapes reveals that the architecture in the Florida park has a much more lavish, overly ornate, perhaps almost burlesque, quality. In fact, whereas the Disneyland Main Street USA is fairly credible, Main Street USA in Walt Disney World is almost bizarre in its architectural treatment.
That newer generation of Disney design reflected in the Florida theme park seems to have been carried away with architectural hyperbole: Disney World's Main Street USA is a caricature of Disneyland's Main Street USA, which is in turn is a caricature of the Main Streets of places like Marceline and many other towns.
It is in this "more lavish, overly ornate, perhaps almost burlesque" style that Mackinaw Crossings is designed, and in that respect it's like many such places across the country which flourished from the early to mid-nineties until about the Great Recession of 2008.
Curiously, the development was apparently offered for auction (either as individual retail shops or as a whole) in the summer of 2006. I was unable to find the results of that auction, but in November 2017 the entire Mackinaw Crossings complex was purchased whole by Mackinac Bay Properties, a company run by Joe and Enzo Lieghio.
The article from the time of the auction announcement in the local Mackinac Island Town Crier quoted founding partner Bill Shepler as saying that the only thing like his shopping mall are the experiences that Disney provides:
We made our way fairly quickly through Sharky's to the side street which spills out onto East Central Avenue to the north. This is the main artery, or "Main Street" of Mackinaw City, despite the fact that the actual boulevard named Main Street is just south of the Mackinaw Crossings development (and does not appear to have been redeveloped). This quirk jives with Richard V. Francaviglia's observation that Disney's "Main Street USA" has transformed "Main Street" into its own brand identity which is employed by towns which don't even feature a Main Street, or, in this case, is played up through design on another avenue other than the actual Main Street.
This is the north side of Mackinaw Crossings which spills onto East Central Avenue. That main thoroughfare is lined with an eclectic mix of buildings old, new, restored, and re-created—just like towns such as Deadwood, South Dakota which I had visited earlier this trip.
In retrospect, I regret that I didn't spend just a bit more time milling around the Mackinaw Crossings development. But we had a ferry to catch out to Mackinac Island.
In keeping with Francaviglia's field observations in Main Street Revisited, the streetscape here on East Central Avenue is quite amalgamated in its historicity; it's a decoupage, and good luck determining a timeline of development here, even with a trained eye. Some storefronts are possibly older than the turn of the twentieth century, such as this general store.
Typical for American tourist traps like this, Native American iconography is exploited in the name of "authenticity." I ducked into the shop and the owners were white as white can be.
A few buildings appeared to date to mid-century, such as this post office. Very modernist; glass curtain walls, no fascia on the roof edge, etc.
Francaviglia points out that many smaller towns across the United States began retrofitting their Main Streets and environs with thematic touches in the wake of Disneyland's overwhelming popular success. These 'improvements' were often designed to heighten the ethnic heritage of a particular township or region. Here the blackletter typography suggests Germanic roots, although the name "Cunningham" is early medieval Scottish in origin.
Part of the archetypal design approach to these kinds of spaces means that 'Germanic' becomes a condensed and distilled shorthand for 'Old Worlde European.'
I don't know if I'd say "clever" thematic design—perhaps "effective" thematic design—leverages existing iconography, whether geographic, cultural, historic, or sometimes merely structural. For all kinds of seafaring peoples, a lighthouse can inspire perhaps not full genuflection but at least a kind of totemistic reverence.
This "Fudge Lighthouse" is definitely a more recent structure (I'd guess mid-to-late nineties) and it feels oddly grafted onto the Victorian gingerbread around it, but it anchors the corner where East Central Avenue terminates at the waterfront, so its location is at least somewhat conceptually appropriate.
Turning the corner there are even more fudge shops (I guess Mackinaw City is famous for its fudge) and great examples of "new as old" construction common to revitalized Main Streets. The saturated wall and roof tile colors are consistent with Francaviglia's field research, in which representations far exceed historical accuracy:
Regarding the subject of historic colors on Main Street, however, many architects in the 1970s and 1980s consulted contemporary guidebooks and style books from the period 1890–1910 to determine which colors were popular. They followed directions, accenting the elaborate trim with varied colors. Nevertheless, a careful look at historic photographs reveals that the buildings on real Main Streets were often painted in fairly simple color schemes; white, buff, and green being common. Thus, the renovation architects may have introduced colors more typical of the elaborate bay-windowed Victorian "painted lady" townhouse of San Francisco, or Walt Disney's version of the small town as seen in the Disney parks, than what Main Street actually looked like ca. 1900.
Oddly (or, perhaps, completely predictably) at the water's edge adjacent to the ferry docks—and across the street from the "Fudge Lighthouse"—we've come full circle from where we parked back at Sharky's Mackinaw Outfitters; the North Woods Lodge look.
There's plenty of confusing things going on here. "Dixie" of course is the traditional nickname for the American South. "Saloon" suggests a bar in the Old West, perhaps a 19th century mining town. But the architecture is sort of a Colorado version of National Parkitecture crossed with the Great Midwestern Hunting Lodge I saw back at Sharky's.
The interior had massive vaulted ceilings with exposed (pine?) beams. There were also smaller design touches that suggested proximity to the water, such as rope and hurricane lamps.
So the South, by way of the Old West, waterside in the Midwest. It was a confusing design statement to make; I was expected something that would perhaps transition more naturally to getting on the ferry and experiencing the (hopefully more authentic?) history of Mackinac Island. But that's also sort of the fun of theming—like a screenplay with carefully placed jump scares I occasionally get quite thrown.