A restored mansion in Kalamazoo’s historic district.

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From his cluttered memory bank, Neil recalled the slogan “a Kalamazoo direct to you.” He thought it referred to furniture shipped directly from a factory, only to learn it was all about stoves (Kalamazoo Stove Company, 1902-1952).

Kalamazoo is a mid-sized city in south central Michigan that the Guys visited in April 2011. Predictably, Alan had been to Kalamazoo previously and Neil was in the dark, expecting to find furniture factories. 

Another in a long list of cities and towns to emerge from the wilderness of the Northwest Territory after the removal of its Native American inhabitants in the early 19th century and the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, Kalamazoo is today Michigan’s 16th largest city.

The completion of the canal opened vast, new territory for white settlers eager to start anew. The resolution of the issue of Indians and land rights made the Northwest Territory an attractive alternative to East coast crowding, too.

About three hours from downtown Chicago, downtown Kalamazoo has had a recent architectural renaissance of historical and other buildings, albeit perhaps stalled because of the present recession. Attractive rehabilitated buildings now seem to be only partially occupied and at midday on a Friday traffic was light.

Nevertheless, after a visit with the friendly and helpful folks in the Visitors Center, the Guys got their bearings straight; and they were on their way to some pretty interesting stuff.

First visited was the Kalamazoo Valley Museum in the heart of downtown, which the Getaway Guys would characterize as being a “one-size-fits-all” institution.

Along with historic artifacts and ephemera tracing Kalamazoo’s roots and growth, this all-encompassing museum also houses a wide variety of interactive science and technology exhibits.

An overgrown kid with an innate science curiosity (he subscribed to Science Illustrated), Alan was enchanted. Neil, the science illiterate, thought it was “interesting.” But both learned that Checker cabs were once produced in Kalamazoo. (Surely everyone over 40 has ridden in a Checker Cab) and the Gibson Guitar Company had its roots there. Even the musically untalented Neil recognized the Gibson name in guitar history.

Next was Bronson Park, just west of the city center, an adjacent historic residential district along South Street and the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts nearby.

The park is spacious, maintained well and guarded on all sides by a remarkable collection of well-preserved period churches of almost every denomination imaginable.

The South Street residential district is lined with period houses reflecting changing tastes. From Victorian to Queen Anne, Colonial Revival to Tudor (all in good condition), South Street is what one might expect in a Midwest metropolis once on the make.

The “best” people probably lived here and may continue to do so. The Kalamazoo Institute of Arts was a big surprise. Architecturally, the building is not a wow, but Neil and Alan were impressed with its permanent collection of some pretty good stuff. The collection contains a number of works (paintings and sculptures) by first-rate artists of the 19th and 20th centuries. Among those are Edmonia Lewis, Paul Manship, William Zorach, Thomas Eakins, Joseph Stella, David Park, Richard Diebenkorn and Franz Kline.

While Alan was drawn to the paintings in particular, Neil was intrigued by the Edmonia Lewis sculpture. A somewhat obscure 19th-century artist, Miss Lewis is known to Neil because he once moved her large, marble Death of Cleopatra from Chicago (where it had been discovered in a dump many years before) to the National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C. Part Native American, part African American, Ms. Lewis (1845-1907) enjoyed a distinguished and profitable career in the U.S. and Rome, Italy, but died in poverty and obscurity.

During an earlier Kalamazoo visit,  Alan had heard of Parkwyn Village, a suburban development designed by Frank Lloyd Wright not far from the Western Michigan University campus on the west side of town.

For better or worse its location is somewhat elusive and mysterious, but the traveling duo finally found it and ¬ oh boy, what a bonanza. In winding and undulating terrain, four houses are original FLW designs from the late 1940s and several later examples are by Taliesin Associates. Modest in size, these middle-class dwellings represent Wright’s later ideas about good design on an affordable scale.

Unlike his early Oak Park, Ill., residences or, for example, his famous Falling Water in Pennsylvania, the Parkwyn Village houses are modest but true to Wright’s theories. They are maintained well and are faithful to their original design almost 70 years afterward. For FLW aficionados or just the curious, this is something to see. Both Guys have seen enough of FLW to last a lifetime, but they were very impressed.

As it was getting late, Neil was ready to pack it in, but Alan (former pilot and aviation geek) wanted to see the Air Zoo on the south edge of town. Not another airplane museum. Reluctantly, Neil agreed to tag along.

A relatively new museum sort of buried in corn fields, Air Zoo contains an excellent collection of restored, vintage aircraft. World War II fighters and bombers, Cold War supersonics and craft of other vintage and design are displayed.
But Mr. Aviation and his side-kick, who had served on an aircraft carrier, were stopped dead by an XR-70 Blackbird. Of larger-than-expected dimensions and capable of crossing the U.S. in less than an hour, this high-altitude piece of spy apparatus was a wowie-zowie experience and just scary to gaze upon.

With more time, the Guys could have tanked up for free (free being a Barney favorite) on the Lake Michigan Shore Wine Trail, which highlights a dozen wineries according to wine-biber Alan. The previous fall, he and his family tasted their way through the Contessa, Domaine Berien, Lemon Creek, St. Julian and Tabor Hill wineries. For Neil, an occasional flute of Prosecco is adequate; comparing the essence of one grape against another (they all look the same) is a waste of time. As he recalls, a couple shots of whiskey produces the same affect in less than half the time. At any rate, a wine tasting tour before or after a Kalamazoo visit for those interested would be a plus.

Editor’s Note: The authors maintain a free website, www.getaway-chicago.com, which offers recommended outings to nearby destinations that are often overlooked, but of genuine interest and delight.