Historic substance or hardware store?

“Heritage tourism” has slowly—in some respects, glacially slowly—crept into the mainstream as a viable part of the economic development lexicon. It can serve as a legitimate lure to outside visitors seeking something that they perceive as old, historically significant, authentic or distinctive.

As a definition of heritage tourism, the previous sentence contains several key adjectives that one might surmise would effectively embody the term. But, as any writer worth his or her salt will tell you, the adjectives aren’t the real meat and potatoes on the plate. Per usual, the most important word is the verb: in this case, “perceive”. I can state fairly confidently that the word “heritage” has become so semantically malleable that it no longer matters what it means, as long as it correlates to something significant in the eyes of the person making the judgment. And since each person’s judgment will differ to some degree, heritage itself can mean whatever it we all want it to. Its potency comes not so much in what in means as simply that it means. By distinguishing itself among other visual cues that don’t signify (or at least don’t signify anything as pointedly), it has tapped into its essence as an item of curiosity—and, consequently, it has manifested its own economic potential.

Bringing this postulate down to earth, it’s best, as always, to provide a visible example from the landscape. In this case, it’s Gaylord, the “Alpine Village” of northern Michigan, just about 85 miles south of Mackinac Island.

DSCF1400This town of 3,500 may not boast a lakefront, a bluff, a river, or any major geographical feature—a huge contrast to most similarly sized towns in the area—yet it still conveys the magnetism of a minor tourist center. On this Sunday morning in early September, most of the eateries along Gaylord’s Main Street were open.

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As one might expect from a town of its size, the main street of Gaylord isn’t long: it only features about three blocks of commercial buildings in the style of the above photos. But these buildings are incredibly consistent in evoking the German fachwerk, best known as half-timbering by the way the frame remains visible on the exterior and the “other half” of the support consists of some other non-structural infill material, such as brick and plaster. From an American perspective, this construction practice correlates strongly with Tudor Revival flourishes that clearly intended to evoke an architectural style popular in Europe (probably Germany, but potential France or England as well) before settlers ever arrived in Michigan, or most of America, for that matter.

DSCF1419In this case, the pronounced gable and all that half-timbering on the building of the right apparently recall a Swiss chalet, or something of the sort. And it’s hardly alone.

DSCF1406The low-rise building on the opposite of the street here is not likely a structure that dates from Gaylord’s turn-of-the-20th-century rise to prominence—not an authentic product of the town’s historic main street. Nonetheless, it still features half-timbering and prominent gables, even if they only serve a decorative rather than a structural purpose.

 

DSCF1420Not every building along Gaylord’s oldest stretch of Main Street deploys these fripperies with equal aplomb. And the four-lane highway that comprises most of Gaylord’s commercial district hardly conjures the intimacy of a medieval Swiss mountain village. But the visual cues are strong enough that even that rare individual not familiar with 15th century Saxon construction techniques can tell that Gaylord doesn’t look like the typical small Midwestern town. And this appearance is powerful enough that the town overtly markets itself as a postcard-perfect scene straight out of the Swiss Alps. The self-identification with all things Swiss culminates in an annual summer celebration, Alpenfest, that transforms Main Street into Alpenstrasse, offering carnival rides, live music, crafts, food, and a variety of Swiss-influenced traditions, such as the Lampion Parade and Burning of the Bogg, celebrating the beginning of Spring.

 

DSCF1411So now it’s clear why Gaylord brands itself the Alpine Village. But what events helped to make its architectural vernacular so distinctive—so Swiss?

DSCF1416The information superhighway is unusually coy about Gaylord’s history. The best I can find is that, like many communities of its size, it was a stop along a once-prominent rail line: Jackson, Lansing and Saginaw Railroad. Settled in 1874, the community got its name from Augustine Smith Gaylord, an attorney for the company, and it grew to some prominence through the lumbering industry. Small as it may be, Gaylord is the largest community in Otsego County and its seat of government.

Meanwhile, the web offers even less about Gaylord’s importance as an early Swiss settlement. Frankly, I can find nothing. The primary ethnicities of the county are German, then Polish, then English, then American or English, depending on the source (US Census versus Epodunk). Epodunk in particular delves into ancestries that comprise less than 2% of the population, and Swiss is still nowhere to be seen. Furthermore, not a single place in Michigan rates among the top 15 communities for persons claiming Swiss ancestry, at least according to SF-3 data from the 2000 Census—though neighboring states Indiana and Wisconsin both have among the highest concentrations of Swiss-Americans.

 

DSCF1387In short, the numbers don’t support the notion that Gaylord or the rest of Otsego County have ever housed a Swiss settlement. One could argue that the intense German heritage of the area is close enough, and many of the cultural gestures that the Alpenfest celebrates are probably easy to find in Bavaria or Austria, but the fact remains that Gaylord distinguishes itself for a Swiss brand. (After all, in this part of the country, claiming German ancestry is unlikely to prove that distinctive; it’s the dominant ethnicity in every single Midwestern state). So how did Gaylord get to become an Alpine village, or, for that matter, to forge a Sister City relationship with Pontresina, Switzerland?

Another section of the Gaylord website seems to be a bit more candid. Apparently the prevailing look of Gaylord owes a great deal to the Otsego Ski Club, popular on the east side of town during the Great Depression. Typical of many ski retreats, the Club had adopted the chalet-style architecture. Its appearance caught on among local boosters, who thought that pronounced gables and half-timbering could serve as a branding strategy, accentuating the snowy climate and its suitability for an all-out ski culture. After all, landlocked Gaylord needed something to distinguish itself from the numerous lakefront towns nearby.

It worked, eventually. According to the Otsego County Historical Society, the president/owner of the Otsego Ski Club wasn’t quite able to make a successful pitch to the rest of the town. By the 1960s, though, the look he adopted caught on, largely through a partnership between the Gaylord State Bank and the local Chamber of Commerce. By that point, other nearby owners took to the idea, and, and before long, a variety building façades had adapted to a loose variant on a chalet. Over time, a majority of Gaylord’s Main Street assumed the look in one way or another, transforming it into Alpenstrasse.

DSCF1402The building on the right particularly underlines the cosmetic nature of the change. It doesn’t take an architect or a engineer to tell that those gables and cross-lumbering serve no real structural purpose; they just contribute to the ambiance.

What’s more remarkable is that the Alpine motifs aren’t consigned just to the three-block downtown. Many newer structures have conformed to this look in one way or another.

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DSCF1430An apparent marketplace shelter also shows inspiration from the extremely vague Tudor Revival references, and it looks brand new.

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DSCF1421National chains seem to have caught on as well.

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DSCF1433Even a local gas station uses the motifs for its convenience store.

DSCF1429And a much larger grocery store.

DSCF1435It really is everywhere. What began as a sort of fad has eventually set the standard for construction; the municipal zoning ordinance features a section called “Swiss Alpine Motif” and a subsection “Required Alpine Design Standards”, beginning on page 45.  Through the ordinance, the City of Gaylord provides design guidance through recommended architectural features, and “it is encouraged” (in the words of the law) that developers abide by the suggested standards “For Greater Swiss Alpine Design”, in order to obtain site plan review approval.

The results are obvious.

DSCF1397Gaylord has achieved a certain consistency in its appearance that, although it may only loosely reflect Tudor Revival construction, remains distinct from anywhere else in northern Michigan, and possibly just about anywhere else in the country. But it’s hardly a result of the ethnic heritage of the original settlers. Nothing indicates that even a handful of Gaylord’s founders came from Switzerland, or Austria, or even the southern portions of Germany that might identify with these Alpine motifs.

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So, you’re probably thinking what I was: that Gaylord is a lot less Confoederatio Helvetica and much more Epcot Center, in the long run. But does that really matter? The town’s advocates found a niche and stuck with it, resulting in a main street and a community in general that, from the looks of things, is pretty prosperous.

So Gaylord’s alpine heritage owes itself entirely to a cleverly positioned architectural branding strategy. Big deal. It clearly wasn’t going to compete with waterfront towns like Mackinaw City, Cheboygan, Charlevoix, or Harbor Springs, and certainly not the bigger ones like Alpena, Petoskey, or Traverse City. But it is only a quarter-mile from Interstate 75, and it’s generally less than 80 miles from most of the aforementioned summertime tourist destinations. Not surprisingly, therefore, Gaylord hosts a number of hotels along the east-west State Route 32 that forms its main street; the rates are probably lower and they’re far less likely to fill up weeks in advance during the summer. With the possible exception of the Alpenfest weekend, tourists aren’t driving up to sparsely populated northern Michigan to visit Gaylord. But, even if the Alpine look isn’t a magnet on its own, it certainly makes for a more desirable and distinctive stopover than the typical service plaza at an interstate exit. And there’s enough of an attraction to locating in Gaylord that national brands (or at least their franchise owners) have been willing to incur the cost to include the requisite architectural elements, when such unusual building standards easily could have scared them into setting up shop elsewhere.

 

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So Gaylord’s Swiss/Tyrolean heritage isn’t all that old. Plenty of people are still alive today who can no doubt remember when all these chalet-style façades replaced the old ones. I see no evidence from online promotional material that the City of Gaylord’s has attempted a disclaimer, but no one is arguing anything belongs on the National Register either. Whether people perceive that something seems a bit off with all these façades along the commercial district—that they just don’t look like they’re as old as most of the buildings themselves—probably will never matter. Maybe the historic purists will turn their noses, but for everyone else, it just looks like a healthy, well-maintained main street—which, unfortunately, remains a relative rarity in this country. If the Alpine Village seems bogus now because it’s only 50 years old, bear in mind that eventually it will probably outlast the people who saw it constructed. And then, by American standards at least, it will be old. After all, the National Park Service is willing to consider a locale for the National Register of Historic Places as long as it surpasses 50 years in age (and sometimes the NPS makes exceptions to newer properties).

But—the devil’s advocate will argue—even when it’s old, it’s still fake, because real Swiss settlers didn’t develop it, so it didn’t appear organically. To which one could easily retort: who decides when an initiative is organic and when it isn’t? Those adjectives I listed at the beginning—old, historically significant, distinctive, authentic—they’ve cropped up throughout this article, as have a host of others that might serve as a litmus test for a place with real heritage. But perception is more tractable than any of them, and if someone makes a strong enough case for it, anything can be historic, old, authentic, etc. The citizens of Gaylord sure made the case.

4 thoughts on “Historic substance or hardware store?

  1. AmericanDirt Post author

    Hi Kirk. Though I’ve never been to Berne, from what I can tell, it’s the real deal. Berne and Monticello, Wisconsin are neck-and-neck for having the highest percentage of the population that claims Swiss ancestry. Unlike Gaylord, they’re real Swiss settlements.

    Reply
  2. Alex Pline

    What strikes me as so incongruous about this place is the clash between the architectural style (faux or otherwise) and the quintessentially American wide streets. I think this contradiction makes it look even more ridiculous, and utterly ridiculous when applied to strip mall development!

    This reminds me a lot of Helen Georgia located along the Appalachian ridge in northern Georgia which reinvented itself as a Bavarian Village. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helen,_Georgia I spent a weekend there bike riding in 2005 when the pro Tour De Georgia went through there. They have at least kept the quintessential Americana away from the core of the “Village” so if you squint hard enough – or drink enough beer – it could actually pass.

    Reply
  3. AmericanDirt

    Thanks for the comment, Alex. Yes, Gaylord’s streets are hugely–clearly built to accommodate a post-automobile environment. And the same cannot be said of the Alpine villages from which the town’s architectural vernacular draws its inspiration.

    I was not familiar with Helen, GA. It appears much, much smaller than Gaylord, so I’d imagine it’s business district is much smaller. And its sparse population may also have precluded the need for wide streets, which seems to be the case, judging from a Google Streetview. Like Helen, Gaylord’s central business district seems to have been spared the “quintessential Americana” that you speak of, for at least a 3-4 block stretch. But those wide streets are an American original.

    No matter. The Alpine look still seems to distinguish Gaylord, and it has resulted in a pretty healthy main street, though I expect the tourist season is shorter for Gaylord than for Helen. After all, in late October, the peak color season for Helen, a place like Gaylord could quite possibly already have its share of snow.

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