Bridges That Can't Be Burned

After dropping Mark at the airport shortly after noon on Monday, I nosed the car toward Toledo to partake of some classic Great Lakes hot dog cuisine at a place called Tony Packo's that's been in business since 1932.  To be fair, while I do indeed love a good hot dog, the real reason I wanted to visit Tony Packo's Cafe was the 1500+ autographed hot dog buns that are entombed in clear plastic sarcophagi along the walls.  All sorts of people from Burt Reynolds (the first bun signer) to Barak Obama to Art Garfunkel to Mickey Rooney have put Sharpie to white bread in the name of...of...of.. Let's move on, shall we?

When I pulled into the parking lot I was surprised to see it was nearly empty, but then again it was close to 2:00 in the afternoon so maybe the rush hour was simply over.  When I walked around to the front of the building, it looked like they'd been doing some construction or renovation work, but when I reached the entrance, a forlorn piece of 8.5 x 11 paper taped to the glass read: "Due to the accident this morning, the Cafe will not be open today."  Accident!  Dang!  A car must have jumped the curb or run the light or something, and that's what all the Tyvek house wrap and 2x4s out front were about.

Oh poor pitiful me - I really wanted to see those damn buns!  I lurked about, sidling up to the employee entrance and loosing a tentative, "Helloooo???" in the hopes of finding someone whose arm I could twist.  As I stood there looking dejected, a fellow that worked there returned from an errand and spoke to me .  I asked him what had happened and it was much more dramatic than I had suspected: a man driving an 18 wheeler had driven directly into the front of the building without braking and in fact they later discovered he had died of a heart attack.  Yikes.  Fortunately the incident had happened at 7:00 in the morning so no one else was around to be harmed.  A slow motion movie just kept running through my head of disintegrating wall and hot dog buns and shards of clear plastic.  I guess the one good thing is that if you've got to go, that's a pretty spectacular exit, especially since no one else got hurt.  I'm keeping my eyes peeled for any news for any news on bun casualties.

So, back on the road, feeling a bit more mortal and a bit less giddy, I left the interstate behind and started east down the sort of delicious two lane black top I love so well.  About every 8 miles or so I would slow down from 55 to 45 to drive through a tiny Michigan township, usually comprised of no more than a few businesses and civic facilities. And a Dollar General.  It does not seem to matter how small a town is, there will always be at least one Dollar General store.

I was headed to the town of Somerset Center to visit what I would soon discover was a thoroughly enchanting place by the name of McCourtie Park.  When I arrived, it was shortly after a pleasant summer rain storm had concluded, and happily the weather seemed to have discouraged less intrepid individuals leaving me the place to myself.

In 1924, cement tycoon W. H. L. McCourtie (who made his fortune in Dallas, by the way) chose the 42 acre farm he had grown up on to build a grand estate celebrating his success.  He had plenty of money and plenty of cement, so in 1930 he hired two artists/experts in a technique called faux bois (using concrete to closely mimic wood) to outfit the grounds of his grand new home with sculptural concrete.   George Cardoso and Ralph Corona (and it is rumoured Dionicio Rodriguez) worked to produce a series of  seventeen bridges, several benches and two fantastic chimneys.  Frames of metal were constructed and then cement was applied by hand to produce effects as varied as planed planks, rough limbs, thatch and rope.

In a way, I'm getting ahead of myself because there were several other interesting things in the park besides the faux bois bridges, so let me tell you about those before proceeding with the bridge showcase.

To lodge and entertain his friends when they visited, McCourtie had a six car garage combined with lodge style living quarters built into the side of the hill below the mansion and dubbed it the "Rathskellar". Because the rooms were heated in the winter (and because there was exhaust in the garages), two chimneys were installed atop the building and finished in faux bois style.  Unless your attention is directed to them, they blend in so beautifully with the surroundings that they essentially disappear.  What a daring design for 1930!

This post sits by the side of the driveway near the entrance to the garage area and housed the electrical wiring for the spiffy electric garage door opening buttons (again, daring for 1930!):

Another decadent feature that I found astounding was the two spring fed pools just down hill from the Rathskellar.  Both pools are 60 feet wide x 100 feet long x 14 feet deep and one was for swimming and the other was stocked with trout so Mr. McCourtie could go fishing whenever he liked. The ponds were rediscovered in 1987 during renovations when a tractor almost drove into one of them because they were so covered over with vegetation!   The volunteers that manage the park have let the pools return to their natural state and they are eerily beautiful.  Water plants can be seen reaching from the depths toward the murky light.  Have you ever seen the movie Diabolique?  If you haven't you should - it's a cinematic masterpiece where a murky swimming pool figures heavily.

This wonderful kissing chair was one of the very first pieces I encountered.

As soon as I began strolling through the grounds, the abundance and variety of the plants and animals that have made McCourtie Park their home became apparent.  As I approached the first bridge, I spied a trio of curious Sand Hill Cranes eyeing me carefully from the other side.  They bumbled about in front of me for a good long while, always moving ahead a little when I got too close for their comfort.  I was also charmed by the iridescent teal and smoky black winged damsel flies (ebony jewelwings they're called) that flitted about in the grasses at the stream's edge.  Over and over as I wandered along the creek, I would hear loud plops announcing the departure of one of the gorgeous green and copper leopard frogs that seemed to be so plentiful.  Now I realized why the Sand Hill cranes were so persistent in their perambulations.

The park was incredibly well landscaped in my opinion.  It made so many pretty pictures (as you'll see) without being pretentious or showy.  The park is completely maintained by volunteers and they do a fantastic job.

Alright, on to the bridges.  I cannot tell you how happy it made me to see this work.  The craftsmanship on these faux bois pieces was the best I've personally encountered and I was just stunned at how technically proficient they are.  I have not seen anyone working with cement today that can even approach the mastery of these gentlemen:

Remember, this is all CONCRETE!

Some of the bridges were wired for electric lights for night time strolls.

I hereby proclaim this the best faux bois bench I've ever had the pleasure of sitting on.  So comfortable, and it juts out over the brook so it's cool and breezy.  Awesome.

I exhausted two camera batteries over a couple of hours, deliriously happy in my little paradise of concrete, cranes and creeping vines.  I spied one of the volunteers on my way out and thanked them for the excellent job they do and he seem well pleased.

I returned to my quaint little motel just down the street, where I could hear the lowing of the cows over my air conditioner since there was a giant diary right behind the motel. I skulked over to the pens as the golden light of evening began to fall to have a look at what was going on.  The dairy had been in the news a month or two earlier when one of their cows had given birth to three calves which is highly unusual.

Good thing there was a fly swatter in my motel room!  My room had lots of great little details like the  Midwestern practicality of having a Gojo dispenser over the sink:

The bathroom was probably tiled in the 40s and had the cutest little bathtub (about 4' long) I've ever seen.  When I pulled the curtain back, I thought at first the drain was  stained but then realized the enamel had just been worn away it was so old.  That takes some doing!

What a delightful day.  Later, I blathered on the phone to Mark about the many nuances of concrete and he was kindly attentive.  What I found in Somerset Center was such a grand surprise.  My batteries were all charged up now!

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