Standing in front of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Meyer May House, built in 1909 in the Heritage Hill Historic District when Grand Rapids, Michigan, was in its prime as the nation’s leading furniture manufacturer, I developed a deep appreciation of Wright’s mastery of the Prairie School style, with its strong horizontal lines and deep eaves.
But Wright’s house is not the sole standout in this historic neighborhood. The beauty of about 1,300 houses, ranging from Greek Revival to Italianate to Queen Anne, among others, made me grateful for the efforts of the Heritage Hill Association, formed in 1968 to successfully defeat demolition plans that would have wiped out three-quarters of them. Added to both the National Register of Historic Places and the Michigan State Register of Historic Sites in 1971, Heritage Hill is one of the most impressive collections of outstanding residences in the country.
Once I finished my leisurely stroll around the district, which took far longer than anticipated, I was happy to know that I did not have to walk very far to my lodging — the Brayton House, right in the heart of Heritage Hill. The curb appeal of this Georgian Revival, built in 1889, in undeniable. As I walked up the stairs, past the four two-story Corinthian columns and up to the front door flanked by leaded sidelights, I had the feeling that I would soon be crossing the threshold into a previous century. And when owner Phyllis Ball, who has lived here for more than 30 years, welcomed me into her home, I knew that I had.
The 20-room mansion features a grand staircase, arched doorways, a bay window, fireplaces, and a couple of murals. Lots of unrelated bric-a-brac lie about, as you might expect in your grandmother’s home, as well as mismatched furniture. My bedroom on the second floor solidified the century-old atmosphere of the place — it lacked a private bath, television, and air conditioning. However, the comfort and spaciousness of the room more than compensated for the absent facilities. When I managed to rouse myself from a very restful slumber in the morning, I was lured downstairs by the aromas of the most important meal of the day being prepared. Breakfast was served at the dining room table, where it was easy to engage in conversation with the other guests — in my case, a South African flour miller from Durban in town for a conference.
If you’re willing to give up a couple of modern conveniences in exchange for a few days experiencing the gentility of an earlier age in one of America’s most attractive neighborhoods, the Brayton House will fit the bill nicely.