John Lautner grew up with ancient rock under his feet and towering pines above his head. His mother painted the walls and ceilings of their house with flowers and clouds, and his dad filled it with learning. From the family’s log cabin high on a bluff, you can see miles of Lake Superior water and Michigan forest. Midgaard lives up to its Norse name, meaning between heaven and earth.
I’ve written before about my obsession with Lautner, the mid-century modernist maverick architect and native Yooper. Sunday, I got to walk in his footsteps. Thanks to the generous time of his daughter Karol Peterson Lautner, I visited Keepsake, the house he grew up in, and Midgaard, the camp he helped his parents build in the 1920s. We even kayaked to see Midgaard from the lake. It was a last-minute visit to Marquette and a highlight of the trip, right up there with the eagle.
Keepsake and Midgaard are both based on European styles, German and Norse. Lautner’s professor dad was of German descent, his artist mother Irish. And yet in their use of native wood (cedar and pine), anchoring to the rock (boulders lead underfoot up to Midgaard’s door), and fervent embrace of their landscape, these are thoroughly American homes — the America of optimistic embrace and progressive ideas. Marquette may be an obscure outpost in a remote region, but it’s also a university town. John’s parents were well-traveled bohemians, cosmopolitans in the American woods. They picked the site for Midgaard — perched among rocky spines atop a cliff — because it reminded them of the Alps.
One can see the imprint his UP upbringing left on Lautner as he went on to Taliesin to study and work with Frank Lloyd Wright, then founded his own company in Los Angeles, building such landmark homes as the Chemosphere and Pearlman Mountain Cabin. For one, those boulders reappear — he uses them as furniture in houses he built in Malibu. Lautner wasn’t the first American architect to make a fusion of indoor and outdoor spaces central to his work — he learned it from Wright, for one. But I think he took it further than anyone else. There’s a spectacular, spiritual quality of the environment up here in Michigan that’s indelible, that shapes your outlook. It’s why Lautner embedded glasses in the ceiling of the Sheats-Goldstein house, to recreate the dappled light of the forest. It’s why at the Arango house in Acapulco, he embraced the same kind of limitless horizon you get on the widow’s walk at Midgaard. It’s why I return to the Upper Peninsula ever summer, this eternal quest for an Edenic restart.
We also visited Bud’s brother Bob and Bob’s wife Kelly in Marquette. Cole jumped into their pool over and over, dancing and shouting, “I’m happy!” Kelly took him for spins around the water on her air mattress. He got mad when she dumped him but forgave her, and they sat on her front porch talking about pets. Cole doesn’t see his aunts and uncles all that often, but he’s been getting some quality time on this trip.