When I first visited the big rambling historic home on Front Street belonging to my friend Ann, it was one of many stretching from the charming downtown of Buchanan, a town on the St. Joseph River in southwestern Michigan, along a tree lined street. It could have, I remember thinking, been the setting of one of those sweet old fashioned movies about a sweet old fashioned town.
But over the years, the city began losing its glow. Businesses closed, Ann’s mother died and her father moved away and the long rows of pristine homes and businesses in such architectural styles as Victorian, Queen Anne and Colonial, became worn with age and neglect.
It was a sorry passing and one so very common for small towns today. But, it turns out, Buchanan wasn’t done.
With rents in the city going sky high, Alan Robandt, an art and antiquity dealer, was visiting a Michigan friend when he “fell in love with Buchanan.”
This was in 2006 and at the time, there were 24 empty store fronts in the downtown—no small number given that the town’s main retail area is only a few blocks.
“The city had great raw materials,” says Robandt, whose store, Alan Robandt Antique, Vintage, & Modern, was one of the frontrunners in the re-imaging of Buchanan. “And it had these great cultural markers in place too—Fernwood Botanical Gardens, the preservationist group Preserve Buchanan, the public library and the old mill.”
Robandt opened his sleek store in what he describes as the crumbling Union Building, built in the mid 1800s by land developer and businessman Lorenso Alexander who was also said to be an abolitionist, aiding escaped slaves making their way to Canada and freedom. Robandt lives on the second floor above his store in the refurbished building with its Palladian style windows selling a unique line of furniture and art. Need a Mexican Modern Mercury Glass Bottle Lamp or a 50′s Modern Mirror with Engraved Canted Edge? He’s your man.
The walkability of the city is appealing as well says Robandt, who won a Citizen Award from the Michigan Historic Preservation Network for his restoration work. Just steps away, the Union Coffee House & Café features locally sourced food, music and java. Coward, the Nordic-sleek pizzeria and coffee shop, is just around the corner and is a place where people line up for Scandinavian style cinnamon rolls on weekends. Also in the downtown is Brimfield, a home decor shop with another location in the Andersonville section of Chicago. The store specializes in re-upholstery of early to mid-20th century furniture and also sells vintage and antique pieces. For quaffing artisan beers, the newly opened Uptown Tap also serves bar food made from scratch. The Old Sweet Shop, with its 1940s soda fountain and house made candies, has been a long time downtown favorite.
A formerly abandoned building on a bend of the St. Joseph River became Wheatberry Restaurant & Tavern with menu items focusing on local and regional foods given a creative twist--Wood Roasted Chipotle Chicken, Pine Nut and Sage Skillet Trout and from their smoker out back—slow smoked baby back ribs and free range chicken both finished on the grill with the house made Redbud Barbecue Sauce.
One of the death knells for Buchanan had been the closing of Clark Equipment’s sprawling glass fronted headquarters. Now, in the new revival, Lehman’s Orchards has bought the building and will be opening a winery, distillery and brewery there in the late fall.
Of the 13 or more mills once standing on the many creeks and river tributaries in the city, only the Italianate/Greek Revival-style Pears Mill remains. Now restored and open for tours, the old mill grinds grain into meal as it did when first built in 1853.
Just a ways out of town and taking advantage of the beautiful rolling hills of the surrounding countryside, the 105-acre Fernwood Botanic Garden and Nature Center offers hiking trails, gardens, a nature center, 45-acre arboretum, prairie reconstruction, programs, culinary and musical events and a delicious café with its own on-site chef using bounty from the gardens when in season.
The city’s National Register Historic Districts intersect, representing more than 700 commercial and residential buildings, makes it easy to take a walking tour along avenues with stately trees, well tended lawns and blooming gardens. The Buchanan Garden Club Memorial Garden maintains plantings around a white gazebo just where the commercial district segues into mansionesque homes—one of which once belonged to my friend Ann.
How to Get There: Take Interstate 94 east into Michigan. Take exit 4, U.S. 12 east to Buchanan. Turn left on Red Bud Trail and head into town.
For More Information: 269.695.3291; buchanan.mi.us