Tidal Travelers

Tidal Travelers: St. Joseph's history of storied resorts and their resurgence

2013-05-12T02:45:00Z 2013-05-14T13:59:06Z Tidal Travelers: St. Joseph's history of storied resorts and their resurgenceJane Ammeson nwitimes.com
May 12, 2013 2:45 am  • 

The Grand Hotel, Mackinac Island’s majestic and iconic resort sitting high on a bluff overlooking the Straits of Mackinac, may be one of the best known of the state’s many resorts. For John Owen, who loved the beauty of the island, the history of the elegant hotel holds a more personal significance—it was built in 1887 by his great grandfather, John Oliver Plank.

But as he perused a box of his great grandfather’s papers left to him by his mother, Owen learned that his great grandfather had built another hotel very similar to the Grand two years later. It too rose regally above the water and its turrets and cupolas, a wraparound porch extending the length of the 420-foot long hotel and an arched main entry way seemed a carbon copy of the Grand.

Coincidentally, Owen and his wife, Jean, had just recently moved to St. Joseph when he made his discovery. They were attracted to its beauty and the way it maintained its small town charm while being close to cities like Chicago, Grand Rapids, South Bend and Kalamazoo. 125 years earlier, his great grandfather built Plank’s Tavern on Lake Michigan and the north bank of the St. Joseph River for similar reasons.

The Grand Hotel remains. Plank’s Tavern lasted less than a decade, destroyed by fire on July 10, 1898. But in its day, it was a marvel of luxury featuring the then-modern conveniences of electricity, electric call bells, views of the lake or river from every room, steam heat, bathrooms on every floor (no, not in every room), dancing pavilion and boat livery and even some not-so-modern conveniences like a men’s smoking and reading room and separate writing rooms for the two sexes.

An astute businessman who hung with the likes of George Pullman and Cornelius Vanderbilt II and owned some 40 hotels around the country, Plank built his hotel for the streams of tourists who began traveling to the area in the early 1870s. They arrived on the Chicago and West Michigan Railway, or aboard passenger ships like the City of Chicago, which departed Chicago at 10 a.m. and St. Joseph at 4 p.m. daily. According to the book Lake Michigan Passenger Steamers by George Woodman Hilton, in 1891 the City of Chicago and the Puritan carried 112,000 passengers across the lake.

“All of us who lived here are aware of the heritage of this area being a tourist destination,” says David Whitwam, retired CEO of Whirlpool Corp. which is headquarted in Benton Harbor. “Now we’re turning back to that time.”

Indeed, Whitwam, as Chairman of the Board, is one of the driving forces for the development of Harbor Shores, a 530-acre mixed used development spanning Benton Harbor, Joseph and Benton Charter Township. Harbor Shores features residential areas; one nestled on the Paw Paw River and the other next to the Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course as well as a large club house with restaurant and meeting areas. Intriguingly, the course’s three signature holes overlook Lake Michigan’s Jean Klock Park located about a mile north of the beach from where Plank’s Tavern once stood.

“When you attract people to an area because of its beauty and what it has to offer, you not only get people coming to visit but also those who decide to move here, to raise their family here, to start a business, retire or work.”

The impetus for starting on this road to transformation begins, Whitwam says, with his predecessor Jack Sparks, who worked for the international appliance company for more than a half century.

“I’ve always said Jack Sparks was the father of Harbor Shores,” says Whitwam. “We tore down a large plant and Jack wanted to find a good use for the property to help further economic development in a way that would be of benefit to the entire community."

Whitwam also credits current Whirlpool CEO Jeff Fettig for his commitment to making Harbor Shores a reality, as well as the city of Benton Harbor where Whirlpool just built their $85-million dollar headquarters.

“Jeff and I went on a trip to Atlanta to East Lake Golf Club, the home of golfer Bobby Jones,” says Whitwam. “The area around it had been a very rundown urban neighborhood. Tom Cousins bought the land to revitalize the golf course and by doing that revitalize the area.”

Calling it “Golf with a purpose,” all profits from the course, at this point over $20 million, go to the East Lake Foundation. Now, what was once considered the nation’s worst public housing projects is a thriving community.

“Harbor Shores is also a non-profit,” says Whitwam. “All of the profits go into a foundation to re-invest into the community. It’s returning this area to the place it was in the 1800s.”

And what a grand place it was.

Famed late 19th and early 20th century landscape architect Jens Jensen, general superintendent of Chicago’s West Park System and one of the originators of the Prairie style of landscape architecture which included using native plants and materials, was drawn to the area because of the beauty of the water and dunes. Jensen, who was instrumental in helping save the Indiana Dunes from the encroaching steel mills, drew up plans not only for Jean Klock Park but also several private residences in the Benton Harbor area.

Given this history as well as Harbor Shores’ commitment to community redevelopment by attracting employers, homeowners and tourists to the area, it seems fitting that when resort began developing plans for $130 million Harbor Village, scheduled to open next year in time for the 2014 Senior PGA Golf Tournament, they chose to honor Planks Tavern.

“We wanted to incorporate some of its features in our new hotel,” says Kerry Wright, Director of Real Estate Sales and Marketing for Harbor Shores, noting that the restaurant at the Inn at Harbor Village will be called Planks Tavern in honor of the area’s past tourism glory and the architectural design of the boutique hotel is evocative of the historic resorts found on Mackinac Island. The Harbor Village complex will feature a hotel, a golf course and a deep-water marina.

When writing The Other Side of the River: A Story of Two Towns, a Death, and America's Dilemma, his best selling 1999 book about the drowning of an African American teenager from Benton Harbor, playing out the tragedy against affluent and predominately white St. Joseph and the dying manufacturing city of Benton Harbor, once the more prosperous of the two but now largely populated by citizens below the poverty line, author Alex Kotlowitz spent time in the area.

“The racial divide separating St. Joseph and Benton Harbor is not unique to this area, it occurs in many places including Chicago,” he says. “The the key factors in turning around a city like Benton Harbor includes jobs that pay reasonably well, and schools that work. That’s a lot to expect from building a golf course.”

But community leaders like Ken Kozminski believe Harbor Shores has already fueled a resurgence.

A case in point is The Buck Burgers & Brew, the restaurant he opened last year in one of the oldest buildings in downtown St. Joseph. Formerly the chairman of the Board for Cornerstone Alliance, the area’s economic development agency, Kozminski says that Harbor Shores was designed to create long-term economic viability and he sees his business as part of that.

”Our building has really evolved through the town’s tourism,” says Kozminski. “It was built in 1878 when the big boats would come over from Chicago. It’s been a building that at one time or other has had businesses that, like ours, catered to both locals and tourists. It was a pool hall, a candy manufacturing business with a retail store and, for 55 years, was the Silver Dollar, a popular bar and restaurant.”

Since opening, The Buck’s accolades include being voted as the Herald Palladium’s Readers Choice for best burgers and best brews in Southwest Michigan. They now offer 74 draft beer handles, 60 of which are locally brewed, making The Buck number one in the state for the most draft beer handles.

Credited with fixing Mary Todd Lincoln’s ice box, Edward Brammall, a tinsmith and plumber, moved from Chicago to Benton Harbor in 1873 and opened what would become Brammall’s Industrial Supply.

“Our theory is that he came to the area when the Benton Harbor Canal was being constructed,” says Ken Ankli III, president of Brammall’s which was purchased by his family in 1940. “He built his hardware store to take advantage of the shipping boom.”

Ankli also is the president of the New Territory Arts Association, formed in 1998 with the mission of creating “a vital Benton Harbor Arts District through community outreach and advocacy of the arts.” Currently they host their flagship fundraiser Artoberfest, their quarterly Art Hops, the 3rd Thursday Film Series and Benton Bizarro—an evening of food, movies and local craft beer. Other projects include streetscape activities like filling and maintaining the flower planters and donating the light pole banners that add spots of color to the in the Benton Harbor Arts District.

“The re-development of the area is directly linked to the lakefront and recreational offerings of Harbor Shores,” says Ankli whose company works at rebuilding the arts district, converting a century old warehouse and ice cream factory into Quarternote Lofts, urban-cool apartments with rooftop gardens, and the Citadel Music Center next door. The demand for these sleek, original timber and brick lofts is such that they recently added a fifth and more apartments are opening up just down the block in the historic Hinckley Building above Water Street Glass Works.

“Back then people came to this area from Chicago often to take advantage of the mineral waters,” says Mike Wood who owns a historic home on one of the hilltops of Higman Park overlooking Lake Michigan just north of Jean Klock Park. In perfect early 1900s synergy, John Higman also worked with Plank on some of his projects and Jens’ friend Olaf Bensen who some of Lincoln Park in Chicago, laid out the hilltop housing development. “These places like the Whitcomb Hotel in St. Joseph which offered mineral baths were just like modern spas. Everything new is something old.”

Back then, others also saw the potential.

“One of the renderings Daniel Burnham prepared for the layout of Chicago had St. Joseph on it,” says Wood talking about the architect and urban developer whose Plan of Chicago, created in the early 1900s, included much of what makes the city so marvelous now including its lakefront parks and roadways, Magnificent Mile as well as Navy Pier. “They knew we were here.”

Copyright 2014 nwitimes.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

In This Issue