Life on a ball
By F. Josephine Arrowood
Recent visitors to the Village of Honor confront a mystery at the site of a once-notorious local landmark. The pink “Question Mark” building, as many called it, has completely disappeared from the historic downtown district, its grassy lot at the corner of Main and Henry streets now occupied only by a For Sale sign.
Where did the Question Mark building go? Who will buy the vacant lot? What will they do with it? And what was that old painted palace all about, anyway?
While the structure has subsided into dust, memories of its most colorful and creative era live on: in hearts, minds, and purpose-driven ways of life all over the country.
In the fall of 1990, Jon Wagman had an idea. Many ideas, actually, all looking for a home. The California native had recently graduated from Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design (AACD) and was visiting fellow alumnus Dan Sturges in Frankfort, Michigan. The two had studied design, transportation, urban design, the arts, and environmentalism. Wagman wanted to create a gathering place where anyone could walk in and join together: an experimental, experiential incubator and laboratory where process and product would meet—like art school, but for life.
The Village of Honor—centrally situated along US-31 about 25 miles west of Traverse City—seemed like a good place. He found a building for rent in the careworn business district, a relic of the early 20th-century lumber boom. The building, gray with age and battered by neglect, had originally been a general mercantile store, dance hall, and Masonic lodge, and later it served as a grocery store, with apartment rentals upstairs.
Wagman initially named their venture the Great Lakes Center for Creative Development, which later morphed into the more compelling name of Wonderland.
“At our first meeting with the landlord, a baby bird fell out of the wall,” says Wagman from his current home in the mountains of Santa Cruz, California. “The building was in pretty bad shape, even then.”
They painted the building magenta, green, and gold. A large, eye-catching sign—a zingy question mark with the Earth as its dot—was created by another ACCD alumnus: animator and filmmaker Mark Whiting. (Whiting, originally from Birmingham, Michigan, later created the title character in the animated movie The Iron Giant, and he worked on Finding Nemo and television series Garfield and Friends, among other projects.)
In the spring of 1991, Wagman and crew issued a call to artists for an opening exhibit. The Grand Opening of June 21 was covered by the Traverse City Record-Eagle; the show explored “…perceptions of life on a ball… your vision of this wonderland we call earth.” Thus the Wonderland name took flight.
“People started coming out of the woods, literally,” Wagman says.
One person to do so was Dan Kelly, a Crystal Lake-based artist and filmmaker who was a deep collaborator at the space.
“I’d been living on the north shore of Crystal Lake by myself for two or three years, didn’t really know anyone,” Kelly recalls. “Then all these people showed up at once; some had summer associations to the place, others were local. It was a perfect storm! The core gang that did stuff in the space were Joel Buzzell, Jon [Wagman], Sturges, Grabowski, Jim Barnes, Willie Church, Maryke Steenstra, Bill Joslyn… The enthroning ethic was pretty significant. Shows, activities like ‘tossed salad’ improv performances, a fashion show that got out of control—so much fun! It was an amazing space for collaborators with a strong artistic bent, way ahead of its time. The whole idea of the place—it scared people.”
Wagman recalls that some people who assumed Wonderland was a drug-dealing hangout for hippie types.
“Actually, there was a drug hangout in a building across the street from us—it was a group of high school-age kids, not us,” he laughs.
Artist Sue Brightheart of Suttons Bay remembers visiting with a “Figure on Saturday” life-drawing group and a nude model, at the behest of the late Charly Hansen, who “hung out” at Wonderland frequently.
Glass artist and environmental activist Judith Comstock—a cofounder of the Northwest Michigan Environmental Action Council (NMEAC)—also became a dedicated member of the nascent artists’ community.
“One thing that was important at that time—we had maybe a thousand books for sale that dealt with the environment, art. Jon [Wagman] had his T-shirts to sign and sell,” Comstock says, who maintained the gallery and bookstore, which also housed the work of other artists, during that frigid first winter; her studio was on the other side of the large building, where she worked on commissions of stained, etched, and carved bas-relief glass.
“It was great to have this little group—they were about 15 years younger and had a different kind of energy that was so good, so positive,” Comstock continues.
In addition to Dan Kelly, she cites bookshop owner Tom Grabowski and his future wife, Ashley Goerisch; her sister Kristin; writer-photographer Michael Murphy; and sculptor Dewey Blocksma, among many others who passed through Wonderland’s doors. Sturges, an innovative automotive designer who worked on electric vehicle prototypes, also rented workspace there.
Falling On Hard Times
Comstock recalls that the landlord and the dilapidated condition of the building were major factors that contributed to the demise of Wonderland. There was a complicated lease, “12 pages long, including paying his lawyer fees. The heat went out over the winter holidays, and nobody wanted to fix it; they were worried” about being penalized somehow by the litigious landlord. And with Northern Michigan’s seasonal, tourism-based economy, making a viable, year-round living proved arduous at times.
Despite these obstacles, the group continued to use Wonderland for another summer as an innovative space for the intersection of ideas, the arts, and the environment. In many ways, it foreshadowed the current “smart growth,” mixed use development, and community design philosophies—both urban and rural—which drive the success of groups like today’s Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities (formerly known as the Michigan Land Use Institute, which formed in Beulah in 1996). Honor’s own non-profit organization, Honor Area Restoration Project (HARP), embodies Wonderland’s spirit in its quest to revitalize and redevelop the village and surrounding areas of the Platte River valley. HARP’s website states such core values as “positive approach, non-political, volunteer based, community driven.”
By 1992, Wonderland had left the pink building on the corner of Henry Street, gradually subsiding to its final chapter as an eyesore and focal point for the continuing decline of Honor’s business district.
“The landlord had gotten people deeply involved…got a lot of sweat equity out of us and then decided to raise the rent,” Kelly says. That was the end of it; Jon [Wagman] was frustrated, and it got too complex.”
The township took possession of the building, condemned it, and paved the way for deconstruction last spring. Salvager Vince Rodriguez was able to reclaim many historical architectural elements, including huge oak 2×24-inch white oak beams and a woodstove manufactured in 1880. The sale of the lot will go toward the Land Bank of Benzie County for restoration of Homestead Township and Benzie County.
And the iconic Wonderland sign—the question mark with the Earth as its dot? After Wonderland vacated the building, Dan Kelly says that the landlord took down the bottom part of the sign [the Earth]—“we only found it on the last day of the recycling project this spring, in the basement.” The top part of the question mark was left, along with the rest of the vacant building, to endure the harsh elements for the next 25 years, acquiring both its weathered patina and an unsavory, erroneous reputation as the symbol of some sort of out-there, hippie-drug enclave.
According to spokesman Ingemar Johansson, HARP plans to turn over the painted wood pieces to Kelly, who will restore it to its former colorful, intriguing glory.
“It was a cheap piece of plywood with house paint—its archival quality is pretty limited, and it’s on its last legs,” Kelly states.
However, Kelly feels strongly that the sign should somehow remain in the public realm, as a vital part of Benzie County history. An ideal solution that could satisfy both aims might involve a civic booster purchasing the piece at a HARP fundraiser (date to be determined), then donating the piece, perhaps to the Benzie Historical Society.
Wherever it eventually lands, the Wonderland/Question Mark sign stands as an enduring tribute to a group of fearless creatives, who carried some of the magical energy generated in that space to other Northern Michigan communities and beyond.
For more information about HARP, visit their website at RestoreHonor.org
The print version of this story incorrectly stated that sale of the lot will benefit Honor Area Restoration Project. In fact, it will help the Land Bank of Benzie County restore other sites in Homestead Township and Benzie County. We regret the error.