Beautiful Bay City

Tall ship on the Saginaw river outside my hotel room

Tall ship on the Saginaw river outside my hotel room

Last week I had the opportunity to attend the Michigan Museums Association‘s annual conference. The conference this year was in Bay City, which meant it was an easy 1.5 hour drive from Metro Detroit. The conference itself was wonderful, and I also really enjoyed getting the chance to see the town. I’ve never stopped in Bay City before, just driven through, and I admit I never thought of it as much of a destination. Therefore I was pleasantly surprised by everything I got to see during the two day conference – receptions were held at the historic State Theater and the Historical Museum of Bay County and I also went on a brief tour of the Central Avenue Historic district.

Soon after I arrived the first night, I headed over to the State Theater for the opening reception. The theater was easy to spot – its brightly colored marquee and sign are visible a few blocks away. I was excited to visit the venue as I love old theaters (so very elegant!), but I soon realized this was no ordinary fancy old theater. The State Theater is decorated in a Art Deco Mayan Revival style – one of only four such theaters in the country.  The Mayan motif is prevalent both inside and outside the theater. The outside is designed to evoke a Mayan pyramid, and the inside only furthers that imagery. The interior walls are made to look like stone, peppered with Mayan images and geometric patterns. It is a very beautiful, and very unique, theater.

State Theater

State Theater

During the reception, we heard from the director of the theater, who gave a talk and showed a film about its history. Built in 1908 and originally called the Bijou, it started out showing live entertainment such as vaudeville. In the 1920s, with the rising popularity of film, the theater was converted to show movies and renamed the Orpheum. It wasn’t until the 1930s that the theater was renovated in the Mayan Revival style. The man behind the renovation was C. Howard Crane, who also designed the Fox Theater in downtown Detroit (and the Fox’s twin in St. Louis). The theater remained very popular for many years, but like many old movie houses, began to fall out of favor by the second half of the 20th century. In 1960 it was bought by the Butterfield Theater chain, who changed the name to the State Theater, removed the Mayan marquee outside and painted the interior brown, covering up the 1930s renovation. The theater continued to lose patrons and was threatened with destruction in 2000, when a group of local citizens formed a group to save and renovate the theater. The organization, originally known as the Friends of the State Theater, managed to raise enough money to save the theater and restore the 1930s design. The group, now known as the Historic State Theater Organization, still runs the building and is committed to bringing both live and film entertainment to the Bay City region. The story of the State Theater is a great example of how local historic preservation done well – the theater was saved, restored and then put back into use.

The next evening, another reception was held at the Historical Museum of Bay County, run by the Bay County Historical Society. The event really focused on the local community. Not only were we visiting a local historical museum, but we were served all locally made food and drinks. The food was great – and so were the drinks! Let me tell you, nothing quite beats walking around a museum with a locally brewed beer in hand. I really enjoyed the museum itself as well. I wasn’t able to be quite as thorough in my visit as I usually am at a museum, as I was busy talking to other museum folks from around the state, but I still managed to see some pretty great stuff.  Here are some pictures:

Main room of the museum

Main room of the museum

You can't have a northern (ish) Michigan museum without a display on logging!

You can’t have a northern(ish) Michigan museum without a display on logging!

Drinking beer while reading about beer!

Drinking beer while reading about beer!

Definitely pay a visit to the Bay County Historical Society if you are ever in Bay City!

One of the sessions I attended featured an employees of the Bay County Historical Society, who discussed a new virtual walking tour they had created through a collaboration with the company Map-N-Tour. The tour, which is available via an app on your smartphone or tablet, is overlaid on a Google Earth image of the area. It is a tour of the Central Avenue Historic District, which features a number of beautifully restored historic homes. Many of the homes date from the 19th century lumber boom in Michigan, while others are early 20th century “kit homes” designed by Bay City manufacturers Aladdin and Lewis & Liberty Co. If you are accessing the tour from out of town, you can just click on each marker and it will show you a picture and tell you about the home. If you are on Central Avenue, it integrates with Google Maps to shows you where you are so you can easily learn about the house directly in front of you. After the conference ended, a colleague and I decided to drive along Central Ave to see the homes and test out the app. The homes were amazing, especially the ones along the main road. It was really interesting to see the many different styles, from Victorian gingerbread houses to mid-century modern, all in one place. The app worked well, although it would have been better as a walking tour than a driving one. We were going too quickly for me to have time to pull up and read information on each house, so I finally just settled for looking at all of them, and trying to take pictures through the window. I’d love to go back at walk up and down the avenue when I have more time!

A few of the houses:




All in all, the conference was very enjoyable. I loved meeting people from different museums around the state and gained a ton of new ideas for my own job. And it was wonderful to get a chance to explore a city I never knew much about! Here’s to Beautiful Bay City 🙂

Loving this swag from the conference!

Loving this swag from the conference!


2 thoughts on “Beautiful Bay City

  1. Since my drive to work is along Central Ave I have looked at those houses many times. My favorite house is the one that still has the mounting block for getting on a horse or into a carriage at the end of the sidewalk along the street.

  2. Pingback: 2014: The Year of Museums | Mitten History

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