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The Life of Irene Harsha Young

By now, you have heard numerous stories about Earl Young and his quirky mushroom houses. You may have even heard about his wife Irene. Today, we wanted to recognize Irene Harsha Young for her immense artistic talent and the silent mastermind behind Earl Young’s designs. The Charlevoix Historical Society recently completed an extensive investigation on Earl Young and his life. While researching this prolific designer, the Society discovered a trove of information about Earl’s wife Irene and her untold story.

Earl and Irene were high school sweethearts, and they were neighbors on State Street. Irene went on to attend Wooster College, followed by the Thomas Normal School in Detroit where she received her teaching certificate and later studied at the Art Institute in Chicago. After completing her education, she moved to Southhampton, NY to teach art. Throughout her education, Irene and Earl maintained a long-distance relationship. In 1914, Earl would propose to Irene on Park Island, located in Round Lake, while out for a canoeing adventure. They would marry on September 15, 1915, in a small ceremony in the Harsha’s formal front parlor. Throughout their marriage, Irene and Earl would have four children.

Irene, a talented artist of many different types of mediums, would lend her skills to Earl’s projects while enjoying her own artistic endeavors. Throughout her life, Irene would pursue her artistic passions. Several of her most notable works include three different maps of Northern Michigan. These maps were extremely popular so much so that they were sold in J.L. Hudson’s in Detroit and Marshall Fields in Chicago. She was also a founding member and regular exhibitor of the Charlevoix Waterfront Artfair. Her art contributions are still impacting Charlevoix today. 

The biggest surprise to come out of the Historical Society’s extensive research about Irene was her involvement with Earl’s building processes. We knew that Earl didn’t use blueprints to design his houses, but we’ve always wondered how the builders were able to achieve the results he was looking for so quickly. In their research, it was discovered that Irene’s artistic genius came into play. During evening dinner, Irene and Earl would discuss the design concepts for the current building project. Irene would ask questions, have Earl explain in detail, and then she would retire to her private studio after supper. In her studio, Irene would draw in detail Earl’s design, she would then leave their house early in the morning to meet with the general contractor to give him her sketch. These sketches would help the building contractors better understand Earl’s whimsical design. It’s believed that Earl never caught onto this ruse.

Through research, it’s become clear that Irene Harsha Young was a champion and contributor to the success of Earl Young’s design. No longer does Irene hide in Earl’s shadow, instead, we now know more about Irene’s life and her incredible artistic talent. Irene Harsha Young was a celebrated artist who silently helped create the mushroom houses. You can learn more about Irene Harsha Young by visiting the Harsha House Museum and reading Boulders: The Life and Creations of Earl A. Young in Charlevoix, Michigan. This book was also recognized as a Library of Michigan 2020 Michigan Notable book.

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