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Bringing a Dead House Back to Life

Drive down Moran Street on Detroit's East side, and you'll see them: those blighted, burned-out houses. They're the ones everyone films, photographs, opines about and exploits for the world to see. For much of the nation, they're what defines Detroit these days.

But on the 13000 block, you'll notice one house seems different. That is because it a living laboratory, a research project, a design center. Even if it has no electricity or running water, it is buzzing with people, construction and – dare I write it – a vision of what the city's future might look like.

This is a tale of five teachers from the University of Michigan's Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. They each chipped in $100, bought one of Detroit's infamous eyesores and started tearing it apart.

Then, they built it back up. No, it technically isn't habitable. But it offers the viewer insights into how architects work, how housing trends develop and why this project has changed not only the neighborhood but the people who worked on it.

“I hope that our project is one example of how you can adapt the existing housing stock and make it have a use,” said Rosalyne Shieh, one of the five innovators.

Some background: The house at 13178 Moran Street by McNichols and the Davison is home to “Five Fellows: Full Scale.” That is the official name of the project, which brought together five young architects in one of the poorest communities in the city.

UM hired the five in August 2009 for a year-long fellowship. Basically, they teach at the College of Architecture and Urban Planning in Ann Arbor while doing independent research. Early on, they agreed to work together on a group project – something grand. Something local.

But to work together, they needed more space than the College's galleries allowed. They wanted to build models of their ideas, bring them to life-size or full scale. Around this time, they met husband and wife team Gina Reichert and Mitch Cope, who started Design 99, a collaboration of artists and architects based in Hamtramck. (They're also famous nationally for buying that so-called $100 house in Detroit; the resulting stories about their work got everyone hyped up about it.)

It was perfect timing, according to fellow Cathlyn Newell. A friend of a friend knew the Design 99 spouses, who encouraged the five – Newell, Ellie Abrons, Meredith Milller, Thomas Moran and Rosalyn Shieh – to buy a house in Detroit. Reichert and Cope had already scoped out properties going up for sale in an auction just days away.

So for less than the cost of a flat-screen TV, the architects had themselves a house. It was October. The house had no front door. No windows. No electricity. No plumbing. They paid to have the house next door boarded up to give them some security while on site. They added some windows. Then, they got to work.

The result is five stunningly intelligent, interesting and exciting architectural experiments. Each person took a section of house and let their ideas mold it into something new.

Shieh calls her project Room Addition. It is a room that cuts diagonally across the house with a window facing the southern sky. It brings in volumes of light and offers an alternative entrance to the house. Previously, the house opens onto the street, and its entry is an exact replica of every house on Moran. Now, you can sit on the stair-like structure or curl up under the warming window/skylight. Your view is the neighboring house (which is the one the Fellows had boarded up). When it is removed, you'll look into an open lot – a much nicer view than the hulking shells of decaying homes up and down the street.

Next is Abrons' Tingle Room. Most rooms have just plain walls; not this one. Abrons covered them with plywood and installed pieces of steel suspension cables along the surfaces. The result is these long, black wires that seemingly reach out to envelop you. Other wall sections are carved out and spray insulation bubble out, foamy waves contrasting with the wood's plain fronts. The room is sensual yet whimsical.

Just outside is Moran's Tables and Chairs. The title is deceiving because it looks more like a giant system of steps or shelves leading up to the attic. When the Fellows bought the house, it did not have a central staircase. Moran created one with simple, minimal materials: inexpensive 1x2 pine slats and nails hammered together. You can take a different path each time you climb them, sit on them like bleachers, admire them from above for their dramatic geometry.

Toward the back, you find Miller's R.O. project – a movable door. An operable piece moves between the interior and exterior to change the idea of what a house's boundaries actually are. Closed, it secures the house. Open, it brings a new public space to light and a new point of entry. Instead of a flat back wall, the house now has floating access.

Newell's project, Weatherizing, takes place in the house's garage. Rather than depend on windows for light, she experimented by drilling holes in the walls and inserting nearly 1,000 glass tubes. They create a dull glow to the room even on a cloudy day. Every aspect of the weather is represented through these tubes: wind creates an eerie kind of music, sun provides shots of light. Whatever happens outdoors is represented indoors. (My favorite part: Newell changes the light by adding of all things Chapstick to the tubes, giving the tubes a smoky hue.)

“Every day looks different,” Newell said. “I've had to enjoy every aspect. That's been the interesting part of the research. You have to keep looking at it.”

Indeed, the viewer feels the same way. You cannot stop looking at these five projects and imagining whether these ideas – or the Fellows' future ones – will change the way we all live. By having a huge space like a Detroit home to work on, they were able to fully flesh out their thoughts about how houses work. What a gift this little white house is to these young architects. What a great thing that it was available for their research. You could not, as one architect friend told me after touring it, do this in New York or Los Angeles.

Is it terrible that the house was left to rot? It is a shame that the neighboring lot is burdened with a fire-bombed structure? Is this a good use of Detroit's homes? Could the $500 investment been better utilized by fixing it up and giving it to a family in need?

You won't find those answers here. Those are better left to the urban planners…the people who left the houses in the first place…the citizens who let the city fall into this state of disrepair…the communities that left Detroit to its own devices and looked away.

Like the Ice House Detroit project, the Fellows have gotten to know their neighbors – most of whom are Bangladeshi. They hosted barbecues, gave tours, hung out with the kids who live across the street (who made swords out of the scrap wood). They shop locally. They also hired an area handyman, who has been a brain stormer, problem solver and all-around consultant on their projects.

“We've met a lot of people in ways you don't normally get to know people,” said Moran, noting that there aren't a lot of drop-in visits in Ann Arbor. Here, folks came over when they wanted to talk, ask questions or just play around.

The fellowship ends in June. But the five have agreed to stay in Ann Arbor for another year. They also have donated their house to Design 99 to keep its purpose alive and maintain the house within the Detroit arts community. Reichert and Cope have become mentors, introducing them to the larger art community here.

Granted, this is a quick summary of their work. But I was impressed and inspired. Who knows? It would be a pleasant surprise if one or some or all of the Five Fellows came back to Detroit. I would be the first to say: You are welcome here!

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  • 1

    Can one visit this house? There is no information here about whether it's open or what.

    • 1.2

      Thank you, Karen! I'll be back in town next month and will at least drive by to peek at it. Will keep monitoring for updates.

  • 2

    Take a look at the houses on Moran just north of E.McNichols next to parking lot of the original Buddys Pizza. Most are immaculate, well-kept houses with manicured lawns of mostly, not all, old timers who didn't join the white-flight that rapidly changed this area in the 1980s, whites who remained in the city hoping for better times, hoping the city & the neighborhoods off of E.McNichols/E.Davison in Zipcode 48212 north of Hamtramck would improve.
    I also live in the area, not on Moran. Many residents who maintain their properties have complained about blight & crime over the past thirty years to mostly deaf ears at City Hall. If the city had neighborhood representation on City Council, perhaps this part of town & so many others would not look so horrid. My family's roots in this area go back to 1928 when my grandparents moved to Detroit from Ohio.

  • 3

    love this blog!please keep posting this.

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