Nielbock’s story is so unusual, and dovetails so neatly with the history of his adopted hometown, it merits special mention. Born in Lower Saxony in Germany in 1959, Nielbock was one of the “children of the occupation,” with a German mother and an African-American GI father. Once the Army higher-ups found out about the interracial relationship, which was illegal in many parts of the United States at the time, his father was in deep trouble. The military made sure Carl never got a chance to meet his GI dad.
Growing up in post-war Germany, young Nielbock’s life had eerie parallels with contemporary Detroit. To hear him describe it, the rebuilding that went on in Germany, as it was denazified and integrated into the West, was a special time for a special people, whom he describes as “forward-looking,” but looking into the past and “choosing which values to reject and which to sustain.” To take ruined historic buildings and monuments and repair them for posterity was a natural and normal part of his upbringing.
Of course, Nielbock was looking for some history of his own. In 1984, a 25-year-old Nielbock came to the east side of Detroit, finding a house at a return address on an old letter among his mother’s possessions. Nobody was home, but, knocking at the house next door, he learned the house was used as storage, and that the man he was looking for lived down the street.
It was Nielbock's father, Clarence.
And the man Nielbock had asked was Clarence's brother.
Reunited with his son, Clarence let the young man take over the house on Helen Street, which had been used for storage. It took a lot of time and effort, but Nielbock took down all the molding and trim and rebuilt the house, fixing it up with the skill of a restorer, eventually adding a shop on the back of it. Today, he laughs, thinking of how eerie the house must have looked, with him welding in his kitchen at 3 a.m.
And, in America, Nielbock prospered, operating a sole proprietorship, working for such governmental clients as the Library of Congress or the State Department. His clients also began to include the affluent, as he fabricated new work for ostentatious homes, jobs on which money was no option. He moved into the studio and living space he now occupies, near the intersection of Gratiot and Chene, completely repairing a building whose ceiling had fallen in.
At one point, Nielbock was considering earning a BFA or MFA to improve his artistic metalworking resume. Various setbacks made the move impractical, and his artistic ambitions stalled.
Until he saw Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project. Nielbock says he was “floored” by the art environment created by a vernacular artist. “Here was a person without an advanced degree making art as he pleased,” Nielbock recalls. “I told myself, ‘If he can do it, I can
without an MFA.’”
And Nielbock’s work is inventive and surprising, often combining the eye of an Old World aesthete with the hand of a seasoned engineer. He’s just as likely to craft ornamental metal architectural elements as he is to, say, design a windmill a home craftsman can build to capture electricity. Looking at his metalwork, which includes gates and gazebos, it’s almost as if modernism never happened, as ornamentalism is still in full flower in his work.
That connection to — and hunger for — the past plays into his latest project: Restoring the statues that adorned Detroit’s City Hall. Few remember the building today, but it was built during the 19th century and occupied the western end of Cadillac Square for almost a century. Its demolition in 1961 even caught many Detroiters unawares, as the wrecking crew started work by night. For years, much of the building’s statuary lay in pieces behind Fort Wayne, overgrown with shrubbery and exposed to the elements.
Nielbock agreed to undertake the task of restoring the statues, and has been working out of the blacksmithing shop at the fort for four years, fixing up the building and amassing a file of materials pertaining to Old City Hall. Using 2-D-to-3-D modeling software at Tech Shop in Dearborn, Nielbock has been able to use old photographs to establish computer designs in great detail.
This labor of love is even more ambitious than it sounds. Nielbock would like to re-create the entire top of Old City Hall, adorned with the restored statues and including the old clock tower, to give Detroiters a sense of their missing or lost history. Such an undertaking would require a great deal of money, skill and energy. But is it impossible? Nielbock points to the Frauenkirche in Dresden, a church destroyed by Allied bombardment during World War II, which was conserved as a ruin until the 1980s, when a reconstruction effort resurrected the church, incorporating any original pieces that could be recovered. The Frauenkirche now gets more than 2 million visitors per year. What might a monument to the destruction wreaked here by the bulldozer produce?
If anybody’s fit for the task, Nielbock is. Few understand the ins and outs of pre-welding technology — tapping, metal bending, rivets, nuts and bolts — as well as this historically rooted craftsman. And he has a passion for history that many metro Detroiters lack. After all, he had to travel thousands of miles to find out, essentially, where he came from. He’s not about to let that precious heritage slip away for other Detroiters.
Or, as he puts it, “It’s essential to build sculpture and monuments for the next generation. We have the opportunity to do the right thing and at the same time be more prosperous.”
Join us and meet Nielbock as this month’s Drinks by Design. The 4-5:30 p.m. talk and tour is sold out, but the 5:30-8 p.m. open house is open to all, at 2264 Wilkins St., Detroit. For more information, see our Facebook event page.