Upon jumping out of a cab and looking toward the skies during his first visit to Detroit, New York Times architecture critic Robert Sharoff was startled and struck by what he discovered.
"It was like Oz with the lights out," says Sharoff, in what is perhaps one of the best descriptions of 1990s downtown Detroit.
Indeed, the city possesses a cinematic quality that comes with a concentration of extravagant art deco and neoclassical architecture. Detroit rose on wealth amassed from the automobile industry in the early 1900s, eventually growing to be the nation's fourth largest city in the 1920s through the 1940s. Then came the bust, and depopulation left some of its jewels in various states of disrepair, though no less spectacular.
The wide open space and ample elbow room that came with depopulation also created an environment where artists could produce large installations, sculptures, and collages entwined with the environment that feel, like the city's architecture, so uniquely Detroit, and contribute to its visual appeal.
Here's a short list of some of the unusual architecture and installations that one can easily access by car.
The Heidelberg Project
What in the world could a roughly six-block indoor-outdoor art installation cobbled together over the decades with discarded junk, debris, found objects, and "magical trash" that's arranged on, over, under, and through vacant lots, sidewalks, abandoned houses, occupied houses, sidewalks, and streets possibly mean?
Well, above all, it's fun. Who doesn't love hanging out among homes covered in vacuum cleaners, shoes, polka dots, and records? And there's truly nothing close to similar to the corner of the universe artist Tyree Guyton's carved out in Detroit's struggling east side.
But there's more to it. Guyton started painting the abandoned houses around his own home in the 1980s as a means to ward off crack heads who turned the derelict structures into drug dens. That then evolved into the Heidelberg's larger "war against urban blight," and Guyton sought to call attention to the neighborhood's condition. However, a blight war rankled community members across the spectrum from neighbors (who some suspect are behind a recent string of arsons at the project) to mayors, and the Heidelberg is something of a controversy magnet.
But it has continued to grow and evolve into a broader community nonprofit that, in the words of Guyton, seeks to "inspire people to appreciate and use artistic expression toe enrich their lives and to improve social and economic health of the greater community."
Wirt C. Rowland, the Guardian's architect, is Detroit's answer to Barcelona's surrealist master Antoni Gaudí. He dubbed his 40-story downtown tour de force the "Cathedral of Finance," setting out to create a skyscraper as elegant and exciting as Europe's great cathedrals. Like Gaudí, he succeeded in dreaming up and building a remarkable, fantastic, unmatched, and weird world.
Detroit's Pewabic Pottery produced the tiles that create the building's Native American motif, as well as the intricate tile work in the two-story, half-dome entrance that portrays progress through flight. The exterior is a combination of terracotta and orange limestone pulled out of a Tunisian mine opened just for the Guardian project.
Ford, Dodge, Groesbeck, Cobo: Those are some the last names of the bones in the ground at the 140-acre cemetery on Woodward and Eight Mile's southwest corner. The bodies of Rosa Parks and James Jamerson now rest in the cemetery. Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross have both planned a Woodlawn interment. If you're a Motor City hotshot, this is the ground for you.
And the final accommodations are what one would expect for the rich, famous, and powerful. A small village of ornate mausoleums larger than some apartments line small roads and offer a sort creepy "Up North" feel in the areas around the lakes and creeks. It's a cemetery full of "neoclassical hubris" as one blogger put it. The fancier departed's memorials, stones, and mausoleums include stained glass windows, weeping angels, Greek columns, ornamental obelisks, four-story crosses, columned domes, 20-foot Mary statues, stone elephants, stone lambs, a woman's bust carved into a gravestone, life-sized men in mourning, and two proud Sphinxes that guard the Dodge family's gravesite.
The temple is more evidence of Detroit's love of the over-the-top during the 20th century's early decades. The 16-story Masonic Temple, built in 1922, is the largest of its kind in the world at 12 million cubic feet. The soot-stained Indiana limestone exterior and Gothic design make for an intimidating and fun building. Its walls are adorned with the psychedelic stonework of Bill Gehrke, whose statues include demonic and distorted figures, shields with Masonic symbols, Egyptian imagery, and other highly detailed work by a man considered to be among one of the last master sculptors.
Highland Park's Highland Towers
One of the nation's art deco treasure troves is in Highland Park's Woodward corridor. During the 1920s, the city became a fashionable spot for the automotive companies' white-collar workers, and it also holds the Detroit area's highest concentration of apartment buildings. None are more ornate and elegant than the Highland Towers, a trove of intricate tile and stonework blending Spanish Revival and deco styles. In 2015, several urban explorers discovered clear evidence that the building also holds the world's first underground parking garage.
Sadly, the Highland Towers met the same fate as many of Highland Park's jewels — several years of vacancy before a fire gutted the majority of the building.
Log Cabin of Palmer Park
Believe it or not, Palmer Park holds Detroit's only log cabin. Built in 1885 from oak trees with bark still on (a rarity), the home was a summer cottage for lumberman and U.S. Sen. Thomas Palmer. He donated the 120 acres of land on which the cabin sits to the city in 1893, and it was subsequently turned into a park.
As an added bonus, the cabin is next to the Detroit police's horse stables, and within eyeshot of a derelict lighthouse, grandiose abandoned handball courts, and the Palmer Park Historic Apartment district.
Frank Lloyd Wright's Turkel House
It wasn't long ago that one could grab a 40-ounce of malt liquor and go hang out inside the Turkel House, an example of Wright's Usonian style. Fortunately, the home, at 2760 W. Seven Mile Rd., sold to a Birmingham couple for the basement bargain price of $400,000, and is in the process of being restored.
Viewed from the outside, the Turkel is an exceptional work of modernism, even for Wright. The communal living room looks like a wonderful place for a hip party, but Metro Times managing editor Michael Jackman writes that the rest of the house is a "labyrinth of narrow hallways and 2-foot-wide doorways concealing bedrooms, bathrooms, and other small rooms. You feel like you're aboard a ship or a railroad car rather than inside a 4,000-square-foot house."
Over the span of seven years, Dmytro Szylak pieced together the surreal folk art collage/installation in his backyard and atop two neighboring garages in a dense Hamtramck neighborhood. His love of pop culture and Elvis is evident. Propellers, wooden ducks, Santa Claus figures, a homemade wooden helicopter, rocking horses, wooden soldiers, toy guns, lawn ornaments, Mickey Mouse, wooden missiles, a large tiger figure, and all other variety of oddities painted nearly every color under the sun are stacked and attached to one another.
The project, built between 1992 and 1999, was spontaneous — Szylak never designed the Hamtramck Disneyland, or drew up plans and blueprints, but continued adding to it as he saw fit. And that makes the fact that it doesn't come tumbling down all the more impressive.
Industry built Detroit, and driving back on Springwells Court affords one the rare opportunity to get up close and personal with an industrial spectacle. The island simultaneously looks like the past and the future. Smoke stacks belch huge billows of white smoke. Flames continuously shoot into the air. Piles of petroleum coke make the air scratchy. The deafening noise sounds as if 100 freight trains are racing 100 fighter jets around the island. The panoramic view of the island is mesmerizing, terrifying, beautiful, disgusting, depressing, and incredible at the same time.
The noise is apparently so loud it's causing strange, audible vibrations in Windsor. Windsor city leaders asked Zug's tenants to stop making so much noise. They and the American government said no.
Most of the 325-acre island, which is situated where the Detroit River meets an industrial drain called the Rouge River, is dedicated to a U.S. Steel production facility. DTE Energy and a rail company also operate on the island, and a now-abandoned Honeywell chemical plant also takes up space.
While its fascinating, don't stay long. The Free Press reports six of the state's 10 most polluted ZIP codes sit near the island.