A Magical Tale of a Vacant Detroit House That Vanished and Ends Up in Europe
February 24th, 2016, 10:50 PM
In many ways, there’s little that distinguished the vacant, distressed house on Stoepel Street, off of 8 Mile Road and Livernois, from the overwhelming number of empty, foreclosed homes in the rest of Detroit.
Then there was this, the almost unimaginable – something out of a wildly imaginative children’s book. Abracadabra. Poof. The home literally vanished last year from the streets of Detroit, only to reappear in the Netherlands at the Art Rotterdam exhibit earlier this month. It was painted all white and entitled “The White House.”
This fairy tale is real, thanks to an artist, Ryan Mendoza,44, a painter and native New Yorker, who lives in Berlin with his wife and three-year old child, and whose father, George Mendoza, coincidentally used to write children’s books.
Mendoza had the Detroit home deconstructed in Detroit with the help of friends and a demolition crew, then shipped in pieces to Europe where it was reconstructed as the art exhibit in Rotterdam. After the Netherlands exhibit ended on Feb. 14, it was taken apart again and shipped to Antwerp, Belgium, where it will be rebuilt and appear as a permanent exhibit, starting in April.
Before the Art Rotterdam show, which ran from Feb. 11-14, Mendoza wrote on the exhibit’s website:
‘I will be one lucky artist indeed to freeze in time a piece of my country’s history, and freeze in time myself along with it: through salvaging one house from demolition, and by transporting it and rebuilding it at Art Rotterdam and eventually at the Verbeke Foundation in Belgium, I will give people from all over Europe the chance not only to walk into one man’s memories, but to walk also into one country’s collective aspirations and unanticipated shortcomings.
Mendoza, in phone interviews from Berlin with Deadline Detroit, said he hatched the idea when he decided to reconnect with his homeland, the U.S., he left some 24 years ago.
“I was running away from something,” he said of his move overseas. “I was running away from myself.”
So, he thought it would be very cool to find a house back home and bring it back to Europe to display as art, as a slice of America.
A friend, native Detroiter, Gregory L. Johnson, suggested he come to Detroit to find a home to take back to Europe.
"I had no idea about Detroit,” he said. “No idea about ruin porn or poverty tourism.” He tried getting city hall interested in the project, but he was rebuffed. In the end, Johnson donated to Mendoza the vacant home he had bought. The home very much reminded Mendoza of his late grandmother's home in western Pennsylvania.
As part of the art project, Mendoza wanted to show people the history of that home, which had belonged to a family named Thomas for about 30 years. Eight kids lived there, five boys and three girls. By around 2011, long after both parents had passed and the children had grown up, one of the adult sons was living there.
According to one of the children, Vincent Thomas, 53, his brother who was living there went into the hospital to be treated for colon cancer, leaving the house empty. Someone broke in and stole some plumbing pipes, causing a flood and mold. His brother survived the cancer. The house, as he knew it, did not.
Thomas, who is into buying real estate, said the home wasn't worth fixing up, so the family walked away, owing about $6,000 in back taxes.
The home wasn't cheap to move to Europe.
Mendoza said he put up about $40,000 of his own money he earned from his paintings to have it taken apart and shipped to Belgium where it was originally destined. He said when the Art Rotterdam found out about it asked if he could display it at the exhibit there before it returned to Belgium.
He agreed, and said Art Rotterdam raised more than $16,000 through a GoFundMe campaign to ship and construct it for the exhibit.
Besides this project, he says, he wants to help Detroit by taking facades from three more Detroit houses, painting them and turning them into art in Europe. He hopes to fetch anywhere from $300,000 to $3 million collectively for the three facades.
“You could use the money to renovate 50 houses in Detroit. You could put them up on a lottery system for singe mothers.”
In the Netherlands, he said people who viewed the house weren’t allowed inside out of concern it might not be structurally sound. After all, it was rebuilt in about five days. He said people could peek through the windows and see in the back room where the father, Tommy Edward Thomas, died in the mid-1980s. His wife died many years later.
The father loved the Temptations and the Spinners, so Mendoza said he set up an original radio from the house in Detroit and played music for those viewing the exhibit. He also projected photo images on the walls that the family had given him.
Along with the house, Mendoza's wife Fabia Mendoza produced a documentary on the project, “Coming Home,” that showed at the exhibit in the Netherlands to give people a sense of history. That film will be shown at the Detroit Free Press Film Festival next month. (See trailer below).
“When people saw the house they were a little amazed, ” he said. "This was a photo op for everybody going there. Everyone was having their photo taken in front of the house. There was a feeling on the part of the public that the house had come back to life.”
In Belgium, he says, people will be able to walk through the house and see more clearly its history with the Thomas family. There will photographs and other belongings from the home including a bowling ball, TVs and radios.
Not everyone has embraced the project. Some critics have spoken up in the media, saying it's only another form of ruin porn that does little good for Detroit's image.
"A Berlin-based artist has taken ruin porn to a whole new level," Colleen Kowalewski wrote in Metro Times. "Not content with merely photos of abandoned buildings, he's taken a life-size slice of Detroit blight back to Europe for display."
Mendoza sees it differently.
“This is a very deep project. A project about connections. A project about memories. A project about not forgetting," says Mendoza.
Vincent Thomas also appreciates what's been done with a house he still has some fond memories of.
He said he's glad someone was able to do something with the house, which he says he can see and read about on the Internet.
"I’m glad someone did something to it," he says. "I know I can always go on my computer and pull it up. I showed my brother the house the other day, and he said, 'Wow that’s crazy.'"