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Transforming Detroit's Blighted Buildings into Art

The Seafoam Palace is trying to preserve the city's relics.

The wreckage of Detroit on display at the Seafoam Palace. Photos courtesy of Julia Solis

Last October Detroit native Ryan Barrett went home for the first time in years. Indulging a spur-of-the-moment impulse, he jumped into his car and made the short trek from the gentrified section of Midtown to his childhood neighborhood on the outskirts of the city’s east side. Like a beloved VHS tape warped after years of rewinding, the landscape was unrecognisable and somewhat startling.


The tidy rows of homes that Barrett left behind had transformed into an apocalyptic scene more befitting a Planet of the Apes spinoff than any childhood memory. Of the houses on the block where he grew up only two remained standing. The rest, homes that once belonged to friends and neighbors, were nothing more than dilapidated shells.

The experience is common in Detroit. There are an estimated 78,000 abandoned buildings in the city, and these padlocked warehouses and neglected nooks have become fixtures in the collective visual impression of the city. Just google “Detroit”: Half of the top 20 images are of shattered windows, crumbling cement walls, and caved-in roofs.

Derelict buildings have become such an issue that in 2013 Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr announced a “blight emergency” in order to expedite the demolition process. The federal government has even stepped in by creating the Detroit Blight Removal Task Force, which is spearheaded by the city’s polarizing billionaire Dan Gilbert. While getting rid of deteriorating—and frequently dangerous—buildings is seen as a necessary step to get Detroit back on its feet, some fear the city’s character and beautiful architecture will be destroyed in the process.

Enter the Seafoam Palace, a soon-to-be-opened museum of curiosities nestled within a formerly abandoned lumber factory’s headquarters. The artists involved in the project intend to use ruins and discarded memorabilia to create installations and interactive exhibitions, preserving - and making art of - relics that might otherwise disintegrate or be demolished.


The Seafoam Palace of Arts and Amusement 

The project is largely inspired by the “cabinets of wonder” of the Renaissance. Popularized by wealthy Europeans, these were ornate rooms filled with sculptures, paintings, items from the West Indies and Asia at a time when maps were still “working documents”, marbles, stuffed birds, etc. - basically a cross between an antique Ripley’s Believe It or Not! and an obnoxious freshman dorm room. A precursor to museums, the cabinets - and their curators - were not hung up on historical or scientific accuracy, but focused instead on the absurd and the amusing.

The Seafoam Palace intends to carry on this tradition. As a video on the museum’s successful Kickstarter page (it raised over $23,000 to repair the formerly vacant building it occupies) explains, “The Seafoam Palace can be found far, far way in a mythical land known as North America a continent surrounded by sea monsters. The palace itself is located in the capital of North America, the magical city of Detroit, Michigan”. Through a mix of fabricated and real narratives, the artists aim to breathe new life into forgotten and discarded pieces of rubble and debris. If you believe Detroit represents the death of the American city, the Seafoam Palace is the brainchild of modern necromancers.

Seafoam artists reclaim Detroit's refuse for their museum of curiosities 

Julia Solis, the co-founder of Seafoam Palace, tries hard to avoid many of the clichés associated with ruin exploration, sometimes known as “ruin porn”. The German-born photographer has made a career out of examining urban abandonment and decay. The website for her previous project, Ars Subterranea, unabashedly states, “We like to play inside ruins”. Typically, all this would scream “exploitation” and “detachment”, conjuring eye-rolling images of suburbanites taking late night "tours" of the abandoned Fisher Body plant, a relic of the city’s declining auto industry, and posing for wedding photos in front of the iconic - and very, very empty - Michigan Central Station. But while that sort of tourism is cluelessly abrasive, Solis brings a refreshing thoughtfulness to her work.


She greets me at the museum entrance dressed in all black, her ring-stacked fingers slowly unraveling the chain guarding the building’s turquoise front door, which is painted with a giant red question mark. Pushing back a strand of ox-blood dyed hair, she introduces me to Bryan Papciak, a member of the museum’s board of directors, who is perched upon a ladder performing repairs. Solis is apologetic for the state of the building - the museum isn’t scheduled to officially open until early 2015, although they’ve already begun hosting events like an outdoor short film screening in August  - and quickly whisks me into one of the more lively and decorated rooms.

There is definitely a nautical theme going on, accentuated by the sea-green plaster that covers the building’s walls and a massive wooden ship hanging from the ceiling. One of the planned installations is a piece entitled Submerged Memories, at which, according to the Seafoam Palace website, visitors will be asked to ponder what lies beneath the Detroit River by looking at artifacts found and made in the city and examining historical and mythical narratives around these relics. In true cabinet-of-wonder fashion, history and science will be secondary to the imagination.

Hammering home the shipwreck metaphor 

Inside a garish but cozy space that Solis and Papciak call “Monica’s room” in reference to the dreamy artist Monica Canilao, a project collaborator, they explain that the museum was an impulse buy. In 2012 Solis was skimming Craigslist, looking for somewhere new to move, when she stumbled upon the massive and relatively cheap building (the asking price was $65,000). Haggling the sellers down to $21,000, Solis and some fellow artists purchased the structure with the idea that they turn it into studio spaces and a possible gallery.


“That was fine initially, but then we thought, let’s try to do something greater than that, something that actually has a vision", Solis says. "Since we’re all so interested in cabinets of wonder and what a modern interpretation would be we decided to make it a museum of curiosity”.

While the museum still has work to be done, artists have already begun to visit the space. Upstairs, Solis shows me a new piece by visiting artist Aminah Slor. Using materials that include found photographs, lighters, and broken pieces of glass, Slor built an elegant “Double-Headed Bird” that will be on permanent display once the museum is completed.

Looking at Slor’s work I began to understand how artists like Solis manage to revel in rot without getting the unpleasant label of “ruin pornographer”. Ruin porn is the documentation of disaster without context or history, reducing once-loved neighborhoods, like Barrett’s, into Tumblr-worthy memes. More to the point, this fascination with neglect fails to acknowledge that Detroit’s “urban wasteland” did not appear overnight, but is rather a slow and painful unraveling. The 1967 riots, white flight, scandal-ridden city politics, the diminishing relevance of the “Big Three” auto companies, the subprime mortgage crisis and the city’s recent bankruptcy - all of that has contributed to Detroit’s current state. While the Seafoam Palace is clearly an outgrowth of this decline, it manages to be something more than ruin porn - not because it addresses Detroit’s history, but because it is an attempt to create something entirely new.


Aminah Slor's 'Double-Headed Bird,' a permanent exhibit at the Seafoam Palace

“It’s more about saving objects that would otherwise deteriorate and with awareness of being respectful”, explained Detroit-based artist Vanessa Cronan, who is involved with the Seafoam project. “You know, you check out to make sure that house is actually abandoned, you check out to make sure that there is nobody coming back, and you check with the neighbors to make sure it’s OK you’re going in there and you tell them why you’re going in there and you get their permission, and then you go in. Those are the correct ways to go and scavenge a house, and I think that’s the ethos of most of the people involved with Seafoam”.

Still, there is a sensitivity when it comes to working with the abandoned and discarded remains of someone’s past life.

“If I had known that a part of my house was in this exhibit and had been turned into something else",  Barrett said, "I would feel very weird about someone exhibiting a piece of my history with no reverence for what it was before”.

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