Homegrown Art Torched as Detroit Tries to Preserve Old Masters

For 27 years, Detroit’s Heidelberg Project has stood as Tyree Guyton’s visual rebellion against blight, a two-square-block dreamscape of junk sculptures, polka dots on the pavement and vacant houses festooned with vinyl records and stuffed animals.

Now, someone is burning it down.

Eight arson fires since May have destroyed five buildings that were anchors of the art oasis on Heidelberg Street that draws curiosity seekers from around the world and busloads of schoolchildren from ravaged neighborhoods. The latest blaze, on Dec. 8, destroyed a vacant house decorated with painted clocks.

The possibility that the Detroit Institute of Arts will stage a sale of masterpieces by Picasso, van Gogh and Bruegel led to an international outcry and a $500 million fundraising effort. Meanwhile, the Heidelberg Project is going up in smoke in a bankrupt city that last year closed almost half its fire stations temporarily or for good.

“You can’t ignore that someone is targeting this,” said Donald Dawkins, a spokesman for the city’s office of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which put up a $5,000 reward for those responsible. “The question is why and who.”

Innocent Pleasure

The arsons have upset many in the international art world who respect Guyton, 58, and his work, which he began in 1986, said Reed Kroloff, director of the Cranbrook Academy of Art in the Detroit suburb Bloomfield Hills.

“It’s a piece of art that has transcended its physical location,” Kroloff said in a phone interview. The arsons are “clearly the work of a very disturbed set of minds.

‘‘Why destroy a perfectly innocent piece art that’s taken years and years to build and brought great joy to its neighborhood?’’

Arson is a daily fact of life in Detroit, where an average of about 30 fires are reported each day. Sixty percent occur among the city’s 70,000 vacant buildings, according to state-appointed Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr. To save money, officials last year closed 25 of 67 fire stations.

The Heidelberg fires claimed houses named ‘‘Obstruction of Justice,’’ ‘‘House of Soul,’’ ‘‘Penny House,’’ ‘‘Clock House’’ and the ‘‘War House.’’ Guyton has weathered conflict: Two previous mayors ordered parts of the project bulldozed.

Surreal City

Now, it faces another existential threat. Dawkins said the arson endangers neighbors and firefighters called to the blazes.

‘‘We are getting tips and we are going to try to run down every lead,’’ he said, adding that the ATF is working with the Detroit Fire Department’s investigators.

The fires leave three houses-turned-art on streets where people still live and visitors stroll among an amalgam of graffiti, shoes, dolls and stuffed animals, old tires, vacuum cleaners, television sets, plastic tubes, hoes and other castaways that are turned into strange sculptures.

A sport-utility vehicle appears half buried in the ground to form a large flower pot with a tree growing from its roof and grass and flowers under its hood.

The project springs up amid a devastated city. Detroit’s population has fallen to about 700,000 from a peak of about 1.8 million. Many blocks in the city present drivers with an allee of vacant houses, their windows shattered and doors yawning open. Other areas are reverting to meadowland. Abandoned factories and offices pockmark its 139 square miles (360 square kilometers).

Sanctioned Classics

In the wake of its record $18 billion bankruptcy filing, creditors are examining every municipal asset, including city-owned works in the Detroit Institute of Arts. New York-based Christie’s Inc. has assessed them for possible liquidation. They are worth between $452 million and $866 million.

The art on Heidelberg Street has meaning beyond money.

Among the few visitors yesterday in the blustery cold was Audrey Johnson, 56, who grew up in one of the destroyed homes -- the War House.

Johnson’s brother was the late soul singer Wilson Pickett, an Alabama native who she said often visited the home. Her father, Wilson Pickett Sr., enforced order in the neighborhood in the 1960s, she said.

‘‘This area was beautiful,” Johnson said. “After people started moving out, vandalism started happening. Everybody was family in this neighborhood.”

She recalled when Guyton began the Heidelberg Project.

“It’s not junk, it’s art,” she said.

Detroit’s Phoenix

Guyton yesterday was picking through the ruins of the structure torched Dec. 8. He said he’d been advised by a lawyer not to talk to reporters.

“Plato said that Socrates would take long periods of time to be quiet,” Guyton said in a brief interview, and placed a finger over his lips.

His magnum opus is meant to “inspire people to appreciate and use artistic expression to enrich their lives and to improve the social and economic health of their greater community,” according to its website.

Browsing among the art was Andrew Pixley, a 21-year-old mortuary-science student at Wayne State University in Detroit.

“It’s always cool to see,” Pixley said. “It’s more like the rest of Detroit now that there are burned-out homes. It’s just sucks that someone would want to ruin such beautiful art.”

Lisa Rodriguez, a sculptor and chief curator for the Heidelberg Project, said the fires are the start of a new phase. She said they will transform a project that will continue for decades -- and that can rehabilitate those who set it ablaze.

“The fires were destructive, but this is a time for rebirth,” she said.

Asked whether he agreed with Rodriguez, Guyton nodded silently.

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