Who is burning down Detroit’s world-renowned Heidelberg Project?

Students on a field trip from Olympus College’s Opus gifted school in the Netherlands walk by the burned-out shell of the "Party Animal House", the latest installation to be claimed by arson in the Heidelberg Project. The group is in town on an exchange program with the Roeper School in Birmingham, and came out for a tour. Their teacher, Floor Schils, says, “Even in Holland we know about this story. I think [the Heidelberg Project] is something positive among all the negative news we see about Detroit.”

Students on a field trip from Olympus College’s Opus gifted school in the Netherlands walk by the burned-out shell of the “Party Animal House”, the latest installation to be claimed by arson.

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is playing inside Detroit artist Tyree Guyton’s head. His iconic “Party Animal House”, part of the world-renowned Heidelberg Project lays in front of him, burned to its foundation. “It’s already speaking to me, and that’s what I hear,” he says about his thoughts on March 7, as he stood looking at the installation after the fire.

The house was a focal point for the 2-block open-air urban art installation on Detroit’s east side, and the latest casualty in a series of nine fires that have decimated the project over the past 11 months. No arrests have been made and so far, no suspects – only theories about who and why someone would do this.

The former “Obstruction of Justice House”, which partially burned on May 3 and then completely on Oct. 5, 2013, has been reborn on the brick foundation, adorned with hundreds of toy figures, signs and found objects.

The former “Obstruction of Justice House”, which partially burned on May 3 and then completely on Oct. 5, 2013, has been reborn on the brick foundation, adorned with hundreds of toy figures, signs and found objects.

Guyton, founder and artistic director of the project offers his explanation, “These actions are of pain and fear. They hurt, they feel pain. Instead of fixing that hurt inside themselves, they go out and hurt – they go out and do things like this and inflict pain on others.” He believes that mankind sets out to ‘fix’ what it can’t control. “They want to fix things but they don’t want to fix people,” he says.

Motioning to the remains of the “Obstruction of Justice House”, which burned on May 3 and Oct. 5, 2013, now reborn on the brick foundation, adorned with hundreds of toy figures, signs and found objects he says, “For the person that did this, I have nothing but love for them.”

Guyton’s wife and Heidelberg’s executive director, Jenenne Whitfield said in a phone interview that the person who set the first fire on May 3, which only partially burned the “Obstruction of Justice House”, has since come forward and apologized. She adds that the fire was set using gasoline, whereas the fires after were all set using acetone. There are always positives that come out of negatives she says. “If it wasn’t for the fires, the people in that neighborhood would never be introduced to solar power,” referring to new street lighting that will be installed as part of upgraded security measures at the project. “To get people talking and thinking is what our work is all about.”

Art installations mix with snowy lots and painted sidewalks along Heidelberg street. The project has always been controversial since artist Tyree Guyton began his monumental journey 28 years ago to bring attention to the dire condition of his neighborhood and, "To show the world what is possible [to do] with nothing,” he says. He transformed houses, sidewalks and lawns into what is now an internationally known masterpiece by decorating them with paintings, furniture, old shoes, car parts, tires, shopping carts and the list goes on.

Art installations mix with snowy lots and painted sidewalks along Heidelberg street. The project has always been controversial since artist Tyree Guyton began his monumental journey 28 years ago to bring attention to the dire condition of his neighborhood and, “To show the world what is possible [to do] with nothing,” he says.

Detroit fire investigators have set up a joint task force with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and local law enforcement to investigate the fires. According to investigators, the fires have all been declared arsons but at this time they are withholding the exact method used to set the structures ablaze. On the record they are only willing to say that all the fires were set in the early morning hours, were similar in nature and that the buildings were completely engulfed in flames when fire companies arrived at the scene. Currently, they are without any suspects but are hoping that their reward program of $5,000 leading to the arrest and/or conviction of persons responsible will bring witnesses forward.

An American flag painted on plywood sit atop the charred rubble of the "House of Soul" which burned on Nov. 12.

An American flag painted on plywood sit atop the charred rubble of the “House of Soul” which burned on Nov. 12.

The Heidelberg Project released a statement after the most recent fire on March 7, “Following the destruction of the House of Soul on November 12th, 2013, Heidelberg Project supporters around the world rallied to pool over $54,000 to fund the implementation of a comprehensive security plan for the HP community, including increased lighting, mobile patrol, and surveillance equipment. Additionally, the Erb Family Foundation along with the Kresge Foundation kicked in additional funding just under $18,000 to help with the overall plan and patrolling.” Since then, other individuals, businesses and local foundations have also come forward to help.

Heidelberg artist Tyree Guyton (right) talks with David Harrison (left) who is a lifelong friend and neighbor. Harrison stopped by to let the artist know that he had a load of 200 vinyl records for him to use in one of his installations. “There’s always a plus,” Harrison says about set-backs like the fires, “you just got a bigger canvas.”

Heidelberg artist Tyree Guyton (right) talks with David Harrison (left) who is a lifelong friend and neighbor.

In front of the “Numbers House” along Heidelberg street, Guyton is watching from the ground while Dorral Goforth of Communication Services is up on a lift finishing the installation of a new HD robotic security camera on a tree in front. “I never thought I would have to do this,” he says, looking up.

The device is part of a $10,000 solar-powered “MobiPod” security system donated by Devin Mudd and his Metro Detroit company Digital Planet. After hearing about the string of fires, Mudd and his wife Shauna decided to help. They had planned to install the system before Christmas but the cold weather prevented it until now. Mudd says the high-tech robotic camera, paired with proprietary software, “will allow for motion tracking on the “Numbers House” in the evening so if someone is walking by or is on the property, the camera will follow and record. We also will use a guard duty feature which allows the camera to move to preset locations on a timed schedule.” This type of camera he said, is typically used for securing sensitive areas like maritime, oil and gas, broadcast and correctional facilities where high resolution imagery is needed. The system will record and upload images and time-lapse into the Digital Planet Private Cloud network, providing the Heidelberg Project, Detroit Police and Federal Law Enforcement with access to review footage whenever necessary.

Dorral Goforth of Communication Services finishes the installation of a new HD robotic "MobiPod" security camera on a tree in front of the "Numbers House" on Heidelberg Street.

Dorral Goforth of Communication Services finishes the installation of a new HD robotic “MobiPod” security camera on a tree in front of the “Numbers House” on Heidelberg Street.

After hearing on the news that the “House of Soul” – a house entirely covered with vinyl records, had burned to the ground in early November, Jim Clements got in touch with the people at Heidelberg. Owner of Nomax Technologies, a tech consulting firm in Harrison Township, Clements volunteered his services and that of his crew to help strengthen security for the project. He is now heading the development, installation and maintenance of surveillance systems, solar street lighting, network systems and security guards at the site. “I’m glad to be a part of it,” he says.

The Heidelberg Project has always been controversial since Guyton began a monumental journey 28 years ago to bring attention to the dire condition of his neighborhood and, “To show the world what is possible with nothing,” he says. He transformed houses, sidewalks and lawns into what is now an internationally known masterpiece, decorating them with paintings, furniture, old shoes, car parts, tires, shopping carts and the list goes on.

Students from Olympus College’s Opus gifted school in the Netherlands explore the Heidelberg Project during a class field trip. The group is in town on an exchange program with the Roeper School in Birmingham, and came out for a tour. Their teacher, Floor Schils, says, “Even in Holland we know about this story. I think [the Heidelberg Project] is something positive among all the negative news we see about Detroit.”

Students from Olympus College’s Opus gifted school in the Netherlands explore the Heidelberg Project during a class field trip. The group is in town on an exchange program with the Roeper School in Birmingham, and came out for a tour.

In 1991, Detroit Mayor Colman Young, who thought the area was an eyesore, had many of the installations demolished and after, in 1999, Mayor Dennis Archer sent in his own team of bulldozers to raze the art. But the artist stayed put and rebuilt. So far the current Detroit mayor, Mike Duggan, refuses to comment on the Heidelberg Project or the recent fires. According to his media representative, he was asked in a recent meeting if he was going to release a statement. “His response was ‘No’,” she said.

Jenenne Whitfield explains that the city has always looked for the new and innovative somewhere else, “instead of concentrating on their treasures at home.” She maintains the city has a severe confidence problem and is notorious for not supporting its own. “Artwork is the medicine of the community.” To bring back the city she says, “It’s going to take all people and the hope is with the young people.”

The view of Guyton's "Clock House" now reborn after fire destroyed it Dec. 8. Heeding the call to reclaim the house by transforming it into something new, the artist began to hang clocks back up on the one charred wall left standing after the fire.

The view of Guyton’s “Clock House” now reborn after fire destroyed it Dec. 8. Heeding the call to reclaim the house by transforming it into something new, the artist began to hang clocks back up on the one charred wall left standing after the fire.

Given the history of the project and sections previously demolished by the city, the artist is no stranger to starting over. After the “Clock House” was destroyed on Dec. 8, the remains of the building spoke to Guyton, “It’s time, it’s time, it’s time.” Heeding the call to reclaim the house by transforming it into something new, he began to hang clocks back up on the one charred wall left standing after the fire. This act was not only the rebirth of the house, but the forging ahead with new work for Guyton. The theme of ‘time’ is at the forefront of his work now. “Time and reality are going to bring something else,” he explains.

David Harrison is a lifelong friend and neighbor of Guyton who grew up with him on the street. He says he has an idea who could be setting the fires, and claims there are witnesses who saw the person but are afraid to come forward. Some believe, like Harrison, that the fires could have been set by someone who used to work for the artist but was told to leave. “There’s always a plus,” he says about set-backs, like the fires that have destroyed the installations, “you just got a bigger canvas.”

Like a Phoenix rising from the ashes, charred remains of the "Party Animal House" form an abstract character, not unlike those artist Tyree Guyton would attach to his buildings at the world-renowned Heidelberg Project art installation in Detroit. Regarding the latest rash of fires and connoting with his work the artist says, "Time and reality are going to bring something else." The fire started just before 3 a.m. Friday and burned the house at Mt. Elliott Avenue and Elba to the foundation. The house was covered in stuffed animals nailed to the sides and roof.

Like a Phoenix rising from the ashes, charred remains of the “Party Animal House” form an abstract character, not unlike those artist Tyree Guyton would attach to his buildings.

The international reach of the Heidelberg Project is evident on any given day as visitors from around the world explore and weave their way through the art placed throughout the neighborhood. Floor Schils, a teacher with her students from Olympus College’s Opus gifted school in the Netherlands exploring the project says, “Even in Holland we know about this story.” The group is in town on an exchange program with the Roeper School in Birmingham, and came out to tour the project. “I think [the Heidelberg Project] is something positive among all the negative news we see about Detroit.”

Having a look around the Heidelberg with colleagues on his lunch hour was U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman. He explains there has been a lot of discussion about the project and the fires between them all, so they decided to come out and have a look for themselves. He believes the most likely culprit is someone wanting attention. “It’s probably some psycho,” he says.

Art installations mix with snowy lots and painted sidewalks along Heidelberg street. The theme of ‘time’ is at the forefront of Guyton's work now. “Time and reality are going to bring something else,” he explains. After his “Clock House” was destroyed on Dec. 8, the remains of the building spoke to him, “It’s time, it’s time, it’s time.”

Art installations mix with snowy lots and painted sidewalks along Heidelberg street. The theme of ‘time’ is at the forefront of Guyton’s work now.

Walking to work past the “Numbers House” where Mudd’s crew is installing the new security system, Jasmine Bell talks about growing up over the past 20 years on Heidelberg street, “We used to help Tyree build stuff,” she says about the art installations. She has no idea why someone would set the fires but thinks it is most likely someone jealous of the artist. “He’s successful, people see that and want it too,” she explains. “There are always going to be haters out there.”

Even though all but two houses, the “Numbers House” and “The People’s House” are now gone, Guyton continues to create. His new work ‘time’ is evident throughout the two blocks that make up the project, where colorful clocks painted on huge sheets of plywood jut out from layers of snow in lots, while others are nailed to trees along the sidewalk, the sides of the homes still standing and the burned-out shells of Guyton’s internationally-acclaimed art center. This new vision, a result of the devastating fires, brings a different reality to the scene. As the artist puts it, “Plato says, ‘Time is the moving image of reality’.”

A clock hangs on the only charred wall remaining of the "Clock House". After the “installation was destroyed on Dec. 8, the remains of the building spoke to Guyton, “It’s time, it’s time, it’s time.” Heeding the call to reclaim the house by transforming it into something new, he began to hang clocks back up on the one charred wall left standing after the fire.

A clock hangs on the only charred wall remaining of the “Clock House”.

Back in front of the “Numbers House”, watching work crews install the new security system, the Heidelberg’s assistant director, Alvita Lozano, sums up the controversial art project, “Detroit is famous for exporting cars. Well,” she says, “Heidelberg exports hope.”