“In all my years,” a deliveryman says while unhitching a 500-gallon propane tank from a semi- trailer, “I never delivered a propane tank for an organ.”
It’s a scorching midsummer day and he’s setting the tank on a grassy lot next to Ste. Anne de Detroit Catholic Church on the city’s southwest side. The propane was needed to power a one-of-a-kind, fire-powered organ attached to the facade of the neighboring — and vacant — firehouse.
“The Amazing Pyrophone Firepowered Organ” was set to debut by providing interludes during a concert and art installation at the building, an event headlined by the Detroit Children’s Choir, members of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Detroit Fire Department Honor Guard, opera singers, streetpoets, and filmmakers.
The premiere concert was being staged as part of Firehouse Detroit, an ongoing and evolving project of artist Gregory Holm. If Holm’s name strikes a familiar chord, it’s likely due to his involvement in an art installation on the other end of the elemental spectrum from his current fascination with fire.
He was responsible for Ice House Detroit in winter 2010, when he encased an abandoned east-side home in ice for a weekend — a stunt that attracted hundreds of curious onlookers and national media attention — even before the installation.
His current Firehouse Detroit effort is a multi-faceted, multi-media project — one whose details require a patient listener and a few minutes to adequately explain. For Holm, the initial spark was children. He wrote a handful of themes — childhood memories, the future, the symbolism of fire — and worked with Detroit youngsters to create poems based on those loose concepts. Their poems were given to four composers, who created six pieces of music featuring eclectic and sometimes esoteric instruments (a glass harp, for example), with a range of performers and musical styles.
That collaboration produced “Breathwork (in F major),” for instance. An excerpt: Playground, played on, picked on, pushed down / “b” word, “n” word, picked on, pushed down / laughed at and called names — that was just Monday.
Between dusk and darkness on July 22, Holm’s concept finally came to fruition in the form of a concert held at the firehouse. After working on the project full time for nearly four months (plus another four or five months of conceptualizing, scouting, and fundraising), the 40-year-old photographer, Warren native, and, now, filmmaker, saw his idea come to life before a diverse audience of about 250. During the 90-minute event, musicians played inside the fire hall with its great doors swung open, while the crowd watched from the street and surrounding sidewalk. The Detroit Fire Department Honor Guard marched to and fro, opening and closing the doors as required by set changes. Between songs, the fire organ wailed, sounding like the ghost of the building, while film crews from New York City and Los Angeles recorded the spectacle.
For the occasion, a spotlight dramatically illuminated the vintage structure against the backdrop of the surrounding quiet neighborhood — a visual that highlighted Holm’s original concept.
“Just in terms of the residents, everybody was really happy there was something going on in that neighborhood,” he says. “It’s about creating memories for these kids to look back on.”
> The Firehouse Detroit concert film will be shown Sept. 11 at the Detroit Film Theatre at the DIA to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of 9/11. Details: firehousedetroit.com.
By Peter Jurich
On the second floor of a burned-out house in Corktown hangs a black-and-white poster of former Detroit Mayor and Michigan Gov. Hazen Pingree. His image is adorned with a pair of twisted ram’s horns and is captioned: “I’ll never give up on you … ever. Detroit 2011.”
“That just showed up,” says Jeff DeBruyn, who has a view of the poster from the home’s backyard because the front half of the house is all that remains. “Things just show up around here.”
That’s the kind of impromptu spirit the Imagination Station inspires: Take initiative first, ask questions later. The station comprises two blighted 14th Street houses, which DeBruyn bought for $500 each, and three empty lots — purchased at a negotiated price — sitting across from Roosevelt Park, which fronts Detroit’s embraced symbol of neglect — the train station.
Despite the context of decay, the Imagination Station (I.M.) owners operate the facility as if it were habitable.
“We have parties here about once a month,” DeBruyn says of the ruins. As executive director of the project, he hopes the property, when renovated and landscaped, will be a studio and media lab for artists and locals.
The point? “You can’t forget about the neighborhoods … the quality of life,” DeBruyn says.
Although the I.M. isn’t the most lavish of party venues, it certainly has a dilapidated charm that DeBruyn hopes will attract partners and funding. That’s a tall order, he acknowledges, because “everyone is waiting and seeing.”
“They don’t want to make investments. They don’t know what’s going to happen to the banks.”
But in an economy that makes it difficult to get a start-up moving, determined souls are pushing forward with vision with or without support. “I do believe that as soon as we get one commitment, the others will follow,” DeBruyn says.