Living in a U-shaped structure with a corrugated metal exterior, Detroiter Courtney Henriette doesn’t just hear the rain when it falls. She can feel it.
“Because the walls are so thin, when it’s raining, the whole place shakes, which is not necessarily a bad thing,” she said. “It’s like a modern day tent.”
That tent is a Quonset hut. And now it’s Henriette’s home.
Last year, friend and colleague Philip Kafka asked Henriette if she’d be interested in being a part of a unique new development he was creating on Detroit’s west side called True North. It consists of nine rental units in U-shaped Quonset huts, re-imagined as live-work spaces for artists and entrepreneurs. Henriette loved the idea.
But moving into a 700-square-foot hut came with limitations. There are no formal rooms (other than the bathroom) or closets.
Still, downsizing her things wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“In a house you tend to put things (in places) and hide things,” said Henriette. “But here, you’re confronted with your personal footprint of stuff, which is nice. I constantly want to give things away.”
Henriette, who moved in last fall, says living in her own hut has forced Henriette to get creative with her space. A friend helped sew curtains that she used to divide the front portion of her hut into a closet. Another set of curtains provides more privacy around the bathroom.
Kafka, the developer, says residents have to modify their lives to hut-living, not the other way around: “You have to bend your life to the hut. You can’t bend the hut to your life.”
Henriette, who grew up in Royal Oak, is no stranger to Detroit or burgeoning neighborhoods. She used to live in a loft in Detroit’s Capitol Park and remembers riding her bike, partying at the nearby synagogue and watching the park at night as the buses would go by.
“That was unique because Detroit was so unique,” writes Henriette in an email. “It still is. Just in different ways.”
Inside her hut, the ceiling is covered in a thin layer of concrete. A staircase leads to a second-floor loft where Henriette sleeps that overlooks the main living space.
Surrounded by such hard surfaces, Henriette says she’s been drawn to textiles and plants such as cacti and succulents to soften the space.
“I didn’t notice plants before, but plants really help the air circulation here,” said Henriette. “And I’m getting excited watching them grow.”
Her decor is an eclectic, Bohemian mix of different colors, patterns and textures. Instead of a sofa in her main living space, she has a day bed covered with big comfy pillows. On the floor are a mix of layered rugs. And her furniture is a combo of vintage pieces and antiques with some IKEA thrown in.
On her coffee table is a unique tray with an assortment of crystals.
“I feel like if you’re living in a space that is plastic and concrete, you need wood, crystals and rugs,” said Henriette.
Henriette – who with Kafka co-owns the hot Asian eatery Katoi, which will reopen at the end of the summer after a devastating fire in February – says she often gets questions about living in a hut, including whether it has indoor plumbing (it does) or if it has heat (it does).
Still, she admits there have been some adjustments. Without blinds, “I’m really aware of time all of the time because of the light. You can’t ignore it,” she said.
She’s also connecting with the outdoors in ways she hadn’t before.
“You’re very much aware of what’s out there,” she says. “You’re very much a part of your surroundings.”
And that includes the rain. “When it rains, I am at one with the rain,” she says.
A Quonset hut re-imagined
Described as “sanctuary-inspired space,” True North may be the first development of its kind to take a Quonset hut and rethink it as a live-work space for artists, designers and other entrepreneurs.
Designed by architect Edwin Chan, the development has nine rental units and sits on seven acres. Each moon-shaped structure is made of corrugated metal. Units range from 700 square feet to 1,700 square feet, some with soaring 20-foot high ceilings.
Developer Philip Kafka says he turned to Chan, a museum architect, to elevate the idea of a Quonset huts, which really evolved in the military during World War II.
Growing up in Dallas and shuttling back and forth to baseball games and tennis matches, Kafka remembers driving by Quonset huts spotted along the Texas countryside.
“They were intriguing,” said Kafka earlier this year.
Kafka got his start as the owner of a media company in New York before eventually making his way to Detroit.
And while the Quonset hut may seem utilitarian on the outside, Kafka says they’re designed to create what he calls the “rabbit hole effect.”
“You can never imagine what’s on the inside based on the outside,” he said.
Future plans near True North include developing the surrounding area, including opening a coffee shop and possibly a gym. To learn more, go to truenorthdetroit.com.
– Maureen Feighan