Former church to be reborn as cultural center, block on Detroit's east side

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

A vacant church on Detroit's east side is being resurrected as an ambitious new cultural center that will transform an entire block into gallery space, a sculpture park, skate park,  and a bed and breakfast — a project city officials say shows how art can be used to bolster and revive neighborhoods.

The center, which will be called The Shepherd, a nod to its previous past as the Good Shepherd Catholic Church, is being created by Library Street Collective gallery owners Anthony and JJ Curis, who started their gallery nearly 10 years ago and have slowly been adding to Detroit's cultural renaissance ever since. They unveiled their plans Tuesday for the center at Parkview Street between Agnes and McClellan in the city's East Village neighborhood. Construction should be completed by spring of 2023.

The name, The Shepherd, pays homage to the 16,000-square-foot church's history but it's also about "ushering this new identity for the building itself and maybe even the immediate neighborhood," said Anthony Curis.

A rendering by PRO of the exterior of The Shepherd, a new cultural center being created inside a 1911 church, shows that the exterior will be left largely intact. Halo lighting will be added in the front.

 Plans for the site — Curis wouldn't put a price tag on the cost — include converting the church into two gallery spaces, along with a Black arts library. There also will be room for performance programming inside the spacious church, which will keep its stained glass windows, domed ceiling and confessionals.

The adjacent 5,500-square-foot rectory, meanwhile, will be converted into a six-room bed and breakfast that will overlook a sculpture park featuring the work of iconic Detroit artist Charles McGee, who died earlier this year. A skatepark designed by skating legend Tony Hawk will be installed on the block's southwest side. And two houses on the block will be transformed into four separate commercial spaces. A garage also will be converted into a cafe.

Detroit officials applaud the project, which is just a half-mile from the city's beloved Pewabic Pottery on Jefferson. They say it's an example of how Detroit's creative community can work with artists and a community to transform a neighborhood.

Rochelle Riley, the city's director of arts and culture, said she's especially excited about the Charles McGee sculpture park, which will include three clusterings of his work, fabricated in steel and aluminum, for kids and families to not just see but interact with. McGee was just awarded this week with a Detroit ACE honor for his lifetime of work.

"It’s not just a park but a place where kids will be able to climb on these sculptures by this amazing artist," said Riley. "They’ll be able to learn about him and art."

Anthony and JJ Curis founded Library Street Collective in 2012 and transformed an alley downtown, now called The Belt, into a destination for art. Anthony said they'd been looking for a bigger space in Detroit for awhile to allow them to offer even more programming, such as exhibitions and performances all in one spot but it was challenging to find a location. They bought the church two years ago, which is just east of Detroit's beloved Indian Village neighborhood.

"We walked through it and it was 'This is it,'" said Anthony. 

The church, built in 1911 in a stately Romanesque style, had its last mass in 2016. And while structurally it was in solid shape, it was filled with items and had been neglected before the Curises bought it. Still, they plan to leave the exterior largely untouched.

A bridge will connect the new gallery to the existing mezzanine. The center will have multiple spaces for several programs to happen at once.

"Because this church was so important to this community and this neighborhood in general — and obviously because it's an incredible structure — we're not going to be doing any modifications to the exterior of the church," said Anthony. "The only thing we'll be doing beyond restoration is some very subtle lighting improvements."

PRO, or Peterson Rich Office, a Brooklyn-based architectural firm that specializes in adaptive reuse and cultural spaces, is one of the architects on the project. And even though the church will have a completely new use, Anthony said it was important to them to maintain the church's architectural integrity.

"We felt it was important to kind of leave that character in there, at the same time being able to build spaces within the space," he said.

A foyer will lead to the first gallery, which will sit in the middle of the space. A new staircase will be installed to lead to the mezzanine, which can be used for more programming. 

"The gallery spaces are being done in a way that is almost like creating spiritual spaces," said Anthony. 

The project, meanwhile, is like a who's who of big names. The lighting is being done by Andi Watson, a lighting and stage designer for the band Radiohead. Watson has collaborated with Library Street Collective in the past. And the Curises also are friends with Hawk, who also has done work in Detroit before.

By creating multiple spaces it'll allow for programming to even happen simultaneously, said Anthony.

"We didn't want to create a space that was completely contingent on one specific program at a time," said Anthony. "We see the church as this living, breathing thing with multiple things happening at the same time."

Asmaa Walton, meanwhile, is curating a special library inside the Shepherd that will focus on the contributions of Black artists in not just Detroit but Michigan. Walton is the founder of Black Art Library, a rotating exhibit of books that explore Black artists.

The new East Village library will have about 800 books. Books won't just be about artists of color, though that will be a focus, Walton said.

"There's so much (in Michigan and Detroit)," she said. "We have Cranbrook here and I started to think of all of the artists that maybe aren't from here but have worked with Detroit or in Detroit in some capacity. I wanted to build a library that can speak to some of that history."

Eventually, the entire block will be transformed with ample green space and pathways. Each space is connected by an alley that runs through the center of the block.