'Fortress of Fun' in Detroit lives up to its name as live-work space

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

If there were a contest for the best house name, Monika Essen and her husband, Kurt Kastner, of Detroit would win hands down. It’s hard to beat a place dubbed the “Fortress of Fun.”

Monika painted the mural on the second level outdoor space, which is perfect for entertaining.

And their home, a one-of-a-kind live-work space close to the Grosse Pointe Park border, is indeed like a fortress and it’s beyond fun. It’s fortified by a 9-foot wall, has a courtyard, even small square windows where “you’d pour boiling oil out in medieval times or shoot your bows and arrows out, says Monika (pronounced Mo-neek-uh), an artist, gallery owner and resident designer for the Michigan Opera Theatre, with a laugh.

“It’s fun here. We like to have a lot of fun,” says Monika, who also does interior design work. “So we tempered the fortress with fun so we call it the Fortress of Fun.”

But bringing the Fortress of Fun to life posed its challenges. Kurt and Monika had to find just the right property and when they were finally ready to build, Detroit officials weren’t sure how to zone it since they didn’t have many live-work spaces at the time. And it took 10 years to build.

Today, their house has an art gallery in the front where they’ve hosted several shows and the couple lives in the back. It was recently featured on the first ever Weird Homes Tour Detroit, though Monika takes exception to the word “weird.”

“I don’t feel that we’re weird. We’re unusual,” said Monika.

But Kurt points out that weird is meant in a good way: “The true meaning of ‘weird’ is unusual.”

The house features 26-foot high ceilings in the living room and a totally unique circular kitchen. Much of the art was either done by Monika herself or was featured in plays or operas that she kept. And they’ve designed and crafted several pieces of their furniture themselves (they’re gearing up to launch their own modern furniture collection with a retro feel which they hope to debut in the next two years. “I get the idea and Kurt helps me makes things,” says Monika, sitting around the couple’s dining room table, which she designed. “So we build things together.”

But you’d never expect such a unique space hides behind the plain front exterior. Monika says the design is based on the European concept where it features a courtyard in the middle and it’s closed off to the outside.

“The front of the building doesn’t relay anything of what’s inside,” says Monika. “That was our intent.”

Live-work space

Monika and Kurt always knew they wanted a space where they could both live and host events. At their gallery, Epoque Gallery (studioepoque.com), they’ve held art shows, memorial services, even an opera in May called La Cenerentola (Italian for “Cinderella”). 

But finding the right property to create such a unique space in the mid-1990s took work. They looked downtown but buildings were too expensive even then. Eventually they found a 145-by-60-foot empty lot, which belonged to the city of Detroit – unbeknown to the city.

“It was at a time when the land bank didn’t really know what it owned,” said Kurt.

Once they bought the lot, they designed the house themselves. Kurt, who actually studied architecture at the University of Michigan but went into marketing instead, says he viewed the house as “my one chance.”

“I drew this entire place by hand,” he said. “It was my one project. Between the two of us, this is our dream from the ground up.”

But finding contractors to think outside the box — especially with a house that features curved walls — was another challenge. 

“We’d constantly get ‘Well that’s not how you usually do it, that’s not what you’re supposed to do it,’” remembers Monika. “We had to say ‘We’re not doing it the typical way.’”

In some cases, that meant Monika and Kurt had to take matters into their own hands. The winding staircase to the second level in their living space, for example, originally was built to the floor but now features floating steps. Their contractor said the steps either had to be made out of metal to float or couldn’t be done.

So Kurt built his own steps, taking several sheets of a product called Masonite, laminating them together with glue, installing it in the curved section and removing the portion of the stairs that went to the ground.

“I made Kurt go down the steps first,” laughs Monika. “But 10 years later, they’re fine.”

Circles everywhere

One of the most unique spaces on the first floor is the circular kitchen. Since she was about 10 years old, Monika has drawn a circular kitchen. Circles, in fact, are a motif throughout the house and gallery.

“I wanted it right in the middle of everything because that’s the hub of the house and I wanted to be able to look down on it from up above,” she said.

The couple built the kitchen cabinets themselves, using a tambour plywood and a special jig to create the curved shape. Monika created the concrete counters, using an exterior grade concrete. She also cut out a unique shape that goes around the wall.

“A lot of the things we’ve done in here are theatre tricks,” said Monika.

The floor, meanwhile, features a digital print of a mind-bending black swirl printed on vinyl.

The outside, meanwhile, is its own version of fun.

A resin chair makes a regal statement in the courtyard. On the opposite wall is a graffiti mural by Detroit artist Kobie Solomon.

Nearby, an outside staircase leads to a second level perfect for entertaining with a small circular pool (plopped in place with a crane), chaise lounge chairs and a retro mural that Monika painted herself. 

“It’s amazing (for entertaining),” said Monika. “We have a lot of parties up here.”

You wouldn’t expect anything less from the Fortress of Fun.


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Twitter: @mfeighan