Flower House takes root as art, community activism

Laura Berman
The Detroit News

Over the weekend, Flower House was an art happening. Lisa Waud’s vision of a long-abandoned house reimagined and dressed in thousands of blooms was realized to fantastic effect. Two thousand people paid for the privilege of traipsing through 11751 Dequindre, a vacant, decayed duplex overlooking I-75, transformed for 72 hours into a floral dreamland.

One woman’s big idea became a collaborative effort that drew people in like a Venus flytrap, engaging flower wholesalers, caterers and sponsors from GMC to Kind snack bars. Two dozen floral designers wove their own verdant narratives into the creaking walls and flaking paint, the naked floors and porcelain fixtures.

They hung tulips upside down like chandeliers. A kitchen was dressed in squashes and peppers harvested from Zingerman’s Dexter farm. A bathroom, fragrant with floral bounty, was named “Aromatic.” One of the bedrooms contained a floral bedstead framed in hardwood boughs, covered with a moss quilt and a pillow of ivory dahlias. The finished house was a triumph of imagination and, strangely, of hope.

Now that it’s over, though, Waud intends to demolish the building, and her plan — to create a flower farm — has created a small flurry of questions and criticism. Mitch Cope, the artist and curator, protested in a letter to the Flower House principals and reprinted in Detroit Metro Times that “tearing (houses) down simply because it costs more to fix them up is not a sound argument for removal.” He argues that “we must change the dynamic of what real estate means, what properties mean to neighborhoods.”

He raises good questions about the project and what he suggests is a destructive conclusion.

I bought a ticket to Flower House a couple of months ago, determined to see it as a citizen rather than a journalist, because I was intrigued by Waud’s idea of blanketing a sad and empty house in cut flowers — blossoms destined to die after their last gasp as part of a vivid spectacle.

But Waud’s vision wasn’t only about flower shock and awe. “If you can look at this house as a resource rather than as a problem, we can find a way to use it,” she said. She intends to save the house next door — she bought two adjacent houses for $500 — and to create a flower farm, growing plants and creating jobs.

The duplex will not come down in one cruel swoop, but deliberately. Jeremy Haines, marketing director for Reclaim Detroit, the nonprofit involved, said the floral designers had raised enough money to save 75 percent of the material from the house. Reclaim Detroit trains millworkers and woodworkers, while selling materials to artisans, all with the goal of salvaging and using the legacy of Detroit’s old housing stock.

He sees the project as very purposefully focused on a future for the property that includes salvaging some buildings and re-purposing and using the Flower House itself.

Is preserving an abandoned house at great cost the better choice? Does every solution have to be, as floral designer Jody Costello asks, “a Nicole Curtis approach?” Or is Waud’s notion of saving and reusing, creating flowers and future, equally viable?

These are the questions that linger after the flowers are gone — and they point to the success of Flower House both as art and an original kind of community activism.

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