Heidelberg Project: ‘These Fires Didn’t Set Themselves’

Reward out for tips on Heidelberg firebug.

Dec 10, 2013 at 4:58 pm

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is offering a $5,000 reward for any information on the perpetrator(s) responsible for the string of fires that have plagued Detroit’s Heidelberg Project in recent months.

The project, which was started in 1986 by Detroiter Tyree Guyton, has transformed abandoned homes into giant works of art, becoming both a destination for tourists from around the world as well as the target of city officials who deem it an eyesore. Since May, five of the seven installations have been completely destroyed by eight different fires.

“It is difficult for us not to believe the arson fires are connected,” Heidelberg Project Marketing and Communications Coordinator Katie Hearn says via email. “The choice of targets seems very strategic, the timing of the attacks calculated.” 

The first in the string of fires occurred on May 3 at the “Obstruction of Justice House,” also known as the “OJ House.” The house was again targeted on Oct. 5, when it was completely destroyed.

Two more fires followed days later, which caused minor damage to the “Penny House” and the “Number House.” The “House of Soul” was the next victim, burning down on Nov. 12, followed by another attack on the Penny House, which destroyed it on Nov. 21. 

Another fire occurred early on Nov. 28, Thanksgiving Day morning, at an installation known as the “War Room.” According to a press release, a security guard spotted a man in dark clothing running from the site before the structure was engulfed in flames. The most recent fire occurred late on Dec. 8, claiming the “Clock House.”

The first fire at the OJ House was “almost immediately deemed suspicious” according to Hearn, noting the fire’s speed and intensity. “All of the targeted structures were uninhabited but secured, many of them completely lacked electricity connections,” she says. “These fires didn’t set themselves.”

The controversial art project, which has covered abandoned homes in Guyton’s blighted childhood neighborhood with colorful polka dots, stuffed animals, and other found and painted objects, has gained plenty of opposition in its lifetime.

In 1991, shortly after Guyton appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Mayor Coleman Young ordered the demolition of several installations. In 1998, the Heidelberg Project was successful in filing a restraining order against the city, but the next year it was lifted. Within an hour of that order, Mayor Dennis Archer began a second round of demolitions, which razed several more structures. 

Hearn says there are many theories on the suspected arsonists, including “personal grudge,” though she admits investigations have produced little evidence so far. “At this point, we are focused less on who and why as we are on how to prevent any further danger posed to our long-time neighbors,” she says.

Recently, a mobile patrol unit has been put in place, as well as turning on some of the neighborhood’s streetlights. The Heidelberg Project is currently trying to raise $50,000 to install a more comprehensive lighting and surveillance plan, including solar-powered lighting and remote-monitored cameras.

Despite the grave tone used in press statements thus far, the Heidelberg Project seems to have a sense of humor about the fires on its Indiegogo.com site, where different donation levels use puns such as “Glow Getters,” “Pyro-tégé” and “ART-sonist,” and signed prints and photos from Guyton are offered as prizes to donors.

The fires coincide with the beginnings of an ambitious effort to raise $3 million in capital over the course of the next three years, Crain’s Detroit reported, with aims to enable the project to build a sustainable site as well as a new House of Soul. 

The day the Penny House burned down was the same day that the Heidelberg hosted its annual fundraising event. Supporters paid $400 per ticket, helping to raise approximately $55,000.

The project draws an estimated 275,000 visitors per year. The collection of art was valued at $111,500 before the fires, according to Crain’s Detroit. Many of the art installations were insured, though not the houses themselves. According to the project’s website, since the art project began, no major crimes have been reported in the area. 

Hearn says the ATF as well as the FBI have stepped in to assist with investigations. The FBI had earlier involvement with the project in investigating a theft in the ’90s. According to Hearn, “They recognized the value of what we were losing — something that has become a part of Detroit’s history, a cultural icon.”

It isn’t the first time the Heidelberg Project has had to rebuild, and it most likely won’t be the last. “Though you have tried, you cannot destroy the Heidelberg Project,” read a statement following the fall of the OJ House. “It’s bigger than all of us now.”