Seahorse in Seafoam Palace (photograph by Julia Solis)

Seahorse in Seafoam Palace (photograph by Julia Solis)

A group of artists and urban explorers are taking on the ambitious task of transforming a deteriorated building in Detroit into a museum of curiosity.

The Seafoam Palace of Arts and Amusements and Dead Things in Jars — its rambling full name usually shortened to just “Seafoam Palace” — is the imaginative project of photographer Julia Solis with a team including Shel Kimen, Paul Parkhill, Bryan Papciak, and Tom Kirsch, as well as collaborators like John Law of Cacophony Society and Burning Man fame. Solis herself is known as much for exploration-based experiences through Ars Subterranea and Dark Passage as her photographs of abandoned performance spaces and the underground infrastructure of New York City, and the Seafoam Palace is an extension of this utilization of underused space for art, except here the goal is create a public space to inspire curiosity.

Exterior of the building that will be Seafoam Palace (photograph by Julia Solis)

As for why to situate this museum in Detroit, Solis cites local writer Kathe Koja who said:

“Detroit itself is seen by some as a dark and rusted Wunderkammer — what better place for such a singular, do-touch museum, that means to fuse art and wonder and deadpan fun?”

Solis discovered the building, a two-story, 13,000-square-foot former lumber office built in brick in 1917 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, on Craiglist. “I decided to check it out on a whim, and fell in love with it at first sight,” she tells Hyperallergic. “The seafoam-colored plaster was crumbling and with the water damage and the gorgeous wood paneling it seemed like a beautiful sunken ship.”

Its ocean-evoking name in place, next was to envision what could be in such a place. She knows her collaborators “from urban adventure games and guerilla performances that we’ve put on since the late 1990s,” with such experiences as a “1970s version of the Phantom of the Opera” that placed the retired opera ghost in an abandoned Jewish resort. They first came to Detroit in 1999 and she ended up buying a house in the area in 2008, and others moved to the area as well.

Workspace in Seafoam Palace (photograph by Julia Solis)

Boat in Seafoam Palace (photograph by Julia Solis)

The Seafoam Palace is hoped to be a place where curiosity “could be a harmonizing force in a struggling neighborhood,” although of course there’s a heavy amount of work which Solis acknowledges in the effort to turn the place from its 20-year abandonment decay to a center of discovery. While there will be a large number of curios as in an old wonder cabinet, from the little boat installed on the ceiling to artifacts like “Halloween masks from an abandoned children’s hospital,” lacework, found notebooks, and salvaged theater curtains, there will also be ongoing art installations, workshops, and other public programming.

The plan is to open in the fall of 2014. It’s incredibly ambitious and optimistic, but the group of intrepid people involved have definitely pulled off the seemingly impossible before. However, it will remain to be seen how the Detroit community will respond to this place where the ramshackle is framed as beautiful and art is a medium to a different perception of what one of the many crumbling buildings in the city can be. Maybe a bit of the quixotic spirit is what the city needs. As Solis says:

“I think our culture has moved away from sharing powerful collective mysteries ­and now it’s up to everyone individually to develop a relationship to their own curiosity. A hundred years ago people risked their families, fortune, and lives to find out whether the North Pole offered a portal to the hollow earth or harbored beings from heaven or outer space. Now the story that drives us to explore and gives meaning to our discoveries may come from a family secret or a dream or a found photo. In a way you have to work harder to build up a mystery, you have to create a narrative that gives you enough suspense to crave an answer. We’re here to help.”

Staircase in the museum (photograph by Julia Solis)

More information on the Seafoam Palace (6460 Kercheval, Detroit) can be found on their website.  

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...

One reply on “The Seafoam Palace: Opening a Museum for the Curious in Detroit”

  1. I love this building. I used to pass it almost everyday and wonder what was inside. So glad that someone is doing something interesting with it.

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