DETROIT — A timeworn house overlooking a Detroit freeway seemed to hike itself up on its aged studs and stand a bit straighter for a few days this month.
It hadn’t been warmed by lights or fuel or activity in some 15 years. But now, it had a name: Flower House. And it had visitors — thousands of them.
On the sidewalk, ticket holders stood in line to ascend the crumbling porch steps and enter a two-story indoor garden created by 37 floral designers from several states and Canada.
For the florists, it was a chance to apply their craft to a project free of client constraints. For visitors, the spectacle was a mixed bouquet of decorative theater, urban revitalization and floral fantasy.
“People are so emotionally moved by the messiness of the exterior and the beauty of the interior; it’s a metaphor for Detroit,” Flower House volunteer Jamie Heberling observed from her post in the second-floor “tornado room,” which featured a vortex of twigs, vines and flowers.
Like a vibrant lining inside a shabby winter coat, Flower House house offered the appeal of unexpected contrast. Visitors peered into closets, porches, balconies and rooms, where curls of peeling paint suddenly seemed voluptuously petal-like.
“I love it,” one guest murmured. “It smells so good. It’s peaceful.” That, though the view through the bedroom window today reveals eight lanes of I-75. But this house was built sometime around 1925, before the freeway cut it off from the rest of Hamtramck, the self-contained city within Detroit known for its dense neighborhoods and lively downtown. The street declined, and by 2000 the house was uninhabited: A Carr & Erwin Funeral Home calendar still hangs in the kitchen, stopping time in January 1999.
And so it remained, decaying and increasingly forlorn, until last year, when Detroit floral designer and Flower House originator Lisa Waud bought it and the house next door at auction. Inspired by the work of installation-art duo Christo and Jeanne-Claude, as well as the bloom-bedecked 2012 Dior fashion show outside Paris, Waud developed a plan that was also rooted in the seeds of rebirth sprouting in Detroit.
Desolation blossomed into a full-fledged creative effort. It all came to fruition two weeks ago, when the floral designers converged, barn-raising style, stringing flowers on fishing line and affixing moss to walls and floors, while portable generators pulsed electric power into the rooms.
The $15 tickets benefited the nonprofit Reclaim Detroit, which responsibly “deconstructs” abandoned houses designated for razing and sells their old-growth timber floorboards and other materials for reuse.
Among the designers who brought their visions to the project was Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Holly Rutt, who created a bathroom with a shower “curtain” composed of marigold strands, a tubful of flowers, a bark windowsill and a moss bathmat.
A team led by New York designer David Beahm built on the concept of Mother Nature repossessing a house: Visitors brushed against fragrant herbs as they entered his dining room, where Beahm had turned a tree stump, with roots forming a sort of chandelier that was also a water feature, raining down onto a table laden with plants; the table’s legs were birch limbs foraged from his farm in Bucks County, Pa. Flower House visitors tried to sweet-talk Daevid Reed, a horticulturalist and manager for Beahm, asking, “Can we have this for our house?”
Flower House became a design center, of sorts, alive with ideas. Suburban Detroit interior designer Michelle Mio said the house inspired a color palette she’d been seeking for a current project. She chose a muddy-toned linen with punches of chartreuse, cinnabar and spice rather than the cooler neutrals she has been using.
Another takeaway, she said, was the mood.
“There was a delicateness that seemed refreshing,” she said. “Modern design often lacks that quality.”
While the installation lasted, the long-empty house made up for lost time, hosting a wedding, a marriage proposal, a “Field to Vase” dinner, a steady stream of guests and, ultimately, its own wake: The Flower House is slated to be torn down to make way for Waud’s commercial flower farm and design center.
In some ways, the house’s history is coming full circle: The street it’s on, Dequindre, bears the name of a French settler who owned a farm in Detroit in the 1700s. When Waud’s flower farm blooms with dahlias and peonies next spring, it will be both a fresh start and, as she said, “A perfect end to the story.”
Home decorators, too, can think outside the vase. Here are ideas from some of the dozens of designers who contributed to Flower House:
• Float flower petals on water in a basin. — Beahm, David Beahm Experiences, New York
• Place several trugs (garden baskets) running down your dining table and fill them with things you find in your yard. — Beahm
• Display clusters of emerald-colored moss on a piece of wood. — Denise Fasanello, Denise Fasanello Flowers, Brooklyn
• Use vines. “One stem of passion vine trailing up the kitchen shelf will last two weeks,” Fasanello says.
• Harvest branches from the garden and place them in small containers on side tables. — Holly Rutt, Sweet Pea Floral Design, Ann Arbor, Mich.
• Remove the glass from an antique picture frame and staple chicken wire to the back. Slip flowers through each wire opening until the frame is filled with fresh flowers. Depending on the flowers, it may only last a day, but there are longer-lasting varieties. You can also use water tubes for the flowers, which will make the frame heavier. — Rutt
• Arrange moss in a favorite dish. — Lia Colapietro, Lia Colapietro Floral, Perrysburg, Ohio
• “My mantel at home is a constantly changing collection of whatever catches my eye outdoors,” Colapietro says. “Currently, there are dried air plants and dramatic lengths of sweet autumn clematis. Once I’ve enjoyed them, they’re composted or pitched.”
• Gather grapevines and twist them into a ring. Glue or wire lichens, seedpods and bark to the ring. — Colapietro
• Glue succulents, grasses, seedpods and herbs to driftwood. (Try cold floral glue by Oasis.) If it’s spritzed weekly, it will last a long time. — Weeks, European Floral Design, Portland, Ore.
• Tie eucalyptus stems together and hang them upside down from a nail or hook in the shower. Its aroma will fill the bathroom. — Jordana Masi, White Oak Flower Co. and Toronto Flower Market
• Press flowers or leaves between planks of wood for a day or two. Put the pressed item on white paper and behind glass in an antique picture frame. — Masi
• Shake the soil off orchids or staghorn ferns and hang them on the wall or attached to a vintage plate. — Jody Costello, J. Costello Designs, Royal Oak, Mich.
• Mount staghorn fern on a wooden wall plaque for a look that’s modern and architectural. Mist it occasionally. — Costello
• String flowers through macrame; hang with wire, as you would a picture. — Martha DeFlorio, Made Floral, Northville, Mich.
• Try drying the ball-shaped flower called Billy Ball (craspedia), which “looks like it belongs in a science project,” DeFlorio says. “I also like the way carnations dry; they’re underestimated. They shrink in size but stay as a good dry flower.”
Rebecca Powers is a Detroit-based freelance writer. She can be found at www.rebeccapowers.com.