In 2014, Paul Johnson of New York’s Johnson Trading Gallery
acquired a rare real estate gem: Detroit’s 1925 Woods Cathedral, a 50,000-square-foot building that had retained the beautiful ornate details of its Gothic archways, stained-glass windows, and religious murals. It was also roofless, semi-flooded, and completely stripped of its metal parts. Johnson found the church online at the Wayne County tax foreclosure auction (where prices for entire homes start at as little as $500), and bought it for the bargain price of $6,700.
In June, following two years and approximately $250,000 in renovations—scraping, painting, electrical installation, and plumbing—Johnson reopens the former church as JTG Detroit Project, a nebulous cultural space that will launch with a group exhibition organized by L.A. gallery Moran Bondaroff. “We’ve got the main cathedral room in a good enough condition where we can host the first show,” says Johnson, although “the rest of the building still needs work”—namely, new roofs and new drains.
It’s a scenario that follows a now-typical art-world model: A derelict space is acquired, refurbished, and transformed into a space to make and showcase art. What’s atypical, however, is JTG Detroit Project’s location in a city that for decades has suffered under steep economic decline. Johnson’s interest in Detroit began through his representation of two local designers, Cranbrook Academy of Art graduates
—the latter now uses a room in the cathedral as his studio.
The church had landed on the auction block, alongside some 24,000 other properties seized in and around Detroit, after a tumultuous history. Originally the home of Visitation Catholic Church, the building, designed by local architects Carey & Esselstyn, changed hands as the white population of Detroit precipitously dropped. In 1983, it was acquired by the Woods Cathedral Church of God in Christ, a congregation of the black Pentecostal movement that stopped submitting its annual report to the city sometime between 2006 and 2008. Around this time, the copper in the roof was stripped and sold as scrap metal, and the church became a temporary destination in Detroit’s underground rave scene. In 2012, the church was the site of a clandestine installation by Los Angeles artists
and Jim Darling, who built a sort of altar of urban refuse, a beautifully symmetrical assemblage of broken TVs, sofas, and pews that they titled Sunday Mass