In Berlin, an artist resurrects a piece of American history

PHOTO: U.S. artist Ryan Mendoza poses for a photo next to the former house of Rosa Parks on Mendozas property, April 6, 2017, in Berlin.PlaySean Gallup/Getty Images
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The white, wood-framed house tucked behind an iron gate in Berlin’s Wedding district stands out among the rows of drab, prewar cement buildings that dot much of this gritty neighborhood.

But the two-story building resting in a quiet courtyard is unique for a much more important reason: It’s the Detroit home of Rosa Parks, a civil rights icon who likely never set foot in the German capital.

This sliver of American history made the 4,216-mile trek from South Deacon Street in southwest Detroit thanks to American artist Ryan Mendoza, an acclaimed painter and photographer who saved it from demolition in Detroit where it stood neglected for years.

Detroit is still climbing out of the sluggish aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008, suffering from cascading job loss and depopulation. Like thousands of houses in the city, Parks’ home was abandoned after the sub-prime mortgage crisis hit and was set to be razed as part of the city’s massive anti-blight campaign.

“Amazingly, the mayor of Detroit didn’t see the value in keeping it," Mendoza told ABC News during a recent tour in Berlin. “So I decided to move it and make it both a testament to an important American, but also to really underscore how some Americans aren’t willing to preserve our own history.”

To save the house from the wrecking ball, Mendoza and a small band of volunteers took it apart piece by piece last summer. They then packed and shipped each of its parts in two shipping containers to Berlin. After six months of work – and more than $100,000 of his own money – Mendoza reassembled the home in a courtyard near his studio in Berlin, an artist-friendly city where interest in Parks’s courageous story has been high for years.

The house will be on display at the Berlin Gallery Weekend April 28-30.

Parks lived in the three-bedroom home in the late 1950’s, Mendoza says. She moved there with her husband just two years after becoming famous for refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. She shared the modest home with her brother, her own parents and the two couples' 12 children. She later lived elsewhere in Detroit, and died there at 92 in 2005.

The move was fueled, in part, to escape death threats after becoming one of America’s most prominent civil rights activists, her family says. To halt the demolition, Parks’ niece Rhea McCauley bought the house from the city for $500 and donated it to Mendoza.

“It is something that is precious,” McCauley told The Associated Press while visiting the house in Berlin for the first time last month. “And it is priceless. And yet it is being mistreated. That’s what I saw. And that’s how it felt. And so when I met Ryan and he said, ‘Let’s bring it to Berlin and restore it,’ I said yes.”

Mendoza isn’t new to home relocation or media attention. A painter by trade, his work has been on view at galleries across Europe. His paintings have been widely acclaimed for their ability to counterbalance old master techniques with contemporary themes.

He became famous in Detroit in 2016 after bringing an entire house from the Motor City to Europe. It was first on display at Art Rotterdam in 2016. 'The White House', is now on permanent exhibition at the Verbeke Foundation, Belgium.

Mendoza says he created the Parks project to honor her extraordinary role in the civil rights movement. Her life in Detroit isn’t widely known, he says, as well as her struggles to find both work and an affordable place to live after she fled the South.

But he also wanted to draw attention to the city of Detroit, which he says failed to recognize what he considers an important monument.

“They saw it as nuisance or eyesore,” he says. “The mayor wouldn’t’ even consider my proposal to restore it in Detroit.” (ABC News reached out to the mayor’s office and have yet to receive comment.)

As for the Parks house, Mendoza says it will be available for public viewing though visitors are not yet allowed inside. Mendoza’s wife, Fabia, produced a film about the project.

At its opening last month, Mendoza played a sound collage made up of audio footage from Parks's time from inside the ruin, eerily bringing it back to life.

Though its future is uncertain, Mendoza hopes to sell it, perhaps to an art institution. He says proceeds will go the Rosa Parks Family Foundation.

“It has to echo and respect the spirit of Rosa Parks,” he said. “It’s a house without a home, but it's been resurrected in Berlin because it wasn’t valued in my own country.”