Ann Arbor is known to host some of the biggest things in the country. But crouch down in certain parts of downtown Ann Arbor, and one will discover another world that has been overlooked by the sheer size of everything around it. It’s a world built by tiny ornate doors, often mimicking the style of the larger, human environment.
Of course, what I talk of are not human. They are of fairies. And according to a certain mythology, fairies have been building doors in Ann Arbor for the last two decades.
One of these doors resides in a wooden structural beam at Found Gallery in Kerrytown. Beside the door are an array of fairy objects: a tiny mailbox, a pink fairy wand and a steampunk flying machine made of a green ball and metal tubing. The fairies are said to have constructed their home from the materials sold in Found Gallery. Talking about fairy behavior, “The fairies that live here are pretty quiet,” Michael Smothers, manager of Found Gallery said, “but sometimes, they like to party.” A blue light immediately flickered from within the fairy window.
The mastermind behind many of these fairy doors is an Ann Arbor native named Jonathan Wright, who, for the last 26 years, has been the certified “fairyologist” in Ann Arbor. In his official capacity, Wright does not build fairy doors (the fairies do, of course), but instead “discovers” them around Ann Arbor. He runs a website called urban-fairies.com to document his findings.
The first fairy door to be found was in Wright’s home in 1993 around when his daughter was born. Nearly ten years later, the first public fairy door appeared in Sweetwaters Coffee on Washington and Ashley in 2005, which remains accessible today. Since then, other fairy doors affiliated with Wright’s Urban-Fairies have been found in The Michigan Theater, Red Shoes, Mott Hospital and Nicola’s Books, just to name a few.
The inspiration of the fairy doors is rooted in Wright’s interest in architecture and illustration. Wright, a University of Michigan alumnus, would spend countless hours in the Natural History Museum illustrating the animals on display. “The concept of little creatures was always intriguing,” said Wright in an interview with The Daily. Books such as The Borrowers and Stuart Little came to mind as well, Wright noted, along with his wife’s Irish heritage and her job as a kindergarten teacher.
In discovering these fairy doors, Wright hopes to spark imagination in passerby, especially children, on what might be going on in the empty spaces of buildings. Regarding the mythology of the fairy doors, Wright says, “There’s an element of reality mixed with in the fantasy. This is critical because it makes the story believable to a certain degree.” If a fairy door appears in the wall of a coffee shop, what might be inside the wall? What sort of fairies live there? And why would fairies want to live in a coffee shop?
Over the course of several years, fairy doors unaffiliated with Wright have also showed up. In fact, there are currently more independent doors than Wright’s Urban-Fairy discoveries. He could have easily made a whole lot of money by commercializing the fairy doors, Wright notes, pointing out the many fairy door companies that have appeared in Ann Arbor. But it’s more fun to share than to sell, Wright says. “Commercializing would have diluted the magic and spontaneity of the doors, and I’ve really enjoyed the discovery and uniqueness of each door,” said Wright.
The doors have gained exceptional coverage, not just from local media, but also from national news outlets like PBS and the Washington Post. The Guardian from the UK even wrote about the doors in 2006. However, few outlets have attempted to locate every fairy door possible in Ann Arbor. Mlive-Ann Arbor published a guide in 2015, but unfortunately, some of the doors published then do not exist anymore. “Fairy doors appear suddenly, without warning or fanfare,” Wright told The Daily, “But they also disappear, often with conjunction to the business they reside in.”
Over the last two months, I have made a faithful attempt to locate and photograph as many publicly accessible fairy doors in Ann Arbor as possible. This epic scavenger hunt took me everywhere from downtown Ann Arbor to the BBB on North Campus, Mott Hospital, Kerrytown and more. I have probably spent more time lying stomach-down on the floor than I have on any other photo assignment. These are the fairies we live with in Ann Arbor, and they are here to be discovered.
That is, of course, before they disappear.