Restoring a city treasure: ‘Hamtramck Disneyland,’ piece by piece


By Sean Bieri
Special to The Review
When Dmytro Szylak passed away in 2015, at the age of 92, he left behind an amazing creative legacy in the form of the sprawling, towering, spinning, rattling, light-spangled spectacle he built between the two garages in his backyard on Klinger, something he called “Hamtramck Disneyland.”
Mr. Szylak, a Ukrainian immigrant who came to the States after World War II and who worked for General Motors for 30 years, started work on Hamtramck Disneyland around 1990.
The installation became a riot of found objects — fan blades, rocking horses, thrift store paintings, mannequins, and lawn ornaments — as well as hand-built carousels, whirligigs, marching soldiers and more, all adorned with Christmas lights.
Miniature models of a helicopter, a missile platform, and the Concorde airliner are docked in the yard, and a six-foot windmill animates mechanical figurines on its reverse side when it spins in the breeze.
Hamtramck Disneyland eventually became a renowned work of “folk art,” the subject of magazine and newspaper articles as well as a documentary short film, and a tourist attraction that has drawn thousands of people to Hamtramck from around the world.
But, when he died, Mr. Szylak also left behind a question: in the absence of its creator, what would become of this unique artwork? There were fears his creation would simply be scrapped, and the two houses sold off.

However, thanks to the efforts of a group of local artists and concerned residents, Hatch Art — a local arts organization formed in 2006 by Chris Schneider and a handful of like-minded artists (myself included) — was able to acquire the two lots, and begin the work of restoring the site.
Hatch Art had previously rehabbed the abandoned Hamtramck police station on Evaline, converting it into an arts space featuring a gallery, workshop, photographic darkroom, and classroom, with artists’ studios in the former office cubicles upstairs. With that experience under our belts, we felt ready to take on the challenge of preserving Hamtramck Disneyland (we call it “HDL” for short).
There were, actually, multiple challenges.
First, since we planned on renting out the four units on the property to help with upkeep of the site, both houses needed extensive work to get them up to code. (Homeowners will perhaps not be surprised to hear that this is an ongoing project.)
Likewise, the two garages, which had served as supports for much of the artwork as well as workshop and storage space for Mr. Szylak, were sagging badly and required a lot of effort in order to shore up the roofs and get both buildings rewired.
Then there was the artwork itself. Mr. Szylak had worked on Hamtramck Disneyland well into his later years, climbing up onto tall ladders to tinker with some toy or light fixture at an age when even younger folks would maybe rather stick to their recliners.
But the elements had taken a toll on the site by the time Hatch took over.
Aside from damage and wear sustained by the myriad objects on the structure, much of the lumber that was supporting the whirligigs and rocking horses and such had succumbed to weather and rot.

Some sections were being held up only by a few cables and rods; cut a wire, and a whole section might slough off onto the ground.
The art site’s infrastructure, never very easy or safe to access even in its heyday, was in danger of falling down, either during a storm or just randomly over time. The decision was made to dismantle this infrastructure, after saving as many of the distinctive arches and peaks Mr. Szylak had designed as possible.
In its place, we’ve built a new structure, designed to be a platform that can act as both a base for the many whimsical objects the site is known for, and as a safe place to stand on and work for those installing them.
The platform has a stepped-back design to make its upper sections visible from the alley, and to keep the art from encroaching on the power lines that run along the alley.
Now that this new central structure is nearly complete, the next phase will be repopulating the site with the wonderful clutter it’s famous for.
We’ve been making sure to put as many fun art objects on display as we can during the construction phase, so there’ll always be something cool for visitors to see, and to let folks know the site is still alive and kicking. Thanks to the help of many contributors — from professional, aspiring, and hobbyist artists, to neighborhood kids and everyday folks — there are lots of colorfully painted horses and cut-out marching figures to greet the many local and international tourists who still stop by the site every week.
The helicopter has been recently repainted and the windmill put into working order, and there are new novelties to see, like a PVC pipe “rocket” on a launch pad and a gallery of strange found artworks on the outside garage walls.
In the months and years to come (because this is going to be a long-haul project) Hatch will need the contributions of many hands and imaginations to restore “HDL” to a state of chaotic beauty. Hamtramck Disneyland began as one man’s amazing vision.
Now, it’s our hope that it will become a community effort that will keep Mr. Szylak’s creative spirit alive while reflecting the many voices of Hamtramck and its visitors.

(If you’d like to help with our efforts, you can make a monetary contribution by visiting and searching for Hamtramck Disneyland to find our ongoing fundraiser. To contribute your talent and creativity, contact Sean Bieri at
Posted Dec. 1, 2023

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *