Mark de Jong, Swing House, 2015-2017, Cincinnati, OH

As with so many neighborhoods across the country that were built to be deeply intertwined with an area’s industrial past, Cincinnati’s Camp Washington is characterized by a mix of 19th-century homes and industrial spaces. At its height, around the 1890s, the population was approximately 10,000 residents, marked by a vibrant community bolstered by the neighborhood’s substantial employment opportunities (the meatpacking industry) and a lifestyle where one could be born, work, retire, and live without needing to venture far from home. Then came the construction of I-75 in the 1960s, which cut right through the tightly-knit area and directly led to a period of decline. The 2020 census showed Camp Washington was down to 1,234 residents. 

Once teeming with activity, this area has now provided artists with an abundance of Italianate-style homes to live and work. Camp Washington’s story has proven to be one of resilience and adaptability, and its shifting demographics have transformed it into a cultural hub that has saved many of these gorgeous homes from abandonment, deconstruction, and redevelopment. This is where a friend brought me to an open house, providing no early spoilers, to meet the great artist Mark de Jong. It was an afterparty for the FotoFocus Biennial exhibition, and as we approached, revelers were spilling out onto the street. Sporting a blue façade complemented by tin decorative motifs, it nestles comfortably within the block-long Avon Place; from the outside, nothing indicates how remarkable an art experience awaits you on the other side of the door.

Then that door opens, almost in slow motion, and de Jong’s Swing House reveals itself. The house’s interior has been completely stripped from the ground floor to the rafters, three stories shooting up vertically. Tall steel I-beams hold up exposed brick walls. This was a monumental undertaking; what from the sidewalk feels like such a conventional home unfolds as one grand living space, with a complete absence of dividing walls. High ceilings tower above, amplifying the sense of volume and freedom, making the space feel colossal. Even at night, there was this uncanny light that natural light streamed in through windows, bathing the interior in a warm, inviting glow. The cozy radiance of the space’s dimensions accentuates the raw beauty of its architectural features—exposed brick walls, beams, and concrete, semi-organic squares of the original blue and green plaster. Like many of its neighbors, these homes narrate the tale of a family, a community, a neighborhood, and the city that constructed it. Where de Jong succeeds in transforming this home into a work of art is his ability to utilize architecture as a means of storytelling and his ability to create compositions of these elegant industrial intricacies to celebrate the structure’s bones. He invites its visitors to slow down and reflect on the layers beneath the surface. 

I’ve buried the lead quite a bit. de Jong purchased the boarded-up home in 2012 for $5,000, saving it from being razed by the city. He had deep roots in the little one-block enclave, as his mother had a ceramic studio in a warehouse at the end of the block since the 1980s, and he was living in a beautifully renovated loft in the building beginning in the early 2000s. It took him three years to strip everything down to its core framework and redesign the interior around a swing suspended from the ceiling to arc freely through the heart of the building. The swing, a simple pine plank salvaged from floor joists, held by 30-foot thick ropes, invites interaction, offering visitors a literal and figurative shift in perspective.

The swing’s trajectory influenced Every significant design choice, beginning with clearing out the interior entirely. Get a running start, and you’ll find yourself floating above the bed and the kitchen; with some assistance, you could technically touch the front and the back of the house. It’s the oddest sensation, being on a swing inside a home. It is like a giant pendulum, a repetitive path, moving back and forth in smooth, harmonic motion. It hits all the senses. There is a nostalgic playfulness to it, the memories of the simpler times of childhood. There is the adrenaline of swinging higher, that fleeting moment at the peak of the arc where you feel almost weightless. It doesn’t take long to settle in, to find a soothing rhythm, to the consistent, predictable motion. It becomes meditative; a sense of peace comes with clearing your mind and letting the swing carry you.  

Sitting there allows all of these different perspectives. Let your head fall back, and you notice the ceiling has been painted into an hourglass in black and white, acknowledging the theme of time’s passage. Below are all of these subtle moments where the plaster has been stripped and sanded, creating abstract paintings that chart the buildup and alteration various families have made to the space throughout the years. There is a beautiful balance between design and chance. It is also a reminder that no home is a blank canvas.

Despite the scale of the project, de Jong repurposed nearly everything. All the materials he collected later became either art or furniture. The furniture, including armoires, cabinets, counters, and the bed, are all either mounted to the wall or designed to appear as though they’re hovering just above the floor, creating an illusion of floating. Additionally, the bed’s headboard multitasks as the side of the spiral staircase descends to the basement. Downstairs is an intimate gallery, transforming the mundane and the overlooked, 

He challenged traditional notions of what art could be and where it could be found, suggesting that art is present in the mundane and the overlooked. His treatment of the house as both a medium and a message underscored his belief in the interconnectedness of life and art. Here, art is an integral part of daily life, a space where creation and existence are intertwined, transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary.

One of the main things that separates the Swing House from David Ireland’s 500 Capp Street, Frida Kahlo’s Blue House (La Casa Azul), Donald Judd’s 101 Spring Street, or Theaster Gates … is the ability for the visitors to immerse themselves within the art. Over the years, de Jong has acquired multiple homes on this single block and is funding similar art projects by Airbnb’ing the Swing House. This led visitors – like me when I returned for a night – to experience the work as an immersive environment, to blend the boundaries between art, personal space, and daily life. In a world so fast, where museum-goers, on average, spend 30 seconds in front of works of art, this is a reminder that art isn’t static—it evolves, influenced by the rhythms of daily life. It’s an ongoing dialogue between the resident and the space that makes staying inside a work of art a profoundly personal experience.

I believe the Swing House challenges us to see potential and beauty in forgotten spaces and reminds us of the transformative power of creativity. It takes on this tremendous responsibility, weaving inspiration from the architecture, past inhabitants, or the neighborhood’s history into something new. de Jong’s process not only breathes new life into the space but also preserves and honors its history. He invites us in and allows us to reconsider our relationships with our surroundings, encouraging a sense of play, wonder, and freedom. Staying in the Swing House was one of the most unique and profound art experiences I’ve ever had the privilege of experiencing.