Journalism / Random slings & arrows

Sometimes a historic building is a stack of bricks, not a shrine

Nostalgia can be tricky – an emotion that reminds us how we got where we are, but not always where we should go.

School reunions can be fun, but aren’t a cue to resurrect bygone wardrobes, hairstyles, dance steps or pop hits.

The emotional grip of that last category – music – definitely endures. It sustains vintage-format stations, oldies cover bands and royalty revenues to aged artists or their heirs.

Columbia University architectural historian Gwendolyn Wright (left) visited the studion with local preservationists last month. [Photo from Detroit Sound Conservancy]

Columbia University architectural historian Gwendolyn Wright (left) visited the ex-studio with local preservationists last month.     [Photo from Detroit Sound Conservancy]

It also may account for a preservation push in Detroit that’s getting fresh attention because a legendary former recording studio may be “in the cross-hairs of MDOT’s plans to reconstruct the [I-94] freeway,” as a Free Press article put it July 3.

I’ll tap the brake now to say this post isn’t about whether the freeway needs more lanes or whether the state should relocate the long-vacant United Sound Systems building on Second Avenue near Wayne State.

What stirs more immediate interest is a third question:  Is “historic preservation” sometimes a reflexive rallying cry applied even to buildings with more nostalgic value than real value?

Where Giants Performed

Media reports on the current situation cite a two-year-old nonprofit group’s interest in saving the boarded-up building where giants recorded, but coverage lacks details about what could happen if the tiny nonprofit manages to buy 5840 Second Ave.

Here’s as close as the Freep takes us to reasons for enshrining the two-story brick structure on a residential block near the interstate:

“United Sound Systems ought to be the linchpin, the centerpiece of a 21st-Century Detroit soundscape,” said Carleton Gholz, 37, who founded the Detroit Sound Conservancy. “It is Exhibit A of Michigan and Detroit’s impact on global sound. It should be alive and cooking.

“Preserving it is going to take a lot of money and a lot of imagination and a lot of people.”

Preserving it for a museum? A digital studio? A music tour attraction and gift shop?

No clues yet at Gholz’s one-page website or Facebook page with 748 fans.

Another brake tap: The conservancy seems like a straight-up enterprise working “to enhance the stewardship surrounding Detroit’s musical heritage” – clearly a worthy mission, as Gholz describes in a more balanced, restrained Detroit News report the same day:

Gholz . . . is trying to bring attention to the studio’s plight and says the danger of losing the iconic building on the 5800 block of Second Avenue may have been overstated. . . .

What concerns Gholz is the broader picture, that there is no cohesive plan for music landmarks such as United Sound. “There is no plan to save the Bluebird (jazz club), no plan to save the Grande Ballroom. . . . Other cities have more of a cohesive strategy.”

Blog, DSC logoThough its interest in the United Sound Systems site predates the new freeway-fattening plan, I have a hunch Gholz steers media attention to that potential threat and doesn’t mind seeing the neglected studio cast as an I-94 martyr.  That’d be a smart PR move, something any savvy nonprofit would do.  After all, “preserving it is going to take a lot of money.”

The Freep’s overstated headline reinforces the nostalgia hook: “I-94 expansion threatens recording studio where Motown sound got its start.” The writer calls it “one of the city’s most treasured music houses . . . rich with history.”

Eye-opening reality checks

Readers who reach paragraph 10 learn that “the plans could change as the project moves forward.” A teardown “is the worst-case scenario,” a state spokesman says. “Either we can alter the design of the service drive or we could move (the recording studio). We’re not just putting our hands up and saying, ‘It’s got to go.’ “

The paper adds other reality checks:

The building . . . doesn’t have a historical marker or designation to protect it. Wood is now covering the windows on the front, and it hasn’t been used regularly for more than a decade. . . .

Aretha Hood, who owned the building for a time in the early 2000s with her husband, said studio upkeep was too costly, regardless of the building’s place in history.

“It was a money pit,” said Hood, a dentist on the city’s west side. “It needed so much work.”

Later the same day, WXYZ told viewers “a piece of Detroit’s musical history might find itself in the path of a bulldozer.” A ’70s soul singer, Willie Ford, was interviewed where he recorded with The Dramatics.

Only A Strings Track Was Missing

The station also played the nostalgia chord, big time:

United Sound Systems became Detroit’s first major recording studio in 1933, paving the way for the Motown sound. But as time erodes its once musical walls, sound from a roaring neighbor may bring the building down completely. . . .

Ford: “It felt like home. I’m sorry if they tear it down. I’ll be sorry to see it go.”

At least no producer added an excerpt from “In the Rain,” a 1972 hit by The Dramatics that includes “Don’t want you to see me cry.”

Willie Ford, a '70s soul singer, speaks on WXYZ where he recorded with The Dramatics.

Willie Ford, a ’70s soul singer, speaks where he recorded.

Still, the newscast segment was too sappy for Detroit automotive journalist Aaron Foley, who posts on Facebook: “I felt like I was listening to a soap actor begging an old flame to come back to him or something.”

That gets at the essence, right there – the difference between valuing what Detroit can preserve for new uses and what may be impractical to revive.

Follow the head, not the heart. Let an old flame go.

As development news increasingly makes local headlines, some landmarks gain a new look on old bones. Shinola’s first retail outlet for made-in-Detroit bikes, watches and an eclectic mix of items opened June 28 in a former Jeep warehouse on West Willis in Midtown, just a mile south of United Sound.

Not all “they recorded here” sites are worth hugging decades later. Life and cities move on.


2 thoughts on “Sometimes a historic building is a stack of bricks, not a shrine

  1. Not all old buildings measure up to a level of historic significance, which is attributed to the buildings beauty or to the events that happened there. A building that is judged as historically significant, and that can be adapted to new productive uses, provides a real opportunity to time travel back and get a real physical feel for a space as it appeared in the past. That is the value of historic buildings, they provide real not imagined experience for current and future generations. They can’t all be museums, most need to pay their way into the future. What is important is to preserve the character defining features of a building and let the rest change to the new. John Ash, AIA, Preservation Architect

  2. Reposting July 5, 2013 comment at LinkedIn by British writer Edward Hart

    Interesting piece. Aesthetic should trump historic. You can’t really present historic resonance as something tangible in time and space. Beauty, on the other hand, is both tangible and imaginable.

    There is something fetishistic about wanting to save every reification — however trivial, ugly or unremarkable — merely on the grounds of fame, infamy or historicity.

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