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Detroit's historic United Sound Systems studio spared from demolition

Detroit Sound Conservancy
Advocates and members of Detroit Sound Conservancy stand in front of a state historic marker posted in front of United Sound Systems in 2017.

One of Detroit’s iconic music spaces will be spared from the wrecking ball, per a new real estate deal announced Friday.

The United Sound Systems studio is where John Lee Hooker, Aretha Franklin, Bob Seger, and Parliament were just a few of the legendary acts to make records.

Operating since 1939, it’s the oldest recording studio in Detroit. But it was in danger of demolition because it sits in the footprint of a huge I-94 reconstruction project.

Now the Michigan Department of Transportation says it has bought the studio and adjacent parking lot for $1.7 million, and plans to move the studio, intact, onto the parking lot site.

“Our intention is to move the studio to a safer location while we do the freeway work, and then go back through the public auction format and sell it,” said MDOT spokesman Rob Morosi.

“It really does have a rich heritage. It was the first major independent recording studio in the city of Detroit. It has a long history.”

Morosi says there’s no guarantee about who the building will eventually be auctioned off to. However, he says MDOT will make an effort to ensure the building retains its original form and function.

“That may require some historic covenants on the deed necessitating that either the entire studio, or a portion of the studio, remain operating as a recording studio,” Morosi said. “That remains to be seen, but we do fully expect something along those lines. And really, that is our intention.”

Carleton Gholz heads Detroit Sound Conservancy, which has been advocating to preserve the studio since its inception in 2012.

“This is the first day that we know of when the Michigan Department of Transportation said out loud that it’s a bad idea to demo the building, and that they will preserve the building. And so we’re going to take that as a win,” Gholz said.

Gholz said he hopes there is a historic covenant or “some sort of understanding” with any future owner about preservation and operating the space as a public good, “and we are hoping to impact that process in any way that we can.”

“This is not just a building. It’s not just a business. It really is the center of Detroit’s musical 20th century,” said Gholz.

Morosi says the bridge work that will most immediately affect that site should take place in 2021. The massive I-94 reconstruction project is expected to start in earnest in 2022 or 2023. MDOT is still completing a supplemental environmental study for the project.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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