Detroit’s Motown Museum: Perkins+Will

A museum to honor the Motown experience in Detroit is now underway.

Its design direction originally initiated by the late Phil Freelon of Perkins+Will North Carolina, it’s now being developed by a team led by Zena Howard of the same office. Groundbreaking for the first of two phases took place last week.

Funding comes in part from Berry Gordy, who established the record label, its breakthrough sound and its white-hot success in the 1960s. Artists like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, the Temptations, and the Four Tops recorded at the Hitsville U.S.A. studio at 2648 West Grand Boulevard.

That building is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the city, and it’s due for preservation work in Phase I. Also on tap is connecting three adjacent buildings that also served as recording studios, before Gordy moved Motown to Los Angeles in 1972.

“Hitsville is on the historic register but the other three are not, and they’re just as important,” Howard says. “So they want to use those three (called “Hitsville Next”) for an educational asset for the community.”

Perkins+Will will connect the three on their backside with a connector for the Motown Educational Institute; a courtyard will connect them to a new museum in Phase II, slated for a groundbreaking in 2021. “It’s a significant step to completing the Motown campus of buildings,” she says.

Phase I was not without its challenges. All the early 20th-century houses are not on the same level, but the architects wanted them to appear to be. “We didn’t want to blow out the walls together,” she says. “It’s a low-scale residential feel – we wanted to respect the contextual feel of that boulevard, so they connect on the backside, and on the front they keep the look as if there’s not an addition to join them.”

When all is said and done in a few years, Motown – and Detroit – will celebrate a campus as successful as the label that changed music forever.

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