The $50 million expansion of the iconic Motown Museum looks to recognize Detroit’s music legends and create a Motor City destination.
By Karen Dybis
The widely anticipated $50 million expansion of Detroit’s venerable Motown Museum not only has the potential to invigorate this Motor City landmark, but it also could serve as a beacon for tourism, entertainment and entrepreneurship as well as those prized national and international audiences the city wants to attract.
The Dream, as Robin Terry describes it, started about three years ago. That is when the chairwoman and CEO of the Motown Museum stepped out of her office and took a long look at the changing city around her.
After years of waiting, Terry saw growth. She saw investment, especially in terms of the QLine, the Fisher Building renovation and new construction in nearby Milwaukee Junction. Finally, stakeholders were pouring millions of dollars into Midtown, downtown and the riverfront.
Terry knew it was time for Hitsville U.S.A. as well. She saw the opportunity for her goals for this unique cultural institution in Detroit’s New Center to come to fruition. The Motown Museum as it stood was a treasured place, and the Motown Sound was one of Detroit’s greatest exports, Terry says.
But how could the Houses that Berry Built be leveraged for the 21st century?
The solution was to honor the old and the new. The current museum, Hitsville U.S.A., will continue to highlight the Motown Sound, the original recording studio where stars such as Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder sang and the living quarters where musical savant Berry Gordy Jr. determined it was time for black songwriters and performers to have their due.
The new design, a concept by architecture firm Perkins+Will and its superstar architect Philip Freelon — who led the design team for the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, D.C. — will add an anticipated 50,000 square feet of interactive exhibits, a state-of-the-art performance theater, recording studios, meeting spaces and an expanded retail experience.
Terry says there had been expansion suggestions over the past decades. At one time, people even suggested the Motown Museum move from its Grand Boulevard location to somewhere with more traffic or development.
“We were never interested in that. My grandmother (Esther Gordy Edwards, Gordy’s sister) spent well over 30 years not only founding the museum, she nurtured it. She protected this history and the integrity of this history, the neighborhood and West Grand Boulevard. I always keep that in front of me,” Terry says.
As they prepare for the expansion, which could start as early as 2019, Terry and staff are visiting other musical heritage sites, museums and historical landmarks to determine what would be best for the Motown legacy in terms of its physical building.
“Hitsville is the crown jewel. Everything has to complement that,” Terry says. “But something special rose from those houses. We needed educational space. We needed community space. That’s where this wonderful contemporary design emerges from — it’s the space where we will inspire others to reach their greatness.”
The excitement around the new design is significant. Linda Yellin, owner of Feet on the Street Tours, has taken hundreds of people through the Motown Museum and Detroit attractions such as Eastern Market.
Yellin says she believes the Motown Museum’s legacy is that of an entertainment legend but also as an educational institution, giving teens to seniors insights into racial inequities that Berry Gordy, his executives and musicians faced as well as their impressive creativity, intellect and substance.
“It goes way beyond music,” Yellin says. “It puts United States history and Detroit into perspective. I was a teen during the Motown years, and I knew I liked the music. But I had no concept until I started going to the museum of its impact, its importance and its meaning to the larger world.”
Songwriter and native Detroiter Allee Willis feels the same way. Willis, who wrote hits such as “September” and the “Friends” TV theme song “I’ll Be There for You,” says she learned everything she knows about music from sitting on the front lawn of Hitsville U.S.A.
Willis lost her mother when she was a teen, and she would drive the family car to Grand Boulevard. No matter the weather, Willis sat and listened to the music thumping from the interior recording studio, and it soothed her. It inspired her. And it pushed her into a life of music, one she still shares today with her recent tribute song to Detroit called “The D.”
“You had a sense you grew up in the coolest city in the world because of Motown,” says Willis, 70.
The Motown Museum differs from similar institutions in significant ways, explains Ken Nisch, chairman of Southfield-based JGA, a strategy and design consulting firm known for mega projects such as the flagship Hershey’s Chocolate World store in Las Vegas.
Most museums are a collection of things made elsewhere, Nisch says. Motown houses things it created that changed Detroit and the world.
“It’s the only cultural attraction I can think of in the state or the nation for that matter that has such a unique opportunity to showcase a movement, a culture, a creative output that was created in that physical space and still resonates around the world,” Nisch says. “Motown has the opportunity not to just look back but the really exciting opportunity to look ahead.”
Nisch sees the museum’s expansion as a moment to unite all of Detroit’s musicians, creative types, music historians and visual artists under one collective roof. Moreover, the new space could serve as a place where experiences abound — people could take tours, discover new musicians or volunteer in the community. The sky’s the limit, he says.
“It’s not just nostalgia; it’s very much alive,” Nisch adds. “It bridges residential and the nearby institutions in New Center. … It could be a starting place for a different kind of community and mission-focused institution.”
Terry says those strong feelings about Motown are the reasons Hitsville stands so tall. Since the museum opened in 1985, an estimated 3 million people have come through those iconic houses. In recent months, everyone from Jay-Z and Beyoncé to Jay Leno and Demi Lovato have walked through its doors.
“I call it a music lover’s playground,” Terry says of the coming expansion. “But whether you’re into music or not, it will be a very special place. It will serve as an example of success. Maybe it will help people find their own gifts and how to share them.”
That means sharing with young people the story of Berry Gordy’s entrepreneurialism, of his sister’s unique talents for management, of the racial divisions that challenged Motown’s growth but also of the new harmony the music created when people of all colors, creeds and nationalities were united as one nation under The Temptations, The Four Tops and Marvin Gaye.
“Today, people need to be able to find themselves in museums and in that experience,” Terry adds. “You can understand from a historical perspective what transpired, how something became important or what it contributed to the world. But there’s also something to be said for how that influences you today. Why is it important to you? How does it inspire you? Every person who walks out should have a moment of self-reflection.”
Individuals, community groups and businesses have come together to raise funds for the expansion. Ford and Ford-UAW contributed $6 million. The Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation donated $1 million. Lear Corp. held fundraising events and contributed another $1.1 million. There’s been huge financial support from individuals as well — that’s important because every dollar counts, Terry says.
“We’ve seen tremendous support for this project, but we want to see it come to fruition sooner than later,” Terry says. “We need the support of others in the community.”
2648 W. Grand Blvd, Detroit