This headline makes me FURIOUS:
Motown Building Razed for Super Bowl Parking
It’s attached to this NPR piece, featuring a brief realaudio file, which I’ve made available as an MP3 below for people who hate realplayer. True, this is not the studio, or even the ‘first’ Motown building in Detroit (That’s here). BUT it is the building that was still housing Motown’s archives. Before demolishing the building, the city couldn’t be bothered to remove these artifacts. All sorts of historically important ephemera, knowingly demolished. Listening to the audio makes me even more angry. Randy Wilcox, of detroitfunk.com shares:
“I was lucky enough to save a couple of months worth of hand-written documents by the producers recording each session — who they were recording, the musicians, what they did that day, what songs they were working on…”
Included in this sheaf are the handwritten production notes for Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’ Album, bearing working titles, session dates, musician credits, and other significant details. For people like me who obsess about behind-the-scenes minutuae, this is literally heartbreaking. Multiple books have been written around similar documentation of Elvis / Beatles / Who / Rolling Stones sessions. Superbowl parking has eliminated the possibility for such a Motown book.
Not surprisingly, the NPR piece stirred up some intense archivist controversy (Scroll down to #43 — Also: note the title of an archivist listserv’s archive page: ‘Archives Archives’. Pleasantly redundant!). The highlights, in fluid, readable form:
Tanya Elder says:
I grew up in Detroit. I visit regularly. My parents still live there. I
had not idea that there were documents still in that building. I just
called the Mayor’s office and was told that I should call Motown to
complain and not the City of Detroit, who ‘once again is getting blamed’
for something going ‘wrong’ in the city.
I was also told that scholarly or neighborhood groups should have gone
through the building to search for historic materials. I don’t know if
anyone knew that items were still left in the building.
It’s all so incredibly tragic.
Alison Stankrauff, Archivist and Assistant Librarian at Indiana University South Bend says:
I’m a transplanted Detroiter – I went to Wayne State University, and
worked at the labor archives there… While I was a student, and was
thinking of jobs, I got to talk with Berry Gordy’s sister, Esther Gordy,
who runs the Motown Historical Museum when I was going through the
museum… She told me at that time that there were lots of documents
down at the building on Woodward that needed going through, and that
they didn’t have anyone to do it – and if their budget allowed, etc.,
they’d be hiring, etc. This was probably 2001…
Obviously it never got done, and yet more vital Detroit history is lost.
Jim A. Beardsley says:
Thanks very much Chris for the headsup and link–that was a thought provoking report on NPR. It’s no surprise that there are many ex-Michiganders around the country who may take an interest in the story. What is surprising is the apparent lack of interest from those closer to the source. Does the Motown matter represent standard archival management in Detroit? Should this be a wake-up call for Detroit archivists and historians? Are they all hibernating permanently? Maybe the “exers” should come back to help exhibit the value of taking a proactive role in local history appreciation and preservation. Let’s hear some good news on Detroit archives from the locals, please.
Deborah Rice, Society of Women Engineers Archivist at Wayne State University in Detroit says:
You have to
remember that the Motown Museum (the original recording studio) is
still around and I’m sure most people, including area archivists,
assumed all of their records were there. I also had no idea that
records were left in the building they occupied from 1968-72 until I
heard the NPR story. I was as shocked as a lot of you were.
Obviously it was not common knowledge and I think it’s uncollegial to
point a finger at area archivists and accuse us of not caring. I
deplore not only the loss of records, but of the building itself,
for what it stood for historically in terms of Motown Records, but
also because it was a piece of architectural history as it was an
Albert Kahn building. I assumed, as did most others, that the
building was an empty shell like so many abandoned buildings in
Detroit that are constantly being torn down despite protests from
local preservationists. It’s unrealistic to assume that archivists or
local historians should have “known” to go through the building
before it was torn down. Most people don’t just go exploring through
an abandoned building in Detroit – not exactly a safe endeavor. The
situation is perhaps a sad comment on our city, but one that should
not necessarily extend to the entire archival community.
Tanya Elder added:
The NPR story reported that Hitsville on Grand Blvd, which is the Motown
Museum, knew about the documents but could not get the funding to get
them out of the building. Other than that, I wonder what other routes
did they or the gentleman in the piece go about to advertise the need to
get them out of the building. Wayne State has a library school with an
archives component, I wonder if they were contacted?
The gentleman in the piece reports that he had been in the building
several years ago and took some of the documents out of the building.
The link to the NPR story has additional photographs of the interior of
Anyway, it’s too late, and as I said before, very very tragic. I wish I
had paid more attention, I live in NY and only go back once or twice a
year. Makes me feel a bit guilty myself.
To which Allison responded:
I second your feelings of guilt – transplanted as I have been for a few
years now… I still feel that I personally could have done something
So yeah, I guess that’s the point of all this: to point out the weird cocktail of guilt and anger that this story inspires. An encouraging ending to the documents rescued by Mr. Wilcox:
“I was transferring the Motown documents that I rescued after and during the demolition of the Donovan Building to the possession of the Detroit Public Library Special Collections director, Mark. He was as happy to recieve them as I was to donate them. They are now officially part of the DPL, here in Detroit, where they belong. Needless to say I was contacted by a wide variety of institutions, but never in my mind for one second did I consider putting these documents in any other collection. They are now happy and safe and will be cared for with love and expertise.”
Be sure to visit detroitfunk.com for the best local coverage of this week’s madness.
NPR – ‘Motown Building Razed for Super Bowl Parking’ (Download)