More than Motown: Park Break students document diverse Detroit music heritage sites

2016’s Park Break program took place August 8-12 in Detroit, MI, with support from the NPS Cultural Resource program.  We placed eight graduate students studying a variety of disciplines ranging from historic preservation, museum studies, and landscape architecture in a week long Park Break program.  The focus of the week was to look closely at the 20th Century music heritage sites located around Detroit’s Grand Boulevard corridor. 

While Detroit may be visibly known for Motown records, it is less known for its major contributions to nearly every American musical genre from Country to Jazz to Rock and Roll.  We looked intensively at four properties that tell unique stories of Detroit’s music story; Submerge Records (Techno), Motown’s Hitsville USA Studio (R&B' pictured below)), the Bluebird Lounge (BeBop; pictured below), and the United Sound System Recording Studio (Country, Rock and Roll, Funk, Gospel, Jazz, and Commercials).  All of these sites are roughly within a mile and a half of one another.  Many artists working at the big studios, like Motown or United Sound, played at one or all of these venues; these artists include Aretha Franklin, George Clinton (pictured below), John Coltrane, Miles Davis, John Lee Hooker, and Derrick May. 

Participants worked with the City of Detroit’s Planning and Development Department and Historic District Planning Board to evaluate and draft National Register of Historic Places nomination forms for each of the sites.  As none of the sites have previously been recognized nationally by any NPS program, it was important to demonstrate to the owners and the City departments the kind of information that can come to light when a cultural resource portfolio, like this one, is considered holistically.  The group made a final set of recommendations and presented their evaluations and research to the City of Detroit and some historic preservation stakeholders on the last day of the Park Break.  Immediate actions following from this work include the development of NR nominations for five buildings owned by the Motown Records label, and a Historic Preservation Fund grant request from the city to incorporate all of these sites and others into a music history district.  In all, a successful program, with a number of conference papers and future research plans in the works for the participants and the associated sites.