The Motown Museum two weeks ago announced a $50 million expansion that aims to transform the complex into "a world-class tourist destination" along West Grand Boulevard.
The 50,000-square-foot project will rise around the existing museum, housed in the humble Hitsville, U.S.A., building where Berry Gordy Jr. launched the careers of stars such as the Supremes, Temptations and Stevie Wonder. The project comes as Henry Ford Health System leads a neighborhood revitalization effort in the area.
Amid the ongoing drumbeat of development news in Detroit, the Motown announcement strengthens the case that the revival is broadening beyond the immediate downtown and Midtown districts. It's also the sort of high-profile arts-and-culture project that's crucial to the city's growth, experts said.
The Motown house, with its blue Hitsville sign, is one of the most iconic visuals associated with Detroit and is among the most familiar sites in American popular music. The current museum, founded in 1985 and run by the Gordy family, holds just a fraction of the operation's memorabilia collection, museum executives have long told the Free Press.
The expanded museum will also showcase exhibits drawn from private collections, and will likely branch out beyond the historical Motown theme.
"There’s certainly a contemporary-artist component to this," said Robin Terry, the museum's chairwoman and CEO.
The current, 10,000-square museum is situated in two connected houses, with a tour that includes vintage '60s furnishings and Motown's original "Snakepit" studio.
Henry Ford Health System (HFHS), whose flagship hospital is half a mile to the east, has undertaken a multi-year community revitalization effort in the area, including blight removal. The Motown Museum expansion joins a list of neighborhood projects that includes a $110 million HFHS cancer center and a retail-residential complex that was announced last month.
HFHS sold the museum a vacant parcel on Holden Street, expected to become part of a parking lot, said Thomas Habitz, urban planning specialist with Henry Ford Health System. Holden Street, which intersects West Grand Boulevard and runs behind the museum, is likely to become a key connector road as the hospital continues its own expansion across the boulevard, he said.
"We're overwhelmingly supportive of Motown and have been collaborating with them in the planning," Habitz said. There is a "cooperative synergy between the two institutions, as different as they are."
Gordy, who moved the Motown operation to Los Angeles in 1972, applauded the planned expansion.
“When I look back on that magical time in Detroit, I’m reminded of how a company, based on love, fairness and competition, came together to create something special. It was about music and so much more,” he said in a statement. “It brings me real joy, and I am proud and humbled to know that the inclusive legacy of Motown, and the most talented people who are so near and dear to my heart, will have their stories told in this new museum.”
A timetable has not been set, but "information will come quickly," said Terry, who noted that the artist renderings released Monday are "conceptual drawings" that will be refined in coming months. They show a multi-level complex situated behind and alongside the current museum site.
"All of our conversations have started with the understanding that the Hitsville house is the crown jewel," she said. "We asked: How we can expand our offerings to tell more of the story without interfering with that?"
Plans also include a role for adjacent houses that were part of Gordy's Motown operation, Terry said, "to tell the humble beginnings of the Motown story and what made it so unique as an empire that grew from these neighborhood houses."
Planning has been overseen by the architectural firm Perkins + Will, which led the design of the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Detroit architectural firm Hamilton Anderson Associates is the project's architect of record.
The Motown Museum has an annual operating budget of about $2 million and draws about 70,000 visitors each year, many of them international tourists.
"We see this (expanded museum) as a tremendous resource for educators and students, for people who aspire to be in the entertainment business. There will be resources they can take advantage of, meeting spaces," said Terry. "We want the Detroit community and global Motown community to really see this as their place, as the go-to spot for education, music and history."
Expansion plans have been in the works for several years — the Free Press first reported on the project in 2010 — and the museum has steadily acquired nearby properties along West Grand Boulevard and Ferry Park Avenue, as recently as this spring. Additional lots that were still owned by Gordy have been transferred to the nonprofit museum, according to property records.
All necessary land has been acquired, Terry said.
A fund-raising campaign was launched last year, and efforts are being stepped up.
"We’ll raise the dollars locally, nationally and internationally," Terry said. "There are corporations and individuals who will have the opportunity to take part in this development."
Jimmy Settles, vice president of the UAW and head of the UAW-Ford Department, said he would love to see a successful expansion of the Motown Museum.
“I was born near there and grew up just a few miles from the museum. I would love to see it in my lifetime,” Settles said. “That was many years ago ... and the neighborhood looks nothing like the neighborhood did when I was a kid. My old house is abandoned.”
The UAW-Ford Department has been involved in the community surrounding the Motown Museum for several years and is aware of the museum's fund-raising campaign, Settles said. The UAW-Ford Department has been involved in cleanup activities along West Grand Boulevard and has adopted a section of the street in front of the museum.
Despite Settles’ enthusiasm for the project, he stopped short of identifying a financial commitment.
“We are in constant discussion with everybody there,” Settles said. “I am quite certain we will be talking to them more in the future.”
As the latest high-profile development news in Detroit, the expansion plan "hits all the right buttons" amid the city's revitalization downtown and up the Woodward corridor, said Peter Allen, a lecturer with the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business, where he teaches urban vitality.
"All we’ve been reading about are the real estate deals, and not enough about major arts development. And you couldn’t pick a better example than Hitsville and Motown music," said Allen. "When you look at the key cultural anchors in Detroit from a national and international standpoint — the DIA, the sports teams — there's got to be a bigger number of people who know Motown music. This is a wonderful sign of the times and the future of the city."
It's also a welcome step for a city that hasn't leveraged its Motown legacy to the extent it could, he said.
"A lot of cities are starting to understand how important culture is to bringing in tourists," said Allen. "It's absolutely essential to (promote) uniquely Detroit music and culture, and there's no better example than Motown."
Monday's announcement comes as at least two other music museum proposals have been launched in the city, including a Detroit music hall of fame and the Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame, which has been in talks with several municipalities. Multiple music museums wouldn't be unprecedented: Memphis, for instance, has several, including the Stax Museum and Graceland.
Howard Hertz, head of the Detroit hall of fame effort, welcomed the Motown news.
"I look at this as a positive," he said. "It's a good way to help stake our claim as a world-class music city."