One of Detroit’s most iconic landmarks, a site familiar to music lovers around the world, is gearing up for a dramatic new look.
The Motown Museum is unveiling renderings today that depict a crisp, lush, bustling outdoor plaza at Hitsville, U.S.A., on West Grand Boulevard. Officials say they’re aiming to create a welcoming hangout for visitors, inspired by the days when artists and fans strode Motown’s front lawn in search of musical opportunity and glory. And they want to foster a Motown experience before guests even step through the doors.
The space, designed by the Detroit firm Hamilton Anderson Associates as part of the museum’s ongoing $55 million expansion, will be a mix of hardscapes and softscapes: The plaza will be tiled with granite pavers and adorned with benches, flower beds and foliage, including a new line of trees on the property’s west side.
A new surround-sound system will envelop visitors in Motown songs as they step onto the grounds, while the space will be bathed in light at night. A permanent stage will host scheduled performances and pop-up music sets, helping address one of the most common questions from tourists in Detroit: “Where can I go to hear Motown music?” In the new renderings, a musician is pictured at a piano.
“So many dreams were started on the front lawn of Hitsville, U.S.A.,” Smokey Robinson said in a statement. “I remember how people would gather there on Motown’s audition day to pitch their songs to us. In that same spirit, to me, the new Motown Museum Plaza will inspire ambition and unity. I think it will be a magical place where everyone is welcomed and I can’t wait to see it celebrated in this new and exciting way.”
The front-yard transformation, now underway and scheduled for completion next summer, is the second of three construction phases in the museum’s expansion project, which launched in 2016 with an ambitious fundraising campaign.
“With each phase we complete, it shows more and more how real it is,” said Motown Museum CEO and chairwoman Robin Terry. “The plaza is that next big moment. In so many ways, this project reminds me of Motown — the impossible that becomes possible. So I relish in that.”
The expansion’s first phase, dubbed Hitsville Next, is getting finishing touches as it prepares to become the museum’s home to creative and educational programming. Construction there has connected three houses that were part of Motown’s stable of West Grand Boulevard properties in the ‘60s, when Berry Gordy Jr. nurtured local talent into global stars — the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, the Four Tops and myriad others.
Originally set at $50 million, the expansion goal was increased to $55 million in late 2020 by the museum board. The move was prompted by surging material and labor costs amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Terry said.
And for the first time since the expansion drive started, the museum is disclosing its current fundraising tally: $32 million has been raised as of this week, Terry said. Some key 2021 contributions are still to be announced by year’s end, she said.
The Hitsville, U.S.A., house, where Gordy grew his hometown label into an industry heavyweight, will remain intact as the centerpiece of the museum campus.
The Motown Museum will remain closed for the plaza construction, extending a shutdown that started in July when the building sustained water damage during a storm. (Officials say no artifacts or key spaces were affected.) Earlier this month, the museum opened a retail shop in Greektown to sell merchandise during the downtime.
The museum — including the finished plaza and Hitsville Next — will reemerge with an open-house community event next summer.
The coming construction will include restoration work on the Hitsville structure, including waterproofing and exterior stabilizing. Plans were developed with historical preservationists, what Terry called “a team of people who have thoughtfully considered conservation, engineering and how we make sure the life of the house is extended as long as possible.”
“If this last year has taught us anything, it’s how important it is to protect our archival treasures,” she said. “This is one of the most famous places in the world of music. We have to protect that house.”
Grounded in legacy
Every day, you can find visitors roaming the Hitsville front yard, snapping photos and often lingering for long stretches. The makeover seeks to provide what Terry called a “relaxed, park-like feel” for those guests while injecting an immersive musical feel.
The Motown Museum Plaza is the latest piece of the expansion puzzle as the institution plans for a future well beyond old-school nostalgia and the music’s original fan base. Terry envisions an institution grounded in the Motown legacy but very much of-the-moment, helping to cultivate young creators and entrepreneurs while serving as a community hub.
The full expanded complex ultimately will comprise nearly 50,000 square feet, including new exhibit space, a theater, meeting rooms and a working studio. Recent programming additions include the annual Amplify singing competition and Motown Mic spoken-word program, two of the offerings that will have a home at Hitsville Next.
The project has attracted prominent donors locally and nationally, including Gordy, Ford Motor Co./UAW-Ford, Ballmer Group, the William Davidson Foundation and the Kellogg Foundation. Many are driven, Terry said, by a belief that vibrant cities need thriving cultural institutions — and that there’s value in “leveraging an authentic brand like Motown in Detroit.”
“I really could not be happier with the level of engagement and momentum the community will continue to see over the balance of the year,” said Terry, grandniece of Gordy. “The response we’re getting to the expansion, the desire to get it to the finish line, is probably higher right now than it’s ever been.”
The museum made headlines this summer when it got a $5 million, no-strings-attached donation from MacKenzie Scott as part of that philanthropist’s latest round of giving.
The Motown Museum board opted to earmark those funds for operations — rather than the expansion campaign — to help make up for shortfalls caused by the pandemic and the construction shutdown.
“What made the MacKenzie Scott gift so impactful, so transformative, is that it was to be used as we saw fit,” Terry said. “And that rarely happens for a nonprofit at that scale.”
Among the expansion’s boosters is Robinson, who was at Gordy’s side from Motown’s earliest days and logged countless hours on the West Grand Boulevard grounds.
“As a young singer-songwriter, Hitsville, U.S.A., was everything to me. It was a place I could go to collaborate with people like me who loved making music,” he said. “To be able to offer the next generation that same kind of family and collaborative community through the museum’s programs and expansion is something truly special that I’m proud to be a part of.”
And for Terry and her staff, the project is a wellspring of good vibes and fresh momentum as the expansion dream steadily comes to life.
“This is a development that’s driven by mission and passion and optimism around what it will mean for future generations of young artists and entrepreneurs, not just in Detroit and the state of Michigan, but all over the globe,” she said. “We know Motown is an international brand, an international story, and what we’ll be able to do to really extend the reach of this museum is very exciting.”
Contact Detroit Free Press music writer Brian McCollum: 313-223-4450 or [email protected]