White Room Studio

Written in December, 2006.

This is one of those places that you cluelessly explore only to later find out that it is legendary for one reason or another. If you are a fan at all of Detroit-based music, then you may know the name White Room Studio. When I checked out the joint, I knew nothing about it other than it was once obviously an old-timey department store, and that despite having a party store operating out of the main floor today and allegedly (according to Detroitblog John, who was there with me that day) a couple squatter apartments upstairs somewhere, it was essentially another typical abandoned skyscraper. One that was overlooked by most people.


According to Clarence Burton's The City of Detroit, Michigan, Vol. III, the original name of this building was Peter Smith & Sons Grocery Co., and it was built in 1912 to house mercantile tenants and office space. Mr. Smith, a rather prominent citizen at the time, also sublet the Bamlet Building on the other side of the park, and notably bought out the old Hotel Cadillac's owners, before he in turn was bought out by the Book Brothers for a considerable sum when they wanted the parcel for their new Book-Cadillac Hotel.

We planned to access to the Peter Smith Building through the also-vacant Colonial Building next door:


...Pretty soon photos like that will be a thing of the past, with our switch to LED street-lighting and the removal of the old orange-hued arc-sodium lamps. I happen to love that sickly orange color, so if you're a photography snob, just deal with it.

This place was built in 1887 as the Brown Brothers Cigar Co. factory, and designed by Detroit architect Gordon W. Lloyd. It was pretty empty, except for some really nice views of Capitol Park:


Just about at the center of that photograph is where the old wood frame structure would have stood that served as the capitol of Michigan, starting in 1823. That was the year that U.S. Congress determined that the Territory of Michigan had grown sufficiently to warrant having its own government, so a new building was erected here to house it.

It served in that capacity through 1837 when Michigan became a state, all the way up until 1847 when the state government was moved inland to Lansing, out of fears that keeping the capitol so close to the Canadian border might make Detroit a tempting target for the British again. That--the Patriot War--was also the same time period in which Fort Wayne was constructed, and for the same reasons. The old state capitol at Capitol Park was used as a schoolhouse until 1893 when it burned down.


The interior of this building was in very good shape, and had evidently recently tried to undergo a metamorphosis into some kind of loft development, but like so many others in pre-2008 Detroit, it had stalled, or failed entirely.


Some huge lunette windows are always a plus, in my book:




Poking my head out one of the expansive windows, I looked west down State Street:


Having reached the top floor of the Colonial Building, we now began looking for the roof access. Sometimes roof access is tricky to find, but not usually.


This time, we couldn't seem to find one. Both he and I stopped, then went around the entire floor again, just to make sure we hadn't somehow missed it. But sure enough, there was no stair, no ladder, and no little closet in which it could be hiding. There was just this big ole skylight, through which we could see the Peter Smith & Sons Building looking down at us and laughing:


John and I looked at each other again to see if we were not in fact going crazy. We couldn't believe it was possible that there was no roof access...that's just preposterous. We didn't even find a spot where a hatch might used to have been. Bizarre, very bizarre indeed. This was unacceptable; somehow we were going to get on this roof, and from there into the Peter Smith.

We looked around for material in the room we might be able to stack up high enough to reach the skylight. Luckily a sprinkler pipe passed near enough to the opening that it could serve as a foothold. I could tell my partner was not enthused in the least about this plan of action, but at the same time he knew there was little alternative. So with our wobbly stack of random crap, we carefully made our way up and through the skylight, though it was not without a measure of great personal inconvenience.


Well, here we were.


Another objective of this mission was to see if there was access via the double-decker skybridge to the People's Outfitting Building:


The People's was one of the few significant buildings left that neither of us had been in yet, and since it was currently sweating threats of demolition from the Book-Cadillac renovation project, it moved even higher up on our list.

As you can see the Peter Smith (left) is in just about as good of shape as any of the bunch...

 

This was one of the better views I had ever gotten of the Washington Apartments (right) as well. We easily found a window that would succumb to our lusty advances, and made our way into the 8th floor of the Peter Smith.


So, back to White Room Studio. What was recorded here? Detroitfunk, who lived in the building in the 1990s, says…
Let's start with: Aretha Franklin, Electric Six, D12, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bob Seger, Tori Amos, and the Detroit Cobras. Anybody ever hear of a guy called Kid Rock? He recorded “Devil Without A Cause” right here at White Room. "Welcome 2 the Party (Ode 2 the Old School)" "I Am the Bolgod" "Bawitdaba" "Cowboy" "Only God Knows Why" "Wasting Time"
...not to mention the album "Early Morning Stoned Pimp." 


Kid Rock worked as a janitor here at White Room in order to buy studio time in the mid-'90s. My partner explained that this was actually the first building he ever explored (oh so many years ago), on some random chance, which is what he said sparked the desire to start Detroitblog in the first place.

White Room still holds daily sessions, in their new Ferndale digs.

 

The building was a total time capsule. Its odd location and unorthodox footprint made for an interesting floor-plan. One of the beautiful things about Detroit is its seemingly kaleidoscopic platting, which is in turn further modified by the curvature of the Detroit River's shoreline. This results in a very interesting aesthetic and geometrical patterns inland, including the footprints of many of its buildings, especially this one...in turn making for unique photographic views of the city.

Each building has its own unique angle on the rest of downtown, and Capitol Park is one of the most flavorful parts of downtown; not a single building is newer than 1929, and they look it. This is your "dirty city" right here…everything seems to be the color of pigeon shit. In fact, Detroit’s oldest and first skyscraper, the former Chamber of Commerce Building, is right here on the left, a building well over 100 years old:


According to the bran-new book Capitol Park: Historic Heart of Detroit, by Jack Dempsey, the Peter Smith & Sons Co. occupied the bottom five floors of this building originally, with the upper five being rented out for office space. 


I am not sure if White Room was in the area of the building you see here; though it definitely bears the hoofprints of a partier’s lair of some type. 
 

It was highly likely that someone still lived here at least part-time, so we moved very cautiously.


I see we have quite the pad here. A full-size bar in the living room, a bulk case of microwave popcorn...and the orange construction barrel really ties the place together. I wanna party with these guys.


Here, in what seemed to be a bedroom, a strange miniature stage?


The purple / lime-green color scheme is a nice touch. Someone went crazy and smashed this guitar...


The rest of this floor was filled with arcade machines, in various states of disassemble. I’m guessing it was once some kind of repair shop. And maybe it was a support business to the arcade that used to operate on the main floor of the Farwell Building just across the park.


Attached was another abandoned building, the former United Savings Bank at 1133 Griswold, which from the street is almost indistinguishable as a separate building from this one. But it was inaccessible, no matter how we tried to find a way between the two, and we weren't about to smash a window out. Looking down on the roof of 1133 here, you can see a crazy scene, which we spied many a time from a block away, from the roof of the Lafayette Building, wanting to check it out closer…you can see the mannequin, but there’s other weird junk going on there. A traffic light on a tree, some random found items, a sculpture…a garden…?


Time to hit those stairs again.


Near the top floor, 11 stories above the alley, was the skybridge across to the also-abandoned People's Outfitting Building, another former department store:


We learned however that the way in was sealed, and we would have to come up with another approach. That was a major bummer; nothing is more convenient than skyscraper-hopping. The roof was decent, and would have made for nice nighttime chill spot if not for the prohibitively labor-intensive method of getting into this place.


Another currently-vacant skyscraper on our list (though we didn't harbor much hope of getting in) was 1001 Woodward:


The views up toward the Necklace were pretty grand indeed:


I have actually been up in one or both of these white buildings (on the left) before as well, since we knew someone who lived there, but I was too drunk at the time to even remember which one:

 

We of course snuck down to the main floor and let ourselves out, instead of going all the way back through the Colonial Building and dealing with that hellacious roof-climb ordeal again.


The party store was recently evicted from the first floor so that the building could be marketed as a whole.



References:
The City of Detroit, Michigan, Vol. III, by Clarence Burton, p. 218
http://detroitfunk.com/?p=761