Gibson stack and United Sound Systems

Two Michigan sites with strong ties to the country-western music of Detroit made news during the last few weeks: The original Gibson Guitars factory smokestack narrowly escaped removal (for now) in Kalamazoo, and United Sound System made progress in an urgent bid for historic designation by the City of Detroit.

Gibson Guitars smokestack in Kalamazoo, Michigan, by Craig Maki

The Gibson Guitars smokestack in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Photo by Craig Maki

Smokin’ Gibson heritage

Last month I heard that PlazaCorp, owner of the former Gibson Guitars factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan, had made plans to take down the building’s tall smokestack. The 1917 chimney was constructed of deep red bricks embedded with pale yellow variants that spell out “GIBSON” on the north and south sides of the cylindrical chimney.

After having operated in Kalamazoo and introducing many important developments in the evolution of guitars and other stringed instruments during most of the 20th century, Gibson Guitar Corporation moved its headquarters to Nashville, Tennessee, in 1984. The historic Kalamazoo site is legendary among guitar fans worldwide, and Detroit musicians were lucky to live near such a wonderful resource. When he played on radio and records in Detroit during the 1950s, guitarist Al Allen, who is profiled in the book Detroit Country Music: Mountaineers, Cowboys, and Rockabillies, visited the Gibson factory numerous times for custom work on his instruments. The company even licensed and manufactured a guitar vibrato that Allen and another Detroit inventor patented themselves.

The same week that I heard about possible deconstruction of the stack (delayed only by lack of a city permit), I hit the road and visited the Kalamazoo Enterprise Center – the site’s official name, home of Heritage Guitar, Inc., as well as the Kalamazoo Academy of Rock – to shoot photographs of the stack. Latest word is that a preservation company determined it can be saved. Now it’s up to PlazaCorp to decide how, and to what extent.

Advisory board’s vote united for studio

United Sound Systems, the oldest recording studio in Detroit, sits in the way of the Michigan Department of Transportation’s future plans to expand Interstate 94.

Last July, the studio’s owners invited fans of country and rockabilly music (cut at U.S.S. during the 1940s and 1950s) for tours of the building. Appreciative guests found the studio spaces restored and renovated into beautiful state-of-the-art audio labs. If MDOT were to demolish the building, they would make waste of a culturally significant business that has operated for decades in Detroit.

According to the U.S.S. Facebook page, Detroit’s Historic Designation Advisory Board voted unanimously to support a bid for the building’s historic status on February 12. The next step is for Detroit City Council to review the board’s decision. Send notes of support to:

United Sound Systems Recording Studios
5840 Second Avenue
Detroit, MI 48202


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