May 1, 2013

"Come On In My Kitchen": Homeless Shelter to Restore Famed Robert Johnson Recording Studio

  • By: David Weible
Exterior of 508 Park Avenue. Credit: Alan Govenar/508Park, flickr

Robert Johnson was never a rock star, but the 13 tracks the wandering blues musician laid down at the makeshift studio inside 508 Park Avenue in Dallas in 1937 eventually inspired musicians like Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and Eric Clapton (who even recorded there in 2004). Now, thanks to a $12 million restoration project headed by the Stewpot, a homeless shelter located across the street, the building itself will have an opportunity to do the same for generations of musicians to come.

“Robert Johnson’s life story as we know it was -- I know that there would be definitely a sense of simpatico with the people that we work with here at the Stewpot,” says Bruce Buchanan, executive director of the shelter, referring to the less-than-glamorous lifestyle of traveling musicians during the Great Depression.

The Art Deco building that held the improvised recording studio was built in 1929 in an area of the city then known as Film Row by Warner Bros. as a place where regional theater owners could come to preview films and select which ones they’d show. By the mid-to-late '30s, it became a place where musicians of all different styles would come to jam and record tracks.

“The building, how it was used, it was a reflection of the period of history in which it was created,” says Buchanan, referring to the discovery of a ‘colored’ water closet in the basement and an account by a former employee that he had seen Robert Johnson using the back stairwell, perhaps the result of racial segregation at the time. “But [Johnson] I think was an example in which the building in many ways was a melting pot in that you had that blues musician, ethnic musicians, and Texas swing musicians [making recordings], and music was the common denominator for the use of that building.”

Robert Johnson Look Alike Contestants, Darrell Payne and Velietta Dickens Rogers. Credit: 508Park, flickr
Contestants Darrell Payne (l.) and Velietta Dickens Rogers (r.) at the Robert Johnson Look-Alike Contest at Stewpot.

The interior of the building was gutted in the mid-'60s, and has sat vacant since 1991, when Buchanan started at the Stewpot. In that time, the shelter, which offers a wide range of services from health and dental care to youth enrichment programs and college scholarships, outgrew its space.

The organization purchased the building in 2011 and has since begun construction on a community garden and a performance amphitheater in the adjacent lots. In November, the group hosted a groundbreaking ceremony for the project which was attended by Johnson’s grandson, who performed some of his grandfather’s music.

The Stewpot hopes to complete its restoration of the building itself next year and plans to house the shelter’s art studio and gallery there, along with a museum dedicated to historical and contemporary street culture, an events space, and offices.

And of course, the recording studio will be restored too, and will be made available to students from Dallas’ performing arts high school, as well as other areas of the community. There are also opportunities for partnerships with groups like the Dallas Wind Symphony.

“[The Stewpot] serves second chances,” says Buchanan. “We do not throw people away. And I personally believe that you don’t throw historic buildings away; buildings that are very much a part of the heartbeat and history of a community. The inner light that [Robert Johnson] helped to produce, I think, is still there and will help to change lives and entertain.”

That's music to everyone's ears.

David Weible is the content specialist at the National Trust, previously with Preservation and Outside magazines. His interest in historic preservation was inspired by the ‘20s-era architecture, streetcar neighborhoods, and bars of his hometown of Cleveland.

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