As Motown Records turns 60, 'Motown Mansion' in Boston-Edison looks to future
In the corner of a spacious pool house in Detroit’s Historic Boston-Edison District, where Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. once entertained music royalty, hangs a photo of Gordy himself, laughing with pop superstar Michael Jackson.
The picture, situated in the very spot it was taken decades ago in the 1980s, is one of dozens of images that hang throughout the “Motown Mansion,” the home Gordy owned from the 1960s through the early 2000s. The photos tell the story of a place that’s more than a house. It’s a legacy.
“There are many beautiful homes in Detroit,” said new owner Alan Brown, who bought the mansion in 2017. “There are a small number of truly historic mansions with the design integrity this has, but there’s only one Motown Mansion that has this legacy attached to it.”
And it’s a legacy that still resonates with Detroiters.
“I can’t tell you how many people drive by, stop and want to chat about their connection to Motown,” said Brown, an arts consultant who shares the house with his partner Aldo Torres and their three dogs, Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazar. “These people are all around, they were here and they remember.”
Brown grew up in Birmingham but admits he’d never heard of the Motown Mansion until a fateful drive down Woodward pulled him into the Boston-Edison district roughly two years ago. Awed by the amazing homes and looking to move back from San Francisco to Detroit to be closer to his aging parents, he bought the 10,500-square- foot mansion for $1.65 million.
He said he’s come to appreciate why Gordy’s legacy has such symbolic meaning to the people of Detroit. Motown Records is celebrating its 60th anniversary this month with a CBS special.
“Gordy’s story of success is the counter-narrative, or a big part of the counter-narrative, to all the bad things that happened to Detroit. He was for decades the most successful black entrepreneur in the world,” said Brown. So “it’s very humbling to play a small role in nurturing and celebrating that legacy.”
But the mansion’s legacy began long before Motown Records was even started.
The house was built in 1917 by a Danish immigrant, Nels Michelson. Michelson made his fortune in the lumber industry and eventually real estate. By the early 20th century, seeing the growth that was coming to Detroit, he bought more than 1,000 acres off Woodward, which was subdivided and sold for residences and businesses.
At his daughter Bessie’s urging, according to a book put together by Michelson’s grandson, he also built himself a house at 918 W. Boston Boulevard.
The 10,500-square-foot home sits on 2.2 acres. Built in an Italianate style with a limestone exterior, it has 10 bedrooms, five fireplaces, a lower level ballroom, and a stunning sun room. When Gordy lived in the house, called Gordy Manor at the time, it also had a five-hole golf course.
A picture of Michelson now hangs in the foyer, a tribute to the man who started it all.
Spared no expense
It was the home’s second owner, automotive supplier L.A. Young, however, that really took the house to another level.
In 1926, Young bought the house from Michelson and renovated the house substantially, moving the fireplace in the living room and adding elaborate details. He had a 4,000-square-foot pool house built next door to the main house, which also includes a projection room to watch movies. A tunnel connects the main house to the pool house.
“He completely changed the whole property,” said Brown. “And he spared no expense.”
The foyer features an elaborately painted ceiling with gold leaf moldings.
“This (foyer) ceiling is really a work of art, a major work of art,” said Brown. “And it’s in amazingly good shape.”
Design details abound. The exterior features hand-carved limestone. Above the front door, which is solid bronze, is an urn, a recurring design motif. Brown was able to track down the blueprints from the 1920s and “there’s a blueprint of just that urn.”
“I notice things every day that I’ve never noticed because there is so much design detail,” said Brown.
Brown believes one of the reasons the house is still in such good shape, even through some of Detroit’s hardest times, is because it was always occupied. Even after Gordy moved to Los Angeles in the early 1970s, his sister Esther looked over the house and a caretaker lived in the apartment above the five-car garage.
“The property was always occupied which is one of the reasons it was never stripped,” said Brown. “These are the original brass fixtures – and they’re extraordinary.”
That’s not to say the Motown Mansion hasn’t seen hard times. When previous owner Cynthia Reaves bought the house in 2002, a caretaker had not been living in the house for a few years, pipes froze and burst, which led to extensive water damage.
Reaves grew up in Boston-Edison, diagonally from Gordy’s home. She remembers watching the big events at Gordy’s home.
“We’d go to the attic and we could look into the yard and see what was going on,” said Reaves. “I remember being so excited to see the red carpet events.”
Reaves, a lawyer, was living in Washington, D.C., when a job offer in Detroit and a request from her mom to return home brought her back to her roots.
Seeing the Motown mansion with its shades closed, she decided to write Gordy a letter, asking to buy the house.
“I wrote an impassioned letter about the beauty of these homes and how they need to be restored and maintained,” remembers Reaves. “I just mailed it off to Berry Gordy, thinking you never know.”
Shockingly, Gordy’s lawyer called Reaves. She bought the house in 2002.
But restoring the house took extensive work. The tunnel from the main house to the pool house was flooded.
“It was really a bad sight,” said Reaves. “Every room in the house had been damaged.”
Reaves spent thousands restoring the house, updating the kitchen and removing old Astroturf that covered the closed pool in the pool house. She even found a bowling alley that was shutting down to replace the two lanes in the lower level alley with authentic maple.
She won the 2008 Governor's Award for Historic Preservation for her hard work but Reaves said it was about so much more than that. It was about taking care of a house that means so much to so many.
“I think that the reason he (Gordy) sold it to me, or entrusted it to me, is because I made it clear it was home that resonated with the community,” said Reaves.
Brown feels much the same way. He’s done a lot of work with internal structural repairs, especially plumbing, and had a second-level balcony restored.
To get the pool house bowling alley completely functional again, he tracked down a Facebook group of old-school pin setters to get it in working order.
And in the lower level ballroom, Brown hired local artist, Martin Soo Hoo, to paint flowers and re-create the funky vibe it had when Gordy owned the house. There’s a seating area on the opposite end and photos of famous Motown acts throughout.
“We’re creating a club,” he said.
The photos throughout the house, meanwhile, most of which are from Wayne State’s Reuther library, were taken in 1972. They help put the house in context from its famed Motown days.
And Brown isn’t done. He views himself as a steward of the house, but said he’d also love to one day host artist events, exhibits and artist salons.
“I moved here to be a part of the cultural renaissance of the city of Detroit. And my vision for the house is to place it in service of that cultural renaissance,” said Brown. It’s about “not just honoring the legacy but taking it a step further.”