At home at the former Smart Studios

A new owner plans to live at the former Madison studio’s East Wash building and keep its “funky angles” intact.

A new owner plans to live at the former Madison studio’s East Wash building and keep its “funky angles” intact.

Photo: The former Smart Studios, a two-story reddish brick building, as seen from the corner of East Washington Avenue and Baldwin Street. Photo by Alice Herman.

After more than a year on the market, the former home of Smart Studios, at 1254 E. Washington Ave., has changed hands once again.

Neka Allen, a native of Kenosha, bought the two-story brick building in September and has been gradually turning it into her private residence. And since November, she’s documented the ongoing renovations on Instagram. Allen also wants to honor the building’s important place in music history and Madison history. 

“I’m sure this journey will be more time-consuming, expensive, and exhausting than I can imagine right now,” Allen wrote on the @overatthestudio Instagram before plunging into her work on the building. “But I’m so excited to love you, you beautiful, hideous creature.” Allen knew a bit about Smart’s history but didn’t initially set out to buy this particular building. After living in Chicago, Austin, Dallas, and then L.A., Allen wanted to move back to Wisconsin and be closer to her family. During the pandemic, Allen’s job with a beauty products company went remote, so she began looking. “This will be the first time in 18 years that all my family’s in one time zone even,” Allen tells Tone Madison.

Smart Studios initially opened in 1983 at another location on East Wash before moving to 1254 in 1987. Smart and co-founders Butch Vig and Steve Marker are best known for the crucial role they played in capturing the punk and noise-rock of the ’80s and ’90s—and especially a few sessions with Nirvana—though its footprint goes far beyond that. Artists who recorded there over the years included Killdozer, Tad, Appliances-SFB, Rainer Maria, Die Kreuzen, Sparklehorse, Smashing Pumpkins, and Fall Out Boy. Filmmaker and musician Wendy Schneider released a full-length documentary about the studio, The Smart Studios Story, in 2016.

The studio went out of business in 2010. Vig sold the building to developer Jon Reske (current owner of Robinia Courtyard), who considered a few different redevelopment ideas while renting the space to another studio operation, Clutch Sound. Phil Parhamovich, an electronic musician who records under the name Star Monster, began renting the space from Reske in 2017. In 2018 Parhamovich bought it after enduring an arbitrary civil forfeiture ordeal in Wyoming. The incident—in which police seized money Parhamovich was planning to use for a down payment on the property—prompted the state of Wyoming to reform its civil forfeiture laws.

Parhamovich used the building as a living space, recording studio, and occasional venue. (Parhamovich did not respond to a request for comment for this story.) Allen is planning a much more subdued tenure at the space.

“I was fixing something out front one time and someone walked by and they’re like ‘oh, are you still having those parties?'” Allen recalls. “I was just like, ‘No.’ No further explanation, just ‘no.'” 

But Allen doesn’t want to shut people out, and seems comfortable with the odd balance of making one’s home in a place that attracts some public interest. She’s interested in hosting smaller events in the space for community groups, and says anyone interested can reach her through the Instagram account.

“I’d love to make it available to people in the community, rather than just me moving in and [saying], ‘you can’t come in!'” Allen says.

The enviable armory of recording equipment Smart amassed over the years is long gone, but the place still has the bones of a studio. Dense, insulated walls, complete with built-in ports for XLR cables, are configured with the spatial creativity it takes to fold a fully-operational recording studio into about 2,800 square feet. “There’s all these funky angles,” Allen says of the floor layout, which she doesn’t plan to change. “There’s a lot of wiring still running through the walls.”

Allen has been painting and redecorating. In the second-floor living room hang framed Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, and Garbage posters. Reaching beyond the usual Smart Studios name-checks most Madisonians are used to, Allen snagged a publicity still of Tad, who recorded the 1991 album 8-Way Santa at Smart with Vig. For the pièce de résistance, Allen commissioned her dad to design a light-up, 3D-printed version of Nirvana’s iconic warped smiley face logo. During the Christmas season, it served as a tree-topper.

Photo: The second-floor living room at the former Smart Studios building is shown, with an Eames-style chair in the foreground. A Christmas tree in the right-hand corner is decorated with a yellow smiley face known from Nirvana T-Shirts. Posters for Nirvana and the Smashing Pumpkins hang on the wall between two windows looking out on East Washington Avenue. Photo by Scott Gordon.

The former studio’s soundproofing and insulation has held up. When I visited Allen at the space in December, I could almost forget that Central Madison’s busiest road was right outside. “If you notice how quiet it is in here—we’re right on East Wash, and you can’t hear anything,” Allen says.

From a long, narrow room on the second floor, there’s a good view of the strata of development along East Wash, the fading industrial character giving way to a rapidly gentrifying boom of high-rise apartments, new restaurants, venues, and shiny offices. The corner of East Wash and Baldwin Street would seem to be a prime target for yet another glassy mixed-use project. Technically, there’d be nothing to stop a developer from buying the property and tearing down the Smart Building. But the Smart property  has too small a footprint for that, explains Jason Iverson, Allen’s realtor. To make a new development viable, someone would also need to scoop up some of the neighboring properties, which currently include an EVP Coffee location and several houses.  

Photo: The Smart Studios building, as seen across East Washington Avenue through car traffic. Photo by Alice Herman.

Allen has found a few artifacts of Smart’s past during the renovation. On her Instagram, she shared a scrap of paper with handwritten lyrics on it, and a plastic baggie labeled “1991,” contents unidentified. “Other than that, it’s been a couple guitar picks, random wiring coming out of the walls and floor, and ‘Smart Studios’ written behind a set of cabinets I took down upstairs,” Allen says.

These remnants of a larger-than-life rock-n-roll past make interesting companions to posts documenting Allen’s bright, cheerful renovations. The space embodies a bit of past and present—music history, meet redone kitchens with requisite Instagram tags for the appliance and cookware manufacturers.

“I’m happy someone is putting some love and care into the place,” says producer and engineer Beau Sorenson, who began working at Smart as an intern in 2004. After seeing Allen’s Instagram page, Sorenson said he had “big emotions seeing that kitchen. I used to start every day up there—as an intern you’d have to clean up whatever was there, stock the fridge, etc. It’s where I learned to make studio coffee.” (Studio coffee is just extra-strong coffee that can be watered down later if needed, Sorenson explains.) 

Justin Perkins moved to Madison in the mid-2000s to work at Smart as an engineer. By the end of the decade Perkins moved to Milwaukee and launched his own business, Mystery Room Mastering, which has become Wisconsin’s go-to mastering service. Now that he’s back in the Madison area, Perkins is also glad to see someone looking after the Smart building. 

“I drive by it often and can’t help but think about all the history as well as the possibilities,” Perkins says. “However, with the reality of the music industry and shrinking recording/production budgets, combined with skyrocketing real estate prices, I think the chances of a recording studio existing in that space again are slim to none. Fancy condos and new retail have really been creeping into that area since the time I lived here in the mid 2000s and when I moved back in 2020, I figured it was only a matter of time before the building would be torn down, but I’m hoping that with the new owner fixing it up, both inside and out, that it stands a chance of lasting a few more decades.”

Perkins adds: “Though it’ll likely never be a full on museum like Sun Studios in Memphis, which I always thought would be a cool idea, especially since the two buildings are somewhat similar in size, color, and are on a corner, I think the fact that the new owner is willing to share her progress on Instagram is the next best thing, and actually pretty inline with these social media and pandemic times.”

Another longtime Smart engineer, Mike Zirkel, had less to say but said he wished Allen well. Schneider, who also worked at Smart and eventually made her nationally well-received documentary about the studio, greets the building’s new resident with enthusiasm.

“Best of luck to anyone in the coolest two-story POS brick building on East Washington Ave.,” Schneider says. “May it hinder the progress of upscale development!”

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