New owner busy restoring old building with a deep connection to Madison’s music scene
Smart Studios recorded famous bands like Nirvana and The Smashing Pumpkins in the 1990′s
MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) -There’s an old building that sits on Madison’s eastside that has a deep connection to Madison’s music scene. Built in 1918, you wouldn’t think much of the red brick façade that sits on the corner of East Washington Avenue and Baldwin Street. The outside needs a little TLC. Well, a lot.
But the inside is getting plenty of love at the moment, thanks to a new owner.
“I was just looking at real estate in Wisconsin for some reason and came across this place,” said Neka Allen. Allen bought the place for $495,000 in September 2021. “I actually randomly saw the listing and just like fell in love with it,” she said.
At the time, the 35-year-old Kenosha native was living on the west coast and pondering her next move. She decided to move back home to Wisconsin to be closer to family.
“My dad -- I texted him and I said, ‘talk me out of this’ and he said no, do it!” said Allen.
The building used to be the home to Smart Studios. The studio has seen a countless number of bands come through to record. Most notably -- 90s grunge gods Nirvana recorded their iconic album “Nevermind” at Smart Studios in 1991. The band re-recorded the album in LA and that’s what you hear on the CD. But the song “Polly” was recorded in Madison and made the final cut of the album.
Other famous bands like The Smashing Pumpkins and Garbage have all recorded there.
“There’s so much Madison history and music history connected to this place,” said Allen.
Wisconsin native and legendary music producer Butch Vig opened the studio in 1983. He produced the “Nevermind” album. On the album was the smash hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit” which Rolling Stone magazine named the #5 greatest song of all time.
Allen is now restoring the entire building. She’s turning the first floor – where bands would record their music – into an AirBNB.
“A lot of people have reached out and said thank you for taking care of this building and making sure it will keep standing for decades to come,” said Allen.
Allen certainly had her work cut out for her. She says she spent the first three days just cleaning the place. “It smelled like cats,” she said.
Another challenge that Allen faced was the fact that she didn’t have any experience in home restoration.
“I had not painted a single wall before I moved in here. It’s just jumping in and doing it, watching YouTube videos,” she said.
Her DIY approach is paying off. In the several months since she’s lived there, she’s turned the downstairs into a lounge and dining area.
“It’s been fun. It’s a lot of work, a lot of hours, a lot of money but it’s been fun and just doing it yourself, you get so much more of a feeling of pride and then seeing progress and the transformation that happens,” she said.
Allen is also living in the building. She turned the upstairs level into her own apartment space. She says stylistically she wants to feel at home while keeping the memory of Smart Studios alive and well.
“Like bright, cheerful, happy and I want to do it in a way that honors the history and legacy of this building but has a little bit of my own personality as well,” Allen said.
Allen estimates she will spend about $100,000 to restore the building. She hopes to have the first floor ready to rent out as an AirBNB this summer.
Until then, she’ll be busy tackling one project at a time.
“My motto has always been well I can’t make it worse than it was -- so I’m just going to do it,” she said.
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