New owner busy restoring old building with deep connection to Madison’s music scene

MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) -There’s an old building that sits on the east side of Madison that has a deep connection to Madison’s music scene. Built in 1918, you wouldn’t think much of the red brick facade that sits on the corner of East Washington Avenue and Baldwin Street. The exterior needs a little TLC. Well, a lot.

But the interior is getting a lot of love right now, thanks to a new owner.

“I was just looking at real estate in Wisconsin for some reason and came across this place,” Neka Allen said. Allen bought the place for $495,000 in September 2021. “I actually saw the listing randomly and fell in love with it,” she said.

The first floor will be available in AirBNB from this summer(Tim Elliott)

At the time, the 35-year-old Kenosha native was living on the West Coast and considering her next move. She decided to return home to Wisconsin to be closer to her family.

“My dad – I texted him and said, ‘talk me out of this’ and he said no, do it!” Allen said.

The building once housed the Smart Studios. The studio has seen countless bands come 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 Los Angeles 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.

A view of Smart Studios in the 1990s
A view of Smart Studios in the 1990s(Wisconsin Historical Society)

Other famous bands like The Smashing Pumpkins and Garbage all recorded there.

“There’s so much Madison history and music history tied to this place,” Allen said.

Wisconsin native and legendary music producer Butch Vig opened the studio in 1983. He produced the album “Nevermind.” On the album was the hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit” which Rolling Stone magazine named the 5th greatest song of all time.

This Madison Magazine cover hangs on the wall of the old Smart Studios
This Madison Magazine cover hangs on the wall of the old Smart Studios(Tim Elliott)

Allen is now restoring the entire building. It transforms the first floor – where bands recorded their music – into AirBNB.

“A lot of people have reached out and said thank you for taking care of this building and making sure it will stand for decades to come,” Allen said.

Allen certainly had his work cut out for him. She says she spent the first three days cleaning up the place. “It smelled like cat,” she said.

Another challenge Allen faced was the fact that she had no experience restoring homes.

“I hadn’t painted a single wall before moving here. Just jump in and do it, watch YouTube videos,” she said.

The stairs leading to Allen's apartment on the second floor
The stairs leading to Allen’s apartment on the second floor(Tim Elliott)

His DIY approach is paying off. She has been living there for several months and has transformed the ground floor into a living room and dining room.

“It was fun. It’s a lot of work, a lot of hours, a lot of money, but it was fun and doing it yourself, you feel a lot more pride and then you see the progress and the transformation that are happening,” she said.

Allen also lives in the building. She turned the upper level into her own apartment. She says stylistically that she wants to feel at home while keeping the memory of Smart Studios alive.

“Like bright, joyful, happy and I want to do it in a way that honors the history and heritage of this building, but also has a bit of my own personality,” Allen said.

Allen estimates she will spend around $100,000 to restore the building. She hopes the first floor will be ready for AirBNB rental this summer.

Until then, she’ll be busy tackling one project at a time.

“My motto has always been good, I can’t do worse than it was – so I’m just going to do it,” she said.

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