Standing in Michigan Central Station's front yard is a piece of Corktown history that has assembled congregations and bands alike for 140 years.
The building was dedicated as St. Paul's German Evangelical Lutheran Church on Feb. 16, 1873, and designed by architect Carl Schmidt in the German Gothic style.
The church grew out of the Monroe Avenue Church and was incorporated on Nov. 21, 1872, with just 24 members. Nevertheless, the congregation had big ambitions and deep pockets. Despite the small congregation, Schmidt's design had room for more than 700 souls, and the church cost about $18,000 to build - the equivalent of about $450,000 in 2022 dollars, when adjusted for inflation.
The 6,100-square-foot church is 80 feet by 42 feet wide. The church's interior originally had three naves, each separated by a row of columns. The center nave was 20 feet wide and the middle 10 feet each.
Of particular note is the church's steeple, which even caught the fancy of the media back in the 19th century. In 1872, the Detroit Free Press wrote: "A tower, 14 feet square, will ascend to the height of 51 feet, at which point its form changes to that of an octagon, and thence rises 49 feet to the foot of the crucifix, which will be 5 feet in length, making a total height of 105 feet from the roof. The transition from square to octagonal in the tower, which so often gives a clumsy appearance, will be tastily relieved by Gothic arches and ornaments."
Around the same time as the church was built, a 4,135-square-foot school was built to the north of the church at 2310 Seventeenth St., and a 3,260-square-foot rectory at 2324 Seventeenth St. to north of that. Defying the fate of many Detroit churches - not to mention the neighborhood around it that was bulldozed for Roosevelt Park in front of the train station more than 100 years ago - all three of these 19th century buildings still survive.
In 1952, the church campus was sold to the House of Israel, which operated there until selling only the church building to La Iglesia de Jesus Christo in 1982. The church was then sold to the Grace to Grace Christian Fellowship Church in 1999, which worshiped out of the building until 2009. The rectory and school remained owned by the House of Israel, though sat empty and abandoned for decades.
Just as the church would for the next six years.
In March 2015, the church was sold by Grace to Grace to an organization called Assemble Sound, which set out to turn the vacant building into a recording studio and collaborative hub for Detroit's music scene. The premise was to nurture the next generation of Detroit's musical talent by offering 20 resident-artists each year free, daily access to the space without forking over the rights to their work. And despite a lack of plumbing or heat, or even a functioning roof, Assemble got to work right away.
“It was raining onto the floor during our first studio session,” Assemble co-founder Garret Koehler told the Detroit Free Press for an Aug. 17, 2016, story. “And everything else was covered in bird poop.”
Assemble Sound tapped the City of Detroit's Motor City Match program, which granted them $100,000 in 2016 to make their dream a reality. They converted the church into a 21st century version of Motown's Hitsville, U.S.A. They put studios into every corner they could, and writing rooms into the bell tower, closets and behind the altar. The pastor's office became Assemble's "Studio A." Songwriters would pen their next masterpiece while sitting in one of the pews in the sanctuary. It was in many ways the embodiment of Detroit's renowned spirit: Make do with what you've got, but never stop and never stop creating.
Hundreds of musicians and acts filed through the doors of the church, not to pray but to play. At its peak, Assemble would have 20 musicians come through every day. Among the Detroit talent bringing their own pipes to the former church were Tunde Olaniran, Vespre (Kaylan Waterman), Flint Eastwood and Griz.
“We wanted to make a statement about the value music has in the context of broader development in the city,” Koehler told the Free Press. “It’s important that we keep spaces for cultural production.”
Koehler's partners on the project were Seth Anderson, Nicole Churchill and Tifani Sadek.
Artists had 24-hour access to the studio to - after all, as Koehler told the Free Press, “You might wake up at 3 a.m. and be ready to make music.” Sadek, a lawyer, helped musicians on the legal side and ensured they got royalties. Churchill helped bands license their music for TV shows, movies and advertising, with ESPN, Apple and HBO among Assemble's clients. Anderson was a producer, helping bands polish their sound.
The summer of 2018 saw Assemble buy the adjacent St. Paul's School and rectory buildings from the House of Israel. For the first time in 36 years, all three of the St. Paul historic buildings were part of a single campus. Assemble set out to start formally renovating its properties, which forced them to relocate to temporary space elsewhere.
Meanwhile, in December 2021, Atlantic Records announced that it had formed a new artist development partnership and joint venture with Assemble.
“By combining free studio space and artist development resources with a yearly residency program for gifted artists, songwriters, and producers, they’ve created a fantastic place where collaboration is natural and inspiring," Atlantic Records Chairman and CEO Craig Kallman and Chairman and COO Julie Greenwald said in a following statement. "The proof is in their amazing track record in nurturing brilliant artists who have landed major label deals. We’re incredibly excited to be partnering with Assemble to launch a next generation of talent coming out of one of the world’s great music cities.”
Things were looking up for Assemble, but they were not looking so good over at the historic church in Corktown.
Shortly after beginning renovations, the COVID pandemic hit in 2020, and inflation, coupled with tariffs on lumber by the Trump administration and increased costs caused by an increased demand for construction and renovation workers in Detroit, led to a tough decision: renovate the church or build artists' careers.
Meanwhile, the City of Detroit's Buildings, Safety and Environmental Engineering (BSEED) had cited the church's iconic-but-crumbling steeple as a threat to public safety.
"We paused that work to redo our designs after finishing interior demolition before COVID, and then, like all other construction projects, we completely halted when COVID hit," Koehler said in an e-mail to supporters. "We've emerged from the last 2.5 years as a company with different needs in a physical space, facing a different construction environment with insanely higher costs on all fronts. In short, renovating the church has become financially impossible for us. We would risk the whole music company if we took on the amount of debt it would now take to renovate the buildings the way we need to (and the way such an iconic campus deserves). It would dramatically change what we do, the spirit of how we do it, and the impact we have. That's not something we're willing to do.
"To put it simply, buying the church made Assemble Sound possible, but renovating it would make our future impossible."
On Aug. 23, 2022, Assemble put the church and the adjacent former school building and rectory up for sale for an undisclosed price.
"Despite the half-roof, no plumbing, shoddy electric and a steeple full of bird sh--, that sanctuary quickly became the home for our dream, and the literal blood, sweat and tears we exhausted working on it became a very real metaphor for what it would take to turn our dream into a real music company impacting real lives," Assemble Sound wrote in a Facebook post the day the sale went live. "Fast-forward 7.5 years, and here we are doing exactly what we set out to do, in many ways thanks to the magic that happened in those early years at the church."
In July 2023, the Assemble properties were sold to an unidentified buyer for an unidentified price.