A smart second life for Smart Studios

New owner turns the famous Madison recording space into a short-term rental.

The music has returned, so to speak, to Smart Studios — Madison’s storied recording studio that produced bands including The Smashing Pumpkins, Killdozer, Nirvana and Garbage. But instead of live music, the studio is now filled with the sounds of Neka Allen spinning records or CDs by bands that recorded in the very room.

This next act comes from Los Angeles, and she’s likely the first female owner at 1254 E. Washington Ave., where more music and lyrics have been captured than one would think a modest, two-story, red brick building could be capable of holding.

Allen, a Kenosha native, traded her studio apartment in LA for a different kind of studio when she purchased the mixed-use property in September 2021 with plans to use the bottom floor as an Airbnb rental and the top floor as her primary residence. Built in 1918 and locked into music’s history books after Butch Vig and Steve Marker set up their recording studio there in the early ’80s, the former Smart Studios space was on the market for about two years when Allen randomly came across it online.

The 36-year-old lived in Austin for six years before relocating to LA, with no plans to move back to Wisconsin. She was saving up to buy a place in the Golden State — then the pandemic hit and she went 100% remote for her job as director of analytics at a baby and beauty products company. “I was lonely and thought, ‘Why am I paying this much for rent when I could be anywhere?’  ” she says. “When I got the opportunity to just pick where I lived, I just wanted to be closer to family.”

She purchased the property, which was in need of a little TLC, for $495,000. Allen has tried keeping as many of the space’s original features while still making it her own. “I tried to balance it with things that honor the space and its history but still bringing parts of me in here,” she says.

The pressure in your ears changes when you walk through the Studio A threshold, which has soundproofed walls and sliding glass doors dividing the room on either side. The noise from East Washington Avenue traffic disappears completely inside. The former control room was once filled with soundboards, guitars hanging from stands, double-decker keyboards, screens, tangled cords, turntables, speakers, microphones and drum sets.

Now it’s an inviting sitting area with a long dining table. Allen has plans to turn the back wall, which is where bass speakers used to sit on still-there concrete slabs, into a built-in bar. Through the sliding glass doors on the opposite side of the room, you enter the former performance studio that’s now a living room. Allen’s autonomous robot vacuum sits on its charging port next to a giant outlet panel where electronic music equipment would have been wired.

The room to the right of the main entrance, which was an addition that features brick that used to be an exterior wall, is now her Airbnb guest room. The inviting and bright yellow and mustard colors of the room were inspired by the 1992 Nirvana poster that hangs on the wall. It was 1990 when that young band rapped on the door of Smart Studios to record with Vig. Of the eight songs they recorded there, many ended up being early versions of the songs that appeared on Nirvana’s breakthrough album, “Nevermind.”

That’s the first piece of art Allen bought that connects her home to Smart Studio’s history. A feature wall in the downstairs living room has a neon Nirvana smiley face (not to mention Madison Magazine’s July 2021 Nirvana special collector’s edition), plus band and gig posters from Tad, Garbage, The Smashing Pumpkins and more. Dave Grohl’s “The Storyteller” memoir sits on the side table in the guest room. A movie poster signed by Vig for “The Smart Studios Story,” a 2016 documentary by Wendy Schneider, hangs in the bathroom. Upstairs you’ll find another documentary poster, signed by Vig and Shirley Manson, the lead singer of Garbage. Band stickers on the inside of the basement door remain — Allen has no plans to remove them.

Wooden stairs with worn treads — a reminder of the people who have left their mark before — lead up to the second floor and her main living area, which Allen has brightened with lighter paint and pops of color. The upstairs kitchen is almost entirely original, save for a new Smeg refrigerator. The acoustics change again once you walk down the hallway and into the larger former upstairs studio, now Allen’s workspace and closet. A set of sliding doors leads into a slim sun-filled spot — the sounds of East Washington return as if someone has turned up the volume upon crossing from studio to sunroom. Allen set up another remote workspace there, surrounded by views of the busy street and many of her potted plants. The smaller upstairs studio is now her bedroom. A tie-dyed Nirvana sweatshirt hangs in proud display on the end of her clothing rack next to her bed.

The second-story balcony is Allen’s favorite spot, she says. She’s turned the spacious deck into an inviting entertainment area with a long table, patio furniture and planter boxes she made from old filing cabinets. She’s already hosted many family gatherings out there, and even trusts her cat, Garfunkel, to venture out onto the deck.

Allen sees herself staying in Madison for a long time.

“It’s been a nice change of pace going from these huge cities where there’s so much traffic, to just a little bit calmer,” she says. “I’m getting to know the neighborhood more and connecting with people.” She’s even given impromptu tours to people she’s seen sneaking pictures of the exterior.

Allen says she still has some projects she’d like to finish, including adding a full shower upstairs, finishing the downstairs kitchen, building a bar and putting in a workshop area for her tools. She had heard that the former owner had been contacted by someone expressing interest in turning the building into a historical landmark, but no one has reached out to her yet.

The bones of Smart Studios — which closed in 2010 — are still very much present, from original light fixtures to padded walls. Madison Magazine’s back page columnist John Roach remembers recording a few soundtracks for University of Wisconsin–Madison PSAs there in the early 1990s, noting that he felt incredibly unworthy.

“Butch had a huge reputation after Nirvana … I walked in to be amazed to see that our session drummer was Clyde Stubblefield,” says Roach about the late renowned funk drummer who worked with James Brown and called Madison home.

Now, as of its late summer debut on Airbnb, the Smart Studios apartment is a rentable space where guests can stand in the same spots that great musical acts once stood.

“It’s a humble little place, but if those walls could talk,” says Roach.

Andrea Behling is the editor of Madison Magazine.

This article appeared in the August issue of Madison Magazine.

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