The uncertain future of the Smart Studios building

A civil forfeiture case has held up a musician's plans to buy the storied Madison recording studio's former home.

A concept drawing shows a since-scrapped plan to turn the former Smart Studios building on East Wash into a bar or restaurant. Illustration via Tillis Architecture/Fourcap Real Estate.

A concept drawing shows a since-scrapped plan to turn the former Smart Studios building on East Wash into a bar or restaurant. Illustration via Tillis Architecture/Fourcap Real Estate.

  This story has been updated.

An incredible story published on Vox this Friday detailed the plight of a Madisonian named Phil Parhamovich, who wants to buy the former home of Smart Studios at 1254 E. Washington Ave. The cash he was hoping to use as a down payment on the building was tied up for most of the year: Police in Wyoming seized it—$91,800 of it—after a traffic stop in March, in what's known as a civil asset forfeiture. A few hours after Vox posted its story on Friday, a state court decided to give him the money back.

Civil forfeiture, a process in which law enforcement agencies seize cash and other valuables from people who often haven't even been charged with a crime, is a practice with a well-documented history of abuse. Parhamovich is currently in the process of trying to get his money back, and the nonprofit civil-liberties law firm Institute for Justice has taken up his case.

Parhamovich is currently renting out the building and has an option to buy it until February. He's been using the second floor of the building as a home base for recording his own music, including an electronic project called Star Monster. He's letting other local bands record and rehearse downstairs, where Smart's main studio space used to be. He says he doesn't want to necessarily turn the building into a recording-studio business again, but he does want to use the Smart Studios name.

"My kind of idea is I'm not going to need to make money from Smart Studios," Parhamovich said Friday from Wyoming, where he is attending a hearing in his case. "As long as I can live and do my project, I'm going to kind of treat it as my house." He speaks broadly of using the space to nurture the local music community, and to host exclusive interviews and performances with electronic artists touring through Madison.

When Parhamovich got into the building in June, it wasn't a fully intact recording studio by any means. The studio, opened at another location in 1983 by Butch Vig and Steve Marker, ceased operations in 2010. Vig sold the building to developer Jon Reske, who also owns the Robinia Courtyard complex on East Wash. The storied space is there, but the equipment, from recording consoles to tape machines to amps to effects units, is gone, having been auctioned or sold or repurposed elsewhere by Vig and the studio's former staff. "We left no gear there when Butch sold the building to Jon Reske," says Mike Zirkel, a Smart engineer who worked there right until the end. Reske says the building still has its original wood floors and glass partitions between the different studio rooms, and some XLR wiring embedded in the walls, but acknowledges that there's no other studio gear left from the Smart days. Parhamovich says he's amassed his own collection of recording gear over the years, and has been able to get the studio up and running with that.

As for actually calling the his operation Smart Studios, Parhamovich will need permission from Vig. He says he met Vig earlier this year and discussed the possibility, but is still waiting to hear whether Vig will allow it. Parhamovich has a farm near Viroqua, Vig's hometown, and says he hopes to "honor" the Smart name rather than "capitalize" on it. We're working on contacting Vig about this, and will update this story if he's able to comment. In a way Parhamovich is already running with the name: A recent press release about a Star Monster show mentions him "taking over Butch Vig’s Smart Studios in Madison" and "acquiring the studio this spring."

From 2013 to fall 2016 another recording business, Clutch Sound, rented the space from Reske. Parhamovich began renting the space in May, Reske says, and plans to turn it back into a recording studio, with living quarters on the second floor. (When Smart was in business, the second floor held a secondary studio space as well as a kitchen and lounge, Zirkel says, and before Smart moved in the second floor was a living space, according to Reske.) Reske currently owes nearly $6,000 in back taxes on the property, according to Dane County property records. He says he could pay the taxes now, but has been waiting until the sale is complete to do so. Parhamovich was initially set to close on the building in March, when he was stopped by the Wyoming Highway Patrol and had his money seized, in cash.

Reske has entertained various ideas about the space's future. Digital drawings on a commercial real estate listing for the Smart building show plans for a bar or restaurant in the space, with big windows in what is currently the closed-off brick facade. "Nothing got very much beyond sort of initial concept,” says Matt Tills, a Madison-based architect who worked with Reske in 2012 and has not been involved with the project since.

Reske acknowledges he's put aside the idea of a bar or restaurant for now, citing the building's lack of parking spaces as one of the obstacles. "I could not get a restaurateur to the finish line with me, and probably for good reason," he says.

Such an idea might not have gone over well with local musicians who remembers the studio's glory days, when it recorded scores of independent local and regional bands, as well as being involved with albums from bands including Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins. It's a big part of local lore, so one could understand people feeling protective of it. Reske says that a bar or restaurant would have at least allowed the public enjoy the space. "I always thought it would be a shame if this became a sleepy five-employee office space or something," he says.

The money Wyoming state police seized from Parhamovich is his life savings, he says, built up over years of doing historic-restoration work on houses.

"I had no idea that [civil forfeiture] existed, honestly, until it happened to me...it's been extremely eye-opening," he says.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to accurately reflect when Clutch Sound operated in the former Smart Studios building. It began renting the space in 2013, not 2011 as previously written.