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What does a National Historic designation do for the King Records site?

king records building
w_lemay
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Wikimedia Commons
The King Records building in Evanston.

Cincinnati's King Records site joined the National Register of Historic Places earlier this month, adding another layer of recognition for the buildings that hosted some of the most significant recording sessions in the history of American music.

But what does that federal designation, overseen by the National Park Service, actually do for historic sites?

Middle Tennessee State University Professor and King Legacy Foundation Board member Dr. Charlie Dahan says there are a lot of benefits — but not the ones you might think.

"Most people assume when a building is placed on the National Register of Historic Places that the federal government then dictates what the owner of the building can and cannot do with it," Dahan says. "That is not true... in fact, you could even technically tear it down and the federal government could not stop you."

But that doesn't mean the designation is meaningless. The big win will likely come in the form of further recognition and cold hard cash for preservation.

"What the national register does is, first, is it affirms the national historic significance of the building. King records plays into the history of the United States," he says. "[The designation] affirms that. Most significant to being on the national register is that the building is now eligible for historic tax credits and grant funding to help in its refurbishing, stabilization, interpretation. Those will really start coming into play in the next year or so as the building gets refurbished."

The city of Cincinnati in 2015 passed local historic designation for the site at 1532-36 Brewster Ave. in Evanston. That offered some protection from demolition. And in 2018, the city finalized a land swap with then-owners of the King site, Dynamic Industries, which had filed for a permit to tear the property down.

Dahan, who helped write King's application for National Historic designation, says the preservation of the site is incredibly important.

"King Records was a unique record company even in its time," he says. "It was a self-contained organization — a vertically integrated company where you create the product in the studio, mass produce that product in the next building over; then there is another office that can market and distribute that product worldwide, and it all happens on that one city block on Brewster Avenue."

Dahan says the national register application for King argued its significance in two major areas: American popular music history and the history of civil rights.

King Records started with country music in 1943 before branching out into R&B and many other genres. Music superstars like James Brown and Bootsy Collins got their start there, but there are other reasons for King's significance.

"It's unique that King did so many genres of music," unlike contemporaries like Sun and Stax, which focused on one, Dahan says. "Country, rock, doo-wop, R&B, soul, funk, pop rock, Latin, comedy. They basically did everything, and had success."

At its peak, King employed 400-500 people, many of them local to Evanston. That workforce was racially integrated — something very rare at the time.

A number of musical artists, like Otis Williams, came from the surrounding community and went on to long careers launched via King.

King turned off the lights in the early 1970s, right around the time I-71 cut through Evanston just past the Brewster Avenue site's front door. The building eventually became vacant.

Over the last several years, advocates — including members of Evanston's Community Council and nonprofit groups — have been planning and fundraising to renovate the building for a community center and museum.

Nick Swartsell is a general assignment reporter for WVXU. Before his current role, he worked on the station’s Cincinnati Edition program as assistant producer and was a journalist for outlets in Cincinnati, Washington, D.C., and Texas prior to that. When he’s not reporting, he likes exploring places he probably shouldn’t on his bike, taking photos, and growing corn, tomatoes and peppers that are, in all honesty, much too hot for any practical use. He is from Hamilton. You can find him at @nswartsell on Twitter.