It’s a windy October day, and my friend Liz and I are shivering in line outside Prince’s 65,000-square-foot recording studio and former residence in Chanhassen, Minn.
Paisley Park is legendary in Minnesota because of the late-night surprise concerts, often free, that the Purple One held here. Liz’s friend Tim Alevizos, a 52-year-old partner at a creative agency, remembers nights in the early ’90s spent waiting by the loading dock after midnight in the frigid cold for the doors to open. Prince’s hospitality meant something to Minnesotans. “Here, we lived in flyover country, and now we could step up and say we’re right there on the cutting edge with this guy,” Alevizos says.
After Prince died unexpectedly in April at 57, Alevizos pinned his LUVSXY license plate to the property’s chain-link fence as “a final goodbye.”
Regretfully, I never made it to a Paisley Park concert. But now that it has opened its doors as a museum, I made the 20ish-minute trek from Minneapolis hoping to find that a piece of our hometown legend survived inside the studio and performance space where he lived and worked for nearly 20 years.
From the exterior, the building possesses none of Prince’s flash. It looks like a white, aluminum warehouse with few windows. Even in death Prince demands utmost privacy from visitors, and his still-loyal and stiff-lipped employees oblige. As we enter, a stern staff member hands us green neoprene pouches. “Lock up your cameras and phones,” he says.
We had bought tickets online for the $100 VIP expert-guided tour, which at 100 minutes was said to be 30 minutes longer than the $38.50 standard self-guided tour and includes a few more rooms. One fan is wearing a purple dress. Another says she flew in from Detroit just for the day as “sort of a Prince pilgrimage.” I’m not sure who she is talking to, so I just smile at her.
When we enter the lobby, a mural of Prince’s eyes, which he commissioned over an archway, reminds us that he’s “always watching,” a guide tells us. I almost feel like we should apologize for intruding.
Though he left no will, he did leave detailed instructions on how to turn Paisley Park into a museum, and there’s something cultish about being here. “It’s like he was writing his legacy,” Liz says, noting the gold and platinum records on the wall, but to me it feels like he was building a shrine to the artist. I’m more interested in who he was as a man.
We pass through the central atrium: Prince designed this space to “free minds,” says a different guide, this one dressed in a long-sleeved purple shirt. (There are many guides, and they do their best not to collide throughout the tour.) The light streaming in from the pyramid-shaped skylight creates a sense of flying free, as do the billowy painted clouds that appear to float up the baby-blue walls. Prince’s black Love Symbol, which he infamously used for a time as his stage name, is inlaid into the marble flooring.
But I can’t help feeling like an estate-sale shopper as I linger in a small, attached room to look at his clothing. It’s so small — he was 5-foot-2 — that I would have a hard time fitting one leg into his pants. Next-door in his office, a room preserved as it was, there’s a tiny, shiny metallic desk and a glass table with coffee-table books about Egypt. In his editing room, the group stands awkwardly around a purple couch — no sitting on the furniture here — while watching clips from his “Musicology” tour and trying to spot band members’ rehearsal blunders as Prince, a notorious perfectionist, had.
We regroup in the atrium. “Let’s take a moment of silence,” says yet another guide. People continue to talk. “A moment of silence,” she insists, and when our eyes follow hers, we realize that Prince’s remains are, in fact, in the room with us, in a purple box inside a model of Paisley Park displayed in the center of the atrium. It’s jarring knowing that we’ve gawked in his presence. His doves, Divinity and Majesty, flutter in an ornate white cage on the viewing balcony above. The upstairs, where his private residence was located, is off-limits.
We enter Studio A, where Prince in the 1980s pioneered the Minneapolis Sound, a synthesizer-based brand of funk. “Oh, he did love his dad!” exclaims a teary-eyed fan while spotting a photo on the wall. “I used to see Prince’s dad at the grocery store,” volunteers another tour-goer, who lives nearby. We see Prince’s microphone and keyboards in the control room. His handwritten notes sit on a console. A guide plays an unreleased track and it feels like Prince could walk in at any moment to shoo us out to finish the songs rumored to be stored behind the steel door of his basement vault, for which only he knew the passcode. It has since been drilled open.
The tour moves quickly. We pause in the violet-lit Galaxy Room, designed as a relaxation space, to search for the glowing Love Symbol among the painted planets and stars. It’s a little like being in a ’70s-style pleasure palace, and I resist the urge to laugh.
Inside Studio B, as part of the VIP experience, Liz and I lean up against a wall to have our photographs taken with Prince’s guitar and purple piano — which has his lyrics carved into the lid — roped off behind us. (We had to buy a $10 USB flash drive at the front desk to store our photos on.) Afterward, in a surprising human-scale moment, we stop to play a game of Ping-Pong on his table.
In the Purple Rain room, purple light cascades down one wall while Prince’s movie clips roll on another. I tear up standing in front of his guitar, jacket and motorcycle as his “Purple Rain” lyrics transport me back to my middle-school fantasies, and I’m not the only one. After marriage, three children and a career, I’ve left this part of my life behind, but I relish feeling as if somewhere, deep inside, it still exists.
Perhaps what this tour does best is amp up this kind of nostalgia. It’s a sentimental spell that’s not broken until later, when we leave the premises at the end of the tour through a white tent where merchandise is sold.
Next the group enters the massive soundstage where Prince held his late-night concerts. The space, which was built to fit an audience of 1,500, feels overly spacious and sad without his caterwauling guitar and sequined, high-heeled-boot shimmy. Small stages display his purple Yamaha piano and a collection of vintage costumes.
Liz and I take a break in the private NPG Music Club, where Prince held intimate dance parties. As after any good pilgrimage, our feet hurt. At last, we are allowed to sit, and we sink into a velvet, purplish sofa. A candle flickers on a cube-shaped glass coffee table as we sit feeling empty. Every room hints at the cultural movement Prince tried to create and I’m mad at myself for not making the midnight trek to become part of it. Now it’s too late to join in.
Patterson is a writer based in Edina, Minn. Her website is unplannedcooking.com.
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7801 Audubon Rd., Chanhassen, Minn.
Standard tours range from $38.50 to $50; VIP tours, with an expert guide, cost $100. The “Paisley Park After Dark” experience cost $60 and includes a Friday-night dance party in Prince’s private NPG Music Club or a Saturday-night showing of Prince’s movies and performance footage at the Paisley Park Soundstage. Guest parking is available. Visitors are not permitted to take photos or videos during the tour.