Aretha Frankin's birthplace at 406 Lucy
Preservationists have less than a week to come up with a solid plan to save Aretha Franklin's blighted birthplace home in South Memphis or else Judge Larry Potter will have it demolished. That's what Memphis Heritage Executive Director June West told a room of advocates for saving the home at a meeting at Howard Hall on Wednesday night.
"Unless someone comes forward with $1 million and wants to do [all the work to save it], then we need to come up with a collaborative plan now, and it needs to be a plan that's achievable and financeable," said West, noting that a "solid plan" for saving the house must be presented to Shelby County Environmental Court by Tuesday. The group will have to show up in court to discuss that plan next Thursday. Unless the judge gives the group more time, the home will be demolished.
Last week, the Environmental Court put the home into a city receivership and ordered the home to be demolished. It was first declared a public nuisance in October 2012 due to its blighted state. The entire back half of the home was nearly destroyed by fire years ago, and one side of the roof over the porch is sagging. South Memphis Renewal CDC was appointed a receiver for the property about a year ago, and Jeffrey Higgs of the LeMoyne-Owen College CDC informed the Environmental Court that his group would fund-raise and relocate the home. No physical progress has been made with that plan so far, so last week, a group of volunteers from Memphis Heritage worked to board up and stabilize the home.
Higgs attended the Memphis Heritage meeting on Wednesday, and he said he has a $15,000 commitment to help stabilize the property, but he said he wasn't at liberty to discuss those details. West emphasized the need for "serious players" to step up and put money and an actionable plan together. After the meeting, she invited anyone who could get serious about saving the home to stay and help them come up with a plan to present to Potter on Tuesday.
Addressing Higgs, West said "We have a history here. And we're down to the wire. We need better communication." Higgs nodded his head in agreement.
Earlier in the meeting, a group of about 20 or so Memphis Heritage volunteers, South Memphis residents, Soulsville stakeholders, and preservation enthusiasts threw out various ideas for what the house could be. They also debated whether or not the house should be moved from its current location at 406 Lucy.
"The most impact would come from seeing it stay as close to what it originally looked like," said artist Jay Etkin, who advocated for revitalizing the home to its original state and using it as a birthplace museum similar to Elvis' birthplace house in Tupelo, Mississippi.
Other ideas included a place to host music and arts lessons for kids, a Soulsville radio station, or a "musical playground" with an outdoor stage on the porch.
Many, including West and Higgs, advocated for having the house moved to another location in South Memphis, closer to the Stax Museum. The street where the house is located now is filled with blighted and boarded-up properties, many with waist-high weeds growing in the front yards.
"Part of the rationale for moving it is that it will be 10 to 20 years before there will be development over there. It will be a hard sell to get people to go over there [to visit the home] if the only thing over there is Aretha Franklin's house," Higgs said.
Shelby County Historical Commission member Grover Mosley was perhaps the loudest voice at the meeting advocating leaving the home where it is. He said he'd like to "see the whole neighborhood revitalized, period."
At the end of the meeting, a young man, who walked in late, spoke up. He identified himself as Christopher Dean, the 2011 Booker T. Washington graduate whose introduction of President Barack Obama before his Memphis speech earned Dean an internship at the White House. Dean said he grew up in Franklin's old house, which is currently owned by his grandmother Vera House.
"We've been trying to save that house for so long, so I want to say thank you to people here trying to save it," Dean said.