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VOL. 131 | NO. 127 | Monday, June 27, 2016

Time Running Out to Save Aretha Franklin’s Birth Home From Demolition

By Madeline Faber

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A local business owner has stepped up with $15,000 to save Aretha Franklin's birth home, but the effort may be too little too late.

Aretha Franklin was born at 406 Lucy Ave in South Memphis. The home, which has been vacant for nine years, is slated for demolition. 

(Tirhaquah Mosley)

The dilapidated house at 406 Lucy Ave. is headed for demolition unless a realistic and fully-funded plan emerges within the week, said Steve Barlow, an attorney with blight-fighting law firm Brewer & Barlow PLC.

Earlier this month, Judge Larry Potter with the Memphis and Shelby County Environmental Court handed down a demolition order to be heard on June 30.

Development plans for the house that have fizzled over the years have been renewed with urgency.

"I think the issue is, we have history of a house that people have always talked about saving, but no one has stepped up to do it," said June West, executive director of nonprofit Memphis Heritage.

Two weeks ago, Memphis Heritage staged a guerilla repair day for the South Memphis house, which needs countless hours of work before it could be brought back into productive use.

The house is falling off its foundation. It’s surrounded by other shuttered, shotgun-style houses in a South Memphis neighborhood just outside of Soulsville. The walls are collapsing, and the back addition of the house suffered a fire and is beyond repair.

Despite those seemingly unsurmountable challenges, a group of nearly 20 community members came together June 22 for a planning session hosted by Memphis Heritage.

The goal was to produce the kind of comprehensive, fully funded plan that would persuade Potter to spare the house.

His order doesn't come without precedent – Potter declared the house a public nuisance in 2012. Longtime property owner Vera House turned the house over to the court when the repair list became too daunting. Almost two years ago, Potter appointed Jeffrey Higgs with the LeMoyne-Owen Community Development Corp. as a receiver for the property.

Higgs had planned to secure funding to restore it as a house museum, in the same vein of Elvis Presley’s birth home in Tupelo, Miss.

Those plans never got off the ground.

At the recent meeting hosted by Memphis Heritage, Higgs said he had a firm commitment of $15,000 from local business owner Lafayette Williams to invest in stabilizing the house and relocating it. The plan would be to restore to its original state and relocate the house to serve as an intimate house museum. An addition could be built for a gift shop or event space, Higgs said.

Franklin's birth home is a natural attraction in a neighborhood that also names the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and highly regarded Soulsville Charter School among its anchor institutions.

Outside of a handful of blocks between Mississippi and College streets, services and amenities grow thin and the tendrils of blight emerge in the greater South Memphis area.

At the recent planning meeting, opinions were split between maintaining the original integrity of the house in its current location or moving it to a vacant corner in Soulsville where there would be more traffic.

"Part of the rationale for moving it is it's going to be at least 10 to 20 years before there is development on Lucy, and I've been in the neighborhood about all my life, a long time, and I think it's going to be a hard sell to get people to go down McLemore," Higgs said.

West said Memphis Heritage's position is to avoid relocating historic structures at all costs, but she sees it as the only option to save it.

Grover Mosely, who sits on the Shelby County Historical Commission, said the house should remain because the immediate neighborhood cradled other South Memphis musicians and community leaders. Franklin was born in the Lucy Avenue house and lived there for the first two years of her life with her father, famous preacher C.L. Franklin, and her family.

“It definitely should stay in South Memphis, Soulsville, because that is what the essence of the house is all about,” said Henry Nelson, strategic partnerships coordinator for the Levitt Shell.

Charlie Santo, an associate professor and director of the City & Regional Planning Department at the University of Memphis, proposed that the Franklin house follow the example set at the Memphis Slim Collaboratory, which is located in the redeveloped area of Soulsville.

In 2014, the former home of blues musician Memphis Slim reopened as a valuable resource for musicians. The Memphis Slim Collaboratory, also known as the Memphis Slim House, includes affordable recording space, a gallery and regular programming.

The house, which is supported with sleek aluminum and industrial accents, is barely recognizable from Slim's days. Project organizer Community L.I.F.T. said the original infrastructure of Slim’s house was unsalvageable, and now the updated building serves as a community asset with a nod to its history.

Santo proposed that the Franklin house be redeveloped on legacy, not the crumbling structure of the house. Among his ideas was saving the façade and opening up the rest of the structure to an activity area for kids or a performance space.

Whatever plan goes before Potter on Thursday has to be fully-vetted, funded and ready to go.

“After all these years, we’ve gotten to this place where the house is sitting wide open with overgrown grass,” Barlow said. “It looks like nobody really wants to do anything about this.

“If the judge is persuaded that one of them can walk out of there and start, then he would consider lifting his demolition order. Otherwise, he’s got to move forward.”

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