Opposition to an ordinance introduced by Ald. Sophia King (4th) to restrict “house museums” in residential neighborhoods is growing in the local and national arts and preservation sector, and Mayor Lori Lightfoot has called the proposal an “overreach.”
Entities from the Art Institute of Chicago to the international Society of Architectural Historians have written to the City Council Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards — ahead of a Tuesday meeting taking up the proposal — to combat the effort.
Advocates are quick to point out one of the more than 30 entities potentially impacted will be the currently-being-rehabbed Elijah Muhammad House Museum at 4847 S. Woodlawn Ave., honoring the late Nation of Islam leader — a few doors down from Ald. King’s own residence and prominent neighbor Marty Nesbitt, a buddy of former President Barack Obama.
“We were granted our exterior work permit and then our interior permit by late summer 2019. Then that December, our interior permit was suddenly rescinded,” said entrepreneur Wendy Muhammad, who in 2018 purchased the former home of the NOI leader on the toney block in Kenwood.
Muhammad, an NOI member who is not related to the late leader, says the project is hers alone.
“It took us three months to find out that the hold came from Ald. King because the city initially would not tell us by who or why it was rescinded. Finally, my general contractors were able to find out that it was an aldermanic hold,” she said.
“From May to November, we wrote letters, called Ald. King weekly, to no avail. Finally, in October, we escalated and started calling the Buildings Department, Zoning Department. That’s when she finally met with us, and in January, our permit was reissued.”
King, whose ordinance has drawn a change.org petition with over 12,200 signatures opposing the proposal, has maintained her impetus is to insert a community process into an effort that currently can be undertaken by any Chicagoan without city approval.
“If indeed you want to open a museum, all I’m saying is that there should be a community process, so that your museum doesn’t adversely impact the quality of life for your neighbors,” King told the Chicago Sun-Times. Her proposal would require owners obtain a zoning change through the alderman or a special use permit through the Zoning Board of Appeals.
Elissa Tenny, president of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, is urging the Zoning Committee to oppose the ordinance, calling house museums critical to city culture.
“Chicago is a vibrant ecosystem of art makers and art lovers. Our hometown thrives because of the scores of house museums, artist-run spaces and apartment galleries located in residential areas,” Tenny wrote to the Committee on Monday.
“For example, the DuSable Museum of African American History, founded in 1961 by SAIC alum Dr. Margaret Burroughs and her husband, Charles Gordon Burroughs, was originally housed on the ground floor of their home in Bronzeville. SAIC’s own Roger Brown Study Collection is an important collection housed in a former residence in Lincoln Park,” she said.
“These spaces are essential to the creative life of our city, in the short- and long-term, and bastions of cultural preservation that we should seek to support, not impede.”
Supporters of the ordinance say it is about protecting quality of life, citing issues such as parking, foot and vehicle traffic, noise and other potential negatives from the projects.
“I support Ald. King’s position. People purchasing homes should have a right to know if the home next door is changing,” said Cameron Parker, 45, co-chair of the Kenwood Community Advisory Council.
“Kenwood is a unique community, rich with history and culture. Our goal is to bring forth an inclusive community, with people committed to similar objectives. It’s not anti-anything,” Parker said. “Hopefully, people will understand it’s just so the community can have a say.”
Last week, more outrage erupted, after the MOJO Muddy Waters House Museum — in the 4th Ward — received a stop-work order. Chandra Cooper, the great-granddaughter of Muddy Waters leading that project, sent a flurry of emails to city departments Monday. Within hours, officials told her it was a mistake, and lifted it.
King’s ordinance calls for existing house museums to be grandfathered, but Cooper and others spearheading newer efforts to honor Black history in a post-George Floyd era say their mid- to late-stage preservation efforts could be suddenly killed off.
Cooper, for instance, is well into renovation, after garnering a $50,000 National Trust for Historic Preservation grant, and thousands more in grants and donations.
The Society of Architectural Historians, a Chicago-based, international nonprofit, agrees.
“This zoning proposal would make the future uncertain for existing cultural exhibits and house museums and could derail efforts already underway to open new cultural institutions in historic buildings in residential communities,” that organization wrote in a March 17 letter.
“The zoning change would have the effect of putting blinders on Chicago’s distinguished history, and denying the important role that the city has played in shaping 19th- and 20th-century American history. It is unconscionable that the city of Chicago would consider restricting ... house museums. These existing and new institutions would add extraordinary cultural and economic value to their neighborhoods, to the city as a whole, and to our Nation.”