An alderman’s bid to restrict house museums is withdrawn — and should stay that way

What troubles us: Ald. Sophia King’s proposal is a solution in search of a problem.

SHARE An alderman’s bid to restrict house museums is withdrawn — and should stay that way
Elijah Muhammad House Museum, 4847 S. Woodlawn. | Provided

The proposed Elijah Muhammad House Museum at 4847 S. Woodlawn would’ve been impacted by Ald. Sophia King’s (4th) proposed ordinance to restrict house museums in residential communities. The alderman lives a few doors down from the building.


There are tons of problems the city’s lawmakers need to address — crime, the stratospheric costs of municipal pensions, historic racial and social inequalities — but passing a law to restrict the creation of neighborhood house museums, of all things, certainly isn’t one of them.

Yet that’s the quixotic battle Ald. Sophia King (4th) has chosen to fight recently, that is until the arts and culture community mounted up against her proposed ordinance, forcing her to withdraw the measure Tuesday from the City Council Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards.

In a statement, King says she snatched back her ordinance “after many conversations with community members, museums both large and small and others concerned about the preservation of history, arts and culture in Chicago.”

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What troubles us: King’s proposal was a solution in search of a problem. It isn’t like the city suddenly is being overrun with house museums. And the ones being proposed lately honoring the likes of Emmett and Mamie Till and Muddy Waters, are fledgling efforts that deserve the city’s embrace and assistance — rather than a newly created level of bureaucracy.

Some city oversight already exists

Currently, a property owner can turn a house into a museum or cultural institution “as of right,” without permission from the city, or neighbors — a point King doesn’t like.

But that doesn’t mean the city has no review power over museum conversions.

Any alterations to a building to accommodate a museum would need a city building permit. A business license is required if merchandise is sold there.

If an admission fee is charged, or capacity is more than 100 people, a Public Place of Amusement license is needed — and requires public notification. And a public amusement license must have city Zoning Board of Appeals approval (and to notify the public) if the museum is within 125 feet of a residence.

In addition to this, under King’s ordinance, owners in three categories of single-family housing residential districts would need to get zoning changes — and incur the legal expense of that — to make such a conversion.

For other residential districts, the museum owners would need to get a special use permit via the city Zoning Board of Appeals. But that would also mean hosting community meetings to gather input and giving neighbors detailed operation plans.

Without offering much evidence, King said the restrictions were needed because house museums can draw hundreds into neighborhoods unequipped to handle the added traffic or parking needs. 

“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 Sun-Times last week.

Any logic behind that was overshadowed by King’s muddled introduction of the ordinance. She proposed an even more restrictive law last December, then introduced the current one in a later Zoning Committee meeting.

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With the two proposed laws bumping against each other, and absent explanation of it all, it was difficult to tell which institutions would have been affected or not.

What is certain: The ordinance in either form would’ve put legislative hurdles before newly proposed projects to honor not only the Tills, but also the late journalist Lu Palmer, bluesman Muddy Waters and the late Nation of Islam leader, Elijah Muhammad.

By the way, the Muhammad house is in the Kenwood neighborhood, near King’s home.

In her statement, King said “many misperceptions and false statements about what this ordinance is and is not,” also led to her withdrawing the measure.

If true, that tells us King should have saved a lot of grief by holding community meetings — the very kind she wants her ordinance to require for prospective museums — to make things clear to the public about the ordinance.

A better way?

King’s statement leaves open the possibility that she could attempt to reintroduce the ordinance after getting public input.

We’d rather see this proposed law just disappear. But perhaps it would be worthwhile to let the public and the museum and cultural community have at it.

The exercise just might result in city policy designed to actually help these institutions and the neighborhoods in which they are located.

That’s what’s really needed, rather than this ordinance.

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