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Alderman withdraws ordinance that would have restricted ‘house museums’

The MOJO Muddy Waters House Museum, at 4339 S. Lake Park Ave. in North Kenwood, is well into renovation after garnering a $50,000 National Trust for Historic Preservation grant. Waters’ great-granddaughter and other owners of mid- to late-stage preservation projects had feared a proposal to restrict house museums in residential districts could have killed their hard work.
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In the end, it was a win for the small but passionate community of operators of existing and planned house museums in Chicago, many of whom banded together under “The Chicago Coalition of Black House Museums” to fight an ordinance with potential to shut them down.

Amid growing opposition, an ordinance introduced by Ald. Sophia King (4th) to restrict establishment of “house museums” in residential neighborhoods was withdrawn at Tuesday’s meeting of the City Council Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards.

Though withdrawn at the start of the meeting, the alderman’s proposal was still heard by the committee, which allowed 36 minutes of testimony from the many speakers who had shown up to combat an ordinance Mayor Lori Lightfoot had described as an “overreach.”

“After many conversations with community members, museums both large and small and others concerned about the preservation of history, art and culture in Chicago, in addition to the many misperceptions and false statements about what this ordinance is and is not, I am withdrawing it from the zoning committee so that we can have further discussion with the community as a whole,” King told the committee.

“I understand the need for clarity on the legislation and am willing to further engage with community members and activists in this process,” King said.

Chicagoans can establish such house museums, galleries and library-type institutions in private homes without city approval.

Under King’s ordinance, private owners in primarily residential neighborhoods would have been required to obtain a zoning change through their alderman before undertaking such an endeavor. Outside of those three zones, owners of house museums and other such entities would have had to obtain special-use permits through the Zoning Board of Appeals.

“We are just elated with this outcome urged by the more than 32,300 people who signed the change.org petition in one week’s time in support of the time and effort these operators put in, to share how detrimental this would have been to the rich cultural stories and histories these houses help to share,” said Ward Miller, head of Preservation Chicago.

That organization had counted more than 30 entities potentially impacted citywide.

“We are grateful for the support of the community. But we will remain vigilant,” said entrepreneur Wendy Muhammad, who in 2018 purchased the former home of the late Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, at 4847 S. Woodlawn Ave.

The currently-being-rehabbed Elijah Muhammad House Museum honoring the NOI leader sits on a toney block in Kenwood — a block from Ald. King’s own residence and a few doors from prominent neighbor Marty Nesbitt, a buddy of former President Barack Obama.

Entities from the Art Institute of Chicago to the international Society of Architectural Historians had written to the committee in opposition ahead of Tuesday’s meeting. Bonnie McDonald, president and CEO of Landmarks Illinois, told the committee King’s decision to withdraw followed a “productive meeting” between her group and the alderman Monday.

In her statement withdrawing, King charged a coordinated campaign against the proposal had been orchestrated by the wealthy owner of a house museum in Lincoln Park, Wrightwood 659, its City Hall lobbyist and its ward alderman and Zoning Committee member Michele Smith (43rd).

“I am extremely disappointed that the Mayor would absolve herself and her administration from any involvement in this ordinance, as they were very supportive of a very similar plan,” King said. “What is even more concerning is that ... Ald. Michele Smith, came to me and asked me not to prohibit museums in residential areas ... because she wanted to preserve this right for one of her constituents.”

In a statement, Smith responded: “Opposition to the ordinance is overwhelming from all corners of the city.”

The coalition of operators of projects honoring Black heritage and culture — including those recognizing Emmett Till, Phyllis Wheatley, Lu Palmer and Muddy Waters — had complained the proposal threw cold water on an emerging tourism sector.

The ordinance would have grandfathered existing house museums, but those spearheading more recent projects said mid- to late-stage preservation efforts could have been killed off.

“While I’m happy and relieved right now, this fight is far from over,” said Chandra Cooper, a great-granddaughter of Muddy Waters leading that project.

“For 50 years, these projects have been allowed on the books, and for 50 years, we have not had house museums disturbing the peace and lifestyle of people in their communities. So please give us the same chance that has been given other museums the past 50 years.”

Contributing: Fran Spielman

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