The Power of the Easement: Protecting the Legacy of Nina Simone

Exterior view of the Nina Simone Childhood Home. | Credit:  Nancy Pierce/National Trust for Historic Preservation

In 2018, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund designated the Nina Simone Childhood Home as a National Treasure. The three-room, 660 square foot home is significant for its association with Nina Simone and as the house where she started playing piano at the age of 3.

After previous unsuccessful attempts at rehabilitation, the home was left vacant and at risk for demolition. Four Black visual artists—Adam Pendleton, Rashid Johnson, Ellen Gallagher, and Julie Mehretu—stepped forward, purchased the property in 2016, and partnered with the National Trust to guide development of a preservation strategy for the home. To ensure a viable future for the site that would honor the legacy of Nina Simone, a strategy was developed to focus on four areas: rehabilitation, protection, reuse, and long-term stewardship.

To support this work, the National Trust partnered nationally with World Monuments Fund and state and local organizations, including the Nina Simone Project, the North Carolina African American Heritage Commission, North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, the North Carolina Arts Council, and Preservation North Carolina. These partnerships were essential in envisioning and achieving the desired preservation outcome for the historic site.

As a part of the overall preservation strategy, the Nina Simone Childhood Home is now protected with a preservation easement held by Preservation North Carolina. The Nina Simone Childhood Home, simplistic in its architecture and design, contrasts with the high-style or architecturally distinct properties traditionally associated with preservation easements.

Developing a Preservation Easement

A preservation easement, also known as a conservation easement, is a voluntary legal agreement in which a property owner agrees to permanently protect a historic building’s character-defining features. The restrictions will not impede ongoing rehabilitation of the home but will ensure its exterior and interior historic character is maintained in the future. Certain easements are tax motivated, meaning the donor can claim a charitable contribution based upon the reduced property value for donating the easement to a qualified easement-holding organization.

While easements are typically associated with high-style buildings, they can be a valuable preservation tool for culturally significant vernacular architecture as well. Easements typically protect the exterior of a property, taking into consideration portions visible from the public right-of-way. However, easements can also protect significant interior features. An example is Villa Lewaro, the historic home of Madame C.J. Walker, on which the National Trust holds an easement protecting both the interior and exterior of the property.

“Today, Nina Simone’s legacy is as important as ever. This preservation easement is another step towards ensuring that her childhood home, and the history it embodies, persists long into the future,” said Adam Pendleton. “We’re delighted to be working with the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Preservation North Carolina alongside many other partners to make this continuous stewardship a reality.”

The easement, which will carry forward to any future property owner, was made possible due to funding support from a National Trust partner, World Monuments Fund. Given the perpetual nature of easements, funding is crucial to ensure they can be monitored by a qualified preservation organization. As a cash contribution to cover easement stewardship fees is typically required for an organization to accept a new easement, a lack of funding can be an impediment to securing easements on properties associated with underrepresented histories.

“The easement was one of the least expensive aspects of the overall project, yet it provides the most protection for the home. The collaboration of so many parties on the Nina Simone Childhood Home speaks to the value of partnerships, community engagement, the effectiveness of easements as a preservation tool, and the important role of state and local preservation organizations in the stewardship of an historic site,” said Frank Emile Sanchis, Regional Director for North America at World Monuments Fund (WMF).

What’s Protected

Multiple protection options were assessed while determining the best approach for the home, including local historic designation, a covenant, and an easement. A historic property can be protected from incompatible exterior alterations by local designation in localities where a historic preservation ordinance and zoning allows such protections.

As local designation is not currently available in Tryon, an easement was determined as the best tool to ensure long term protection. Additionally, the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources (SHPO) is leading efforts to list the home on the National Register of Historic Places.

Easements are individually crafted to protect a property’s unique features. One step in crafting easement terms for a property of any type or style is determining which significant features must be protected. Consultations between the partner entities involved with the project aimed to identify the historic features in need of protection, while allowing for flexibility that would promote viable future uses.

The removal of character-defining features is less common with high-style buildings, which are more likely to retain their historic use. As the vernacular home was not characterized by ornate architectural features, the goal of the easement terms was to maintain the remaining historic fabric and protect against changes that would fundamentally alter the property’s historic character. The property sat vacant at the time of sale and needed significant rehabilitation, including electricity and plumbing. Although the house was a single-family home historically, viable future uses would likely be non-residential. This meant that the terms of the easement had to be flexible enough to accommodate a range of potential new uses.

The Nina Simone Childhood Home easement protects the exterior of the home from physical changes without review, protects the remaining interior character-defining features of the home, such as the beadboard ceiling and walls, ceiling heights, and wood flooring, and prevents demolition in perpetuity.

In addition to protecting architectural features, the easement protects the property’s setting by placing restrictions on the removal of large trees, requiring review of new construction, prohibiting subdivision, and preserving the viewshed of the property from the public right-of-way. Proposed alterations to the property are reviewed by the staff of Preservation North Carolina for compliance with the terms of the easement and the organization conducts cyclical monitoring visits to the property to ensure its continued maintenance. Additionally, the easement ensures future access to the property by special appointment for members of the public once rehabilitation is complete.

“Preservation works best when protections are layered. Easements are the most protective tool for individual properties. They can be used to protect high-style architectural properties as well as those that are ordinary architecturally but hold great cultural significance, like the Nina Simone Childhood Home. The easement terms allow for flexibility that respects the character of the home while allowing it to remain viable for future uses” said Ted Alexander, regional director of Preservation North Carolina.

And while many of the terms are similar to a traditional preservation easement, certain portions were amended to fit the context of the site. Tiffany Tolbert, the assistant director of the Action Fund says “Above all, the goal of the easement terms was to prevent the demolition of the property. Demolition would not only remove the culturally significant property, but also its context within a historically African American neighborhood of Tryon. Protection of the property’s remaining character-defining features allows the site to continue to convey the life of Nina Simone and the Waymon family during the early twentieth century, an experience that was likely similar to those of many Black Americans in the Jim Crow south.”

What’s Next for the Nina Simone Home

With protection secured, the National Trust is continuing its work to preserve the Nina Simone Childhood Home. Stabilization of the property’s exterior started in 2019, with a HOPE Crew project supported by Fund II Foundation, which repaired and painted the exterior siding of the home. Subsequently, a national crowdfunding campaign was launched to support complete rehabilitation of the home’s exterior.

Funding from World Monuments Fund allowed the creation of a full exterior rehabilitation plan by Asheville-based Mathews Architects. The rehabilitation work will resume in summer 2021 and will focus on the home’s pressed-tin roof. Lastly, the National Trust and partners are completing community and stakeholder engagement sessions as a clearer vision for future use and stewardship of the home continues to evolve. In summer 2021, with support from the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina, the National Trust will launch a virtual report detailing the community-based vision for the Nina Simone Childhood Home and site.

When considering an easement as a protection tool, it is important to look beyond the immediate goal of the protection of specific features and consider what that protection will mean in the future. In the case of the Nina Simone Childhood Home, its preservation and protection will not reveal more than what is already known about vernacular architecture in North Carolina. However, it will provide the opportunity for future generations to learn about its cultural significance and connection to the history and experiences of African Americans in western North Carolina; a history that is worthy of preservation and recognition. Additionally, its protection serves as an example of the growing use of easements to protect historic properties significant to underrepresented communities.

Although there are many advantages to preservation easements, impediments exist to expanding their use to a wider variety of historic properties. Among these challenges is a lack of funding to contribute to easement stewardship fees. As funding is crucial to the stewardship of perpetual easements, easement-holding organizations should embrace partnerships to look to alternative fundraising methods beyond traditional endowment models to protect sites like the Nina Simone Childhood Home.

Additionally, many easement state enabling laws require that a property be listed or determined eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places in order to meet the criteria for an easement. Due to the deficit of properties representing underrepresented groups on the National Register and the rigid nature of National Register criteria, this requirement can be another impediment to placing easements on sites significant to Black history and underrepresented histories in general. Reconsidering easement funding models and reexamining designation criteria in state enabling laws are steps towards making this valuable preservation tool more accessible to all.

Preservation easements are an effective tool to provide permanent protection to historically and culturally significant properties. The inclusion of a preservation easement in the rehabilitation of the Nina Simone Childhood Home assists in ensuring that the former home of legendary musician and civil rights activist Nina Simone remains a valuable resource to the surrounding neighborhood and the local Black community.

“So many historic places important in American history have been lost, destroyed, and erased from our collective memory and landscape,” said Brent Leggs, executive director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. “Therefore, it’s critically important that preservationists begin to revere historic African American places and work to protect our nation’s diverse cultural monuments that still exist. Whether it’s Madam C.J. Walker’s Villa Lewaro or Nina Simone’s Childhood Home, our professional responsibility is to protect the physical evidence of our past so that present and future generations honor the Black American experience.”

By Kelli Gibson

Kelli Gibson is the manager of the Easement Program at the National Trust. Her interests include new uses for historic institutional buildings and the preservation of sites significant to Black American culture.

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