Nina Simone’s childhood home gets ‘national treasure’ designation

The house where the singer Nina Simone was born is in bad shape. The ceiling is crumbling, the walls chipping, the floorboards sagging; stray wooden planks are strewn against the walls. Last year, it seemed inevitable that the house would succumb to time.

But, thanks to the teamwork of four artists and a nonprofit, the site has a new lease on life. On Tuesday, the house in Tryon, N.C., was named a “National Treasure” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The organization will devise a plan to rehabilitate the house so that it might be used by future artists.

The house, where Simone was born in 1933 as Eunice Kathleen Waymon, has been the subject of failed restoration attempts over the years. Kevin McIntyre, a former economic development director for Polk County, bought the house in 2005 and invested more than $100,000 of his own money before losing the property to money troubles. When the house went on the market in 2016, many assumed it would be knocked down.

Instead, four African-American artists — the conceptualist Adam Pendleton, the sculptor and painter Rashid Johnson, the collagist and filmmaker Ellen Gallagher and the abstract painter Julie Mehretu — bought the house together in order to preserve Simone’s legacy. The purchase caught the interest of the National Trust, which had recently started a $25 million campaign to preserve historical sites related to African-American history. Simone died at age 70 in 2003 after a long career that made her a soul legend and civil rights icon.

“African-American women in jazz and in civil rights: their legacy is often undervalued, and there’s an ongoing struggle for recognition,” Brent Leggs, the director of that campaign — called the African-American Cultural Heritage Action Fund — said in a phone interview.

So, the organization decided to mark the house a National Treasure, a label that has been bestowed fewer than 100 times across the country. The team will begin an 18-month campaign with a $100,000 internal budget, working with the local community, local organizations and the World Monuments Fund to devise a long-term plan for how to preserve the space. Mr. Leggs estimates the full restoration will cost around $250,000.

Mr. Pendleton and the other three artists will be actively involved in shaping the house’s future. One idea is to turn the space into a home for an arts residency program, with hopes that future artists might be inspired by the same surroundings that sparked a young Simone.

“I’m not interested in turning the house into a museum,” Mr. Pendleton said in a phone interview. “I’m much more interested in restoring it so that it reflects what it was like when the Waymons lived there. I think it’s important to note that it looks like a very humble dwelling.”

And while the crumbling house is very much of a different time, Mr. Pendleton says it has strong symbolic power in a fraught modern era. “Nina’s politics challenged what America was at the moment she was alive — and challenged what America could be and what it would become,” he said. “I think those are questions that don’t die.”

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(New York Times, 6/18/18)