This week, the childhood home of legendary singer and North Carolina native Nina Simone was granted a preservation easement. The house sits about 90 miles west of Charlotte in Tryon, and is where she taught herself to play the piano at the age of 3 before going on to be a classically-trained pianist. Preservation North Carolina partnered with the owners of the property and a coalition that included the National Trust for Historic Preservation in securing the easement.
Brent Leggs, executive director of the national trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, explains what the easement designation means for Simone’s home.
Brent Leggs: This means that that building will never be demolished and that it will always stand on that landscape with its architectural integrity. This is the strongest legal tool available to protect historic landmarks.
Gwendolyn Glenn: Have you visited the home of Nina Simone? And what condition is it in?
Leggs: Yes, I toured Nina Simone's house several times. And when we first got involved and designated Nina Simone's childhood home as a national treasure, the house was vacant. It was deteriorating. And we have, over the last two years, begun to develop the stewardship plans to determine how best to care for this historic building.
Glenn: What's in the home now? What was left that you could really connect to Nina Simone?
Leggs: I would say what's left in the house to connect to Nina Simone is the cultural legacy and memories that's embodied inside of this simple, unadorned, historic building that at first glance might not seem to have a lot of meaning and significance. But then you realize that Nina Simone was born here, that's where she learned her art, to play the piano.
In many ways, it's not the furnishings or artifacts that no longer exist or are connected to the house. It is the house itself, that cultural landscape, that Black neighborhood, that is essence of what we're preserving.
Glenn: And how large is the house? Describe it for me, for those who have never seen it before.
Leggs: So, imagine walking up a hill and you see this humble yet handsome three-room house sitting on pillars. So, it's elevated. You walk up four or five steps to the front porch and it's a fairly small front porch.
You walk in the front door and it's the main room. Just to the right is the bedroom. If you move to the rear, there's the other space. So it is a really small, humble space.
Glenn: And take us back a bit to the artist, the African American artist, who purchased the home to keep it from going into further disrepair and being possibly demolished.
Leggs: Four New York City-based visual artists, as an act of politics and arts activism, when they learned that Nina Simone's childhood home, was up for foreclosure and threatened, Adam Pendleton and the other three artists pooled their resources and bought the house. And they have entered into a formal partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which is supported through the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, which is the program that I run.
And what's exciting about this project, in many ways, it's an example of where preservationists and artists are co-creating to be able to envision a new future in life and being able to engage the public in most remarkable legacy, which is Nina Simone. And to demonstrate our commitment to equity and racial justice by preserving this American landmark.
Glenn: What other things are planned for it and how long will that process take?
Leggs: Through our HOPE Crew program, where we engage African American youth that painted the exterior of the house white, we also are developing a stewardship plan to understand the preservation needs for fully restoring the house, defining the ways that we can tell the story of Nina Simone inside of this historic space, developing a program vision for reuse and public engagement.
And we anticipate full restoration of the house is about $250,000. We are looking at ways to provide an intimate experience for a visitor, but also collaborating with other organizations and other properties in Tryon that could support bigger, more expansive public programs.
Glenn: And how long do you think all of this will take?
Leggs: Once the artists who own the property adopt the program vision, then we move into the next phase, which is raising the money to be able to implement a program vision, complete restoration, endow the property and ensure that Nina Simone's childhood home, become a shining example of preservation and equity, activism and most importantly, that her legacy is forever told and remembered.
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