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Aretha Franklin childhood home gets temporary reprieve from wrecking ball

By John Beifuss of The Commercial Appeal

Aretha Franklin’s birth home is saved — for now.

Citing the increasing level of national interest in the case, the city’s satisfaction that the property had been somewhat repaired and secured, the home’s importance in “the history of R&B in this city and this country” and his own love for the music of the Queen of Soul, Shelby County Environmental Court Judge Larry Potter on Thursday postponed an order to demolish the deteriorating South Memphis house where Franklin was born on March 25, 1942.

“Let’s let the country know that we’re going to clean up Aretha Franklin’s home,” said Potter, during a hearing that was the first and most newsworthy of 60 similar cases on the court’s docket for the day.

The country will certainly hear about it if Franklin herself becomes involved: Jeffrey Higgs of the South Memphis Renewal Community Development Plant said in court that Franklin “in fact talked to me personally” and “expressed an interest in saving the house and putting some of her own money in the house.”

Higgs is executive director of the LeMoyne-Owen College CDC, which created the complementary South Memphis Renewal CDC to help improve properties relevant to “the culture and music of the neighborhood” but that were not directly part of LeMoyne-Owen. As the court-appointed receiver of the Franklin home until the building’s recent transfer to the city, the South Memphis Renewal CDC had been expected to lead in the development of plans to restore and save the house.

In an interview after Thursday’s hearing, Higgs said the Detroit-based Queen of Soul called him at home on his cellphone June 19, “the night of the NBA Finals.” He said she expressed interest in helping to save the house, but said he could not say much about the specifics of the conversation until working out details with Franklin’s representatives. Said Higgs: “She is some sort of woman.”

Proponents of preserving the 1920s clapboard cottage have been trying to secure Franklin’s endorsement for years, but no one had claimed success before Higgs. California-based Dick Alen, retired William Morris Agency agent and Franklin’s longtime friend, said Thursday he was aware of the house and had provided information to Memphians to help them contact Franklin. Franklin’s lawyer did not return calls for comment Thursday.

Potter’s Thursday decision calls for Higgs to return to court Aug. 11 to submit what Potter said must be “a definite timeline” along with “substantive” economic proposals to save the house at 406 Lucy Avenue. He said Higgs must bring a plan “that is not just possible but probable.” Higgs has been a proponent of rehabbing and moving the house to a new location, possibly in the Soulsville neighborhood near the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.

Backed by testimony from city inspectors, Higgs on Thursday presented photographs to show that some of the more dangerous parts of the home had been removed or repaired. The work was done by volunteers with Memphis Heritage, a preservation group that supports but is not officially involved in plans for the house, and by the sons and grandchildren of Vera House, who owns the home, although she no longer lives there.

“All the work he (Higgs) showed in court and took credit for, we did that,” said House, 61. “Truth.”

The daughter of famed broadcast sermonizer and gospel singer C.L. Franklin, Aretha Franklin was born in the front room of the house on Lucy, and lived there until the Franklins moved to Detroit less than two years later.

Despite a fire a few years ago, the small home remains much the same as when it was built in the 1920s. It retains most of its original wood and its brick foundation, according to Memphis Heritage executive director June West.

The house was first declared a public nuisance on Oct. 4, 2012, but its rotting floors, collapsing rear roof and unstable porch received little attention until after The Commercial Appeal reported that Potter on June 7 placed the home into city receivership with an order to “abate nuisance through demolition.” Potter said he was “duty-bound” to make that decisions because the house was potentially dangerous, but “that was not one of the golden moments of my career.”

Said Potter: “My prayer is that we save this. I want that.”

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