MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Aretha Franklin was called the Queen of Soul, but long before she made her mark on the music industry, she was making her way in Memphis.
Located in south Memphis at 406 Lucy Ave., the 400-square-foot home where Franklin was born has become dilapidated, with boarded-up windows. After the legendary singer's death, there’s a renewed effort – and a fight – to preserve the home.
Vera Lee House, the current owner, says members of the community want the building restored. House says there has been talk of moving the building closer to Soulsville, which is a redeveloped neighborhood in south Memphis. The house has been unlivable for more than a decade, and discussions about what to do with the property have been ramping up.
Franklin was born in the house on March 25, 1942, but her family moved from the area about two years later.
“I turned it over to the receiver so I could keep it standing here, not [somewhere] else. When I found out they wanted to move it, I’ve really been against it because it’s not only just Aretha’s home, it’s my home,” House told Fox News.
“I raised my kids in this house. I live in this neighborhood. I don’t want everything that I’ve worked for to just leave.”
House said the taxes, which total just over $1,200, will be paid soon after a court hearing to determine the fate of the property is held this week. The court hearing was scheduled well before Franklin’s death.
Speaking of Franklin, House told Fox News about a meeting she had with the Queen of Soul when she visited the home in 1995.
“She stayed a pretty good while that day, and she talked and walked through the house and told me the things that [happened] with her family here,” House said. “She talked about the tree there, how her sisters and brothers used to climb the tree and play in it.”
A judge ordered the house to be demolished two years ago; an alternative plan to keep the building standing called for the home to be placed under the receivership of a local community corporation to develop plans to maintain it because of its historic significance.
Jeffrey Higgs, the executive director of South Memphis Renewal CDC, says there have been no decisions made as to how the preservation process will go. Higgs did note that he once took a call from Franklin herself, and she told him that she would have liked to see the home preserved.
“Everybody is looking at what’s going to happen to it,” Higgs said. “There are a variety of interests [and] people who want to see different things happen to the house. And so our efforts have and always been on restoring the house and making sure that her interests are protected as the owner of the house. … We don’t own the house, we’re just the court-appointed receiver.”
Higgs says it will cost about $200,000 to restore the property, and that it would take up to tens of millions of dollars to improve the surrounding neighborhood. He also mentioned that as the receiver of the property, his corporation would likely end up paying the outstanding taxes on the site.
“We will bring everybody together and do what’s best for the community, for Lucy [Avenue], for the city and globally because Ms. Franklin was loved by everybody,” Higgs added.
To help with the costs associated with the upkeep and restoration of Franklin’s former home, a GoFundMe campaign was started by local music industry executive Gebre Waddell, CEO of Soundways.
“A symbol as powerful as a house can be something that affects the neighborhood and affects the city at a very deep level,” Waddell said. “When you think about Memphis, you think about Graceland perhaps, the home of Elvis Presley. And with Aretha Franklin and the level of legend that we’re talking about here, the level of impact that she had, we also need to preserve her home.”
Whatever happens to the Queen of Soul’s first home, the community wants to make sure Franklin’s legacy lives on. Vera Lee House’s children have even floated the idea of renaming the street Aretha Franklin Place. House and her family hope the city of Memphis will also step in and help out with the restoration efforts.
“I’m sure that we could do something for this,” House said. “They may say nothing can be done, but I think we should come together.”
House, Higgs and the city have until Oct. 16 to come up with a plan to preserve the building, as per court orders. Higgs told Fox News any meeting for next steps would take place after Franklin’s memorial service, which is scheduled for Friday. A vigil honoring the singer will be held at her former south Memphis home on the same day.