CHICAGO — Braden Pittman, 32, stands on his front porch and looks a few houses north to the dilapidated and empty red-brick house where birds have made nests between the sun-beaten pinewood boards that yawn past the glass they were meant to protect. Music once rang out of these windows: For 20 years, it was the headquarters of Muddy Waters, the pioneering guitarist, songwriter and vocalist who is considered the architect of modern electric blues and its offspring, rock and roll.
“I wish I could buy it and make it a museum — make it his spot again,” Pittman says.
He is not alone. The home at 4339 S. Lake Park Ave. has sat vacant for more than a decade. That has infuriated blues purists, who consider it a national shame; confused the neighbors, who worry about community blight; and created entanglements among the musician’s many heirs, many of whom don’t recognize each other and have failed to reach consensus about the fate of the home where Waters lived and rehearsed his band during his golden era of musicmaking.
Which means the home has fallen victim to harsh Chicago winters, squatters and general decay. Its fate remains in doubt: A bank owns the property, and in May it accepted an offer from a prospective owner who is not talking and has not revealed his or her intentions. Last year, the home landed on the Ten Most Endangered Historic Places list issued by Landmark Illinois, a nonprofit advocacy organization; preservationists far outside Chicago consider the modest Victorian house as culturally important as the Frank Lloyd Wright homes and art deco skyscrapers that are enshrined in the city’s character.
“Chicago is the home of blues and architecture, and arguably, sites like the Muddy Waters home really have outstanding significance in the way Chicago is understood by the world,” says Vince Michael, executive director of the Global Heritage Fund in Palo Alto, Calif., which helps preserve World Heritage Sites in developing countries.
Waters was McKinley Morganfield when he arrived in Chicago in 1943 after growing up on a plantation in Stovall, Miss., where musicologist and song collector Alan Lomax first recorded him two years earlier. After emerging as a nationwide star for Chess Records, and later embraced by British groups such as the Rolling Stones, Waters became internationally famous and served his graying years as an elder statesman, not just to the white rock stars who broadened his sound overseas but also to younger blues musicians close to home.
Lake Park Avenue served as his longest permanent address. According to biographer Robert Gordon in his book “Can’t Be Satisfied,” Waters “moved up the social ladder” when he purchased the 1879 red-brick Victorian in 1954, transitioning from a cramped tenement on the West Side to the South Side, where Chicago’s black middle class was prospering. Upon moving in, his stepsons enjoyed their own bedrooms, his wife quit her factory job, upstairs tenants ensured a side income, and Waters had a place not just to gather his band in the basement rehearsal space but also to showcase to others his newfound stature as an important cultural figure who commanded respect.
“This was a move toward possibilities, toward promise and enterprise,” Gordon writes.
Waters moved to suburban Westmont in 1974. After his death in 1983, the home was passed among family members until 2002, when it landed in the hands of Chandra Cooper, a great-granddaughter who lives in Milwaukee. She rented out the property and refinanced it twice, most recently in 2007 for a $311,250 mortgage at an interest rate of 10.4 percent. The building was foreclosed on in 2012 and ended up in Cook County housing court. A year later, the city issued a demolition order, which was shelved once the property was relisted as a short sale for $100,000, with an additional $13,000 required in owed water bills and city fees, according to MLS records. A buyer entered into a contract on May 6, but the listing remains pending, with no closing date.
Cooper declined to return calls and e-mails seeking comment for this story. Listing agent Jeffrey Nobleza of Baird and Warner said he was instructed by both parties not to answer media questions.
The home might have remained in the family if Larry “Mud” Morganfield, Waters’s eldest son, had had his way. Morganfield, 59, spearheaded an online drive with several family members to raise money for the purchase but ran out of time. His attorney, Jay Ross, who also represented Morganfield’s father, says that discord among the late musician’s children who were born to different mothers remains an issue.
“These people don’t know each other . . . unfortunately, musicians are on the road, so the parenting influence is not as strong as it might be for families who actually live together day by day, and kids are sometimes wounded,” he says.
A blues museum in Chicago is decades overdue, say advocates who criticize city officials for turning their backs on championing what they say is Chicago’s premier cultural asset. Blues star Buddy Guy, who owns a long-running music club in the South Loop filled with memorabilia from many musical greats, has long complained that the idea of honoring the city’s blues heritage has fallen on deaf ears.
“When I was inducted into the [Rock and Roll] Hall of Fame [in 2005], I got invited to city hall one day and one of the big aldermen said, ‘Thank you, Buddy. We should have wheels on the [rock hall] so we can see it here.’ They didn’t let me speak, but I wanted to tell ’em it should have been built here in the first place,” he says. “We need a [blues] museum in Chicago. What are we waiting for?”
Besides using music heritage sites to foster community development, other cities with a strong blues and jazz heritage, such as Memphis and New Orleans, are perceived as doing much better jobs of simply getting the music and stories in front of visitors. Local blues scholars say Chicago’s shameful history of racial segregation is the primary reason there has never been a great deal of political will to capitalize on, and still less to recognize — through public statuary, signs, streetscapes, a museum — the immense creativity that incubated in what are today considered some of Chicago’s most marginalized areas. For that reason, they say, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s successful effort to attract a lakefront museum that will house the art and memorabilia collection of “Star Wars” creator George Lucas, who has few ties to the city, felt like a slap in the face.
“A great deal of it has to do with our racial blinders because this is black music and black people and we’re not nearly as interested in it as other things,” says Janice Monti, a sociologist at Dominican University outside Chicago who organizes a national blues symposium every spring. “European and Asian tourists come to Chicago and the first thing they ask is, ‘Where is the scene, where can we learn about the music?’ and they’re surprised there is no place to go.”
The Muddy Waters home has the greatest potential of reversing that trend. It is located in North Kenwood, already designated a landmark district by the city, and is just blocks away from President Obama’s home. Michael says that because so many of the clubs where Chicago’s blues and jazz greats played have already been razed — the famed 47th Street nightlife strip is mostly flattened — there is a sense of urgency in ensuring that something, anything, remains intact.
“That’s what makes the Muddy House that so much more important, because so many other sites associated with Delta electric blues in the 1950s are gone,” he says.
Part of the difficulty is that most preservation standards designate historic sites for their architectural, not necessarily cultural, value, says Michael, who believes the Muddy Waters home is a national “bellwether for the kind of tools needed to preserve sites of historic significance.” As for what to do now, Michael says the city can use its power of eminent domain to stabilize the building and create a task force to raise private money for its restoration, much as it did in winning the Lucas museum.
“Nothing is stopping them from doing that except money,” he says.
In the meantime, some neighbors are fed up with the delays. “It’s become an eyesore. Unless they do something with it, it should be torn down,” says Floyd Hobson, 72.
Two doors to the south is Javik Smith, the 29-year-old son of Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, who played drums for Waters during the 1960s and 1970s and died in 2011. The younger Smith grew up listening to stories from his parents who talked about the parties on the front stoop and the jams in the basement.
“They said as soon as you go in there you feel the magic — that’s their words — and I believe them,” he says.
But unlike many people, Smith said veteran musicians of his father’s generation were less concerned about preserving the places where they played the music than they were the music itself. “All these guys, their main concern was they wanted the blues to stay alive with the younger people,” he says. “To them, it was just a house.”
Guarino is a freelance writer.