The Commission on Chicago Landmarks unanimously gave preliminary landmark status to the Emmett Till home in Woodlawn on Thursday afternoon, though commissioners raised questions about the owner’s future plans for the site.
The vote came on the 65th anniversary of Till’s funeral after he was lynched in Mississippi for allegedly flirting with a white woman. The service took place at the Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ, 4021 S. State St., which was designated a city landmark in 2006.
Local organizations, including Preservation Chicago and the Hyde Park Historical Society, have been pushing for several years for the Till house, a brick two-flat at 6427 South St. Lawrence Avenue, to be added as a landmark. As the Herald first reported, the breakthrough came last month when Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) said she would kickstart the landmarking process by sending a letter of recommendation to the Landmarks Commission.
The preliminary recommendation marks one of the first steps in the landmarking process. The commission must still solicit input from the property owner. Blake McCreight, who owns the house through his company BMW Properties, said at Thursday’s meeting that he “one hundred percent” supports the designation.
“I understand the importance and significance of Emmett Till’s life and what has transpired and what it can do in the community of Woodlawn,” said McCreight, who added that he didn’t know about the house’s origins when he bought the property last year. “I’m regrouping on how we can turn this into something way bigger than just, you know, an income-producing property.”
But commissioners, as well as Taylor, had questions for McCreight about his plans for the house.
“I think the larger question, quite frankly, is what would the owner like to do? Because I don’t think he bought it thinking that he was buying a house museum, or all of the infrastructure that we know that it takes for that kind of reuse,” said Maurice Cox, the commissioner of the city’s Department of Planning and Development. “I think our staff would certainly be interested in thinking a little outside the box to stand up something that I think we would all be proud of.”
Tiara Hughes, an urban designer with Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, was more direct. “I think we’re kind of dancing around the concern here. If the owner decides to retain the property and does everything that it takes to become a house museum, then what’s going to happen 50 years from now, 30 years from now?”, she said. “Has it been considered that this property should probably go to an organization or a group that would be able to maintain it throughout time?”
Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) asked McCreight whether he had received an offer from Woodlawn nonprofit Blacks in Green to buy the property and turn it into a museum. McCreight said that he had received a bid from the group on Tuesday, but had not yet had time to consider it.
“I haven’t even had a chance to dig into the buyer and what they’re about, and knowing that we had a meeting today,” he said. He also acknowledged that he did not yet have a plan for what to do with the property. “I’m not rushing into making a decision. I do know that — not living in the community, and not having family in the community — I’m probably not the best representative of making that decision.”
Earlier in the meeting, Mary Lu Seidel, director of community engagement at Preservation Chicago, read testimony from one of Till’s living relatives, Ollie Gordon. Gordon lived in the Till house after her family moved to Chicago from Mississippi, and said she supports the landmark designation.
“If people travel to this site, they can imagine a 14-year-old boy playing and enjoying life,” she wrote. “Emmett Till’s legacy will always be visible, and his spirit can be felt while visiting this place. This home represents a tangible piece of important American history.”
Both Cox and Taylor used the meeting to suggest that the landmarks commission should spend more time looking at historically important sites across the city.
“We don’t have a record of the full extent of cultural sites that are tied to African-American, Latino and other experiences. We kind of need a cultural survey, because I think most of us who have visited sites of memory and African American experience are always struck by how everyday and ordinary they are,” said Cox.
“I would hope that once we get over this house that the Commission directs the planning department to begin laying out how we more comprehensively document the sites of historic memory in Black and brown Chicago.”