Elijah Muhammad House

The Elijah Muhammad house, 4847 S. Woodlawn Ave. 

Ald. Sophia King (4th) withdrew her controversial house museum ordinance this morning, just before it was set to be considered by the City Council Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards. 

In a statement posted on Twitter, Alderman King wrote, “After many conversations with community members, museums both large and small and others concerned about the preservation of history, art and culture in Chicago, in addition to the many misperceptions and false statements about what this ordinance is and is not, I am withdrawing it from the zoning committee so that we can have further discussion with the community as a whole.” 

Despite the withdrawal, Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), chair of the Zoning Committee, allowed 13 people who had signed up for comment to speak on the proposed ordinance — all of them opposed the proposal. 

Wendy Muhammad, proprietor and developer of Sajdah House, the former Elijah Muhammad home, 4847 S. Woodlawn Ave., said during her commentary to the Zoning Committee, “As a Black Muslim woman, I have navigated the corporate world and I have grown accustomed to being treated differently because of my religious beliefs and because of my last name. This ongoing discrimination communicated by issuing these random stop orders and unexplained aldermanic holds have imposed costly delays and budget overruns for my project.” 

“Starting in early 2019, several members of my team made documented attempts to reach out to Alderman King to offer our plan to be an asset to the community,” she continued. “I oppose this ordinance. I hope it doesn’t come back.”

In an interview with the Herald, Alderman King disputed parts of the narrative presented by Muhammad, saying, “She’s (Muhammad) not being forthcoming.” 

King provided the Herald with several emails concerning the Sajdah House project, which she said showed that the project had not been initially presented as a house museum, and that the approval process had been held up by city regulations.

In an April 2, 2019 email to King, Cesar Santoy, Principal of Studio ARQ, a South Loop architectural firm leading the Sajdah House project, described the project as “a center that will host business courses, business retreats, think tanks, discussions and entrepreneur mindset boot camps. They will also award grants for start-up entrepreneurs.”

In an October 1, 2020 email, Maurice Cox, Commissioner of Planning and Development wrote to King, “Apparently, the rehab violated some building code regulations against assembly space. The architect has not resubmitted plans to the DOB correcting the fire code issues. The museum/exhibit spaces proposed are permitted by-right under the zoning so that’s not the problem. Now the architect just needs to properly modify their plans for DOB/Fire purposes.”

The Herald has reached out to Muhammad for comment, and will update this story with any response. 

During the interview with the Herald, King stated that at one point she was having discussions about four different house museums in her ward. 

Given that progress on a project depended only on the issuance of building permits, King became motivated to explore the avenues for the community to be heard, which, under the current system, would involve either a spot rezoning or a special use permit authorization; hence the ordinance.

David Peterson, Jr., Executive Director of the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum said during his commentary before the Zoning Committee, “I’ve come before you today in solidarity with the museum and arts community across all seventy seven communities, thanking Alderwoman King for introducing, hearing concerns, and withdrawing an ordinance that brought us all together on one accord.”

Continuing Peterson said, “Yes, I agree, we need a community input process.” He suggested that the form of that accountability would come through an “accountability council that would meet quarterly.”

Bonnie McDonald, President and CEO of Landmarks Illinois, said during her comments before the Zoning Committee that the City already has the ability to shut down house museums through existing regulations and that zoning changes were not necessary. 

In an email to the Herald, Lisa DiChiera, Director of Advocacy for Landmarks Illinois, wrote, “As we understand it from speaking to an attorney, the current zoning ordinance and business licensing regime provide strong enforcement mechanisms for sites that misuse a cultural exhibit.”

“If a cultural exhibit is creating traffic congestion or neighborhood parking issues, that would indicate it is being used for some unauthorized purpose,” she continued. “Using a cultural exhibit for party rentals, banquet halls, event venues, community centers, and performances are not authorized uses.”

Alderman King concluded her interview with the Herald saying that within the next month or so she would convene a meeting involving people from different neighborhoods of her ward, house museum advocates and others to begin a conversation on house museums.

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