Stewards of the Past

Tryon, NC, is filled with artists—sculptors, painters, musicians. Holy Cross Episcopal Church, next door, has a gallery in its front hall that regularly displays works by many of these, and the amount of art within The Congregational Church, where I serve as Interim Pastor, is astounding and tastefully displayed: watercolors, oils, and small statuary.

Misseldine’s Drug Store, on the corner of Trade and Oak Streets, a five-minute walk from the parsonage where I live, was restored late last year to house a café and several shops that sell art objects, antiques, and collectibles. It’s the latest in a long history of historic preservation that is common in this historic town of 1,800 in the foothills of the Blue Ridge, which, since early in the last century, has benefited from wealthy people from all over who’ve vacationed and eventually come to live here full-time.

But as I’ve learned, in the South as well as elsewhere, stories need be owned by stewards with resources from a much wider reach to give hope that those stories, and the life in them, will live. Such is the case with Nina Simone’s birthplace and childhood here in Tryon.

When I arrived here, the story of her birthplace home at 30 East Livingston Street, on the eastside, was told as a lament: Dilapidated, sold and resold, funds raised and work done by a lone man, Kipp McIntyre, who had a vision for preserving it and purchased it amid the threat of it being torn down to build a Habitat for Humanity home in a struggling section of this town that’s wrestled for decades with how to live beyond its legacy of segregation.

The companion story to the one about the house is the tale of the statue of Simone playing the piano, which was commissioned in 2008 and stands on Trade Street near the center of town, the product of the Nina Simone Project, a now-defunct organization that was founded by Crys Armbrust and included 13 other members of the community. The Project was independent of the Tryon Downtown Development Association, which nevertheless agreed to act as fiscal agent until the Project received its 501c3 status, which never happened. As late as 2013, funds to pay off the debt to the sculptor, Zenos Frudakis, were still being raised.

Until this year, it seemed Simone’s birthplace was facing a similar fate.

Yesterday, on my morning walk, I went to see this place that has become the focus of recent national news stories on NPR and in the New York Times, when it went on the market again in December of last year and was purchased by four artists from elsewhere, who saw the possibility of restoring it so Nina Simone’s musical and civil rights legacy might live on for the nation, not just the town of Tryon.

Two men and two women—Adam Pendleton, Rashid Johnson, Ellen Gallagher, and Julie Mehretu—pooled their funds to purchase the house for $95,000, with the vision of turning it into a museum—and transforming that tale of lament into a celebration of this American cultural icon.

The house yesterday looks much as it has for decades, stripped down, with light showing through its exterior siding and windows—a skeleton in need of muscles, and flesh, and skin, but with a heart of music, justice, and courage beating within.

The preservation vision has yet to be actualized; if it happens, it will be long after I’ve left Tryon for my next church. But I will need to make a return visit, for certain, to see and admire the result.

With many of the people in the congregation, I share the hope that it will come to fruition.

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