Muddy Waters’ home rollin’ and crumblin’ in North Kenwood
Anyone can sit on the front steps of the empty house at 4339 S. Lake Park Ave.
On the surface, the view is west out of North Kenwood. But you feel something very global. Howlin’ Wolf walked up these light red steps. So did Chuck Berry. Mike Bloomfield sat in the house’s living room, anchored by a Victorian fireplace.
Blues giant Muddy Waters lived in this house from 1954 until 1973, when he moved to west suburban Westmont.
City of Chicago Cultural Historian Tim Samuelson calls it the most historically significant house in Chicago.
It is boarded up. Teardrops of time fall from rusty awnings. A huge red X near the front door tells the fire department the building is empty.
“It is a great treasure now even as a ruin,” Samuelson said. “But as a treasure that people can get an idea of what it looked like during the heyday of the blues. It is a vital story. If you think of it in terms of life lessons and achievements, then it makes it all worthwhile. If it’s just about a great musician, that doesn’t mean anything. But if you put it as part of a story you can connect it to real people.
“That’s why having a house is so important.”
You can almost smell the sweet potato pie in the kitchen. You can hear Otis Spann playing piano in the basement, where he lived for a sweet spell.
The foreclosed building is restorable, according to Samuelson.
“It may be down but it is far from out,” he said. “It needs tuckpointing. I look at this building and see nothing that alarms me as far as its future. It needs some time and a little money.”
The house is in vacant building court. The city inspected the house on Wednesday, the day after Samuelson met with a reporter on site. On Thursday, Neighborhood Housing Services was appointed as receiver to obtain bids for repairs of the facade, roof and gutters. The city is concerned about loose and falling bricks on the northeast corner of the facade. The court also ordered the foreclosing bank to keep the property vacant and secure.
“The city is trying to do everything they can to save the building,” said Roderick Drew, spokesman for the Chicago Law Dept.
Muddy wanted the house to remain in his family, and it does today. Court records and a sign on the front door list a relative, Chandra Cooper, as current owner.
Served and ordered to appear in court on Thursday, Cooper was a no-show. She was ordered to be at a June 20 hearing where the court will determine the scope of the repairs.
Calls to Cooper were not returned.
The Muddy Waters House is a designated Chicago Landmark. Samuelson said the National Register of Historic Places is “very receptive” to inclusion. Tax credits would kick in with historic recognition.
Waters — born McKinley Morganfield in Rolling Fork, Miss. — died of a heart attack in 1983 at the age of 65. He moved to Chicago in 1943. Neighbors call the 4339 S. Lake Park address “the original House of Blues,” but it can be argued it is also a birthplace of rock ’n’ roll.
In 1954 Waters firmly moved away from the rural two-guitar-and-harmonica getup to hard-charging urban blues that reflected the life around his new digs. He launched 1954 with his “Hoochie Coochie Man” album (Chess Records) which remains a foundation of blues across the world. In 1954 he recorded “I’m Ready” with a willing rock ’n’ roll attitude.
The 4339 S. Lake Park building was built as a two-flat in 1889. The front exterior is face brick, the sides are native pinkish Chicago brick.
The tough front steps are Chicago’s stairway to heaven.
“The metal canopy and the siding were put there by Muddy in a remodeling about 1969,” Samuelson said. “An architectural purist would say, ‘Oh, the original sheet metal trim is gone.’ Actually in this case, it is all that replacement work that is the coolest part of the building.” Muddy’s remodeling project also adapted the basement as a living unit with a rehearsal space in the front (west) side.
Kenny Smith, 38, is the son of the late Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Muddy’s drummer from 1967 to 1980. For the past 33 years the Smith family lived at 4345 S. Lake Park. When Waters left for Westmont he offered a rental unit to Smith’s father. The family stayed in the Waters home until they purchased their current home.
“There was a ton of cooking going on,” Smith said while standing near the chainlink fence Muddy installed in his front yard. “I remember dancing with my grandmother to a Lightnin’ Hopkins song. Musicians were going in and out of the house all the time. There were cakes and sweet potato pies.”
Samuelson has done extensive research on the house, interviewing Waters’ children and friends. “Great hospitality characterized Muddy Waters,” he said. “One of Muddy’s kids talked about getting bumped out of his bed for a guy who would come to stay here. That was Chuck Berry. The door to the house was always open.”
And now it is closed. And padlocked.
The most colorful feature of the house is a pair of pink flamingos painted on the front door along with the name of Muddy Waters. This is not original art. It was done by Chicago artist Chris Toepfer.
Samuelson explained, “When Muddy was remodeling there was a company that offered storm doors with aluminum flamingos. They would custom cast them and put your name and address on them. Those disappeared a long time ago, but they are re-created in decorative plywood.”
The representation is historically accurate. Old photographs of the Waters house show that the doors were installed reading “WATERS” and then “MUDDY.” Samuelson looked at the flamingos and said, “This is the second time he has worked on the building, because it is the second time it has been abandoned. When you do a decorative boardup like this, the building becomes less of an eyesore on the neighborhood. One of the concerns in getting a historic building through a difficult time is that the people who live nearby are not happy about having a vacant building.”
LaTonia and Vincent Lambert and their two sons have lived for a year in a beautifully restored three-bedroom home next door to the historic house. They moved from Hyde Park to buy a bigger home. “We didn’t know about the Muddy Waters house until we came to look at our house,” LaTonia said after picking her 11-year-old son Joshua up from Cambridge School of Chicago.
Vincent is a U.S. military chaplain. LaTonia, 43, said, “The vacancy of the home has been a bit of a challenge, keeping it boarded and locked up. I’d like to see a home there to continue to grow the community. A museum would be neat, too.”
During the early 1990s the house was managed by the Muddy Waters Estate under Waters’ manager, Scott Cameron. “The house was abandoned and you could walk right in,” Samuelson said. “I was heartbroken. Scrappers stole the pipes. The wood paneling Muddy put up in the 1970s was ripped off the wall.”
Samuelson lives in Hyde Park and does not drive a car. He rides his bicycle around Chicago’s neighborhoods. In the 1990s he walked into Muddy’s empty house and smelled gas. Samuelson immediately called Cameron in fear that the house would blow up. Cameron had the gas line fixed.
Smith is very disturbed about the current shape of the historic house.
“To me and people across the world, this is a blues monument,” he said. “I see the building like this, but I see the visions of people that went through there. I don’t want them to tear this building down. It would just break my heart.”
Some observers think the Waters house, just off Lake Shore Drive, is in too remote a location to serve as a tourist attraction. Yet, the Louis Armstrong House is a jewel of a tourist destination on residential 107th Street in Queens, N.Y. (Armstrong’s 1924 residence at 421 E. 44th is still standing in Chicago.)
Smith said, “People come on a daily basis. Through rain, sleet and snow. My wish is that Chicago would embrace some of these things people across the world are coming to Chicago to see and hear.”
Samuelson added, “I take people to this destination and in the course of showing them, another car will slow up and they’re here for the very same reason. Happens all the time.”
Muddy got many of his real estate tips from Leonard Chess, who besides co-owning Chess Records had invested in property in the neighborhood. At one point Chess operated the 708 Club, originally a liquor store (that still stands) southwest of the Waters house at 708 E. 47th St. Waters later performed at the 708 Club under another owner. In 1957 the club was Buddy Guy’s port of entry into the Chicago blues circuit.
“I never realized so many musicians lived in this neighborhood,” said Smith, who has played drums with Dave Spector and the Cash Box Kings. “Pee Wee Madison [Muddy’s guitarist] stayed on the second floor across the street. [Guitarist] Smokey Smothers lived there. He sold homemade ice cream to the kids. At night you would see him put on his suit, his hat and and he was off.”
Samuelson explained, “This area underwent racial transition in the early 20th century. Racial covenants were placed on properties to prevent black families from buying property here. This area was under those covenants. Those were lifted with a court decision in 1948. The change of this area to African-American happened pretty quickly. Muddy was achieving success with his performances and recordings and was able to buy this house.”
Folklorists from the Alan Lomax school know of two kinds of field work: roam the streets and fields for what you might find. Or, head to a socialized location and discover what is there. The 4339 S. Lake Park address is the latter, the precious birthplace of contemporary American blues.