An update on a story we’ve been following since the spring of 2017. That’s when four artists from New York bought the Tryon childhood home of legendary singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone. Restoration work is underway, BPR's Helen Chickering traveled to Tryon to check it out.
It’s a warm sunny morning in May. 20 year old Javone McDonald is perched on a ladder that’s propped against a tiny wooden house just outside of downtown Tryon. He’s spent the past hour scraping away paint off a section above the front porch.
“I’m sanding it down in order for us to prime it and repaint it.”
The nearly 90 year old three room structure just happens to be childhood home of Tryon’s most famous native. Eunice Waymon was born in 1933 and would grow up to be singer, songwriter and civil rights icon Nina Simone.
“At the beginning, I didn’t know much about her, well, my mom and my grand mom did and when I told them, they were very excited,” says McDonald who is working on the house through the Schenck Job Corps Civilian Conservation Center of North Carolina and the HOPE (Hands-on-Preservation-Experience) Crew created by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2014 to provide young people preservation trades training in window restoration, masonry repair, and other skills at historic sites--primarily those located in national parks. McDonald’s crew is working to help restore the exterior of the home. He says once he learned more about Nina Simone, the project took on a whole new meaning.
“Just being here is very humbling and honorable,” says McDonald, “To do something of this proportion and this magnitude, for somebody who was so important not just to music but politics and African American culture, and knowing this is where she started and this is where she grew up and spent most of her childhood, it just means a lot."
Simone, who died in 2003, was trained as a classical pianist and left Tryon after high school for New York. There her dreams of a classical piano career took a detour when she landed a job singing jazz in a nightclub, under the name - Nina Simone. She made her mark in the 50s and 60s on both the music scene and the civil rights movement.
“Knowing everything that we know about her, and who she was and what she stood for, and what she still represents so much in our cultural history and our collective memory. Looking at this house - and thinking all of that was going to be," says Tiffany Tolbert, a senior field officer with the National Trust for Historic Preservation who is helping direct the work on the house, which has been in the planning stages for more than two years.
In 2017 four artists from New York purchased the home which had been kept intact thanks to efforts by dedicated community members. Last summer, the trust designated the home a National Treasure and a formal rehabilitation and preservation plan started taking shape.
This work on the exterior is the first of many steps in the restoration process which includes trying to figure out what to do with the home. The National Trust has created an online survey to gather public input and is holding a brainstorming workshop in Tryon with local artists, project partners and preservation experts.
“Being able to work on this, to have this remains of the part of the physical landscape, collective memory, and the cultural and architectural history of Tryon, North Carolina. It’s very important and I’m just very privileged to be able to work on this project," says Tolbert.
As the sanding and scraping continued, Tolbert, who’s a big Nina Simone fan stepped back to take it all in.
“The first time I came to Tryon with my team, we were driving to the house and I stopped and said we have to listen to Nina Simone as we come here and I definitely need to stand in the yard and listen to her music while I’m here.”
HC: Do you have a favorite Nina Simone song?
"Wild is the Wind, that’s just an amazing classical, it’s jazz, it’s a gorgeous piece."
In Tryon, at the childhood home of Nina Simone, I'm Helen Chickering, BPR News.
You can find out more about the work on the home here.