The highway bisected the historic neighborhood nearly half a century ago, and the house identified as Penniman’s — 1540 Fifth Ave. West — now sits just across Middle Street from the interstate’s chain-link fence.
The house is a rental property, and on a recent day a man who identified himself as Scott Smith said he had moved in only a week before.
Smith said he didn’t know he was living where Penniman once had, and he gave an incredulous chuckle. But it was a welcome novelty.
“It feels a little better, you know, to know,” Smith said.
He’s not a big fan of Little Richard’s, but he knows “a couple of songs” from the rock ‘n’ roll pioneer, mentioning Little Richard’s 1958 hit “Good Golly Miss Molly.”
According to the New Georgia Encyclopedia, Richard Wayne Penniman was born in Macon on Dec. 5, 1932, one of 12 children.
“His father, Bud, worked as a brick mason, sold moonshine, and operated a juke joint called the Tip In Inn,” the encyclopedia says.
Penniman’s introduction to music came from performing in a family gospel group, and a part-time job at the City Auditorium gave him the chance to hear many big rhythm-and-blues and gospel acts. He left for Atlanta with a traveling medicine show at age 14, adopting the stage name “Little Richard” the next year.
“Penniman got an RCA record contract, but his music career came to a halt after his father was murdered,” the encyclopedia says. “To support his family, he took a job washing dishes at a Greyhound bus station in Macon. Eventually, he was back on stage, dominating the Macon rhythm-and-blues scene with a new band, the Upsetters.”
A September 1955 recording session in New Orleans produced his classic hit “Tutti Frutti,” launching him as a rock pioneer.
The state plans to spend about $10 million on various efforts to mitigate the impact of road widening in the neighborhood. That’s intended to move and repair more than two dozen houses, put up noise or sight barriers between the neighborhood and the highway, create two new parks, cover a wide concrete culvert, and redo streets for blocks around with new asphalt, sidewalks, landscaping and lighting.
Penniman’s former home, though not identified as one that must be moved for the roadwork, is also on the list to be bought. It would be taken to a new site and renovated as a community resource center and museum, honoring Penniman and the neighborhood’s history.
Peter Givens, a Pleasant Hill resident and frequent community spokesman, said the chosen new site for the house is on Craft Street across from the Pleasant Hill community garden. That’s four blocks from its current location.
— and on the other side of I-75.
Bibb County records describe the house as a small two-bedroom, built in 1920, and valued at $21,781 for tax purposes.
The current owner is Andre Coquerel, who said he bought the house in September 2005 and before the purchase wasn’t aware Little Richard had lived there.
“The seller made a comment at the closing table, but it didn’t register,” Coquerel said. “It was only when the project started evolving ... that I realized that was really Little Richard’s childhood home.”
Pleasant Hill residents were heavily involved in creating the plan to buy and move the former Penniman home, said Clinton Ford, the state Department of Transportation project manager for the interstate widening.
“They were there when these mitigation commitments were developed,” he said. The plan, developed nearly four years ago, specified turning it into a community resource center.
“That was the community’s wishes,” he said.
Givens confirmed Ford’s statement.
“That was what we asked for originally,” he said.
Some Pleasant Hill residents, harboring bitter memories of the neighborhood’s division by the state, have publicly expressed skepticism that fine-sounding plans will actually benefit them. As do others: Macon City Councilman Rick Hutto said he sat in on the state’s meetings with Pleasant Hill residents a decade ago, and that he reminded GDOT representatives six months ago of their original promises.
“The Penniman house was, from the beginning, promised by GDOT to be restored and given to the neighborhood as a historical center and repository of neighborhood artifacts as well as a meeting place,” he said.
But now word from the state that the house won’t be directly needed for the roadwork, and that after years of talk the owner hasn’t yet been formally approached about selling, raises Hutto’s suspicions.
“More of GDOT’s empty promises,” he said. “GDOT raped that neighborhood 50 years ago and they are set to do it again.”
Givens, while not openly doubting the intention to buy the house, sounded resigned to the pace.
“GDOT is a machine. It moves very slow,” he said.
Ford acknowledges that it has taken the state a long time to do anything about those plans. Appraisals and various forms of approval had to be in hand before GDOT approached the owner with an offer.
Now that’s done, and the owner should be contacted by the end of October, Ford said.
He didn’t want to speculate on how that offer might be received.
“You never know what would happen once negotiations start,” Ford said. “I think he’s willing to hear us out, I’ll say that.”
Coquerel said he knew there had been previous talk about use of the house as a community resource center. State officials said some time back that they’d be in touch, but it hadn’t as of last week, he said.
Given a good offer, Coquerel said, he would be willing to sell it.
Ford said that once bought, the house would be moved to a new site by early 2014 and renovated at state expense.
“The intention is that the house would be turned over to the city,” he said.
Coquerel said he did considerable work on the house, particularly the interior, when he bought it, but that it has deteriorated under a series of tenants. He acknowledges that the exterior isn’t very attractive, but he said GDOT appraisers advised him not to do much outside work before purchase negotiations.
Smith, the current tenant, said the state’s plans to buy the house sometime in the next year probably won’t affect him.
“I doubt it. My lease is six months,” he said.