Category Archives: Historic Preservation

John Coltrane House Philadelphia Listed on 2020 Pennsylvania At Risk

Legendary jazz saxophonist and composer John Coltrane belongs to the world.

John Coltrane - Google Trend - One Year

Philadelphia has a special claim to the worldwide icon because of what happened in a rowhouse in the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood. It was in this house that Coltrane experienced “a spiritual awakening,” kicked his heroin addiction and composed “Giant Steps.”

John Coltrane on Porch - 1511 N. 33rd Street

Coltrane’s Strawberry Mansion home was added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 1985. While thousands of places are listed on the Philadelphia register, only 67 are National Historic Landmarks, the highest designation for a historic property awarded by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior. The John Coltrane House was designated a National Historic Landmark on January 20, 1999.

What should be a source of civic pride has become a national embarrassment. As early as 2003, the National Park Service made recommendations regarding structural and aesthetic issues with the John Coltrane House. Good intentions notwithstanding, the National Historic Landmark is deteriorating before our eyes. So the choice is stark: Continue to wring our hands or do something. For the love of Coltrane, we chose to do something.

In collaboration with the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, Avenging The Ancestors Coalition and Jazz Bridge, All That Philly Jazz Director Faye Anderson prepared the nomination of the John Coltrane House for inclusion on Preservation Pennsylvania’s annual list of endangered properties. On the eve of Black History Month, John Coltrane House Philadelphia was named to 2020 Pennsylvania At Risk.

2020 Preservation At Risk

Preservation Pennsylvania is a private, nonprofit organization “dedicated to the protection of historically and architecturally significant properties.” The John Coltrane House is at risk due to its deteriorating condition and financial capacity of the owner(s):

The future is uncertain for the house. Past efforts to offer maintenance and planning assistance were unsuccessful, although the family member involved in those discussions has since passed away. As a National Historic Landmark, the designation provides the house with no protections from demolition, alterations or neglect. The house is listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, which does provide protection from demolition and a process for review of proposed alterations. However, at this time, the house is simply in stasis, while the elements, age and time take their toll.

Julia Chain, Associate Director of Preservation Pennsylvania, said:

Preservation Pennsylvania hopes to work with the owners and supporters in the local preservation and jazz communities to find a way forward for this property.

The way forward includes assessing the structural stability of the John Coltrane House. Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney has the authority to order the Department of Licenses and Inspections to inspect the property.

Show your love for John Coltrane by contacting Mayor Kenney and sharing your concern that the status quo is unacceptable. Mayor Kenney can be contacted by phone at (215) 686-2181 or email at james.kenney@phila.gov. He can also be contacted on Twitter or Facebook.

John Coltrane House Philadelphia matters.

Mapping the Green Book in Philadelphia

Later this month, I will give a talk on the Green Book at the Paul Robeson House and Museum in Philadelphia. I first wrote about “The Negro Motorist Green Book” in 2015. That year, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture digitized Victor Hugo’s travel guide which was published from 1936 to 1966.

#GreenBook Collage

The now-iconic publication is experiencing a renaissance. Countless news articles, essays and blog posts have been written. A documentary, Driving While Black, will air on PBS next year. In June 2020, a Green Book exhibition developed by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service will begin a three-year tour. The first stop is the most famous Green Book site, the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

Lorraine Motel

Over the course of 30 years, dozens of Philadelphia businesses were listed in the Green Book. The businesses were clustered in South Philadelphia, then the heart of the African American community.

Mapping Green Book Philadelphia - Green Book Icon4

Almost 70 percent of Philadelphia’s buildings were constructed before 1945. So it’s not surprising there are 45 extant Green Book sites. A few are vacant; most have been repurposed. Five are in the same business including the Hotel Carlyle which was first listed in the Green Book in 1948 and is doing business under the same name.

Hotel Carlyle Collage

To arrange a presentation for your organization, university, school, etc., contact #GreenBookPHL Project at greenbookphl@gmail.com.

Cinderella Café

The Cinderella Café or Inn was located at 16th and Lombard streets.

Cinderella Cafe - July 11, 1934

In response to efforts to delist the property as a contributing resource to the Rittenhouse-Fitler Historic District, archivist J.M. Duffin documented the historical significance of the building:

The Cinderella Inn or Café appears at 1601–02 Lombard Street in the early 1920s. African American band leader Bobby Lee and Ethel Duncan were the managers of the club. Lee started playing the piano in movie theaters in Richmond, Virginia at the age of 13. Around 1914 he formed his own band which by the early 1920s became known as the Cotton Pickers. The club he formed on Lombard Street was a very popular place in its time. It is mentioned in a number of African American newspapers across the country and served a racially mixed clientele. Lee hired an African American interior decorator from New York, Harold Curtis Brown, to decorate the club with orange and black silhouettes. Lee’s band had a regular Philadelphia radio broadcast at the time he was operating the club which no doubt contributed to its broader notoriety. His popularity and skill was so great that when he was asked to go to New York to be a regular at the Cotton Club he refused and Duke Ellington got the job instead. As late as 1937, there were still references to the Cinderella Inn in national publications.

The property is associated with Sarah Spencer Washington, founder of the Apex College of Beauty Culture.

Apex Beauty College

The building is a stop on All That Philly Jazz Cultural Heritage Walking Tour: Lombard Street Edition. To be added to the mailing list for 2020 tour schedule, send email to: greenbookphl@gmail.

#PublicMemory Playback

On October 22, PlanPhilly held a panel discussion on historic preservation, public memory, cultural heritage and displacement. PlanPhilly Managing Editor Ariella Cohen moderated the discussion. The panelists were:

PlanPhilly Panel Discussion - October 22, 2019

The conversation was lively and at times confrontational. You can listen to the audio here.

Public Memory and Place Matter

In a recent essay published by the Brookings Institution, the writers asked: Whose history gets recognized in our public spaces?

Ultimately, the fight over Barry Farm is about more than those last 32 buildings left standing. It signifies a larger struggle over representation in our physical spaces, one that has only intensified as cities become more divided, unaffordable, and unequal. This struggle has manifested itself in a myriad of ways, from efforts to remove racist memorials from public plazas to movements to protect Black culture on rapidly gentrifying blocks. Within all these actions is one critical, underlying message: Black history matters.

In Philadelphia, our story is being erased from public memory. From the demolition of the church where Marian Anderson first learned to sing to the Henry Minton House, one of the last places John Brown laid his head, developers don’t give a fig about black history.

Henry Minton House - Inquirer

Midwood Development & Investment CEO John Usdan plans to demolish the Henry Minton House. In a news article, Usdan said, “Because the city’s so rich in history and has all these great historic buildings and amazing places where you want to congregate, it’s exactly what the demographic moving to Philly wants.”

For this developer, black history is not American history. And black folks are not included in Usdan’s vision for a changing city since he is building for “the demographic moving to Philly.”

First they displace us. Then they erase us.

#DisappearingBlackness - Where's Our Story

The National Museum for African American History and Culture’s exhibition “Power of Place” underscores that place matters:

People make places even as places change people. Places are secured by individual and collective struggle and spirit. Place is about movement and migration and dis-placement. Place is where culture is made, where traditions and histories are kept and lost, and where identities are created, tested, and reshaped over time.

On October 22, PlanPhilly is holding a panel discussion, “Place, Preservation and Public Memory in Philadelphia.” All That Philly Jazz Director Faye Anderson is a panelist, along with Paul Farber, Ori Feibush and Karen Olivier. The event is free but you must register. To reserve your spot, go here.

#ThisPlaceMatters: John Coltrane House

I talk to the ancestors. More important, I listen to them. On a hot Saturday, the ancestors pushed this cold-weather person to check on the John Coltrane House in Philadelphia. So on August 31, 2019, I stopped by the rowhouse where Coltrane lived from 1952 to 1958. I later learned that was the same day that “Cousin Mary,” Mary Lyerly Alexander, joined the ancestors.

Cousin Mary - 2003

“Cousin Mary” is a track on Coltrane’s landmark album Giant Steps. The album was composed in the rowhouse he shared with his mother, Alice Gertrude Coltrane, and his beloved cousin Mary. The exterior of the property is in worse condition than when I was last there three years ago.

John Coltrane House - Steps - Faye Anderson

My call to action was published in Philadelphia Weekly. Read my essay and then add your voice to the growing chorus of voices who are concerned about the condition of this National Historic Landmark, the highest designation for a historic resource. The time for wringing one’s hands is past. Tell Mayor Jim Kenney to fix this blight on Coltrane’s legacy.

Mayor Kenney can be reached via email at james.kenney@phila.gov or by phone at (215) 686-2181. His Twitter handle is @PhillyMayor.

UPDATE: All That Philly Jazz, along with Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, Avenging The Ancestors Coalition and Philadelphia Jazz Legacy Project, have nominated the John Coltrane House for listing on Preservation Pennsylvania’s 2020 Pennsylvania at Risk.

2020 Pennsylvania At Risk - Preservation Pennsylvania

Happy Birthday to John Coltrane

John Coltrane’s eighth studio album, Africa/Brass, was released in 1961. The tracks include “Song of the Underground Railroad.”

To celebrate Coltrane’s birthday (September 23, 1926), All That Philly Jazz Director Faye Anderson will lead the Philadelphia Jazz Heritage Walking Tour: Green Book Edition. A travel guide, Green Book listings were effectively an Underground Railroad 2.0, a network of safe spaces where African Americans could avoid the indignities and humiliations of racial segregation.

Douglass Hotel Bus Depot

Green Book Philadelphia walking tour stops include:

  • National historic landmark where Coltrane first heard Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie;
  • Supper club that was a hangout for the producers and musicians who created “The Sound of Philadelphia”;
  • Hotel that welcomed jazz luminaries to its stage from the 1940s to the 1980s, and where Coltrane recorded a live album;
  • Pep’s Musical Bar where Coltrane and other jazz and blues greats performed;
  • Jazz club that paid homage to postal workers and U.S. Postal Service;
  • Dive bar that was the setting for the Broadway play “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill”; and
  • Fraternal lodge where Bessie Smith’s funeral was held and an after-hours club was located on the top floor.

All That Philly Jazz Walking Tour: Green Book Edition will be held on September 21 and 22. Join us as we talk and walk in the footsteps of a jazz giant.