Category Archives: Historic Preservation

John Coltrane House Philadelphia Update

On May 5, 1959, tenor saxophonist John Coltrane entered Atlantic Studios to lay down the tracks for “Giant Steps” with pianist Tommy Flanagan, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Art Taylor.

Coltrane composed “Giant Steps” while living in Philadelphia. His rowhouse in the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood is listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places and the National Register of Historic Places. The property was designated a National Historic Landmark, the highest recognition for a historic property, in 1999. For more than a decade, the house has been deteriorating before our eyes and the subject of hand-wringing. So I nominated the historic landmark for 2020 Preservation At Risk.

On May 3, 2021, the Strawberry Mansion Community Development Corporation (SMCDC) announced the completion of the John Coltrane Museum and Cultural Arts Center Site Feasibility Study:

For years now, questions regarding the future of the Coltrane House have been circulating within the preservation, jazz, local, national, and international realms. SMCDC has always viewed the house where Mr. Coltrane, his mother and cousin Mary lived, as a significant cultural and community asset that represents the community’s long-time relationship to jazz and Fairmount Park. SMCDC views the site feasibility study as the basis to implement its plan to restore the house as a museum, preserve the row’s architectural character, create a gateway to Strawberry Mansion and develop a world class venue where jazz can be heard, studied and appreciated.

As important, the Estate of Norman Gadson is involved. Gadson purchased the property from Cousin Mary in 2004. Aminta Gadson, an heir to the estate, said:

While my family and I have had a challenging time maintaining this property, we are happy to have been able to preserve it thus far because of the value it holds. We hope and pray that as future stewards, SMCDC, can restore it and share it with jazz fans worldwide.

If you are interested in volunteer planning and professional services opportunities, contact Strawberry Mansion CDC at coltranemcac@strawberrymansioncdc.org.

Tioga Theater

Located in the Tioga neighborhood in North Philly, the 1400-seat Tioga Theater opened in 1915 and operated as a movie theater until circa 1950.

Tioga Theater - Vintage

Tioga Theater - Interior

In the late 1950s and ‘60s, top jazz artists performed here including John Coltrane, James Moody, Zoot Simms, Donald Byrd, Sarah Vaughan, Kenny Rodgers and Cannonball Adderley. On January 12, 1958, Dizzy Gillespie and Lee Morgan headlined a concert. The Philadelphia Tribune reported:

What began as a sizable crowd for Sunday’s jazz matinee concert at the Tioga Theater, became what is known in the newspaper business as a SRO (standing room only) gathering by nightfall. It all goes to prove that Rock-N-Roll hasn’t as yet completely captivated the musical world–and modern jazz is nowhere near dead.

The Tioga was repurposed and later abandoned by Deliverance Evangelical Church in 1973. It has been vacant ever since.

Tioga Theater

The Black Church in America

I am not a church-goer but I fight to save historic churches from demolition (here and here). Regardless of the denomination, the Black Church served as “the foundation for [our] freedom struggle.” Built with the blood, sweat and tears of the ancestors, these buildings hold stories of faith, resistance and triumph.

Most Sunday mornings, I listen to spirituals and old school gospel music.

In his remarks at the 22nd Annual Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts & Public Policy, Managing and Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center Wynton Marsalis said:

Those spirituals were the first body of identifiable purely American music art. … Slaves reaching across time to connect the Old Testament and the New, and Moses and freedom, and Jesus and freedom and made it all be right now. They couldn’t even read. But they knew. And I’m telling you these songs brought people together because singing gives a community purpose. And they put everything in those songs. And that music made us believe and it called us home.

On Tuesdays, February 16-23, 9:00 p.m. ET, I will be called home to the church as PBS premieres the two-part series, The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song, which retraces 400 years of the Black Church in America.

The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song will be available on PBS, PBS.org and PBS Video App. Check your local listing here.

Black History Matters

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of William Still, father of the Underground Railroad. Still’s last place of residence was 244 S. 12th Street.

Still’s neighbors included abolitionist Henry Minton who lived at 204 S. 12th Street. While Still’s residence has been demolished, Minton’s former residence and place of business is still standing, for now.

In the coming weeks, New York City-based Midwood Investment & Development will demolish one of the few extant buildings associated with the Underground Railroad. The road to demolition was paved by the Philadelphia Historical Commission which for an “inexplicable” reason ignored the unanimous recommendation of its Committee on Historic Designation. The sole vote for designating the Henry Minton House was cast by the representative of City Council President Darrell Clarke, the only Black man with a seat at the table.

The Philadelphia Inquirer Editorial Board wrote:

Critics like Faye M. Anderson, the director of a public history project to document Philadelphia’s golden age of jazz, maintain that the commission and its staff, which are predominantly white, do not advocate enough on behalf of preserving overlooked sites, such as Doctors Row, that are rich with Black history.

Consider the inexplicable 2019 decision to reject a register nomination for a 12th Street building once occupied by the abolitionist Henry Minton, a member of Philadelphia’s 19th-century Black elite. Anderson and other critics contend the commission gave too much weight to arcane technical specifications or architectural alterations — and paid too little attention to the role of the building in community life.

Demolition of the Henry Minton House is not the end of the story. Midwood has a conditional public art bonus that allows the developer to build more cookie-cutter apartments for “the demographic moving to Philly.” The zoning density bonus is site-specific and must be approved by the Philadelphia Art Commission. If the developer erases the history of the specific site, 204 S. 12th Street, the community will fight the issuance of a Certificate of Occupancy. Without a CO, Midwood’s shiny new high-rise will sit empty.

The struggle continues.

UPDATE: The Design Advocacy Group’s letter to the editor in response to the Philadelphia Inquirer Editorial Board op-ed has been published (full disclosure: I serve on DAG’s Steering Committee). The letter reads in part:

While we’re at it, we also can’t wait for a long-term solution to protect the house and restaurant of abolitionist and star caterer Henry Minton at 204 South 12th Street. The developers of the generic 36-story residential tower planned for that site have agreed to pay for a replacement for the mural honoring LBGTQ activist Gloria Casarez that they have already painted over. That’s welcome news. But they should also preserve the distinctive 19th-century façade of the Minton house. That will make their project more attractive—and it’s the right thing. It’s a win-win.

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On the eve of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, Midwood Investment & Development began to demolish the Henry Minton House. The developer unwittingly exposed the lie that the alterations to the façade were irreversible. With little effort, the façade could have been restored to its period of significance. But properties associated with Black history must pass a Jim Crow historic integrity test that the Betsy Ross House and other properties designated “historic” could not pass.

This is what systemic racism in historic preservation looks like.

Help Preserve Historic Eden Cemetery

George Bernard Shaw famously said, “Youth is wasted on the young.” In my youth, I took the long way to my high school rather than the short-cut through the nearby cemetery. Fast forward to today, when I pass a burial ground, I often think of Johnny Taylor who sang “people in the cemetery, they’re not all alone.”

Eden Cemetery is a 53-acre historic district listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is a site on the National Park Service’s Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, and a member of the Pennsylvania Hallowed Grounds Project. A stroll through Eden is “like walking through a book of Black history.” The lives of those interred span from 1721 to the present.

Under the CARES Act, taxpayers who don’t itemize their deductions are allowed to deduct an additional $300 for cash contributions to public charities this year. You can help protect Eden’s legacy and preserve African American memory by making an end-of-year donation here.

Your tax-deductible donation will ensure the graves of Father of the Underground Railroad William Still, Letitia Still, Henry Minton, Octavius V. Catto, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Marian Anderson, among others, will be kept clean.

Systemic Racism and Historic Preservation

From the colonial era to the Civil War, Philadelphia was a center of organized resistance to slavery. The city was also home to the largest and wealthiest African American population in the country. Philadelphia’s Black elite included Henry Minton (1811-1883), a caterer and abolitionist whose guests included John Brown, Frederick Douglass, and William Still, the Father of the Underground Railroad. But this history is largely absent from the properties listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.

Last year the Philadelphia Historical Commission ignored the unanimous recommendation of its Committee on Historic Designation and rejected the nomination of the Henry Minton House for listing on the local register because its façade has been altered. Midwood Investment & Development plans to demolish one of the few extant buildings in Philadelphia associated with the Underground Railroad.

Midwood CEO John Usdan signaled his biased view of history in 2017. In an interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer 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 [emphasis added].

That is what systemic racism in historic preservation sounds like. This is what it looks like. The Historical Commission applied a Jim Crow-like test of historic integrity that the Betsy Ross House and “historic” properties in Society Hill could not pass.

For a deeper dive, check out my essay “Henry Minton House, Systemic Racism and Historic Preservation.”

Keep Gloria Casarez Mural on 12th Street

Thirty years ago, now-Columbia Law School professor Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality, “a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects. It’s not simply that there’s a race problem here, a gender problem here, and a class or LBGTQ problem there. Many times that framework erases what happens to people who are subject to all of these things.” Midwood Investment & Development’s demolition of 204 South 12th Street will erase LBGTQ history and Black history from public memory. The fight to save the Gloria Casarez mural intersects with the fight to save one of the few extant buildings associated with the Underground Railroad.

Casarez was a civil rights leader and LGBTQ activist, and the first director of Philadelphia Mayor’s Office of LGBT Affairs. Her mural adorns one of the interconnected buildings owned by Midwood. The building to the right of the mural is the former residence and place of business of Henry Minton, a leading Black abolitionist and elite caterer whose guests included John Brown, Frederick Douglass and Frederick Douglass, the Father of the Underground Railroad.

Midwood plans to demolish the property and build apartments for the “demographic moving to Philly” (read: white people). In an op-ed published in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Erme Maula, a lifelong activist for justice and equality, wrote:

The Gloria Casarez mural at 204 S. 12th St. is scheduled for imminent demolition by Midwood Development and Investment. Midwood plans to knock down the former 12th Street Gym and build a 31-story building in its place.

Anyone who knew Gloria and her impact on Philadelphia knows that the loss of the mural is a massive loss for our city. The mural was erected in 2015 to honor Gloria Casarez, a local Latina activist who died of breast cancer in 2014. Gloria dedicated her life to civil and economic rights. She brought communities together to find common ground and common vision. As a student, she organized other students to push for affordable housing and an end to homelessness. As the city’s first director of LGBT affairs, Gloria led Philadelphia to adopt the broadest protections for LGBT people in the nation.

On Monday, October 19, 2020, there will be a “Keep Gloria on 12th” vigil in front of the mural from 5pm to 6:30pm, followed by a Town Hall via Zoom at 7pm. The town hall meeting will provide a space to “plan further actions to stop the erasure of our lives, our achievements, and our history that Gloria fought to preserve.” The vigil and town hall are open to the public. To register, go here.

Whose Legacy Is Preserved in Public Memory?

Earlier this year the John Coltrane House Philadelphia was named to the 2020 Preservation at Risk. The Coltrane House is a National Historic Landmark, the highest designation for a historic property. Coltrane enthusiasts worldwide should be outraged that the place where Coltrane composed “Giant Steps” and experienced a spiritual awakening has fallen into disrepair. 

John Coltrane House

Before the coronavirus lockdown I was having conversations with credible parties who were interested in the property. Those conversations are now on pause.

In a 2016 interview with CBC Radio, artist, preservationist and urban planner Theaster Gates observed that preservation is not a neutral process:

If you look at the John Coltrane House, it’s not worthy of a particular architectural value but John Coltrane is the most important jazz musician ever in the world, one might say. And how can that Philly house, how can that New York house, just be left to rot. Because my fear is sometimes when you take the material thing away, it becomes that much easier to forget the thing altogether, to forget the person altogether.

[…]

Preservation starts with caring for the material things and then there’s the harder question of like what did this person’s legacy typify? … There should be these reminders in the world that help conflate our today and our histories lest we forget.

For 20 years, the City of Philadelphia spent untold thousands of dollars preserving and securing the Frank Rizzo statue to white supremacy. The statue was finally removed in the wake of a fiery protest. Meanwhile, the city has not spent a dime to preserve the Coltrane House.

It’s not enough to celebrate Coltrane’s birthday on September 23, write about “the most important jazz musician ever in the world,” or sing his praises on social media. We must remind current and future generations about Coltrane by preserving his legacy in public memory. 

Abolition Hall is Saved – For Now

With 170,000 Americans dead from COVID-19 and millions unemployed, 2020 has been an “annus horribilis” (h/t Queen Elizabeth II). This month brought a ray of hope: Developer K. Hovnanian Homes dropped plans to construct 67 townhouses that would have degraded Abolition Hall and the surrounding fields where the ancestors found sanctuary on their way to freedom.

#AbolitionHall - Overlay - August 14, 2020

Located in Whitemarsh Township, Pennsylvania, the former Underground Railroad stop was constructed in 1856 by George Corson. The purpose-built structure was a meeting place for abolitionists including Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe and William Lloyd Garrison. Abolition Hall, along with the Hovenden House and Stone Barn provided shelter for self-emancipated Black people. The three structures are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

#Abolition Hall - Michael Feagans

The developer did not give the township a reason for abandoning the project. But the reason seems fairly obvious: With a cratering economy and sinkholes on Butler Pike, Hovnanian didn’t want to sink any more money into the controversial project.

Sybelle Zove, convener of the Friends of Abolition Hall, led the fight to save the historic landmark. In an email, Zove wrote:

This fight is not over! We continue to believe that a better plan is within reach, and we hope that any developer considering a deal with the heirs will appreciate the extraordinary history of this homestead. This is indeed hallowed land, and the historic structures are equally significant. We stand ready to collaborate, to work together to create a project that respects the legacy of this property, the value of its tree canopy, the role of its wetlands in sustaining the local ecology, and the precarious nature of the limestone soils that have yielded to dissolution and sinkhole formation.

I was geared up to collaborate with Friends of Abolition Hall on a years-long battle with the developer. With Hovnanian’s deep pockets and army of lawyers, I didn’t think we could beat them in a court of law. But social media and search engine optimization level the battlefield in the court of public opinion. So I launched VillagesatWhiteMarsh.info to tell the story of the historic landmark and alert prospective buyers that protesters would be at their front door.

#AbolitionHall Deserves Better -Villages at Whitemarsh

Abolition Hall is saved – for now. Zove urges everyone to “keep your hand on the plow, and hold on.”

For updates visit Friends of Abolition Hall on Facebook. You can also follow me on Twitter.

A Quest for Parity in Historic Preservation and Public Art

What happens when the institutions making the decisions about removing the Christopher Columbus statue from public view are themselves the legacy of systemic racism?

In my WHYY/PlanPhilly essay, I wrote you get the spectacle of the Philadelphia Historical Commission denying protection to the Henry Minton House, one of the last places where John Brown laid his head before the Harpers Ferry Raid. Commission members know the wealthy developer plans to demolish the building to construct cookie-cutter apartments for the “demographic moving to Philly.”

Seven weeks ago, Mayor Jim Kenney announced his desire to remove the Christopher Columbus statue from South Philadelphia’s Marconi Plaza. The move came in response to violent protests against anyone who dared to challenge the controversial Italian explorer’s place in colonial history. In a tweet, Mayor Jim Kenney said, “Part of reckoning with the legacy of systemic racism means reconsidering what figures deserve to be commemorated in our public spaces.”

Mayor Jim Kenney - Systemic Racism Tweet - June 24, 2020

But what happens when the institutions doing the reckoning – Philadelphia Historical Commission and Philadelphia Art Commission – are themselves the legacy of systemic racism and racial exclusion?

[…]

At the Historical Commission, the white gaze is the default standard for historical or cultural significance. Implicit bias led to the spectacle of commissioners overruling the unanimous vote of the Committee on Historic Designation and denying protection to the Henry Minton House, one of the last places where John Brown laid his head before the Harpers Ferry Raid. While acknowledging the property meets the statutory criteria for designation, the Commission ruled the façade is not “recognizable” because of an 1894 renovation that concealed the original building.

#HenryMinton House - #PhilaHistorical

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