Category Archives: Historic Preservation

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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Historic Preservation and Racial Justice

All That Philly Jazz Director Faye Anderson was recently interviewed by the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. The federal agency “promotes the preservation, enhancement, and sustainable use of our nation’s diverse historic resources, and advises the President and the Congress on national historic preservation policy.” The following is an excerpt from the interview.

What led you to your field?
I am a lifelong social justice activist. But I am an “accidental” preservationist. My interest in historic preservation was piqued by the historical marker that notes Billie Holiday “often lived here” when she was in Philadelphia. I went beyond the marker and learned that “here” was the Douglass Hotel. I wanted to know why Lady Day stayed in a modest hotel when a luxury hotel, the Bellevue-Stratford (now the Bellevue Philadelphia), is located just a few blocks away. The Douglass Hotel was first listed in The Negro Motorist Green Book in 1938. The Green Book was a travel guide that helped African Americans navigate Jim Crow laws in the South and racial segregation in the North.

#GreenBookPHL Collage

How does what you do relate to historic preservation?
There are few extant buildings associated with Philadelphia’s jazz legacy. In cities across the country, jazz musicians created a cultural identity that was a stepping stone to the Civil Rights Movement. All That Philly Jazz is a crowdsourced project that is documenting untold or under-told stories. At its core, historic preservation is about storytelling. The question then becomes: Whose story gets told? The buildings that are vessels for African American history and culture typically lack architectural significance. While unadorned, the buildings are places where history happened. They connect the past to the present.

Why do you think historic preservation matters?
For me, historic preservation is not solely about brick-and-mortar. I love old buildings. I also love the stories old buildings hold. To borrow a phrase from blues singer Little Milton, if walls could talk, they would tell stories of faith, resistance, and triumph. Historic preservation is about the power of public memory. It’s about staking African Americans’ claim to the American story. A nation preserves the things that matter and black history matters. It is, after all, American history.

What courses do you recommend for students interested in this field?
Historic preservation does not exist in a vacuum. The built environment reflects social inequities. I recommend students take courses that will help them understand systemic racism and how historic preservation perpetuates social inequities. In an essay published earlier this year in The New Yorker, staff writer Casey Cep observed: “To diversify historic preservation, you need to address not just what is preserved but who is preserving it—because, as it turns out, what counts as history has a lot to do with who is doing the counting.”

Places associated with African Americans have been lost to disinvestment, urban planning, gentrification and implicit bias. For instance, the Philadelphia Historical Commission rejected the nomination of the Henry Minton House for listing on the local register despite a unanimous vote by the Committee on Historic Designation. The Commission said the nomination met the criteria for designation but the property is not “recognizable” (read: lacked integrity). Meanwhile, properties in Society Hill with altered or new facades have been added to the local register.

Do you have a favorite preservation project? What about it made it special?
Robert Purvis was a co-founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society, the Library Company of Colored People and the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. By his own estimate, he helped 9,000 self-emancipated black Americans escape to the North.

The last home in which the abolitionist lived is listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. The property has had the same owner since 1977. As the Spring Garden neighborhood gentrified, the owner wanted to cash in and sell the property to developers who planned to demolish it. The property is protected, so he pursued demolition by neglect. Over the years, the owner racked up tens of thousands of dollars in housing code violations and fines. In January 2018, the Spring Garden Community Development Corporation petitioned the Common Pleas Court for conservatorship in order to stabilize the property. The petition was granted later that year. A historic landmark that was on the brink of collapse was saved by community intervention.

Can you tell us what you are working on right now?
The John Coltrane House, one of only 67 National Historic Landmarks in Philadelphia, is deteriorating before our eyes. In collaboration with the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, Avenging The Ancestors Coalition and Jazz Bridge, I nominated the historic landmark for inclusion on 2020 Preservation At Risk. The nomination was successful. As hoped, the listing garnered media attention. Before the coronavirus lockdown, several people contacted me and expressed interest in buying the property. The conversations are on pause. I am confident that whether under current “ownership” (the owner of record is deceased), new ownership or conservatorship, the rowhouse where Coltrane composed “Giant Steps” and experienced a spiritual awakening will be restored to its former glory.

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Mapping Philadelphia’s Jazz History

All That Philly Jazz was launched in March 2015. A place-based public history project, we are mapping Philadelphia’s lost jazz shrines from A to Z, from the Aqua Lounge to Zanzibar Blue.

All That Philly Jazz Wordle

I was recently interviewed on National Public Radio’s newsmagazine, “Here & Now.” The interview touched on the legacy of McCoy Tyner, Philadelphia’s jazz ecosystem that nurtured young musicians and exposed them to jazz musicians (here and here), and the campaign to save the John Coltrane House, a National Historic Landmark.

Faye Anderson - NPR's Here & Now - March 9, 2020

The podcast is available here.

John Coltrane House 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 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 - Vintage Sign

Hotel Carlyle - William Shouldis

Hotel Carlyle - June 7, 2019

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.