In their latest court filing to gain possession of the Strawberry Mansion rowhouse that John Coltrane purchased in 1952, Ravi and Oran Coltrane claim their father’s beloved cousin, “Mary Lyerly Alexander, put in place a plan to unlawfully claim the Coltrane House for herself and her progeny instead of the remaining grandchildren of Alice Gertrude Coltrane, as required by the Will.” Ravi and Oran speciously claim that a typo is evidence that conveyance of the Philadelphia property was “fraudulent.” In the deed conveying the property to Norman Gadson in 2004, Coltrane is misspelled “Cultrate.”
Cousin Mary had a plan to preserve the John Coltrane House. After decades of indifference, do Ravi and Oran Coltrane now have a plan to rehabilitate the National Historic Landmark?
To catch up on the ongoing John Coltrane House family feud, go here.
In the Before Times, I celebrated John Coltrane’s birthday (September 23, 1926) by leading a walking tour. We would meet at Coltrane’s Walk of Fame plaque where I would give an overview of the legendary saxophonist’s time in Philadelphia and talk about the John Coltrane House.
In light of the drama unfolding in the Court of Common Pleas, I am not in a celebratory mood. Coltrane’s sons, Ravi and Oran, are suing Norman Gadson’s daughters, Aminta and Hathor, for possession of the Philadelphia rowhouse that their father purchased in 1952 and where he composed Giant Steps.
They claim Mary Lyerly Alexander, better known as Cousin Mary, “duped” Gadson into buying property that she had no right to sell. Gadson paid $100,000 for the National Historic Landmark in 2004. That same year, John and Alice Coltrane’s house in Dix Hills, NY was at imminent risk of demolition.
On August 31, 2022, the third anniversary of Alexander’s death, Defendants allege in court documents that Cousin Mary “extinguished” Ravi and Oran’s remainder interest in the property with their knowledge and acquiescence. Defendants further claim that if they lose possession of the property, they should be reimbursed more than $220,000 for costs incurred in maintaining, renovating and insuring the Coltrane House. They claim “Plaintiffs would have no remainder interest were it not for the activities of Gadson and his successors.”
While the claims and counterclaims fly back and forth, I think about that hot and humid Saturday morning when something – or someone – told me to go check on the Coltrane House. Later that day, I learned Cousin Mary had died.
I vowed at Cousin Mary’s homecoming celebration that I would do everything I could to save the National Historic Landmark.
Little did I know my successful nomination of the John Coltrane House for listing on 2020 Pennsylvania At Risk would set in motion this family feud.
Ravi and Oran have cast aspersions on Cousin Mary. The court will decide who owns the Strawberry Mansion rowhouse. But for nearly 40 years, Cousin Mary devoted her life to preserving John Coltrane’s legacy in public memory. On July 6, 2004, she agreed to sell the property to Norman Gadson, a friend and jazz enthusiast who shared her vision for a Coltrane Museum and Cultural Center. Three months earlier, random Coltrane aficionados, preservationists and local officials saved from demolition Ravi and Oran’s childhood home in Dix Hills, NY. The place where their father composed A Love Supreme.
Scottish historian Sir Walter Scott observed, “Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!”
Ownership of the John Coltrane House has been a tangled web ever since the property owner of record, Norman Gadson, died in 2007. I raised the “tangled title” issue with Ravi Coltrane on March 13, 2020. During the conference call, Ravi said organizations raising money in the name of John Coltrane need the permission of the Estate of John and Alice Coltrane. This “ties their hands unless there’s a partnership with the Estate.” That was my first and only conversation with Coltrane’s son.
In a lawsuit filed on April 27, 2022, Ravi and his brother Oran claim they are the rightful owners of the Strawberry Mansion rowhouse that their father bought in 1952. Coltrane and his first wife, Juanita “Naima” Austin,conveyed the property to his mother, Alice Gertrude Coltrane, on March 24, 1958.
Coltrane’s sons allege their father’s beloved cousin, Mary Lyerly Alexander, better known as Cousin Mary, “duped” (read: deceived) Gadson into paying $100,000 to purchase her life estate in the Coltrane House. According to Alice Gertrude Coltrane’s Last Will and Testament, Cousin Mary had “the right and privilege to live on the premises at 1511 North 33rd Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, during her lifetime.” Her life estate ended on August 31, 2019.
My successful nomination of the Coltrane House for listing on 2020 Pennsylvania At Risk is cited in the Complaint and included in an exhibit, but I found out about the lawsuit by happenstance. The lawsuit was also a surprise to the defendants, Aminta Gadson Weldon and Hathor Gadson. A spokesperson for the defendants’ lawyer, Edward A. Fox, said in a statement:
The Early-Gadson family was enormously surprised and saddened to learn of the litigation filed by John Coltrane’s sons given the family’s 18-year history of ownership, preservation, and deep commitment to this National Historic Landmark, with the full knowledge of the Coltrane family.
The parties have clammed up. So I decided to follow the money to try to untangle the web of claims and counterclaims.
The John and Alice Coltrane Home in Dix Hills, New York is owned and stewarded in partnership by the Town of Huntington and Friends of the Coltrane Home in Dix Hills, a nonprofit organization. On September 21, 2021, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded Friends of the Coltrane Home a grant of $1 million“to support the preservation of the Home, enhance organizational capacity, and expand programmatic offerings.” In announcing the grant, the Mellon Foundation notes: “While the funds received from the Mellon Foundation will go a long way to renovating the Home and transforming it into an innovative museum, additional support will be needed before the Home can be opened to the public.”
The Strawberry Mansion Community Development Corporation (SMCDC) has raised $855,000 for the Coltrane House, including a $300,000 grant awarded under Pennsylvania’s Blight Remediation Program on May 25, 2021. The reimbursable grant is for “engineering and renovation costs associated with façade remediation activities at the Coltrane House Property.” The grant ends on June 30, 2023.
The Mellon Foundation awarded SMCDC $500,000 for the John Coltrane House Museum and Cultural Arts Center on December 10, 2021. The two-year Humanities in Place grant is “to support organizational capacity and development for a community-focused project honoring the legacy of John Coltrane.” SMCDC needs an additional $5 million before the John Coltrane Museum and Cultural Arts Center can be opened to the public.
According to their IRS return, Friends of the Coltrane House received $18,100 in contributions in 2020. Between 2016 and 2020, the nonprofit received a combined total of $296,502 in contributions. Their 2013 Indiegogo and 2018 Kickstarter fundraisers were unsuccessful. Both campaigns closed after raising less than $9,000.
The O’Jays warned us that money can “do funny things to some people.” Ravi and Oran Coltrane’s lawsuit was filed four months after SMCDC received the Mellon Foundation grant. Defendants state SMCDC has “five other grant applications pending.” Did money and lack of permission from the Estate of John and Alice Coltrane trigger the lawsuit?
My lived experience tells me there’s more to the story. Stay tuned to “John Coltrane House Family Feud” as I follow the money.
The Coltrane House has been in a deteriorating condition for nearly four decades. Mary L. Alexander, better known as “Cousin Mary,” sounded the alarm as early as 1985.
Restoration has been stymied by, i.a., legal entanglements (the owner of record died in 2007) and lack of imagination. Over the past 20 years, there have been several schemes to repurpose the property as a historic house museum. The schemers failed to recognize that the traditional house museum business model wherein an organization must raise millions of dollars before the property is open to the public and millions more to keep the door open is no longer sustainable. According to a 2017 study (the most complete recent data), nearly 50% of history museums have an annual operating budget of less than $100,000.
As I wrote in an op-ed published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, an Act 135 conservatorship is the only viable option to save this National Historic Landmark.
I am collaborating with Chris Hytha, a digital artist and founder of the Rowhomes project, to raise awareness that the rowhome in which Coltrane lived from 1952 to 1958 is threatened. Hytha will create the John Coltrane House NFT, digital collectible art. He said:
NFTs are deeply rooted in the culture of collectability. Featuring the John Coltrane House would add another layer of historical significance, and has the potential to introduce this piece of Philadelphia history to a global audience. Collecting memorabilia has been a part of our culture for centuries, and NFTs provide a new outlet to raise funds for the preservation of this National Historic Landmark.
At the same time, I have teamed up with an architecture firm that is a pioneer in virtual design and construction. Building on floor plans, archival photos, scholarly research, oral histories and 3D rendering, we will digitally reconstruct the exterior, and virtually reimagine the interior the way it looked when Coltrane lived here (read: virtual period rooms).
John Coltrane House Digital Reconstruction is at the intersection of art, technology and historic preservation. We will improvise a new paradigm for historic preservation in the Digital Age.
At the same time, we will cast a wide net for a financially-capable alternate stewardship – an Act 135 conservatorship – to preserve the structure, the physical reminder of John Coltrane, in public memory. We are taking giant steps to preserve for the current generation and the next generation of tech users the rowhome where John Coltrane experienced a spiritual awakening and composed “Giant Steps.”
Two years ago my call to action to save the John Coltrane House generated pushback from folks who have been hanging around the historic landmark for decades and on whose watch the property deteriorated.
As jazz lovers commemorate Coltrane’s heavenly birthday on September 23, there’s cause for celebration: Coltrane’s Strawberry Mansion rowhouse is not under imminent threat of demolition by neglect. On May 25, 2021, the Strawberry Mansion Community Development Corporation was awarded $300,000 reimbursable grant under Pennsylvania’s Blight Remediation Program. Strawberry Mansion CDC will be reimbursed as costs are incurred.
According to state Rep. Donna Bullock, the funds will be used “to restore the currently blighted Coltrane House and its neighboring blighted properties which will expand the footprint of the Coltrane House to lead to the creation of the John Coltrane Museum and Cultural Arts Center.”
Truth be told, the state grant is a drop in the bucket of the funds needed to restore the blighted residential row, and establish a museum and community arts center. On May 3, 2021, the Strawberry Mansion CDC announced the completion of the John Coltrane Museum and Cultural Arts Center Site Feasibility Study undertaken by the Community Design Collaborative which provides pro bono preliminary design services to nonprofit organizations. Parenthetically, the Collaborative noted that renewed interest in the Coltrane House was “due to the building having been recently placed on the Preservation Pennsylvania’s 2020 Pennsylvania At Risk list.”
The Collaborative proposed three development options that require access to or ownership of neighboring properties. The costs range from $3,454,884 to $5,825,575. The estimates do not include the costs of acquisition, staff, collections, exhibitions, and programs.
The Coltrane House is located at 1511 N 33rd Street. 1509 N 33rd Street was sold to 1509 N 33rd St LLC for $235,000 on January 27, 2021. 1509 N 33rd St LLC transferred the deed to Bluebird Lending LLC for $0.00 on March 18, 2021. Bluebird Companies is a real estate organization that specializes in private lending, and “construction management in neighborhoods undergoing urban revitalization.”
1513 N 33rd Street is privately owned. After years of nonpayment, there are no delinquent property taxes. The property’s assessed value is $132,800. The Philadelphia Housing Authority owns 1515 N 33rd Street which has a market value of $439,700. PHA intends to convey the property to Strawberry Mansion CDC subject to approval by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the financial feasibility of the Coltrane House Project.
The road to rehabilitation of the Coltrane House is long and winding. In the meantime, there are things we can do to signal a change is going to come. For instance, I recently reported illegal dumping to Philly 311.
Philadelphia has a chronic trash problem. So if you see illegal dumping on the sidewalk, you can submit a report to Philly 311. I also reported the unsealed window on the second floor of 1509 N 33rd Street which exposes the property to the elements and further water damage. The building code violation is a threat to the Coltrane House with which it shares a party wall. L&I “is actively working to solve the issue.”
Mary Lyerly Alexander, aka Cousin Mary, did her part. We must step up and do our part to ensure the jazz giant’s legacy is not erased from public memory.
In February 2021, a notice was posted on 1509 N 33rd St. that the building will be demolished on or after March 10, 2021.
The property shares a party wall with the John Coltrane House which is listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. The Department of Licenses & Inspections (L&I) has long known about the deteriorating condition of 1509 N 33rd St. The National Historic Landmark was included on 2020 Preservation At Risk, in part, due to the condition of the adjacent property. We did not know what, if any, measures the demolition contractor had taken to protect the John Coltrane House.
L&I played Sergeant Schultz.
The Philadelphia Historical Commission did the “Philly Shrug.” They said they do not have the authority to require the owner to stabilize or brace the historic building. In essence, a faceless LLC that is here today and gone tomorrow can whack away at the John Coltrane House and let the bricks fall where they may. With no one holding the owner accountable, I did what I do. I made some noise.
Fast forward to June 17, 2021, City Council passed Bill No. 210389 which would amend the Philadelphia Building Construction and Occupancy Code and provide safeguards for “work impacting historic structures.” The contractor must provide notice to the adjacent property owner, document the existing condition of all adjacent buildings, and submit a construction plan to L&I.
Mayor Jim Kenney signed the bill on July 15, 2021. The provisions go into effect on January 1, 2023. John Coltrane’s legacy will live on in the historic buildings and structures that will be protected from construction activity taking place next door. It’s wonderful!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 historic 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.
All That Philly Jazz was launched in March 2015. A place-based public history project, we have mapped Philadelphia’s lost jazz shrines from A to Z, from the Aqua Lounge to Zanzibar Blue.
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.