John Coltrane House Update

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.

I ignored the naysayers and nominated the National Historic Landmark for listing on 2020 Pennsylvania At Risk.

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 under Pennsylvania’s Blight Remediation Program. 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 acquisition, staff, program and exhibition costs.

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 Lending LLC is a private real estate lender that specializes in access to fast capital, 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.

John Coltrane Lives!

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!

Preservation Month 2021

May is Preservation Month, a time to celebrate historic places that matter to you. The former Douglass Hotel matters to me. Built in 1926, the Douglass Hotel was first listed in the Green Book in 1938. The property was added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 1995. The historical marker out front notes that when Billie Holiday was “[i]n this city, she often lived here.”

The Douglass Hotel was a safe haven for Black travelers. While the hotel rooms were basic, the basement was magical. For nearly four decades, and several ownership and name changes, the basement space played host to jazz greats from Cannonball Adderley to Joe Zawinul. In the 1950s it was known as the Rendezvous Club. In the 1960s, it was renamed the Showboat. In the 1970s, it was the Bijou Café. This door leads down to the basement where Sidney Bechet, John Coltrane and Grover Washington Jr. recorded live albums.

The future Queen of Soul performed in the basement of the Douglass Hotel on January 2, 1961. In Higher Ground: Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, and the Rise and Fall of American Soul, John Wilson, a pianist for the legendary Clara Ward and the Ward Singers, recalled:

Aretha Franklin came to Philly to sing at the Showboat Club on Lombard Street. After checking in at the hotel upstairs over the club, she took a cab over to Mom Ward’s house to get connected to familiar souls. She was a little nervous about breaking into pop singing. That night Clara, me, and Rudy (the Wards’ chauffeur) went to the Showboat to catch Aretha’s performance. The only people familiar with the name Aretha Franklin were gospel people, who weren’t about to show up. They were angry at her crossing over to pop. When we went in the door we heard that wonderful voice and saw that it was being wasted on an almost empty house.

Sixty years later, there will be full houses to see the movie RESPECT starring Academy Award® Winner Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin.

RESPECT will be in theaters in August. If the movie lives up to the trailer, a second Oscar might be in Jennifer Hudson’s future.

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.