Black Doctors Row and Sister Rosetta Tharpe House Added to the Historic Register

July 14, 2022 | by Celia Jailer

Philadelphia’s first African American historic district was added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places at the July 8 meeting of the Philadelphia Historical Commission. The nominations of four other buildings, two steeped in local Black history, were also approved for designation.

A row of 19th century homes along Christian Street between Broad and 20th Streets. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Christian Street Historic District (aka Black Doctors Row), includes 154 properties along Christian Street between Broad and 20th Streets. The heavily-researched nomination was submitted by the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia and reflects the distinct phases in the area’s development, which gained momentum in the mid-to-late 1800s. It was originally an Irish American neighborhood known as St. Charles Parish and was filled with Italianate and the Neo-Grec style rowhouses. At the turn of the 20th century the neighborhood became a center for African American professionals and the Black middle class. According to the Preservation Alliance’s nomination, Christian Street was a “streetcar thoroughfare lined with prominent Black institutions, including churches, a public school, a Y.M.C.A., a post office, fraternal and political club houses, a hair salon, and a pharmacy.” The neighborhood still is predominantly African American, and many of the current residents who collaborated on the nomination have family ties to the neighborhood that span generations.

The district contains three building types: the rowhouse, the corner building, and the church building. The majority of the district is rowhouses, many of which are, according to the nomination, “tied together by a strong bracketed cornice running the length of the top of the row, as well as shared stone water tables.” These architectural elements create a cohesive and distinct neighborhood feel. The corner buildings are typically less ornamental, yet express the wide variety of business conducted in the area over the years. The varied church structures played an important role in the development of the neighborhood both socially and architecturally. As the nomination notes, “Walking from Broad Street, the corner bell tower of Saint Charles helps to visually define the limit of the proposed district.” Although there is evidence of modifications to many of the buildings, the district has a remarkable amount of historic fabric still intact.

The color guard of the Quaker City Drum and Bugle Corps marching down Christian Street on Labor Day in 1941. | Photo courtesy of Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center

The nomination also highlights the homes of prominent residents of the neighborhood, including religious leaders Josiah Cadwell and Charles Tindley, politicians Wilson Jackson, William H. Fuller, and William Burton Crawford, entertainers Marian Anderson and Lydia White, and architect Julian Abele.

When discussion was opened up to the public all but one anonymous speaker was in support of the nomination. Almost every comment came from neighborhood residents, and the majority of them underscored the importance of officially naming the district Black Doctors Row. Cheryl Mobley-Stimpson, whose family has lived in Philadelphia for five generations, encouraged the Commission to “establishes a footprint for future generations [of Black Philadelphians], a footprint which has largely been erased.” Brandon Washington remarked, “If Chinatown can be Chinatown and the Italian Market can be the Italian Market, I think we can have Black Doctors Row.” The Commission agreed, and the Christian Street Historic District’s Black Doctors Row was added to the Philadelphia Register by unanimous consent.

The modest, former home of legendary gospel musician Sister Rosetta Tharpe at 1102 Master Street in Yorktown. | Photo: Michael Bixler

1102 Master Street, the home of Sister Rosetta Tharpe from 1962 until her death in 1973, was nominated by the staff of the Historical Commission. Often called the “Godmother of Rock ‘n Roll,” Tharpe was Black gospel music’s first superstar. Tharpe was born in Cotton Plant Arkansas in 1915. Music, especially choir music, is at core of Pentacostal services, and Tharpe’s deeply religious mother taught her to sing, play guitar, and perform at a very young age. Tharpe was billed as a “singing and guitar-playing miracle.” The mother-daughter duo performed in churches across the South in the 1930s, gaining popularity on the radio and the club circuit as well. At age 23, she recorded four songs for Decca Records under the stage name Sister Rosetta Tharpe. The record became the first commercially successful Black gospel recording.

A publicity photo of Sister Rosetta Tharpe from 1938. | Photo: Public Domain

Tharpe continued to perform and record new gospel songs that reached broader audiences. According to the nomination, “Writing in Billboard magazine in 1942, music critic Maurie Orodenker, who was born and raised in Philadelphia, described Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s vocals on ‘Rock Me’ as ‘rock-and-roll spiritual singing.’” Orodenker is considered the first person to use the phrase “rock and roll” to describe a style of music. In 1951, 25,000 people bought tickets to attend Tharpe’s wedding to her business manager Russell Morrison, where she performed a long set after the couple’s nuptials.

Tharpe was living in Richmond Virginia during this period, although she toured relentlessly. By 1959 her home base was Philadelphia where she liked to go fishing with her husband and their dog Chubby on Tharpe’s days off from performing. The couple bought their concrete and brick rowhouse in March 1962 for $13,450 in the Yorktown section of North Philadelphia.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the Olivet Institutional Baptist Church Choir performing “Up Above My Head” on TV Gospel Time, a Sunday morning program that ran on NBC from 1962 to 1965. The obscure recording would resurface four decades later in the 2001 French film Amélie.

Tharpe continued to tour regularly in Europe and gave an iconic 1964 performance in Manchester, England that is said to have inspired British guitarists Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Keith Richards. When Tharpe died in 1973 she had largely faded from public memory and was buried without a marker at Northwood Cemetery in West Oak Lane. Since her death, musicians like Johnny Cash, Aretha Franklin, Little Richards, and Tina Turner have celebrated her influence on their work which has helped reinvigorate her forgotten legacy. A recording from the early 1960s of Tharpe playing her version of the traditional gospel song “Up Above My Head” was featured in the popular 2001 French film Amélie. In 2008, a concert was held at the Keswick Theater in Glenside to raise funds for a grave marker for Tharpe. The event was hosted by former Governor Edward G. Rendell with performances by The Dixie Hummingbirds, Marie Knight, Willa Ward with The Johnny Thompson Singers, Odetta, and The Huff Singers.

The Sister Rosetta Tharpe House was added to the local register by unanimous consent.

The Sadie T.M. Alexander House at 700 Westview Avenue in Mount Airy. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Nika Faulkner, a research intern for the Historical Commission, nominated the Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander House at 700 Westview Avenue in Northwest Philadelphia for designation. The home was built in the early 1900s in the Tudor Revival style. It features a prominent sloping roof and a central ribbon of three double-hung, four-over-four windows typical of Mount Airy.

Alexander was a pioneering African American lawyer born in Philadelphia in 1898. Her career was an outstanding series of firsts. In 1921 she was the first Black woman in the United States to graduate with a Ph.D. in economics. In 1924 she was the first Black woman to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. In 1927 she was the first Black woman to gain admission to the Pennsylvania bar. Her legal practice largely focused on civil rights. She was married to and collaborated with Raymond Pace Alexander, a prominent African American lawyer, and later judge, whose high-profile cases included the Trenton Six and the desegregation of Girard College.

In 1921, Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander was the first African American to receive a Ph.D. in economics in the United States. She was the first woman to receive a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1924. | Image: Public Domain

Several members of the Historical Commission, as well as many members of the public, pushed to retitle the nomination submitted to include Raymond Pace Alexander. Several people spoke to the lawyers as being a “power couple” and the importance of recognizing what they historically represented for Black family life in Philadelphia. Raymond Pace Alexander’s office at 1900 Chestnut Street is already on the Philadelphia Register. Their daughter, Rae Alexander-Minter, spoke to the Historical Commission in favor of adding her father’s name to nomination, describing how their Mount Airy home was an important site for both parents’ legal practice, which was often occupied by clients who couldn’t visit their office during working hours and came by after dinner. “Our parlor was filled with people. My father would see his clients in the dining room, and my mother would see her clients in the library.” Raymond Pace Alexander’s name was added to the honorific house name and the building was added to the local register by unanimous consent.

The former 23rd District Police Station, now the Sultan Jihad Ahmad Community Foundation, at 1901 W. Oxford Street. | Photo: Michael Bixler 

The Sultan Jihad Ahmad Community Foundation at 1901 W. Oxford Street was nominated by the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia. The Colonial Revival structure was originally built as a police station in 1908. It was constructed of brick and limestone and  features a low-pitched, tin-hip roof and ordered windows with fan lights.

The building served Philadelphia’s 23rd District Police until it was abandoned in 1956. North Philadelphia was a crowded, mixed-race, working class neighborhood until a demographic shift brought on by the Great Migration starting around 1916.

In 1964, influential civil rights leader and Baptist minister Reverend Leon H. Sullivan began converting the building for his Opportunities Industrialization Center (OIC). Sullivan fought for employment opportunities for African Americans as one way to overcome their financial and social subjugation in the United States.

Sullivan was born in 1922 to a poor family in Charleston, West Virginia. He became a Baptist minister at age 18, and 10 years later was appointed the minister of Zion Baptist Church in North Philadelphia. During his time in Philadelphia, Sullivan became an important part of the civil rights movement. He organized boycotts of local companies that refused to interview or hire African Americans and coined them acts of “Selective Patronage” with the popular slogan, “Don’t buy where you don’t work.” These boycotts were highly effective, gained national attention, and were emulated by other civil rights leaders.

Opportunities Industrialization Center student Robert Fisher works on a lathe at 1901 W. Oxford Street in 1965 while Reverend Leon H. Sullivan looks on. | Photo courtesy of Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center

By the 1960s Sullivan became interested in the Self Help movement, hoping to give Black people the tools and training to create their own economic independence, instead of pressuring white people to give them opportunities. The OIC was a central component of this mission.

According to the Preservation Alliance’s nomination, “ The Opportunities Schools, which would also hold classes in designated classrooms around the building, also included a Black history curriculum designed to address trainees’ learned sense of racial inferiority. The core goal for the Opportunities Schools and OIC was to provide the resources and guidance through which any African American could develop their own self-respect and self-reliance.” The OIC program gained national attention, and, at one point, there were 60 affiliated programs around the United States.

Public comments were overwhelmingly positive, and the building was added to the Philadelphia Register by unanimous consent.

8720 Germantown Avenue in Chestnut Hill. | Photo: Michael Bixler

The Yellowstone, designed by Theophilus P. Chandler and completed in 1888, was nominated by the Chestnut Hill Conservancy. The Georgian Revival home at 8720 Germantown Avenue was the original meeting space for the Chestnut Hill Village Improvement Association (CHVIA), an influential Progressive Era organization which is credited for developing Chestnut Hill into a modern elite suburb. CHVIA was considered the principle force behind Henry Houston’s work to develop West Chestnut Hill. The group was also essential in the funding and organization of building roads, sidewalks, and other public amenities after Chestnut Hill was incorporated into the City of Philadelphia. The nomination argues that, “In the most literal sense of development, The Yellowstone symbolized Chestnut Hill’s development into a modern neighborhood.”

The southeast facade of The Yellowstone circa 1903-1910. | Photo courtesy of the Naylor Collection, Chestnut Hill Conservancy Archives

Representatives of the owner spoke in support of the nomination, but asked that the outbuildings–a carriage house and a garage–not be included in the historic designation. They stated that neither structures have enough intact historical material to merit inclusion and are barely visible from the public right of way. Some debate on the topic ensued, with several members of the board and staff voicing support for “anything that avoids an appeal.” Historical Commission member Emily Cooperman voiced concern over setting the precedent of ignoring outbuildings and allowing them to be developed later as an appeasement of homeowners. Ultimately, The Yellowstone was added to the local register, without the inclusion of the carriage house or garage, by a roll call vote with only Cooperman dissenting.

Disston Memorial Presbyterian Church at 4500-06 Tyson Avenue. | Image: Google Street View

The Tacony Community Development Corporation nominated the church, parish hall, Sunday school, and garage buildings that make up the Disston Memorial Presbyterian Church at 4500-06 Tyson Avenue. The church, built in 1886, is a handsome Richardson Romanesque structure with sandstone masonry walls, shallow buttresses, arched entryways, and carved brownstone trim. The parish house was built in 1908 and built with granite masonry and limestone. The Sunday school and adjoining garage were added to the site between 1925 and 1927.

A used postcard circa 1900s showing Disston Memorial Presbyterian Church. | Image courtesy of the Presbyterian Historical Society

The church complex, like most of Tacony, was developed by the Henry Disston family and estate. Disston & Sons Keystone Saw Works operated in the neighborhood from 1872 to 1955 and built up the town to support its manufacturing. As the nomination notes, “Nearly every church in Tacony was constructed on land donated by members of the Disston family.” The Disston Memorial Church was built on the behest of Mary Disston, wife of Henry Disston. Although most Tacony residents were Roman Catholic at the time and not Presbyterian, Mrs. Disston chose to build a Presbyterian Church to honor her late daughter, who, like the rest of the family, had been a member of the Oxford Presbyterian Church. The church was designed by celebrated Philadelphia architect Edwin F. Durang, who had worked with the family before. After the church building was completed, membership continued to grow and the subsequent buildings were erected.

Representatives of the owners spoke in support of the nomination, but asked that the nomination be limited to the church and exclude the other parish structures. Ultimately, all buildings were added to the Philadelphia Register by unanimous consent.

The Ioska Tribe, No. 379, Improved Order of Red Men Lodge at 2852-56 Frankford Avenue in Kensington. | Image: Google Street View

The Ioska Tribe, No. 379, Improved Order of Red Men lodge at 2852-56 Frankford Avenue was nominated by Oscar Beisert and The Keeping Society of Philadelphia. The two story building was designed by architect Carl F. Otto and constructed in 1922 for the national fraternal organization. The nomination states,”The building served the local Kensington community during its heyday as a prosperous working-class neighborhood at a time when fraternal and masonic institutions were central to the cultural and social lives of men in the United States.” The staff of the Historical Commission recommended denial due to the controversial iconography on the main facade–a stylized image of a Native American chief.

The Improved Order of Red Men, originally called The Society of Red Men, was organized at Fort Mifflin in 1813 by former members of the Sons of Liberty. This diploma, which displays the organization’s emblematic and historical totem, was printed in 1905. | Image courtesy of Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The Historical Commission debated the issue at length with member Cooperman asking her fellow commissioners, “Buildings themselves do not act in racist ways. It’s a matter of association. Can those associations be changed?” Chair Bob Thomas noted that if the Historical Commission went through the local register and removed every organization that listed membership to white people, or men, it would have to remove a lot of landmarks. He said that the challenge should be using this building to explain the importance of the lodge system and what we as a society have learned since then. Historical Commission member Kim Washington responded, “What we’re talking about here is the architectural features of the iconography. It’s one thing if racist things happened in the building, but if the racism is displayed [in the architecture] and we are preserving that, it’s a different issue.”

Public comment was mixed, with several attendees sharing their discomfort at nominating a building with a stereotypical image so prominently displayed. Steven Pietzman spoke in support of the nomination, saying that while the image may be perceived as derogatory in a contemporary context, it can been understood as slightly more nuanced, as members of the lodge has “fanciful naive imagination of Native Americans and saw Native American men as a standard of a lost masculinity, even though they were distanced from any real knowledge of Native American culture.” Ultimately the Historical Commission voted to deny the nomination by unanimous consent.


About the Author

Celia Jailer is a contributing writer and project coordinator for Hidden City Philadelphia. A graduate of University of Massachusetts, Amherst, she has a deep interest in architectural history and preservation. Jailer also keeps an active art practice.

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