Homes of Paul Robeson, Wilt Chamberlain, and Other Black Landmarks Listed on the Local Register

August 23, 2023 | by Kimberly Haas

The Paul Robeson House and Museum at 4949-51 Walnut Street. | Photo: Michael Bixler

The Philadelphia Historical Commission continued its efforts to improve representation of African American landmarks 0n the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places at its meeting on August 11.   Five of the six approved designations showcase diverse aspects of the city’s Black history, including the former homes of two famous Philadelphians and three organizations that provided services to the African American community.

The Paul Robeson House and Museum at 4949-51 Walnut Street was found to satisfy three criteria for historic designation. First and foremost, it is significant for its association with Paul Robeson, the concert artist, stage and film actor, and activist who spent the last decade of his life in the three-story twin home of his sister. The houses were built in 1911 by architect E. Allen Wilson and are an example of early 20th century speculative development in a mix of revival styles.

Wilt Chamberlain’s boyhood home at 401 N. Salford Street. | Photo: Michael Bixler

The childhood home of another famous Philadelphian was also added to the local register. Basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain lived at 401 N. Salford Street in the Haddington section of West Philadelphia from the age of three until leaving to attend the University of Kansas in 1955 after playing for Overbrook High School. Acknowledged as one of the all-time greatest American basketball players, Chamberlain’s career included stints with the Harlem Globetrotters, the Philadelphia 76ers and the Los Angeles Lakers.

Hotel Brotherhood, U.S.A. at 1523-29 Bainbridge Street. | Photo: Michael Bixler

The property at 1523-29 Bainbridge Street is the headquarters of the Hotel Brotherhood, U.S.A. Founded in Philadelphia in 1883, it was one of the earliest unions representing Black workers in the United States and provided medical and death benefits for African American hotel workers. In 1885, the union organized a protest against wage discrimination for Black workers that led to a retraction of a proposed pay differential by a hotel proprietor.

The former headquarters of Provident Home Industrial Mutual Life Insurance Company at 731 S. Broad Street. | Photos: Michael Bixler

731 S. Broad Street, the former headquarters of the Provident Home Industrial Mutual Life Insurance Company from 1947 to 1974, was also listed on the local register. It was one of Pennsylvania’s largest Black-owned companies at the time. Built as a house in 1879 and converted to commercial use in 1947, the building still retains original architectural elements, decorative brick work, and a bay window on its Fitzwater Street side. Its design reflects late 19th and mid 20th century architectural styles along the South Broad Street corridor.

The two Italianate homes and church building that make up the House of St. Michael and All Angels Historic District at 43rd and Wallace Streets.| Photos: Michael Bixler

The House of St. Michael and All Angels Historic District was created around three properties at North 43rd and Wallace Streets in West Philadelphia. It encompasses two Italianate twin houses and a brick church building that was individually designated in 2017. From 1887 until 1938, the buildings served as the campus of the House of St. Michael and All Angels, which was one of the first institutions in the United States established to provide services to African American children with physical disabilities. The nominators noted that it is one of the few surviving sites of institutions mentioned in W.E.B. DuBois’s 1899 book The Philadelphia Negro.

The campus of St. Michael of the Saints Roman Catholic Church at 4811 Germantown Avenue. | Photo courtesy of The Keeping Society of Philadelphia

The final designation was 4811 Germantown Avenue, the former campus of St. Michael of the Saints Roman Catholic Church, which includes the Adamson Mansion, the church, the convent, and the grotto. The mansion, home to manufacturer and philanthropist William Adamson, was built between 1874 and 1876 and is an example of Second Empire style. In its prominent location the house is a familiar feature in Lower Germantown. The buildings that comprise St. Michael of the Saints reflect the historic Italian immigrant community of the neighborhood.

The discussion also included the suggestion of expanding the period of significance to include Native American presence at the site dating back to the Woodland Period of approximately 1,000 B.C. Proponents lamented how seldom the archaeological history of a site is acknowledged and the lack of funding to investigate it, while those opposed felt there wasn’t enough evidence in this instance to support the inclusion. A narrow roll call vote declined to expand the period of significance.

St. Leo the Great Roman Catholic Church at 6670 Keystone Street was demolished in 2021 after the building was destroyed by arsonists. | Photo: Google Street View

The Historical Commission rescinded the historic designations of two sites. The vacant lot at 6670 Keystone Street in Tacony had been the location of the St. Leo the Great Roman Catholic Church, which was added to the local register in 2019 and was also included in the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey. The church building, which had closed in 2018, was demolished in 2021 following its destruction by arsonists. The Historical Commission’s rules and regulations permit the removal from the Philadelphia Register when the qualities that caused the original entry on the register have been lost or destroyed. Since the building was designated for its noted church architect, Frank Watson of Edwin F. Durang’s office, and no longer exists, the Historical Commission found cause to rescind the designation.

A drawing from 1867 of Gould & Co. Furniture’s Gould Union Depot at 37-39 S. 2nd Street. The parcel is now a breeze block-clad parking garage. | Image courtesy of The Library Company of Philadelphia.

The historic designation for the parcel at 37-39 S. 2nd Street was also rescinded. The property was added to the local register in 1977 and at that time included a four-story, 19th century commercial building that had borne different names over time, including the Second Street House and Gould & Co. Furniture’s Gould Union Depot. In 1985, the building was demolished after an arson fire caused it to be declared imminently dangerous by the Department of Licenses and Inspections. Since then, it has been the location of a parking garage and was classified as non-contributing when the Old City Historic District was created in 2003. Since the historic asset no longer exists, the Historical Commission rescinded the designation.

The Robert Purvis House, a former stop on the Underground Railroad at 1601 Mt. Vernon Street, was saved from demolition by neglect and later rehabilitated after the Spring Garden Community Development Corporation successfully placed the historic home under its conservatorship in 2018. | Photo: Michael Bixler

The PHC approved alterations to 1601 Mount Vernon Street. The property is significant in the Spring Garden Historic District for its association with Robert Purvis, the mixed-race anti-slavery activist, writer, and lecturer who resided at the property from roughly 1875 to 1898. After decades of neglect by an absentee owner, Spring Garden Community Development Corporation became the conservator of the building through Act 135 in 2018.

The alterations include restoring the front façade to its residential appearance during Purvis’s time by removing a later storefront addition. At the rear, a new three-story ell will be constructed to replace the portion that L&I demolished in 2012 to remedy a dangerous condition.

Top: An unobstructed view of the Painted Bride Art Center and the Isaiah Zagar mosaic mural at 230-36 Vine Street in 2014. Bottom: The most recent rendering by Atrium Design Group was submitted the the Philadelphia Historical Commission in July 2023. Pieces of the Zagar mural are incorporated into the design of the street level facade. | Images: Google Street View and Atrium Design Group

A request was granted for the demolition of 230-36 Vine Street and construction of a six-story mixed-use building. The site, a non-contributing building within the Old City Historic District, is best known as the home of the Painted Bride Art Center from the early 1980s until its sale in 2022. Public concern has been expressed around the fate of the mosaic by local artist Isaiah Zagar, which wraps around three sides of the building. The Historical Commission had previously declined to historically designate the mosaic, so the discussion focused on the features of the proposed new construction and how they fit into the historic district. The developer’s plans include an attempt to salvage portions of the mosaic and integrate it into the new building’s facade. “We do not know yet how much of the mosaic will be saved,” said architect Snežana Litvinović of Atrium Design Group. “It will have to be dismantled, if not fully destroyed.”


About the Author

Kimberly Haas is a staff writer for Hidden City Daily. She is a long time radio journalist, both nationally and locally with WHYY and WXPN. In particular, she enjoys covering Philadelphia’s neighborhoods, culture and history, as well as urban sustainability and public policy, in both print and audio.

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