Preservation

Hope is on the Horizon for the John Coltrane House in Strawberry Mansion

March 19, 2024 | by Kyle Bagenstose

A lifetime ago, the music of John Coltrane rang out from Strawberry Mansion, echoing in city’s jazz clubs before ricocheting around the world. It was a blistering energy that revolutionized the genre and changed millions of lives. Then it all burned out much too soon. John Coltrane died in 1967 at the age of just 40, and the community he once called home in Philadelphia fell on hard times as white flight, deindustrialization, and global economic trends hollowed the city from the inside out.

You can’t kill a dream, and one is still alight in Strawberry Mansion, its embers kept warm by the generations that followed Coltrane. After years of high hopes and disappointing delays, the dream now has a chance. Earlier this month news arrived that 1151 N. 33rd Street, a historic three-story rowhouse that Coltrane called home in the 1950s, will likely receive a significant rehabilitation after facing decay over the past few decades. At the very least, it appears the home will be saved from a potential date with the wrecking ball and its integrity preserved for the foreseeable future.

The John Coltrane House, a national and local historic landmark in Strawberry Mansion, has suffered from neglect over the last few decades. | Photo: Peter Woodall

Yet, for those like Tonnetta Graham, executive director of the Strawberry Mansion Community Development Corporation, the potential soars much higher. Following a visioning effort led by her organization in 2021, Graham is confident that the home will be converted into to a public museum, buoyed by an adjacent cultural center and outdoor space that will bring music back to this historic block and serve as an engine for greater revitalization in Strawberry Mansion. “33rd Street is like our gateway,” Graham said. “We have so many exciting activities along that gateway, but there’s hardly any signage on the street to let you know about all of these things in the immediate area.” However, what comes next for Coltrane’s old haunt isn’t up to Graham. Instead, the decision lies with the building’s new owners.

Tangled Title, Arrested Development

John Coltrane in the Netherlands in 1963. | Photo courtesy of the Dutch National Archives, The Hague

Anyone who has ever studied the European monarchies of yesteryear knows how hard it can be to keep track of who succeeded who on the throne. They should see the complicated real estate records on Coltrane’s Philadelphia home. Numerous sources agree that Coltrane bought the home in 1952. Most authoritatively, a 1985 nomination to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places authored by Randal Baron of the Philadelphia Historical Commission states Coltrane paid $5,416 for the Victorian rowhouse that year and lived there initially with his mother, Alice Blair, and his cousin, Mary Alexander. “When he married, the couple lived in the house with the extended family,” the nomination states. “Even when Mr. Coltrane bought a new house close to New York to be at the center of the jazz scene, he still considered this house to be his home.”

After Coltrane’s passing from liver cancer on Long Island in 1967 things got messy in Philly. For much of the next half century most accounts of the ownership of Coltrane’s home went something like this: first it passed to his mother. Upon her death in 1967, it went to his cousin Mary Lyerly Alexander. Then, in 2004, Alexander sold the house to Norman Gadson, an unrelated real estate developer and jazz enthusiast. When Gadson died in 2007 he left it to his wife, Lenora Early, who passed away in 2015. That ostensibly left it in the hands of Gadson’s two daughters,  Aminta [Gadson] Weldon and Hathor Gadson. But running alongside all of these generally-accepted transfers in ownership was another claim: that everything that came after 2004 was legally invalid.

A ticket to John Coltrane’s legendary performance at Temple University on November 11, 1966. The concert was recorded that night and released 48 years later in 2014. | Image courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

In a particularly high-profile case of the City’s rampant problems with titled tangles, Coltrane’s two living sons, Ravi and Oran, have claimed that Mary never had the legal rights to sell 1511 N. 33rd to Gadson that year. Instead, a 2022 Philadelphia Inquirer piece referencing court documents reveals, the sons claimed that Coltrane and his first wife “gave the house to Coltrane’s mother, Alice [Blair] Coltrane, in 1958.” “When Alice [Blair] Coltrane died on Sept. 4, 1977, her will gave [cousin Mary Alexander] ‘the right and privilege to live on the premises 1511 N. 33rd St., … during her lifetime,’”  the Inquirer reported, citing the Coltranes’ lawsuit. Thus, ownership never technically never passed to Alexander, and upon her death in 2019, should have passed to Coltrane’s sons, they claimed.

But the Gadson family pushed back in court, leaving doubt hanging over the fate of the Coltrane House. Then, in May 2023 the Inquirer reported, a “tentative settlement was reached to restore ownership to the Coltrane brothers,” contingent on a financial settlement. In early March 2024,  The New York Times reported that a final agreement had been reached.

According to the New York Times, the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation will jointly fund the settlement as a part of a wider, new effort to protect buildings important to Black history and culture called the Descendants and Family Stewardship initiative.

The details remain murky. While the program is funded at $5.2 million, it is unclear how much of that will be going toward the John Coltrane House. And while the Times reported that the ownership of the home will return “back to his family,” the Inquirer reported ownership of the home will actually transfer to the Friends of the John and Alice Coltrane Home, a nonprofit that currently manages a separate home Coltrane owned on Long Island. Graham says it is also her understanding the home will go to a nonprofit. However, Paul Steinke, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, which also has been active in efforts to preserve the home over the years, said it is his understanding that ownership, and thus decision making power, will indeed go to the family. “I don’t have answers on what is coming next,” Steinke said.

A Troubled Past

The John Coltrane House in 2000. | Photo courtesy of Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress

Historical newspaper records first make mention of a home at 1151 N. 33rd Street in 1900. By 1906, a real estate listing for the address in the Inquirer advertises a four-room, two-bath home with a front porch directly across from Fairmount Park.

The 1985 historical nomination for the house describes it as “standing in a row of decorated three-story rowhouses,” built of red brick and containing “many of the design features typical for the area including a second floor bay and a spacious front porch.” As is still visible today, the nomination noted that the exterior of the home forms an alternating pattern with its neighbors, with the John Coltrane House featuring an angular bay, Palladian third story window, and flemish gable roofline, contrasted by rounded features and an Italianate cornice on the adjacent properties.

What’s more interesting is what went on inside the home, which historical records show was a key setting in both Coltrane’s musical career and private life. A February 1987 Inquirer article states Coltrane first came to Philadelphia at the age of 17 when his mother, aunt, and cousin Mary all relocated from High Point, North Carolina, as “one of many Black families then migrating north.” Coltrane worked for a time at a sugar refinery and Campbell Soup plant, the article reported, before joining the Navy in 1945. During his time in the service Coltrane spent a year in Hawaii and played in a Navy band. Upon returning to Philadelphia, Coltrane attended the Ornstein School of Music. The Inquirer article provided a second-hand quote from instructor Mike Guerra. “He was a very nice boy, but he had a funny sound.”

Of course, Coltrane’s unconventional playing style would indeed elevate him to legendary status. After a 1950 road trip with Dizzy Gillespie, the article states, Coltrane continued playing at city jazz clubs such as Cafe Society, the Zanzibar, and the Blue Note. In 1952, using a G.I. loan and some of his mother’s savings, he bought the 33rd Street home.

“In the early ‘50s, the neighborhood was still heavily Jewish; the white flight that would empty Columbia Avenue [now Cecil B. Moore] of stores and turn the neighborhood nearly all Black was just beginning,” the 1987 Inquirer article explains. Quoting cousin Mary Alexander, the piece further cites the home as the location where Coltrane composed his 1958 album Blue Train and as his primary home base until 1960. The recent New York Times piece also quotes son Ravi Coltrane confirming that “many of the pieces” on that album were indeed composed at the house, along with the 1959 ballad “Naima,” named after Coltrane’s then-wife Juanita Naima Grubbs.

However, these were also dark times for Coltrane. By 1957, he was suffering greatly from drug and alcohol addictions, which lead to Miles Davis firing him from his band. By many accounts, Coltrane’s Philadelphia home had often been a place of refuge, and now it would serve as the site of a transformational moment in his life when he quit substances cold turkey. By biographer J.C. Thomas’ telling, Coltrane announced he was going to quit drugs and alcohol before locking himself in his room on 33rd Street for a week, subsisting only on water. “Coltrane came home to that house, basically locked himself in a room for a while, and just kicked his heroin habit,” music historian and archivist and Hidden City contributor Jack McCarthy told journalist Shaunice Ajiwe in a 2022 piece she wrote for Philadelphia magazine. “In the process, he had a spiritual and musical awakening that put him on this new path that literally transforms jazz. The direction of jazz was foundationally changed by Coltrane’s spiritual transformation in that house.”

A interior view of the living room at the John Coltrane House in 2000. | Photo courtesy of Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress

Coltrane also conveyed the significance of his 1957 refuge in his own words within the album notes of his 1965 album A Love Supreme: “During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music. I feel this has been granted through His grace. ALL PRAISE TO GOD,” Coltrane wrote.

Unfortunately, while Coltrane found a path to greater glory at 1511 N. 33rd Street, the home’s worst days were still ahead of it. In the successful 1985 nomination to Philadelphia’s historic register, the house was claimed to be in “much of the same condition” as when Coltrane lived there, including original details such as a decorative tile floor on the entrance foyer, numerous stained glass windows, glazed tile wainscotting, and carved newel posts. Just two years later, the Inquirer reported that many Coltrane mementos still existed in the home, including photographs and plaques bearing numerous musical accolades.

Yet, in a letter to the Philadelphia Historical Commission that year, obtained by public historian and Faye Anderson, director of All That Philly Jazz, then-resident cousin Mary Alexander asked for help in preserving the property. “We are very much concerned about the condition of our property,” the letter, relayed in a 2022 post on the TheArtBlog.org, stated. “The building seems to be crumbling inside. Please advise us as to what can be done about this. For two years we have tried to get someone to look into this matter.” It appears no significant help ever arrived. While the home was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1999, Alexander dispensed of it just five years later to the Gadson family. From there its stewardship is a matter of some dispute. In legal filings, the Inquirer reported, members of the Gadson family claimed to have maintained the house and made some repairs, while the Coltrane family said available evidence pointed toward the contrary. Regardless, by the 2020s, the home was listed on Preservation Pennsylvania’s 2020 roster of “at risk” sites.

Anderson described the home as “deteriorating right before our eyes.” in an Inquirer op-ed. “The front steps are crumbling. Drone photos show damage to the chimney and rotting materials and holes in the exterior wall,” she wrote.

A Brighter Future?

Saint John Will I Am Coltrane was created by spiritual icon painter Mark Dukes in 1992. | Image courtesy of Saint John Coltrane Church

Despite the downward trajectory of the home since the heyday of Coltrane’s occupancy, all parties involved appear to have maintained at least a dream of something better.  In 1987, Alexander told the Inquirer that she hoped to develop a cultural and community center in the neighborhood to keep Coltrane’s legend alive. “We want to teach children how many musicians from Philadelphia have come through and made it,” she said.

Steinke said that after Gadson acquired the property in 2004, healso “really tried to honor the legacy of Coltrane.” But Gadson passed away just a short time later in 2007 and left the home to his wife, Lenora Early. 

In 2013, the Preservation Alliance received a Pew grant to perform a community engagement project and visioning study for the Coltrane house. Ultimately, the organization came up with several potential recommendations for preservation and revitalization of the property for educational and community purposes, going so far as to enlist Center City architectural firm Kelly Maiello Architects to draft designs.

Steinke said Early was involved and supportive, but momentum stalled out when she died in 2015 and the Preservation Alliance had trouble reaching her daughters, who were thought to have inherited the home.

A breakthrough appeared to arrive in 2021 when Graham, director of Strawberry Mansion CDC, said she was able to make contact with Aminta Gadson, who in turn agreed to take part in a new feasibility study and effort to revitalize the home. This time, the momentum was even greater. According to Ajiwe’s 2022 Philadelphia Magazine piece, Sharla Russell, a former neighborhood development and planning specialist with City Council President Darrell Clarke’s office, helped to secure more than $800,000 in funding repairs, including $300,000 from a state blight remediation program and $500,000 from the Mellon Foundation. The nonprofit Community Design Collaborative was brought in to lead the feasibility study, which again enlisted KMA architects and organized a wide range of stakeholders and experts to discuss what could come next. Graham said the study ultimately led to three potential options. However, it was the last and most ambitious option to convert the home and adjacent properties into a large John Coltrane Museum and Cultural Arts Center that drew the most support.

John Coltrane’s cousin Mary L. Alexander and supporters of preserving the home in 1995. | Photo: Elena Bouvier via Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia

In that three-phase plan, the two properties to the left of the Coltrane House would be purchased and all parcels repaired, stabilized, and prepared for use. Phase two would involve interior improvement, converting the adjacent parcels into a museum, and creating community and programming spaces. Phase three would bring in a now-empty lot three plots down from the Coltrane House, and combine it with the connected backyards of all properties to create an outdoor performance space.

Graham, who grew up in Strawberry Mansion and recalls days when Cousin Mary would hold programming at the house and musicians still dominated the neighborhood, hopes to restore that sense of vibrancy. Due to its location in the “gateway” of Strawberry Mansion, she believes it could draw people to the neighborhood and direct them to other points of interest nearby, like The Discovery Center and new horse stables. “We’re missing that public, community space,” Graham said. She added that much of the funding previously awarded to help restore the exterior of the Coltrane House and adjacent properties remains available, but has been sidelined as the legal battle over the deed continued. Now that a resolution is apparently in hand, it freshly opens up possibilities for restoration.

Ravi Coltrane, interviewed by the New York Times, said that the latest round of funding tied to the settlement is “very much needed for any repairs and restorations.” “We certainly hope within the next few years to completely stabilize the home and foundation,” he said. “We are all on board with the mission of opening the house to the public and having it there in the community as something symbolic of what John Coltrane was able to do there, which is to be a beacon for the highest possibilities of creative achievement.” That sounds awfully close to the recommendations laid out by the 2013 and 2021 studies, Graham said she remains hopeful that she and the new owners will indeed share the same dream.  “We’re ready to work with them.”



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About the Author

Kyle Bagenstose is an independent journalist based in East Mt. Airy. Previously with USA Today, he writes primarily about environmental and urban topics.

One Comment:

  1. Ty Stephens says:

    This is fantastic and absolutely necessary and appropriate to the John Coltrane legacy and Philadelphia history. As our city is in need of this kind of re-infusion of its international identity as a major music capitol. From Coltrane and Billie Holiday to American Bandstand to Philadelphia International Records to Will Smith and Jazzy Jeff and Jill Scott and whole neo-soul, to mention only a few, music is part of Philly’s legacy and John Coltrane is still leading the way!

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