Maya Thomas is tired of seeing African American landmarks in Philly fall by the wayside. So she’s launching a mission to save one — by making it useful to the community.
Thomas, who attended Penn to study for a master’s in historic preservation, has grown accustomed to what she calls “demolition by neglect,” i.e. when African American historical resources fall apart due to a lack of care. An example that’s received some attention is John Coltrane’s Philadelphia home, she said, which fell into disrepair over the last 20 years despite its National Historic Landmark status.
“This is what typically happens with African American resources, especially historic houses,” Thomas said.
And it’s happening with the Dox Thrash house on Cecil B. Moore Avenue, near 24th Street.
Thrash, a painter and printmaker in the mid-20th century, migrated from Georgia to Philadelphia, where he invented his own style of printmaking. Some of his works were displayed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2001.
Thomas is determined to do something about the Black artist’s former residence.
She’ll get the ball rolling this week by submitting a detailed report to various community stakeholders — people she thinks can help get funding to repair and maintain the house. The report includes an analysis of the current state of the house, her ideas for community collaborations and her plans if she can secure funding.
But it’ll be a costly undertaking. Per the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, the Thrash House is “prone to the elements and vandalism.”
Thomas knows she’ll have to make a strong case, so she’s not sticking to traditional preservation arguments. She wants to make the house useful for North Philadelphians — in a modern way.
Too much is ‘already lost’
Thrash worked as an artist in North Philadelphia for the majority of his career, and he lived on Cecil B. Moore Avenue for 13 years. He often documented what the Preservation Alliance called “the bustling street life in the city’s bourgeoning African American working-class neighborhoods.”
“His focus was to present African Americans as human beings, as people that are just like anybody else in America,” Thomas said.
Unfortunately, Thrash’s legacy has already been disrespected in several ways.
In November 2012 — long before Thomas started her preservation project — Housing and Urban Development contractors mistakenly painted over a mural that depicted Thrash creating prints.
And according to the Preservation Alliance, Thrash’s long-time studio at 2409 Cecil B. Moore Ave. (across the street from his house) “has already been lost,” leaving behind a vacant lot.
Thomas said the house is the “only resource that’s left” of Thrash in Sharswood. But it isn’t in great condition. The exterior of the building has been cited multiple times by the city. Since Thomas hasn’t yet been able to track down the current owner to get inside, she’s worried the inside might be even worse.
If she doesn’t act fast, Thomas said, she believes the house is in danger of falling apart, just like the landmarks before it.
“Currently I don’t know of anyone trying to tear it down, but if it falls over, I don’t think anyone will be sad,” Thomas said. “This is kind of like a dire situation.”
A new model
To preserve Thrash’s house, Thomas sees no choice but to get creative.
She learned the ordinary model of preserving historic homes in graduate school. Basically, she explained, it has you save everything you can in the house — including the structure and the items inside. Ideally, people will pay a fee to enter the site to look at the old environs and belongings.
“I think that model is interesting,” Thomas said, “but for the 21st century and the way that we’re using things, the way that people learn about history and look at history, I don’t think that’s going to work.”
Why not? Preservation in African American communities is “a different conversation,” Thomas said. She doesn’t believe saying, “Let’s just save history for history’s sake,” will work, because so many people living in the neighborhood are themselves in need of home repairs.
Instead, Thomas wants to make the house into a public space, owned and operated by various “stewards.”
These stewards would be community groups that can help maintain the home using grant funding, ideally from the city or the Historic Preservation for Greater Philadelphia. Since the house is next door to the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Cecil B. Moore branch, she thinks the two entities might be able to work together.
Thomas has a few ideas. She thinks the Thrash House could, alternately:
- host printmaking classes for kids
- become a satellite gallery of the Art Museum
- include space for small businesses run by Sharswood residents
“There’s space for several organizations to come into this and make money, teach the community skills, teach job-training through art,” Thomas said. “To bring that back to this neighborhood, to that community, would be life-changing.”
A community space
The Preservation Alliance seems to be in agreement with Thomas.
In June 2013, the Dox Thrash House was added to its Register of Historic Places. The Alliance also recommended it for Pennsylvania Historical Marker status, and that it “be rehabilitated as an arts facility or community center to help rekindle the artist’s vision of a dynamic creative community in North Philadelphia.”
Darnetta Arce, the executive director of the Brewerytown-Sharswood Community Civic Association, supports Thomas’s efforts.
“You’re taking a vacant, blighted property, an eyesore, and making it into a work of art, literally,” Arce said. “This could be an opportunity for an artist to come in and teach people to paint, do an art class, rent it out for parties, have actual art exhibits.”
Arce has already offered Thomas some of the Civic Association’s services — she said Thomas could use their space to host community meetings, use the computers and print flyers to raise awareness.
“We have to think out of the box,” Arce said. “How can we make it a functional place?”
This is a new way of thinking about preservation, Thomas said.
“You have to make it relevant, and you have to make it useful.”