Secret Philly

Inside Marian Anderson’s South Philly home, where the classical singer made history

Because she was Black, the contralto gained international renown before she was recognized in her native city.

A portrait of Marian Anderson hangs in her former home, now a museum

A portrait of Marian Anderson hangs in her former home, now a museum

Photo: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY; Clips: Philadelphia Inquirer via Free Library archives
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Updated November 13 at 9 a.m.

Nearly 100 years later, Marian Anderson’s South Philadelphia rowhome is almost exactly the same as when she purchased it in 1924.

The original wood floors, tread upon by musical greats like Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, are only slightly worn. The walls wear the same eggshell paint, and the 1920s plumbing is still in place. Many of the furnishings belonged to Anderson herself, including two intricate wooden chairs upholstered in red floral silk. The phone Anderson and her family used sits beneath an original copy of her first record.

Visitors often say they can feel renowned classical singer’s spirit throughout what is now the Marian Anderson Historical Society and Museum.

The historic property at 762 Martin Street continues to soldier on without much financial support. In the mid-1990s, former “child sensation” pianist Blanche Lyles-Burton purchased the home with her own money. Anderson had adopted the gifted young instrumentalist as her protege, so Lyles-Burton dedicated herself to keeping the house open in her mentor’s memory.

“It’s sad because we have no big donor, we have no help, no support,” said Jillian Patricia Pirtle, who has run the museum and historical society since Lyles-Burton’s death on this day last year. “But we as the millennial generation are doing what we have to do to keep the legacy alive.”

Indeed, tucked inside the modest museum, there’s a lion-sized legacy to maintain.

Marian Anderson perfumed at the Lincoln memorial for 75,000 people in 1939

Marian Anderson performed at the Lincoln memorial for 75,000 people in 1939

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Overseas fame after American rejection

You may have seen an image of one of Anderson’s most iconic American moments, when she sang before 75,000 people at the Lincoln Monument.

The concert took place only after a prominent social group called the Daughters of the Revolution blocked Anderson from singing at Washington D.C.’s Constitution Hall because of her race.

During her career, Anderson’s talent was never fully recognized or accepted in her native country because of the color of her skin, but she became a pioneer nonetheless. She sang at the White House in 1939, and in 1955 became the first Black soloist to perform at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City.

It wasn’t until after Anderson’s notable overseas success that her hometown paper called her “Philadelphia’s most famous living singer.” That was in 1937. A year prior, the Inquirer admitted Anderson “had a much finer reputation in Russia, France, Italy, Belgium, Holland, England and other cities on the continent than here in her own country.”

In the thick of Jim Crow America, Anderson created her own space and fame, right out of the house that now memorializes her life.

Its curator is acutely aware of the history she cares for. “African Americans could eventually perform at the Academy of Music but… they were not able to get open table seating in a restaurants in Center City Philadelphia,” Pirtle told Billy Penn.

“So Marian Anderson decided to use her home as a second hub and oasis for those people of color that were artists coming into our city…to be able to have a place to dine.”

The Marian Anderson House was built in 1857 and purchased by Anderson with money she made touring in 1924

The Marian Anderson House was built in 1857 and purchased by Anderson with money she made touring in 1924

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

‘Marian: A Soul in Song’

The 1900-square-foot museum smells like berry candle wax intertwined with wafts of a familiarity, like a real, lived-in house. It’s also overflowing with neatly placed artifacts chronicling the life and times of the great contralto singer, who was born in 1897.

Anderson was a chronic collector, and kept so many special things that the society opens brand new exhibits annually.

“Ms. B wanted the experience that when you come to the Marian Anderson Museum it never looks the same,” Pirtle said of her lifelong mentor Lyles-Burton, the prodigious pianist.

This year’s exhibit is called “Marian: A Soul in Song.”

It highlights Anderson’s career as the first African American artist to sign a contract with RCA Victor Records, sometime in the 1930s. On display is the Steinway grand piano where Lyles-Burton sat as a child at and entertained Anderson’s famous guests, people like Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald and Lena Horne.

Guests are transported back in time as Pirtle, a licensed historian and classically trained soprano, recounts how “little Blanche” entertained the prestigious yet ostracized crowd.

“If you could imagine just having all of those artists that were our history makers, our music makers, our art makers, in this room and in the house,” Pirtle said, “and a little girl playing Shubert and Mozart for them, it’s just exceptional.”

In a room adorned with some of Anderson’s original gowns and shoes, visitors will find Anderson’s first album cut with Victor Records in 1923, when the company was based in Camden.

The top of the three-story museum celebrates founder Lyles-Burton, who was a musical trailblazer in her own right. She was the first African American woman pianist to receive a degree from the Philly-based Curtis Institute of Music, which she got into after a recommendation from Anderson. Visitors can reserve a tour by calling the Museum at ​(215) 779-4219.

A statuette of Marian Anderson, a gown she performed in, and her birth certificate

A statuette of Marian Anderson, a gown she performed in, and her birth certificate

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Separate awards, each with a different purpose

Anderson’s life is now commemorated annually with two distinctly separate awards.

The historical society hosts its own awards in the vein of the scholarship program established by Marian Anderson in the mid 1900s. The initiative waned after Anderson’s death, but was revived by Lyles-Burton in 1998. On Dec. 21, the society honors four young classical music performers in a ceremony at the historic Chapel of Four Chaplains at the Navy Yard.

Meanwhile, the much-promoted Marian Anderson Awards gala honors already-established musicians, this year Kool & the Gang. Hosted by television journalist and personality Tamron Hall at the Kimmel Center on Tuesday, this annual event is not connected to or involved with the Marian Anderson Historical Society and Museum.

On Saturday, Nov. 16, the historical society is hosting another event: its 22nd Anniversary Celebration Concert.

The concert will be held at the Chapel of Four Chaplains and will feature a performance of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess by the Marian Anderson scholar artists. Tickets for the event are on sale for $50.

For those performing, including Pirtle, it has been a labor of love.

“We’ve got to do it, because if we don’t,” Pirtle said, “nobody’s going to be here to tell [Marian’s] story. Her legacy is going to die.”

Jillian Patricia Pirtle an opera performer and CEO and owner of the Marian Anderson Museum, holds a photo of her deceased mentor  Blanche Burton-Lyles, classical pianist, in front of a painting of Burton-Lyles’ mentor, Marian Anderson

Jillian Pirtle holds a photo of her deceased mentor Blanche Burton-Lyles, classical pianist, in front of a painting of Burton-Lyles’ mentor, Marian Anderson

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

This story has been updated to include the address and phone number for the Marian Anderson Historical Society and Museum.

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