Strawberry Mansion’s famous John Coltrane house named ‘at risk,’ boosting chance for survival

It’s already a National Historic Landmark, but is still in danger of decay.

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House: Courtesy Preservation Pennsylvania; Mural: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
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The dilapidated rowhome where John Coltrane lived in Philly just landed a big opportunity for preservation.

The Strawberry Mansion house, which fell into disrepair more than 15 years ago, was one of five properties across the state named to the 2020 Pennsylvania At Risk list.

Bestowed on a handful of locations annually by Preservation Pennsylvania, the designation doesn’t provide any immediate funding — or any guarantee of preservation at all. Instead, the list is meant to generate interest, hopefully from folks who can find a way to pay for restoration and upkeep.

“Preservation Pennsylvania hopes to work with the owners and supporters in the local preservation and jazz communities to find a way forward for this property,” said Julia Chain, the nonprofit’s associate director.

Set on 33rd Street near Oxford, the John Coltrane home received National Historic Landmark status back in 1999, and a blue historic marker sits in front of the facade. That was not enough to save the property from exterior decay.

Faye Anderson, founder of the public history blog All That Philly Jazz, nominated the Coltrane house to be included on Preservation Philadelphia’s list. She’s been frustrated for over a decade at the state of the home — so she took matters into her own hands.

“Anybody could see the Coltrane house was deteriorating,” Anderson said. “The Coltrane house is listed as a National Historic Landmark. This is a national embarrassment.”

Where Coltrane found his tune

Coltrane’s time in Philadelphia was pivotal for the influential jazz composer, musician and saxophonist.

He bought the Strawberry Mansion home in 1952, and lived there for six years with his cousin Mary Lyerly Alexander, aka “Cousin Mary.” It’s where Coltrane recovered from a heroin addiction, and where he launched his illustrious career.

While living in Philly, Coltrane joined the Miles Davis Quintet and appeared on several of Davis’ recordings. He dropped a handful of albums — “Cattin’ with Coltrane,” “Quinichette,” “Soultrane” — and in April 1957 signed a contract with Prestige Records.

After he left in 1958, Alexander kept things going. She set up a nonprofit in the saxophonist’s name, hosting backyard concerts and offering tours that showcased his music and original paintings.

It was Alexander who got the property at 1511 N. 33rd St. listed as a National Historic Landmark.

When Alexander’s health forced her into a nursing home in 2004, she sold the house to a jazz lover named Norman Gadson. Alexander died that same year — and three years later, Gadson also died, from a diabetic coma.

Without anyone to diligently care for the century-old structure, its fate became uncertain.

First listed Philly property since 2017

Over the past decade, the historic rowhome has been scarred by chipped paint, broken windows and bricks growing worn over time.

There was once a John Coltrane mural a few blocks from his home, at 32nd and Diamond — but it got the wrecking ball in 2014 to make room for an apartment complex developed by the Pennrose Company. After receiving backlash from the community, Pennrose made a significant contribution to Mural Arts so a new Coltrane mural could be repainted a few blocks away.

Gadson’s daughter, Aminta Weldon, currently holds responsibility for the home. She has said she wants to bring it back to life, and established a 501(c)3 nonprofit to collect donations and get it back to mint condition.

This is the first time a Philly property has made the list since 2017, when Jeweler’s Row ranked among Preservation Pennsylvania’s top priorities.

That’s a prime example of why the Coltrane house being named doesn’t guarantee it’ll be saved — part of Jeweler’s row is undergoing demolition right now.

For proof the list can make a difference, look to the historic Mifflin House in York County, which was named at-risk in 2017. The owner is currently offering preservationists the chance to buy and maintain the property, which advocates consider a step forward.

Anderson hopes the designation spurs local action in Philadelphia. Property records show the house hasn’t been inspected since 2012.

“We don’t want a situation where half the structure is gone before the city gets involved,” Anderson said. “We want L&I to go in and do an assessment. Our concern is that one day we’ll wake up and it’ll be in pieces.”

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