At nightfall, the Philadelphia house where Dox Thrash lived seems to transform into images he created decades ago: the black-painted window frames on the first-floor storefront and the black, sloping mansard roof evoking sharecroppers’ ramshackle cabins in rural Georgia.
For decades, artists and historic preservationists have raised alarms that the house Thrash owned at 2340 Cecil B. Moore Ave. in Sharswood was in danger of demolition by neglect. Already, despite its existence on the city’s Register of Historic Places, a previous owner had partially torn down a back wall, exposing the interior to the elements, and gutted it.
Then last month, the fight to save the house of the pioneering painter and participant in the “New Negro” movement of the 1930s and ’40s, began to finally show signs of progress.
After a summer in which three preservation activists launched a crowdfunding campaign, Beech Community Services, a North Philly development company, announced in November it acquired the property from a New York developer that had outbid Beech at sheriff’s sale almost two years prior.
“I’m confident that it will be a great project with great space supporting our community,” Kenneth Scott, president and CEO of Beech Cos., of which Beech Community Services is a subsidiary, wrote in an email. “This has been the Beech mission for community redevelopment for 30 years.”
Akeem J. Dixon, a project manager for the Thrash house for Beech, said there are plans to look for a commercial tenant for the storefront and have apartments upstairs. But those plans depend on obtaining the funding it needs, which could cost about $500,000.
“In an ideal world, in a perfect world,” said Dixon about the man who, despite his accomplishments, remains largely unknown today, “we would love to find a tenant in the same vein, in the legacy of Dox Thrash.”
Bringing the past into the future
Maya Thomas, Dana Rice, and Chris Mulford were graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania about five years ago when they began studying the Philadelphia Housing Authority’s massive Sharswood neighborhood renewal plans to create a mixed-income neighborhood.
They formed the Dox Thrash House Project to raise awareness and funds with the goal of not only saving the historic house but promoting the idea of turning it into a hub for the arts.
“It stood out as one of the last places related to the arts that is left,” said Thomas, who received her master’s in historic preservation in 2016 and now works as a project manager for a nonprofit.
On nearby Ridge Avenue, Pearl Bailey was discovered at the Pearl Theatre, and John Coltrane played the Golden Strip of jazz clubs along Cecil B. Moore. The nearby Checker Cafe, where musicians hung out before and after performances, is the only other remnant of the once-vibrant African American entertainment district where Dizzy Gillespie, Cab Calloway, and Bessie Smith often appeared.
» READ MORE: Ridge Avenue’s last standing jazz club
Eventually in 2018, Dox Thrash House Project reached out to Beech to suggest it buy the house. Instead, JAS Group LLC bought it for $86,000 in January 2019, the New York developer apparently knowing nothing about the building’s history.
Still, Beech didn’t stop trying, and began negotiating to buy the property from JAS Group. Meanwhile, the three friends continued advocating to save the site from destruction, and in June launched the Black Futures Campaign in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, with a goal of raising $100,000. They reached that goal in September.
Now Beech and the preservationists say they will work together as investor-partners and collaborate on its plans. Their efforts could even become a model for how equitable development and preservation can work in the city, said Rice, now 31 and a project architect for CICADA Architecture/Planning Inc.
“No one person or group could take this on by themselves,” said Mulford, 35 and a designer for Interface Studio Architects. “We are a group of activists, just people in the community. What we needed was a developer [like Beech] to take on the project as well.”
Before Thomas knew of the house’s history, she was drawn to its beauty, she said. Built in approximately 1895, it is an example of late Victorian architecture with a facade made with Roman brick and terra cotta details.
As she “unpeeled the layers of history,” she learned it was not only significant because of Thrash, but also for North Philadelphia businessman and community leader Shaykh Muhammad Hassan, who bought it from Thrash in 1959.
A few years after the purchase, Hassan was arrested for inciting a riot during the 1964 uprisings, and was represented at trial by the lawyer Cecil B. Moore.
It was another reason she and her friends named their appeal the Black Futures Campaign — to make sure Black history is not forgotten.
“This is a largely Black city, but all you hear about is the Liberty Bell and Ben Franklin,” Thomas said. “We can’t go see Octavius Catto’s house or where the Underground Railroad sites or where the Liberator [an abolitionist newspaper] was printed.
“We talk about Philadelphia and its institutional knowledge. What you see [as historical landmarks] is what they consciously decided to save, and that does not reflect us.”
Who was Dox Thrash?
After leaving his Georgia home at 15, Thrash traveled the country looking for work, and performing in plantation vaudeville-like acts. He wound up in Chicago at age 18. By 21, he was taking night classes at the Art Institute of Chicago and working as an elevator operator during the day.
He enlisted in the Army during World War I and was injured in November 1918 on the front lines in France. With government funding because of his Army service, Thrash returned to Chicago and enrolled full-time at the Art Institute, in 1920, graduating after three years.
He took to the road again, working odd jobs in the Northeast before arriving in Philadelphia in 1925, where he found work as a janitor, bathhouse masseuse, and later a painter for the Philadelphia Housing Authority, while pursuing his art.
After he joined the Philadelphia Fine Arts Workshop through the Depression-era Works Progress Administration arts project in 1937, he pioneered with two other artists to create the carborundum printing technique, a process where silicon carbide was used to make etchings on copper plates.
His works were exhibited at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
Allan Edmunds, founder of the Brandywine Workshop and Archives, said that, despite Thrash’s innovations “adding emotion and context to his art ... giving an interpretation that others couldn’t give,” he wasn’t taught in Philadelphia schools.
”If you said Picasso or Rembrandt, all the students, Black and white, would know who they were. They didn’t present Black artists as celebrities as they do with basketball players.”
‘The house would have been lost’
Darnetta Arce, executive director of the Brewerytown Sharswood Community Civic Association, has lived in the area most of her life.
But Arce “knew nothing” about Thrash until Thomas, Rice, and Mulford began spreading the word about him in Sharswood.
“It tells you about the rich history of the people who resided in this community and how they contributed to society,” she said.
Thrash’s paintings and prints were popular with African Americans because he portrayed them in realistic and dignified scenes of everyday life, at a time others depicted them as demeaning caricatures.
“At the height of this period of lynching and race riots, his work brought Black lives to the forefront,” Thomas said. “He was showing Black humanity in the face of all this terror and erasure.”
Rasheedah Phillips, an artist and Community Legal Services managing attorney for housing, praised the three for “putting a spotlight” on the Dox Thrash history.
“If [Thomas, Rice and Mulford] had not intervened, that house would have been lost,” Phillips said.
“As soon as the community learned about the house, they said, ‘We need to save this history as a legacy in this neighborhood.’ ”