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Once ‘the center of the Black intellectual community in Philadelphia,’ the Henry O. Tanner House could be demolished

The house in Strawberry Mansion now sits neglected; the community is calling for its preservation.

Deborah Gary left, and Jacqueline Wiggins are trying to save this house where the artist Henry O Tanner, once lived. He is probably most famous for "The Banjo Lesson" in U.S. and for religion-themed paintings worldwide. The house is a city historic site and a National Historic Landmark on the 2900 block of Diamond Street,  Monday,  November 15, 2021.
Deborah Gary left, and Jacqueline Wiggins are trying to save this house where the artist Henry O Tanner, once lived. He is probably most famous for "The Banjo Lesson" in U.S. and for religion-themed paintings worldwide. The house is a city historic site and a National Historic Landmark on the 2900 block of Diamond Street, Monday, November 15, 2021.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

Preservation advocates are worried that the Philadelphia home of artist Henry Ossawa Tanner could face the wrecking ball, despite being a National Historic Landmark.

The house sits at 2908 W. Diamond St., in the Strawberry Mansion area of North Philadelphia, where Tanner lived from 1872 to 1888, although his family lived there much longer.

But despite local efforts to preserve the house, it now sits unoccupied and falling apart, and with questions about its ownership, advocates fear that it may face destruction.

“It may not be imminently dangerous enough to require immediate demolition” said Deborah Gary, co-founder of the Society to Preserve Philadelphia African American Assets. “But the more it sits and deteriorates, the more likely it is that it can’t be saved, even with its historic designation.”

Tanner was the first American artist of African descent to achieve international acclaim, according to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and is known mostly for his paintings of biblical themes.

A neighborhood’s influence

Tanner was 13 when his family moved to the house on Diamond Street, not far from East Fairmount Park, which may have been critical to his life’s work.

Tanner often told of walking to the park with his father and seeing someone painting a landscape. He decided, in that moment to become an artist.

His mother bought him paints and he spent hours, during his teens, studying the works in Philadelphia’s museums.

At 20, he enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and studied with Thomas Eakins. By the time he was 32, in 1891, he was living and studying in Paris.

Tanner spent the rest of his life in France, saying his art would suffer because of racial prejudice in the United States.

“In America, I’m Henry Tanner, Negro artist, but in France, I’m ‘Monsieur Tanner, l’artiste américaine,’” he’s quoted in Marcia M. Matthews’ book, Henry Ossawa Tanner: American Artist.

Picturing humanity

Two of Tanner’s paintings, Daniel in the Lions’ Den, and The Resurrection of Lazarus, won awards at the Salon in Paris in the late 1890s, catapulting his rise as a celebrated artist.

In the United States, however, he is especially famous for The Banjo Lesson, (1893) and The Thankful Poor, (1894), which show ordinary Black American life. In one, the older man teaches the boy how to play the banjo. In the other, the man and child bow their heads before a meal.

In each, he depicts an old man and a young boy — perhaps grandfather and grandson — with a humanity and dignity not often seen in American art of the era.

Kenlontaé Turner, curator at the Hampton University Museum in Virginia, which acquired The Banjo Lesson in 1894, said when he first saw the painting as a high school senior, “my mind was blown away.”

There is a tenderness in how the small boy leans against the old man’s knee; the grandfather cradling him as he teaches him in a simple cabin lit by the glow of a hearth fire somewhere behind them.

This painting and The Thankful Poor refuted the imagery of minstrelsy and cartoon drawings by white artists who often portrayed Black people in buffoonish stereotypes.

“I see The Banjo Lesson on the same scale as the Mona Lisa,” Turner said.

“When you think about those masters of art, it was the influence they have in their community. The work they created set the tone for a lot of art that came afterward.”

Tanner was an influence on the Black artists of the Harlem Renaissance, some of whom sought his advice when they made visits to Paris, said Rae Alexander-Minter, Henry Tanner’s grandniece.

She said she is devastated that Philadelphia does not do more to protect historic houses like the Tanner House, which her family no longer owns.

“We are destroying our history, and we are destroying the culture of the neighborhood.”

House declared unsafe

Today, the house hardly looks important. Red paint is peeling from the brick surface. Scraps of a tattered blue tarp flaps from the roof. Litter is clumped on the sidewalk. It hasn’t been lived in for some time, said Judith Robinson, director of the Strawberry Mansion Civic Association.

The house appears to be of the Greek revival form, according to the National Register of Historic Places nomination form. It was added to the registry in 1976.

In mid-August, the city’s Licenses & Inspections Department posted a violation notice that the house is “unsafe” because of damage to its roof, exterior walls, and interior floors, and that it could be demolished if not repaired.

The yellow notice got the attention of Gary, Jacqueline Wiggins, and Robinson, all members of the Society to Preserve Philadelphia African American Assets.

Gary, a business owner in Germantown who grew up in North Philadelphia, sent out an email alert asking the people and organizations who had heeded calls to protect the John Coltrane House, at 1511 N. 33rd St., also in Strawberry Mansion, to . to support protecting the Tanner House.

“We need a comprehensive preservation plan for North Philadelphia,” said Robinson. “These houses are well over 100 years old, and they need protection.” She raised the issue at a City Council meeting in October.

“There’s a disrespect concerning some of the African American assets we have,” said Wiggins, a retired Philadelphia teacher who conducts tours of historic sites. “If you’re not vigilant and not paying attention, our history can be lost,” she said.

As she stood outside the house recently, workers were busy at a new house under construction two doors away.

“The developers are coming,” Wiggins said.

» READ MORE: Preserving John Coltrane’s house can help save Philly’s soul | Opinion

Who owns the Tanner House?

Patrick Grossi, advocacy director with the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, said as a National Historic Landmark, the Tanner House could be eligible for grant money to pay for repairs.

But usually, the property owner needs to apply for those grants. And with the Tanner House, there are questions about its ownership.

Initially, L&I sent the notice to the owners on the city’s property records: Emma Thornton and her son Robert Thornton.

However, The Inquirer asked Karen Guss, an L&I spokesperson, who the notices went to, since Robert Thornton moved to Florida and died in 2018 at age 91, and Emma Thornton is also deceased.

Last week, Guss said the city found an alternative address for someone who may be the owner, but there is yet no proof of ownership. The city has not received a response yet.

Robinson’s group said that the city should make it a priority to restore important historic buildings like Tanner’s home, even if the city cannot get in touch with the owners. Robinson, who grew up in Strawberry Mansion, said she has made an appointment to meet with City Councilmember Katherine Gilmore Richardson next month to talk about historic preservation and helping family members deal with “tangled titles,” where a property owner did not leave a house to a specific family member.

“If the owners or heirs of the Tanner House reach out, we can help them get the title straightened out and get access to grant money to make repairs,” she said.

» READ MORE: City Council wants Philly to pay for urgent property repairs and bill the owners

» READ MORE: Where’s the historical marker for influential Harlem Renaissance figure? Nobody knows.

Family beginnings

Henry Ossawa Tanner was born in Pittsburgh in 1859. His middle name was taken from Osawatomie, the Kansas town where abolitionist John Brown launched his antislavery campaign.

Tanner’s father, Benjamin Tucker Tanner, born free in Pittsburgh in 1835, was a college-educated teacher and minister and later, a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

The artist’s mother, Sarah Elizabeth Miller Tanner, was born enslaved in Virginia in 1840. Her mother, Elizabeth, had 11 children, six of them with Charles Miller, a free Black man who wanted to marry her.

“Each time Miller saved enough money to purchase her freedom, the slave master increased the price,” Alexander-Minter, a research scholar at Teachers College, Columbia University, wrote in an essay.

One night, with the help of Underground Railroad agents, Elizabeth put her 11 children “in one of the master’s double-team wagons, stocked it with food, and sent them away at midnight, never to see them again.”

Members of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society met the children in Carlisle, Pa., and placed them with different families. Sarah Miller went to Pittsburgh.

The Tanner family lived in Washington and Maryland, where Benjamin Tanner worked as a pastor and educator, before arriving in Philadelphia in 1868.

That’s when he began a 16-year tenure as editor of the Christian Recorder, the A.M.E. Church’s newspaper. Twenty years later, he was elected a bishop in the A.M.E. Church.

One house, many histories

The blue historical marker outside the Tanner House tells of the artist’s achievements.

But this is a house that holds many stories.

Historian Carter G. Woodson called Tanner’s house, “the center of the Black intellectual community in Philadelphia” during its time, Alexander-Minter, 84, said.

The bishop, who had studied Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, graduated from Avery College and Western Theological Seminary and wrote several books on religion.

As a newspaper editor who wrote about the conditions facing freed Black people after the Civil War, Benjamin Tanner likely knew and met with abolitionists William Still and Frederick Douglass, said David R. Brigham, CEO of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

“Benjamin Tucker Tanner was a religious leader and a community leader,” Brigham said. “Today we would call him a civil rights leader.”

Black intellectuals such as Booker T. Washington and Woodson gathered to discuss politics and social issues.

One of the bishop’s daughters, Halle Tanner Dillon Johnson, also became the first woman — Black or white — to pass the Alabama medical board, the New York Times reported. And Washington brought her to the Tuskegee Institute to work as the school’s resident physician.

The bishop’s granddaughter, Sadie T. M. Alexander, for whom the Penn Alexander School in West Philadelphia was named, was the first Black American — male or female — to earn an economics doctorate in the United States in 1921, lived at the Diamond Street house, while pursuing her doctorate degree at the University of Pennsylvania.

She later enrolled at Penn’s Law School and became the first Black woman to graduate from the law school in 1927 and practiced law with her husband, Judge Raymond Pace Alexander.

“The house is more than the story of one person,” Alexander-Minter said. “It is the story of where Black intellectuals gathered. If the home goes down, it’s the destruction of history.”