Philadelphia should be embarrassed by the condition of the John Coltrane House. Few jazz musicians are more appreciated than John Coltrane, who moved to Philadelphia in 1943 and later bequeathed the world A Love Supreme, his masterpiece album. Yet the Strawberry Mansion rowhouse, where Coltrane lived from 1952 to 1958 and where he composed the album Giant Steps, looks loveless.
The John Coltrane House, at 1511 N. 33rd Street, has been in a state of disrepair for two decades. The New York Times reported in 2003 that the “National Historic Landmark is plagued with leaking pipes, collapsing ceilings, falling plaster and cracking walls.”
I wrote about the sad state of the Coltrane House two years ago, and nothing has changed. The front steps are still crumbling and the brick is deteriorating. The condition of the load-bearing party wall remains unknown. Restoring this property to its former glory isn’t just about affirming Coltrane’s presence in Philadelphia. Preserving his house sends a powerful message to Philadelphians that this place matters; Black history matters.
With the death of the owner of record in 2007, the property has been trapped in a tangled title situation for 15 years, meaning that it is unclear who owns the property. Until legal ownership of the property is clarified and John Coltrane House Inc.’s federal tax exemption is reinstated, the family who exercises stewardship over the Coltrane House cannot apply for public funds or foundation grants.
Time could be running out to save this important piece of Philadelphia’s history.
Timing is everything
Last March, the future of the Strawberry Mansion rowhouse became more dire when a notice of demolition from the city’s Licenses and Inspections Department was posted on the property next door — 1509 N. 33rd Street. The rumor mill went into overdrive with many people worrying that the Coltrane House had a date with the wrecking ball. After all, to knock down a rowhouse hardly comes without consequence to the buildings on either side.
Ultimately, the City of Philadelphia issued a statement pledging to “work to protect” the Coltrane House.
In June 2021, City Council amended the building code to require a pre-construction survey, protective measures, and monitoring plan for excavation, new construction, or demolition work occurring within 90 feet of a building listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.
This change to the code should help buildings like the Coltrane House, which has been on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places since 1985. But timing is everything. The effective date for the new building code is Jan. 1, 2023.
That may be too late. The adjacent rowhouse will soon be humming with construction activity. L&I has issued a zoning permit. New construction could begin at any time.
Now or never
Given the poor condition of the Coltrane House, we cannot wait.
In May 2021, the Strawberry Mansion Community Development Corporation was awarded a $300,000 reimbursable grant to “restore the currently blighted Coltrane House and its neighboring blighted properties,” a loophole that allows funds to be given to a group besides the property’s owners. But little to no progress has been made in the 11 months since the money was received because of the complicated process involved in getting rehabilitation efforts approved. The Philadelphia Historical Commission must approve alterations to the exterior of the Coltrane House and the restoration plan has yet to be presented to the commission for review.
“The Strawberry Mansion rowhouse, where Coltrane lived from 1952 to 1958 and where he composed the album Giant Steps, looks loveless.”
With the clock ticking toward the neighboring home’s renovation, last month I requested a structural assessment from the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office, which recently unveiled the Historic Property Inspection Program. Through the new program, the agency will inspect properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Priority will be given to National Historic Landmarks. Periodic inspection is part of the agreement an owner signs with the National Park Service, which administers the National Historic Landmarks program. I have been advised the state agency is not able to inspect the John Coltrane House because it needs a separate agreement with the property owner.
While I am disappointed, I had little hope that a new inspection would bring about meaningful change. It is insane to continue on the same course and expect a different outcome.
So I am collaborating with Chris Hytha, a designer and visual artist, to breathe life into the rowhouse where in 1957 Coltrane “experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life.” Those are Coltrane’s words from liner notes for A Love Supreme.
Hytha will create the John Coltrane House Non-Fungible Token (NFT). Proceeds from the sale of the NFT, a unique digital artwork, will be used to fund development of the John Coltrane House Virtual Tour. Drawing on archival photos, floor plans, oral histories, and research of Coltrane scholars, we will digitally re-create the exterior and interior of the rowhouse the way it looked when Coltrane lived there. Virtual tourists will be able to go online and see, for example, the living room where jazz luminaries held jam sessions and the second-floor back bedroom where Coltrane kicked his heroin addiction cold turkey.
It is my hope the NFT and virtual tour will pique the interest of deep-pocketed Coltrane enthusiasts who will step in and petition for an Act 135 conservatorship – an alternate stewardship – to remediate the blight and restore the façade.
The John Coltrane House is one of only 67 National Historic Landmarks in Philadelphia. The list includes Independence Hall. In 2026, Americans will celebrate the 250th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The centennial of the birth of John Coltrane is Sept. 23, 2026. As the city gussies up to welcome visitors for the nation’s semiquincentennial, John Coltrane, an international jazz icon, and the John Coltrane House deserve better.
Faye Anderson is director of All That Philly Jazz, a public history project that is documenting and contextualizing Philadelphia’s golden age of jazz. To celebrate Jazz Appreciation Month, she is leading a walking tour, “Billie Holiday’s Philadelphia,” on Saturday, April 30, International Jazz Day. More information is at phillyjazz.us.