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Jenice Armstrong: Marian Anderson's South Philadelphia birthplace awaits a buyer

A TINY SOUTH Philadelphia rowhouse on the 1800 block of Webster Street, where the legendary singer Marian Anderson was born, is up for sale.

The legendary singer was born in this bedroom. (SARAH J. GLOVER / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
The legendary singer was born in this bedroom. (SARAH J. GLOVER / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)Read more

A TINY SOUTH Philadelphia rowhouse on the 1800 block of Webster Street, where the legendary singer Marian Anderson was born, is up for sale.

For only $349,900 you can own a piece of American history, maybe even turn it into a small museum and earn a little pocket change in exchange for showing out-of-towners around.

I'm guessing there won't be any takers, despite the fact that Marian Anderson is one of the most acclaimed singers of the 20th century. She's also a civil-rights icon, most celebrated for the concert she gave on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 after the Daughters of the American Revolution barred her from performing at Constitution Hall because she was black.

Philadelphians take Anderson's South Philly roots for granted, but her birth here is one of the interesting facts about our city that gives visitors another reason to come and spend some time here.

Which is why the people behind the Marian Anderson Residence Museum purchased the 840-square-foot house at 2000 Webster St. It was their intention to incorporate the birthplace into tours of the house/museum where the famed contralto once lived, at 762 Martin St., known as 762 Marian Anderson Way.

But then developers built high-end residences on empty lots that founder Blanche Burton-Lyles and curator Phyllis Sims used as a shortcut to walk to the birthplace from Martin Street.

Realizing that it's not feasible to escort the roughly 500 visitors who come to the residence each year through the tiny alley that leads to the birthplace, they decided to sell it. Proceeds from the sale would be used to offset operating costs for the museum and also fund much-needed repairs on the residence.

Listed by Century 21, the birthplace has been on the market for a couple of months for $349,900. Not a single potential buyer has asked to see it.

"People say, 'You are selling the birthplace?' I say, 'Have you given anything to maintain the legacy?' " said Burton-Lyles with a touch of indignation in her voice.

Burton-Lyles learned from her mother, who was a friend of Anderson's, that the Webster Street property was where the singer was born. The Marian Anderson Historical Society verified her mother's recollection with information found in the city's historical archives.

Burton-Lyles has owned the home for 12 years, paying about $20,000 for it. "No one knew this was her birthplace, including the man who lived here for 40 years," said Burton-Lyles, a former music student of Anderson. "The gentleman who lived here, he just shook his head when I said, 'Do you know Marian Anderson was born in your front bedroom, delivered by a midwife?' "

"We're talking about 1897," Burton-Lyles added, looking around the living-dining area that now holds a piano, a large childhood picture of Anderson with her two sisters, a hutch-style desk and an old-fashioned Victrola.

"This was the original railing," Burton-Lyles said, indicating a sturdy iron banister leading to the second floor.

At the top of the stairs, there's a bathroom in need of work. Past that, there are two bedrooms - one of which is where Anderson lived during the first months of her life with her father, John, who worked at an ice house at Reading Terminal, and mother Anna, a former schoolteacher. It's believed that they occupied one bedroom while other families resided elsewhere in the building.

"It was like a rooming house," Burton-Lyles said.

The front bedroom is sparsely decorated, no doubt similar to how it looked when Anderson lived there as a baby. Besides a small wooden cradle next to a bed, there's a black potbellied stove that someone gave to the Residence Museum.

"They did everything in here. They washed. They cooked. They made love," said museum curator Sims. "See how small the closets were? . . . All the things we take for granted today, it wasn't like that. It was hard."

Hard times are nothing new to these keepers of the flame. As my colleague Stu Bykofsky pointed out in a column earlier this year, the two Marian Anderson sites operate independently of the splashy annual Marian Anderson Awards, and these South Philadelphia homes are chronically "underfunded, underpromoted and undervisited."

The Marian Anderson museum, which was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places in April, is open by appointment. A guided tour costs $10. Run by volunteers, it's a labor of love for Burton-Lyles and Sims, a former photographer.

Anderson's residence is just one of several African-American historic sites in Philadelphia that are foundering. The former home of jazz great John Coltrane, at 1511 N. 33rd St., was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1999 but remains boarded up, awaiting restoration. And the former home of Paul Robeson at 50th and Walnut streets in West Philadelphia, while still open for tours, is in survival mode, struggling to meet monthly operating costs.

"They are jewels that are not respected to the level that they should be," said Frances Aulston, president and chief executive of the Paul Robeson House. "They're global attractions. The challenge is how do you make that connection with no money?"

And in the case of Anderson's home, money isn't the only issue. Burton-Lyles and Sims are in their 70s, and the short walk around the corner from the museum to the birthplace is too much for them. And the renovations the birthplace requires to make it museum-ready are extensive.

"We just don't have the stamina to walk all the way around. So, maybe someone else will take an interest and will want to start a museum or something of the birthplace," Sims said resignedly.

The owners said if they can't find a buyer for the birthplace, they'd consider renting it. Maybe, they said, musicians would be interested in it.

"We can't handle two properties right now," Sims said. "It's too much. So, we were hoping that we'd get some young people to come through . . . but I don't think there's that much interest in Marian Anderson's legacy as it should be, as a Philadelphia treasure. There's certainly more interest abroad than there is here."