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November 11, 2020
Chapter News

Preserving Jazz Legend John Coltrane's House in Strawberry Mansion

By Steve Baron | Urban Design Committee

The wheat paste mural of a literal hep cat jazz musician holding a tenor saxophone on a boarded-up rowhouse window in Strawberry Mansion gives away that this is not just any deteriorating row house – but rather the former home of pioneering African-American jazz legend John Coltrane.

Coltrane and his Classic Quartet are best known for their “sheets of sound” of free jazz during the 1960s. He’s quoted as saying, “I have no fear about my music being too way out - my goals remain the same, … to uplift people as much as I can, to inspire them to realize more and more of their capacities for living meaningful lives - because there certainly is meaning to life.” [1]

In 1943, he joined the Second Great Migration of African-Americans, moving from rural North Carolina and after serving in WWII, in 1952, he bought this handsome Dutch-gabled house at 1511 North 33rd Street facing Fairmount Park. [2]  It is in Philadelphia where Coltrane got his jazz start.

Coltrane released his first two leading albums in 1957: “Coltrane” and “Blue Train.” He lived in Philadelphia full-time from 1952 – 1958.  His cousin Mary Alexander (of his dedicated track “Cousin Mary”) continued his legacy. Alexander founded the John W. Coltrane Cultural Society and successfully garnered the house listing on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 1985, normally preserving it from demolition, and as a rarefied National Historic Landmark in 1999. [3]

Unfortunately, the Strawberry Mansion house has steadily deteriorated. Alexander sold the house to the developer Norman Gadson, whose daughter Aminta Weldon formed a nonprofit to rehab the house. In 2013, the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia hosted a community-led planning charrette. [4]  Still, Strawberry Mansion faces increasing development pressure – with one developer recently covering over Ernel Martinez's prominent John Coltrane mural done for Mural Arts Philadelphia. [5]

Demolition by neglect also looms large as a potential risk for the Coltrane House as well as other historic structures contributing to the legacy of African-American history in the City of Philadelphia.  Preservation Pennsylvania named the John Coltrane House among 2020's most at-risk sites. Preservation and turning the house into a museum and community center with music lessons for youth could be an ideal solution. [6]

Photos by Sophia Lee

Works Cited

[1] “Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary,” Directed by John Scheinfeld. performances by Denzel Washington, Meteor 7 and Crew Neck Productions, 2016.

[2] “The John Coltrane House: National Historic Landmark Nomination.” National Parks Service. 1999.

[3] Goodin-Smith, Oona. “Philadelphia Jazz Great John Coltrane’s House ‘At Risk,’ Preservationists Say.” Philadelphia Inquirer. 8 February 2020.

[4] Mote, Christopher. “At Coltrane House, Getting Closer To The Dream.” Hidden City Philadelphia. 25 March 2013.

[5] Laughlin, Jason. “The Threat to a John Coltrane Mural Shows How Development Can Erase Black History in Philly.” Philadelphia Inquirer. 29 July 2020.

[6] Anderson, Faye. “Opinion: Preserving John Coltrane’s House Can Help Save Philly’s Soul.” Philadelphia Inquirer. 16 February 2020.


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