I had not been to the John Coltrane House in three years, but I felt compelled to check in on the historic landmark.
I believe the ancestors of his legacy pushed me to go there on Aug. 31 — the same day that “Cousin Mary,” Mary Lyerly Alexander, joined them.
“Cousin Mary” is a track on Coltrane’s landmark album “Giant Steps” released in 1960 by Atlantic Records. The album was composed in the Strawberry Mansion row he shared with his mother, Alice Gertrude Coltrane, and his beloved cousin Mary.
Looking at it as it stands today, the condition of the property’s exterior is a call to action in itself. For those who are unfamiliar with John Coltrane or the massive impact his time in Philadelphia made on the genre that is jazz, here’s a synopsis.
The rowhouse located at 1511 N. 33rd Street was the jazz giant’s primary residence from 1952-1958 and his temporary home whenever he had gigs in Philadelphia. The composer and saxophonist lived in this house longer than any other during his storied career. According to the radio documentary “Tell Me How Long Trane’s Been Gone,” in 1957 Coltrane kicked his heroin habit cold turkey by day and played at West Philly’s Red Rooster jazz club at night.
On March 24, 1958, Coltrane and his then-wife Juanita Coltrane transferred the property to his mother who lived there until her death. The house was added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 1985.
Cousin Mary lived in the house until Norman Gadson purchased the property in trust for his daughter, Hathor Gadson, on Oct. 26, 2004. As trustee, Gadson held legal title for his daughter to whom the property would be transferred upon his death.
Norman Gadson died on Dec. 26, 2007.
So what’s the problem? A deceased person is the owner of record. The property was never transferred to Hathor, who is incapacitated. Additionally, her legal guardian is unknown because the records are sealed.
It is no secret the Coltrane House needs rehabilitation. Paul Steinke, the executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, said his office receives more complaints about this historic resource than any other property. Folks are rightly concerned. In 1999, the property was designated a National Historic Landmark (NHL), a historic place that holds national significance.
For magnification: There are only 67 NHLs in Philadelphia, yet the Coltrane House is the only one arguably crumbling before our eyes.
The condition of the National Historic Landmark has been talked about for years. The one person who isn’t talking is the person who has the keys to the house. Aminta Early-Gadson has a kind heart and good intentions. She also has a family that is understandably her first priority. Offers of assistance with the Coltrane House from me and others have been rebuffed.
My last communication with Early-Gadson was on June 29, 2017.
Silence is complicity and I will not be complicit to demolition by benign neglect. The country’s first World Heritage City should hang its head in shame for allowing this National Historic Landmark to become a national embarrassment.
The City of Philadelphia has several tools it can use to fix this blight on Coltrane’s legacy. The property is in violation of the Windows and Doors Ordinance which bans plywood or other boards. The city imposes a fine of $300 per opening per day.The third floor windows are not operable. The windows of the adjacent rowhouse, the former location of the John W. Coltrane Cultural Society, are covered in boards. The owner of record of 1509 N. 33rd Street is “Aminta Gadson LE [Life Estate].”
The crumbling front steps violate the Property Maintenance Code. An L&I notice of violations usually gets the property owner’s attention. So in the coming days, I will file a complaint with L&I. The complaint will not be filed out of malice; rather, it is out of concern for the deteriorating condition of the historic landmark.
L&I code enforcement is not the only tool available. Under the Abandoned and Blighted Property Conservatorship Act, neighbors, businesses and nonprofit organizations could petition the court for the appointment of a conservator. The conservator would be legally empowered to take control and enter the property to make necessary repairs. Right now, if a wealthy Coltrane fan wanted to pay for the repairs, there is no responsible organization to which to make the check payable.
Delinquent taxes are a red flag. As of Sept. 16, 2019, the real estate taxes have not been paid. The account has been turned over to a collection agency. If a payment arrangement is not made, the property could be sold at the Sheriff’s Tax Sale. The possibility of a National Historic Landmark being placed on the auction block should trigger alarm bells at City Hall.
To be sure, some folks will be mad that I said out loud what’s being whispered about. As a lifelong activist, I know saying nothing, changes nothing.
For the love of John Coltrane, I hope this forces us to all make some noise.
Faye M. Anderson is director of All That Philly Jazz, a public history project that is mapping Philadelphia’s lost jazz clubs and documenting the social history of jazz. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.