The Drama Around Turning the John Coltrane House Into a Philly Jazz Monument
Plans to turn the jazz legend’s crumbling former home into a museum are falling apart amid legal wrangling and infighting. Will this precious piece of Philly history survive?
Sixty-four years ago, in a charming 19th- century rowhome in the southernmost corner of Strawberry Mansion, there lived a giant. John Coltrane was a few years out of his naval service in World War II, with a couple of valor medals and an alto sax to his name.
In 1943, a 17-year-old Coltrane had relocated from his birthplace in North Carolina, coming north with his family in the latter half of the Great Migration. Two years later, at the Academy of Music, Coltrane heard Charlie “Bird” Parker play. Bird’s performance on the sax that night hit him “right between the eyes” and awakened him to the more theoretical aspects of music.
After a year-long stint at Pearl Harbor, where he played in the base’s band and made his first recording, he returned to the fertile jazz scene of 1940s Philadelphia, living with his mother in an apartment a few blocks east of Temple. Before long, he was playing in rooms with the best of the city’s best — Odean Pope, Hasaan Ibn Ali, Dennis Sandole. In 1952, he paid a little over $5,000 for a three-story brick house for him and his family, with modest Doric columns on its pedimented porch overlooking the green of Fairmount Park.
He was a rising star in the jazz world. Then, in 1957, as Coltrane was suffering from dueling drug and alcohol addictions, Miles Davis fired the unreliable saxophonist. It was a pivotal point for Coltrane, for jazz, and for the house that still sits at 1511 North 33rd Street.
“Coltrane came home to that house, basically locked himself in a room for a while, and just kicked his heroin habit,” says music historian and archivist Jack McCarthy. “In the process, he had a spiritual and musical awakening that put him on this new path that literally transforms jazz. The direction of jazz was foundationally changed by Coltrane’s spiritual transformation in that house.”
Like many jazz cats riding the upward trajectory of their careers, Coltrane eventually relocated to New York City. He left the North 33rd Street property to serve as a home for family members and an alternate residence for him until his death in 1967, which is when the title passed to his mother, Alice (not to be confused with his wife, also Alice). After his mom’s death 10 years later, the property passed to Mary Lyerly Alexander, inspiration for the track “Cousin Mary” from Coltrane’s celebrated 1960 album Giant Steps.
For decades, Lyerly Alexander lived in and lovingly maintained the home as an homage to her first cousin’s life and legacy, inviting local performers and enthusiasts over for concerts and eventually founding the John Coltrane Cultural Society. By 1999, the home had been designated a National Historic Landmark, earning a shiny blue sign from the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission and a place on both the Philadelphia and the National Registers of Historic Places. The little house on the edge of Fairmount Park was shaping up to be a shining memorial to the place where jazz changed forever.
More than 20 years later, we’re still waiting.
In the decades to come, the house suffered tragedy after tragedy. Lyerly Alexander had previously sounded an alarm about its condition in 1987, writing in a letter to the Philadelphia Historical Commission that it “seems to be crumbling inside” and asking for advice. “For two years we have tried to get someone to look into this matter,” she wrote, underlining “someone” for emphasis. But in the wake of health problems and the death of her husband, Lyerly Alexander, then 76, sold the property to Norman Gadson, a local developer and jazz lover. Gadson had big dreams of transforming the rowhome into a booming music venue — dreams that many jazz aficionados would come to share. But just three years after finalizing the purchase, Gadson died, leaving the future of the property in the hands of his wife, Lenora, and their two daughters.
Cousin Mary, the last member of the Coltrane family to own and live in the house, died in 2019. Today, the paint on its facade is chipped; plywood covers the back windows, and the front steps are crumbling. A 2012 Licenses & Inspections investigation deemed the structure unsafe, and properties on either side have had their own issues, from fires to looming demolition. The dream was fading.
With Lyerly Alexander’s death, the condition of the home spread on social media. (And, as is wont to happen, misinformation ensued when a misread demolition report caused folks to think the house was set for demolition. It was actually the house next door.)
While news blazed across the internet, it spread more quietly around the Strawberry Mansion community, eventually making its way to City Hall. “My mother used to make us wash walls listening to John Coltrane,” says Sharla Russell, a former neighborhood development and planning specialist with City Council President Darrell Clarke’s office. “It was like torture.” But Russell loved music and even enjoyed a career producing jazz concerts in Los Angeles before becoming an urban planner. That background came in handy when a friend of the Gadson family, who worked at the Strawberry Mansion Community Development Corporation, a neighborhood-focused nonprofit, approached her with a proposition to partner with the organization to resolve the issues surrounding the house from a planning perspective. Russell hopped on board and helped secure more than $800,000 in funding for repairs, including $300,000 from the state’s blight remediation program and $500,000 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. It was a promising start, though far short of what it would actually cost to restore the house and open it to the public.
“The project itself, to me, is a no-brainer,” Russell says. “It needs to be done. It should be done. To me, it’s not difficult to do. What’s difficult is all of the roadblocks … like, why is this happening when everybody really wants the same thing?”
Before Russell’s involvement, there were multiple attempts to restore the house, all seeking to transform it into a museum of sorts. According to Paul Steinke, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, the organization snagged a grant from the Pew Center for Arts Heritage in 2013 to fund a community engagement process, a master plan, and a feasibility study, with the goal of turning the home into a center for music, education and community activities. But just two years later, Lenora Early, the late Norman Gadson’s wife, who was then steward of the Coltrane House, also died suddenly, leaving the project and the site without a caretaker. The master plan was ultimately never implemented.
“It’s one thing to come up with a vision of how a property can be repurposed,” Steinke says. “It’s an entirely different thing to raise the money and put in place the financing to both build and then operate such a place. And we were hoping we would spark that kind of follow-up, but it never came to pass. No one stepped forward.”
In May 2021, a new feasibility study led by volunteer architects, engineers and cost estimators seemed like a ray of hope, garnering awards and media attention. The plan included new architectural designs and aimed to make adjacent properties part of a grand cultural arts center and museum encompassing most of the block. There was skepticism, yes, but to those involved, it seemed like things were finally going somewhere. The planners had the support of the City Council president’s office and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding. They forged a partnership between the SMCDC and the owners of the house and were working on gaining site control from the city of the desired parcels of land. Grant-writing and fund-raising were going full steam ahead. Then the lawsuit came.
On April 27th of this year, Coltrane’s two living sons, Ravi and Oran, filed a lawsuit against Aminta Weldon and Hathor Gadson, Norman Gadson’s daughters. The suit sought to eject them from their possession of the house, invalidate the 2004 deed, and quiet the title. The beginning history of the Coltrane House’s ownership is relatively clear-cut — Coltrane bought it and in 1958 conveyed it to his mother Alice, who made Cousin Mary executrix of her estate. It’s with Cousin Mary’s tenure that things fall apart.
The complaint cites Alice’s will, which specifies that Cousin Mary only had “the right and privilege to live on the premises” and states that upon her death, the home “with all the furniture and personal property contained therein is to be given to [Alice’s] grandchildren.” The Coltranes allege that Gadson may have paid a third party for a “sham deed” and that “none of the transactions involving the Coltrane House that occurred after 1982” — including those that resulted in Aminta Weldon’s current possession — were “lawful, valid, or authorized.” (While the house was purchased by Norman Gadson, the recorded deed only names him trustee, with the property held in trust for his daughter Hathor. Aminta was named legal guardian of her sister and her estate in 2015, after their mother died. Neither daughter currently lives in the home.) The daughters responded by asking the court to name them the legal owners and, in their counterclaims, requested that the Coltranes repay them the $100,000 that their father paid for the house, plus other expenses, if the brothers are instead awarded the title.
Legally unclear ownership isn’t rare in Philadelphia, particularly in low-income neighborhoods and among families without the money or expertise to untangle titles themselves — a result of larger systemic issues like historically discriminatory policies that limit estate planning among certain households. In Philadelphia alone, more than $1 billion in property and more than 10,400 deeds are wrapped up in tangled titles.
But the lawsuit, while the latest hurdle, is just one of several issues surrounding Coltrane House. Faye Anderson, a public-policy consultant and preservationist who’s been following the plans for the Coltrane House as well as the maintenance of other Philadelphia jazz landmarks since 2013, was among the first to break the news of the lawsuit on Twitter, following up with shocking photos of the home’s interior showing dust, debris and damage. Since the early days of the current rehabilitation endeavor, Anderson has been critical of what she calls a “40-year pipe dream” and its estimated $5.8 million price tag.
The proof is in the public records, she says. To pay off outstanding taxes on the Coltrane House, last year Aminta sold 1509 North 33rd Street, also owned by her and her sister, to a developer. Yet in late October, Office of Property Assessment records on the Coltrane House still showed a balance owed of more than $4,000. And just months prior, in March, adjacent properties at 1513 and 1515 North 33rd Street, both owned at the time by city agencies and intended to be part of the project, caught fire. Since the Coltrane House is privately owned, advocacy organizations like the Preservation Alliance and government agencies like Licenses & Inspections are unable to step in and rehabilitate or stabilize the structure; meanwhile, the unclear ownership status may entirely tie up government assistance to rehabilitate the site. What’s more, Anderson points out, the grants already obtained are now up against the wire. “It’s a two-year grant,” she says of funding awarded by the state. “It’s use-it-or-lose-it. It expires in a year. The fact that they have not done anything since May of 2021 tells you all you need to know about [the proposal’s] feasibility.’”
Anderson keeps meticulous tabs on the project and foresees several possible outcomes, from compelling L&I to act by allowing the structure to deteriorate — which is what happened with the home of abolition activist Robert Purvis in Fairmount — to the enforcement of a new city requirement.
After the controversy surrounding the Coltrane House’s adjacent properties, Mayor Jim Kenney signed a bill requiring the owner of any structure on the historical register to come up with a plan to stabilize the site in the event of any construction taking place within 90 feet. With developers buying up properties on either side, the Coltrane House is bookended by the possibility of future construction projects that could trigger that provision. Anderson still sees this as a ray of hope amid all the lost ambitions, or at least a way to buy time.
“The budget [for the proposal] is $5.8 million,” she says. “That’s just to open the door. And what are [they] going to have? Where are the artifacts? The programming? The staff?”
As the lawsuits pile up and the in-fighting continues, the Coltrane House’s listing on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places may be the only thing keeping it from the wrecking ball.
This bleak outlook has led many local preservationists to wonder: Why do other cities get it so right where Philly gets it so wrong? A New York Times profile of Louis Armstrong’s home in Queens hailed its meticulously maintained state — a half-drunk handle of whiskey still in the liquor cabinet; a vacuum cleaner standing in a closet, as if Satchmo and his wife, Lucille, still walked the halls. This is thanks to Lucille herself, who maintained the home after her husband’s death. And though the two-story brick house could have fallen into disrepair, just four years after her death, Queens College stepped forward to run it, turning the site into a museum with a small staff, an abundance of memorabilia, and $5 million to start.
Coltrane’s childhood home in High Point, North Carolina, has been owned by that city since 2006, with a recently appointed task force slated to restore the site. His birthplace about 80 miles south of there, in Hamlet, is now a local NAACP headquarters. The family’s Long Island residence, maintained by a group known as Friends of the Coltrane Home, has similarly received acclaim, historical designation, and, just this past year, funding from the Mellon Foundation for rehabilitation of structural damage. The CEO and CCO of the group are Ravi and Michelle Coltrane, John’s son and daughter.
While tensions boil in the long dispute for a sustainable Coltrane House, the city’s prospects for saving it only seem to worsen.
“I think many cities have a problem with this idea of how to properly contextualize the cultural contributions of their residents. It’s a deep problem right now for America because we don’t pay attention to history here,” says Tom Moon, a former Inquirer music critic. “Part of the problem isn’t just Philadelphia; it’s that American culture no longer wants the full contextual account of any of its artistic pioneers.”
Anderson has similarly wondered why the city, rather than proactively protecting its historical properties, must so often play catch-up. While she once had hope that the looming 100th anniversary of Coltrane’s birth would spur some action, today she feels more pessimistic than ever.
“I despair now that in five years, the tangled title issue will be untangled, but we will still be looking at a deteriorating Coltrane House,” she says. “I believe that Ravi will prevail, and if he does, I would not have any interest in working with him on the Coltrane House.”
Though her focus has shifted to the city’s other at-risk sites while the legal drama unfolds, Anderson’s evangelism continues. And something else continues as well: the SMCDC’s efforts to get the house shovel-ready.
The scene, though, is grim. Time to utilize the grant from the state is dwindling. The SMCDC employee who first connected the Gadson family with the city is no longer involved with the project. And now Sharla Russell, who helped secure some of its earliest and most abundant funding (and who left the city this summer and relocated to New Mexico), has taken a backseat while the organization works to move the project forward.
“[The current owners] haven’t sold, but there’s only so much one can do when there’s this lawsuit over the ownership of the property,” she says. “We have this money, but if we spend it on the house, do those upgrades become [the Coltranes’] property? As far as I know, we haven’t been in the business of working for Ravi Coltrane, and we don’t really know what his long-term goals are. He hasn’t shown, at this point, a willingness to work with us.”
(The Coltrane family did not respond to multiple interview requests.)
Today, the once-shiny blue historical marker outside 1511 North 33rd Street is a bit dingy. Cardboard boxes lean against its post, and bits of gravel and trash roll in the wind that blows past the steps leading up to the house where John Coltrane changed jazz forever. What will happen behind those doors, though, remains anybody’s guess.
Published as “Bringing Down the House” in the December 2022 issue of Philadelphia magazine.