Death of a Rowhome

For 'Funeral for a Home,' Temple Contemporary and Tyler sought a structure whose death could tell the story of a home, a family, and a community as well.

I don’t say he’s a great man. Willie Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall in his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.”

-Linda, in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman

Like Willie Loman, the two-story rowhouse at 3711 Melon Street in Mantua is not remarkable – it’s not one of those buildings preservationists rally ’round when threatened with the wrecking ball. Thousands of homes like it still stand on little streets all over the city of Philadelphia: workaday homes that were the stage sets for the lives of everyday people. Thousands more like it have already met the fate this one will on May 31 – demolished either to make way for something newer and (a builder hopes) better or simply because it has gotten too old and decrepit to leave standing. If homes like these make the papers, it’s usually in the classified ads, or these days, on the real estate websites, when they go up for sale.

And like Linda, the organizers of the “Funeral for a Home” believe these homes too have stories to tell, stories as important as those of the grand old historic homes that get lovingly turned into museums. And it was with this in mind that Temple Contemporary project manager Patrick Grossi and his colleagues at Temple’s Tyler School of Art set out to find an ordinary row home whose death could serve as an occasion to tell not only a home’s story, but a family’s and a community’s as well.

“The process of finding a home that would be suitable for the project was pretty exhaustive,” he said. “We wanted to make sure we had a house that was slated for demolition or a prime candidate for demolition. If a home could be rehabbed, it wouldn’t be good. Two, we wanted an owner who was willing to work with us. Three, we wanted to find a row home that was modest and reflective of the thousands of rowhomes built over the 19th century, and lastly, we wanted a neighborhood that had a community infrastructure, that had experienced demolition over the years, and that could use the opportunity to restate the importance of vernacular architecture.”

Grossi and the artists involved in the project hadn’t figured when they started that they would end up where they are now, in Mantua, a neighborhood that has experienced more than its share of abandonment over the years but has been targeted for a fresh start thanks to a White House initiative. “We were looking in North Philly, in Kensington, and in other parts of West Philly,” he said. Grossi had considered working with a city agency, but the 22nd and Market building collapse shortly after he began the search more or less ruled out that prospect, so instead they went in search of privately owned homes.

“We found a developer who had been building low-income housing in Mantua,” Grossi said. The developer is WPRE, the development arm of local brokerage West Philadelphia Real Estate, which specializes in the construction of subsidized affordable housing and is active on a number of projects in Mantua. “Me and Billy” – Billy Dufala, one of the three artists who will stage the funeral – “were driving around the neighborhood in search of one that fit, and we found this one at 3711 Melon Street.

“When we stopped and got out to look at it, a neighbor came up named Fred Stokes, and he asked us whether we wanted to buy this home. I told him, ‘No, we are looking for a home to tear down and heard this one was going to be torn down.’ He said, ‘I wish someone would tear it down because it’s a nuisance.’ And that was our introduction to this home and this neighborhood.”

The home also met another criterion the organizers had: It was also a candidate for reincarnation in a different form. WPRE had already built seven homes on the west end of its block and had plans to complete the block from end to end.

The home’s history, Grossi said, is representative of many of the homes now gone in Mantua. It was built in the 1870s during a speculative building boom that swept the neighborhood, and for the first 70 years or so of its existence, it housed a succession of tenants – Irish immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, followed by African-Americans of the Second Great Migration, beginning with a trickle in the 1920s that turned into a flood at the end of the Second World War. It was just at that time – 1946 – that it was purchased by a homeowner, a woman named Leona Richardson, who made it her home for the next 50 years.

“The Richardsons were the last family to live there legally,” Grossi said, “though there were squatters in the home as recently as last year.” These unknown occupants, he said, “closed the last chapter” of the house’s story before it became uninhabitable.

Grossi and the artists – Billy and Steven Dufala and Jacob Hellman – then set to work gathering more stories about the home and its community from what they discovered was a rich seam of community organizations in the neighborhood. “Mantua has a rich planning history,” Grossi said. “Its unofficial motto is ‘Plan or be planned for.’ You had groups like the Young Great Society and Mantua Community Planners that were responses to increasing gang tensions in Mantua in the 1960s, and the Anti-Graffiti Network, which grew into the Mural Arts Program, began in Mantua.”

Grossi explained that part of the funeral’s purpose was to showcase the legacy of these groups and the work of the organizations that carry on their missions – groups like the Mantua Civic Association, the Mantua Civic Improvement Committee and the “Bottom 4,” an organization started by working-class African-Americans who were displaced from their neighborhood centered on Market Street when the University City Science Center was created in the 1960s.

“It was important that there was energy on the ground, which can’t be said for every neighborhood in Philadelphia that is trying to figure out what to do with its housing stock,” he said. “Mantua Civic has been one of our closest partners. They’re fairly new, they emerged from a HUD planning grant a few years ago, but they realize they are providing some sort of social glue for all the activity that’s taking place around the neighborhood. And Rev. Andrew Jenkins, who was instrumental in forming many of those 1960s community groups, was also instrumental in forming this one.”

The funeral will feature testimony from members of these groups along with local churches and neighbors.