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Abolition Hall is Saved – For Now

16 Aug

With 170,000 Americans dead from COVID-19 and millions unemployed, 2020 has been an “annus horribilis” (h/t Queen Elizabeth II). This month brought a ray of hope: Developer K. Hovnanian Homes dropped plans to construct 67 townhouses that would have degraded Abolition Hall and the surrounding fields where the ancestors found sanctuary on their way to freedom.

#AbolitionHall - Overlay - August 14, 2020

Located in Whitemarsh Township, Pennsylvania, the former Underground Railroad stop was constructed in 1856 by George Corson. The purpose-built structure was a meeting place for abolitionists including Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe and William Lloyd Garrison. Abolition Hall, along with the Hovenden House and Stone Barn provided shelter for self-emancipated Black people. The three structures are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

#Abolition Hall - Michael Feagans

The developer did not give the township a reason for abandoning the project. But the reason seems fairly obvious: With a cratering economy and sinkholes on Butler Pike, Hovnanian didn’t want to sink any more money into the controversial project.

Sybelle Zove, convener of the Friends of Abolition Hall, led the fight to save the historic landmark. In an email, Zove wrote:

This fight is not over! We continue to believe that a better plan is within reach, and we hope that any developer considering a deal with the heirs will appreciate the extraordinary history of this homestead. This is indeed hallowed land, and the historic structures are equally significant. We stand ready to collaborate, to work together to create a project that respects the legacy of this property, the value of its tree canopy, the role of its wetlands in sustaining the local ecology, and the precarious nature of the limestone soils that have yielded to dissolution and sinkhole formation.

I was geared up to collaborate with Friends of Abolition Hall on a years-long battle with the developer. With Hovnanian’s deep pockets and army of lawyers, I didn’t think we could beat them in a court of law. But social media and search engine optimization level the battlefield in the court of public opinion. So I launched VillagesatWhiteMarsh.info to tell the story of the historic landmark and alert prospective buyers that protesters would be at their front door.

#AbolitionHall Deserves Better -Villages at Whitemarsh

Abolition Hall is saved – for now. Zove urges everyone to “keep your hand on the plow, and hold on.”

For updates visit Friends of Abolition Hall on Facebook. You can also follow me on Twitter.

Historic Preservation and Racial Justice

5 Jul

All That Philly Jazz Director Faye Anderson was recently interviewed by the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. The federal agency “promotes the preservation, enhancement, and sustainable use of our nation’s diverse historic resources, and advises the President and the Congress on national historic preservation policy.” The following is an excerpt from the interview.

What led you to your field?
I am a lifelong social justice activist. But I am an “accidental” preservationist. My interest in historic preservation was piqued by the historical marker that notes Billie Holiday “often lived here” when she was in Philadelphia. I went beyond the marker and learned that “here” was the Douglass Hotel. I wanted to know why Lady Day stayed in a modest hotel when a luxury hotel, the Bellevue-Stratford (now the Bellevue Philadelphia), is located just a few blocks away. The Douglass Hotel was first listed in The Negro Motorist Green Book in 1938. The Green Book was a travel guide that helped African Americans navigate Jim Crow laws in the South and racial segregation in the North.

#GreenBookPHL Collage

How does what you do relate to historic preservation?
There are few extant buildings associated with Philadelphia’s jazz legacy. In cities across the country, jazz musicians created a cultural identity that was a stepping stone to the Civil Rights Movement. All That Philly Jazz is a crowdsourced project that is documenting untold or under-told stories. At its core, historic preservation is about storytelling. The question then becomes: Whose story gets told? The buildings that are vessels for African American history and culture typically lack architectural significance. While unadorned, the buildings are places where history happened. They connect the past to the present.

Why do you think historic preservation matters?
For me, historic preservation is not solely about brick-and-mortar. I love old buildings. I also love the stories old buildings hold. To borrow a phrase from blues singer Little Milton, if walls could talk, they would tell stories of faith, resistance, and triumph. Historic preservation is about the power of public memory. It’s about staking African Americans’ claim to the American story. A nation preserves the things that matter and black history matters. It is, after all, American history.

What courses do you recommend for students interested in this field?
Historic preservation does not exist in a vacuum. The built environment reflects social inequities. I recommend students take courses that will help them understand systemic racism and how historic preservation perpetuates social inequities. In an essay published earlier this year in The New Yorker, staff writer Casey Cep observed: “To diversify historic preservation, you need to address not just what is preserved but who is preserving it—because, as it turns out, what counts as history has a lot to do with who is doing the counting.”

Places associated with African Americans have been lost to disinvestment, urban planning, gentrification and implicit bias. For instance, the Philadelphia Historical Commission rejected the nomination of the Henry Minton House for listing on the local register despite a unanimous vote by the Committee on Historic Designation. The Commission said the nomination met the criteria for designation but the property is not “recognizable” (read: lacked integrity). Meanwhile, properties in Society Hill with altered or new facades have been added to the local register.

Do you have a favorite preservation project? What about it made it special?
Robert Purvis was a co-founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society, the Library Company of Colored People and the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. By his own estimate, he helped 9,000 self-emancipated black Americans escape to the North.

The last home in which the abolitionist lived is listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. The property has had the same owner since 1977. As the Spring Garden neighborhood gentrified, the owner wanted to cash in and sell the property to developers who planned to demolish it. The property is protected, so he pursued demolition by neglect. Over the years, the owner racked up tens of thousands of dollars in housing code violations and fines. In January 2018, the Spring Garden Community Development Corporation petitioned the Common Pleas Court for conservatorship in order to stabilize the property. The petition was granted later that year. A historic landmark that was on the brink of collapse was saved by community intervention.

Can you tell us what you are working on right now?
The John Coltrane House, one of only 67 National Historic Landmarks in Philadelphia, is deteriorating before our eyes. In collaboration with the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, Avenging The Ancestors Coalition and Jazz Bridge, I nominated the historic landmark for inclusion on 2020 Preservation At Risk. The nomination was successful. As hoped, the listing garnered media attention. Before the coronavirus lockdown, several people contacted me and expressed interest in buying the property. The conversations are on pause. I am confident that whether under current “ownership” (the owner of record is deceased), new ownership or conservatorship, the rowhouse where Coltrane composed “Giant Steps” and experienced a spiritual awakening will be restored to its former glory.

Read more

Mapping Philadelphia’s Jazz History

15 Mar

All That Philly Jazz was launched in March 2015. A place-based public history project, we are mapping Philadelphia’s lost jazz shrines from A to Z, from the Aqua Lounge to Zanzibar Blue.

All That Philly Jazz - Wordle - Aqua Lounge to Zanzibar Blue

I was recently interviewed on National Public Radio’s newsmagazine, “Here & Now.” The interview touched on the legacy of McCoy Tyner, Philadelphia’s jazz ecosystem that nurtured young musicians and exposed them to jazz musicians (here and here), and the campaign to save the John Coltrane House, a National Historic Landmark.

Faye Anderson - NPR's Here & Now - March 9, 2020

The podcast is available here.

Mapping the Green Book in Philadelphia

1 Dec

Later this month, I will give a talk on the Green Book at the Paul Robeson House and Museum in Philadelphia. I first wrote about “The Negro Motorist Travel Guide” in 2015. That year, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture digitized Victor Hugo’s travel guide which was published from 1936 to 1966.

#GreenBook Collage

The now-iconic publication is experiencing a renaissance. Countless news articles, essays and blog posts have been written. A documentary, Driving While Black, will air on PBS next year. In June 2020, a Green Book exhibition developed by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service will begin a three-year tour. The first stop is the most famous Green Book site, the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

Lorraine Motel

Over the course of 30 years, dozens of Philadelphia businesses were listed in the Green Book. Most were located in South Philadelphia, then the heart of the African American community.

Mapping the Green Book in Philadelphia

Almost 70 percent of Philadelphia’s buildings were constructed before 1945. So it’s not surprising there are 45 extant Green Book sites. A few are vacant; most have been repurposed. Five are in the same business including the Hotel Carlyle which was first listed in the Green Book in 1948 and is doing business under the same name.

Hotel Carlyle Collage

The Paul Robeson House talk is sold out. To arrange a presentation for your organization, university, school, etc., contact the #GreenBookPHL Project at greenbookphl@gmail.com.