The home at 1511 North 33rd Street was once occupied by one of the most iconic figures in American Music: John Coltrane. Not only has the house had a rich history, but the neighborhood has also been a staple of cultural history in West Philadelphia. Although the house is currently a National Park Service (NPS) “National Historic Landmark” (note: the nomination form in the preceding link has much more information than the scope of this blog could encompass), the home has dropped into a state of disrepair. Unlike the Coltrane home in Dix Hills which has received a lot of attention, the home that Coltrane occupied during his years with Miles, Monk, and the early years of his own quartet has generally been forgotten in the most recent decade. Like the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood it’s part of, the Coltrane house was once a beautiful, vibrant living space.
The first documentation of the property’s existence is a series of forms from the Bureau of Engineering, Surveys, and Zoning (BESZ) that exists in the Philadelphia City Archives. The earliest form shows the large parcel of empty land being sold from Charles Rhoads to Israel Pemberton in October of 1872. After Israel’s death, the land was passed to Clifford Pemberton who held it jointly with real estate associates/speculators named John Neill and Frank Mauran. Pemberton acquired sole ownership of the land in 1895 and began to develop it sometime thereafter. The NPS’s landmark form states that the parcel was subdivided and developed with rowhomes around 1900. Dr. Michael Lewis, the form’s author, claims that the likely architect was E. Allen Wilson (a well-known Philadelphia architect).
Pemberton probably first used the house as a rental home. Philadelphia City Directories from 1905 and 1906 show that Blanche de Leary owned and occupied the home, but it ultimately returned to Pemberton in the following years (I assume that it became a rental home again). The records show that Clifford Pemberton sold the home to Anita LeRoy and Karl Konrad on December 8, 1919. Ownership would eventually be transferred solely to Karl Konrad. Upon his death, the home was moved into the ownership of his widow Caroline (Lena) and daughter Matilda on January 25, 1927. Matilda would eventually gain sole ownership of the house and keep it for the next twenty-seven years.
In 1952, an aspiring young saxophonist named John William Coltrane took an interest in purchasing the property… this is where the facts get sticky. The deed for the house is dated March 24, 1958 and shows the purchasers as John Coltrane, Juanita Coltrane (wife), and Alice Gertrude Coltrane (mother) and $100 was submitted for the $5,419.92 purchasing price. The BESZ form shows the deed date as July 21 and shows John as the sole owner. In Lewis Porter’s generally superior book titled John Coltrane: His Life and Music (you MUST read this book), he states that 10% was placed down on the home with the help of John’s mother. Porter’s citation is an article by Daniel Rubin from a June 14, 1992 article that appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer to corroborate this statement. Unfortunately, the deed claims otherwise and there is no way to verify one way or the other. Porter does list a specific date for the transfer which also seems to be up for grabs based on the documented evidence.
Coltrane would own the home until his untimely death in 1967. Although he had rented space in New York and eventually moved to New York permanently, Coltrane would return to the Philly house up until his second home purchase in 1964. The Philly house would be occupied by his mother and his cousin Mary Alexander in the time that he was away. The NPS has cited a 1996 interview with “Cousin Mary” where she claims that John occupied the rear room on the second floor as his bedroom when he was living there permanently. Before moving to Dix Hills, Coltrane returned to the house for a short period where he occupied the entire third floor as his apartment (note: Mary also suggested that the added porch was already built when John purchased the house. I was unable to uncover a building permit that would give an exact date. My guess is that it was probably added sometime during the Konrad years). It is possible that many of his pre-“A Love Supreme” compositions could have been composed in this home!
Upon Coltrane’s death in 1967, the Philly house was inherited by his mother Alice Gertrude (Blair) Coltrane and the Dix Hills home was inherited by his wife Alice (McLeod) Coltrane. According to two documents (an indenture and a tax form) from April 11, 1985, Alice Gertrude Coltrane willed the home to Mary Alexander (now Mary King). The following is quoted from her will:
“I direct that Mary Lyerly King have the right and privilege to live on the premises 1511 North 33rd Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, during her lifetime. The cost of maintenance and expenses to be paid by Mary Lyerly King. Upon her decease all the furniture and personal property contained therin is to be given to my grandchildren John William Coltrane Jr., Ravi J. Coltrane and Oran Coltrane absolutely and in equal shares, share and share alike.”
Mary would also use the neighboring 1509 house as the headquarters for the John Coltrane Cultural Society in the years that followed. Although Alice’s wishes were that her grandsons would someday own the property, Mary decided to sell it outright before her death. In failing health, Mary sold the Coltrane House at 1511 North 33rd for $100,000 on October 27, 2004, to Norman Gadson. Repair work on the house began immediately after Gadson took ownership of the home. Unfortunately, Gadson died unexpectedly and left the house to his young daughter. Over the course of the last few years the house was not attended to and fell into a dilapidated state that included damage from a fire in a neighboring property. My 2010 and 2011 visits to the house were heart-breaking to say the least.
There may be a silver-lining to this story, though. Just last week an Associated Press article was released that states that the Gadson family has turned the house over to a non-profit organization that is trying to raise $50,000 to revitalize the house. The article can be found here. The organization known as The John Coltrane House-Philadelphia has created a website and a bit of buzz around Philadelphia including a speech from Mayor Michael Nutter on the steps of the house. Hopefully the home that housed one of America’s greatest musical minds will soon return to its place of glory.