Once the ‘center of the black intellectual community’ of Philly, the Henry O. Tanner house could be demolished | national

PHILADELPHIA – Preservation advocates fear the Philadelphia home of artist Henry Ossawa Tanner could face the wrecking ball despite being a National Historic Landmark.

The house is at 2908 W. Diamond St., in the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood of north Philadelphia, where Tanner lived from 1872 to 1888, although his family lived there much longer.

But despite local efforts to preserve the house, it is now unoccupied and falling apart, and with questions about its property, defenders fear it will be destroyed.

“It may not be imminently dangerous enough to require immediate demolition,” said Deborah Gary, co-founder of the Society to Preserve Philadelphia African American Assets. “But the more it rests and deteriorates, the more likely it is that it cannot be saved, even with its historic designation.”

Tanner was the first African American artist to achieve international fame, according to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and is best known for his paintings on Biblical themes.

The influence of a neighborhood

Tanner was 13 when his family moved into the Diamond Street home not far from East Fairmount Park, which may have been essential to his life’s work.

Tanner often said that he went to the park with his father and saw someone painting a landscape. He decided at that time to become an artist.

His mother bought him paintings and he spent hours as a teenager studying the works in museums in Philadelphia.

At 20, he enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and studied with Thomas Eakins. At the age of 32, in 1891, he was living and studying in Paris.

Tanner spent the rest of his life in France, claiming that his art suffered from racial prejudice in the United States.

“In America, I am Henry Tanner, Negro artist, but in France, I am ‘Mr. Tanner, the American artist'”, he declared in Marcia M. Matthews’ book, Henry Ossawa Tanner: American Artist .

Imagine humanity

Two of Tanner’s paintings, Daniel in the Lion’s Den and The Resurrection of Lazarus, won awards at the Paris Salon in the late 1890s, catapulting his rise as a famous artist.

In the United States, however, he is particularly famous for The Banjo Lesson (1893) and The Thankful Poor (1894), which show the ordinary life of black Americans. In one, the older man is teaching the boy to play the banjo. In the other, the man and the child bow their heads over a meal.

In each, he portrays an old man and a young boy – possibly a grandfather and a grandson – with a humanity and dignity not often seen in American art of the time.

Kenlontaé Turner, curator at the Hampton University Museum in Virginia, who acquired The Banjo Lesson in 1894, said when he first saw the painting in high school, “my mind was blown away.”

There is tenderness in the way the little boy leans against the old man’s knee; the grandfather cradling him as he teaches him in a simple booth lit by the glow of a fireplace somewhere behind them.

This painting and The Thankful Poor refuted imagery of the minstrel and cartoons of white artists who often portrayed blacks in buffoonish stereotypes.

“I see the banjo lesson on the same scale as the Mona Lisa,” Turner said.

“When you think of these masters of art, it’s the influence they have in their community. The work they created set the tone for a lot of art that came afterwards.

Tanner was an influence on black Renaissance artists in Harlem, some of whom sought his advice during their visits to Paris, said Rae Alexander-Minter, Henry Tanner’s great-niece.

She said she was devastated that Philadelphia didn’t do more to protect historic homes like the Tanner House, which her family no longer owns.

“We are destroying our history and we are destroying the culture of the neighborhood. “

House declared dangerous

Today, the house hardly seems important. The red paint is peeling off the surface of the brick. Shreds of a tattered blue tarp fall from the roof. The litter is clumped on the sidewalk. It hasn’t been lived in for some time, said Judith Robinson, director of the Strawberry Mansion Civic Association.

The house appears to be in the Greek Revival form, according to the National Register of Historic Places application form. It was added to the register in 1976.

In mid-August, the city’s licensing and inspection department issued a notice of violation stating that the house was “unsafe” due to damage to its roof, exterior walls and interior floors, and that it could be demolished if it was not repaired.

The yellow notice caught the attention of Gary, Jacqueline Wiggins and Robinson, all members of the Society to Preserve Philadelphia African American Assets.

Gary, a Germantown business owner who grew up in North Philadelphia, sent an email alert asking the people and organizations who answered calls to protect the John Coltrane home, at 1511 N. 33rd St ., also at Strawberry Mansion, at. to support the protection of House Tanner.

“We need a comprehensive preservation plan for North Philadelphia,” said Robinson. “These houses are well over 100 years old and they need protection. She raised the issue at a city council meeting in October.

“There is a lack of respect for some of the African American assets that we have,” said Wiggins, a retired teacher from Philadelphia who organizes tours of historic sites. “If you are not vigilant and not careful, our story may be lost,” she said.

As she recently stood outside the house, workers were busy at a new house under construction two doors away.

“The developers are coming,” Wiggins said.

Who owns Maison Tanner?

Patrick Grossi, director of advocacy with the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, said that as a national historic monument, the Tanner House may be eligible for a grant to pay for repairs.

But generally the owner has to apply for these grants. And with Maison Tanner, there are questions about its ownership.

Initially, L&I sent the notice to the owners on the city’s property registers: Emma Thornton and her son Robert Thornton.

However, The Inquirer asked Karen Guss, a spokesperson for L&I, to whom the notices were directed, since Robert Thornton moved to Florida and died in 2018 at the age of 91, and Emma Thornton is also deceased. .

Last week, Guss said the city had found an alternate address for someone who could be the owner, but there is no proof of ownership yet. The city has not yet received a response.

Robinson’s group said the city should make it a priority to restore important historic buildings like Tanner’s house, even if the city cannot contact the owners. Robinson, who grew up in Strawberry Mansion, said she made an appointment to meet with City Council member Katherine Gilmore Richardson next month to talk about historic preservation and help family members manage “titles.” entangled ”, where an owner did not leave a house to a specific member of the family.

“If the owners or heirs of Tanner House get in touch with us, we can help them straighten out the title and get access to grants for repairs,” she said.


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