A new tune: Philly historical commission set to drop nomination for North Philly jazz venue

New Barber’s Hall was set to become a historically designated property. The nomination may now be withdrawn.

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Barber’s Hall on West Oxford Street in North Philadelphia

Barber’s Hall on West Oxford Street in North Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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In an unusual turn of events, New Barber’s Hall in North Philadelphia is no longer headed for historic designation after the music venue’s longtime owner decided against it.

The Philadelphia Historical Commission is expected to approve a request to withdraw the nomination during a regularly scheduled meeting on Friday. Over the last decade or so, the commission has granted approximately 22 requests to withdraw nominations, according to the city. The most typical reason is that the property owner and the nominator have entered into a private agreement to preserve the property.

In the case of New Barber’s Hall, owner Jake Adams said he had a change of heart after learning more about what historical designation would mean for the three-story building. Without his support, the Society for the Preservation of Philadelphia African American Assets (SPPAAA), which nominated the property, decided not to pursue the designation, which would help safeguard the building against demolition.

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At this stage of the process, the historical commission must grant the request to withdraw the nomination. If approved, SPPAAA does not plan to push for the designation again.

Barber’s Hall on West Oxford Street in North Philadelphia
Barber’s Hall on West Oxford Street in North Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“I won’t be the one pressuring him to reconsider,” said founder Deborah Gary, who has been in and out of the hospital since being diagnosed with cancer.

When a property is listed on Philadelphia’s Register of Historic Places, the owner is required to get approval from the historical commission before making changes to the exterior of the building or performing alterations that require a building permit.

Adams, 82, said he’s concerned those restrictions will shrink the pool of potential buyers should his children want to alter or sell New Barber’s Hall, located near the heart of Temple University’s campus, an area still in the midst of a building boom.

“I can’t tie their hands,” said Adams. “I want them to have total say-so as to what they want to do with the building.”

Adams bought the building near Broad and Oxford Streets in 1979. Since then, the space has been a haven for jazz music and soul food and played host to countless private events tied to every stage of life — from wedding receptions and retirement parties to funeral repasts.

Built in the 1860s, the property started as a single-family home before it was renovated as a clubhouse for the Quaker City Wheelmen, a chapter of a national organization that “encouraged Victorian Americans’ growing interest in the modern bicycle,” according to the nomination.

In the ensuing decades, the building was used by a variety of progressive social clubs, including the Philadelphia Section of the National Council of Jewish Women and the National Barber’s Sunshine Club, a fraternal organization for Black barbers. Many of the clubs were organized by ethnic and racial groups.

The National Barber’s Sunshine Club emerged as North Philadelphia was becoming a center for the city’s Black population. The group hosted professional development events, such as wig manufacturing courses. Like today, the hall was also a hub for music and hosted all kinds of private events celebrating milestones.

“It represents the history of a lot of families in Philadelphia during the 50s, 60s, 70s,” said Gary.

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Barber’s Hall on West Oxford Street in North Philadelphia
Barber’s Hall on West Oxford Street in North Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

According to the nomination, the venue attracted well-known performers because musicians on tour could play there on Sundays since it was a private club. Blue laws limited Sunday performances at public venues. The hall was also located near the Chesterfield Hotel, which accommodated Black musicians before segregation.

It’s said that Miles Davis performed at Barber’s Hall. John Coltrane and Patti LaBelle did too.

In 1990, Boyz II Men celebrated at the venue after signing with Motown Records, an accomplishment that kickstarted the group’s multi-platinum career.

Today, New Barber’s Hall is open six days a week and Adams has no immediate plans to sell.

“I’ll be here until I’m ready to leave,” said Adams.

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