On the 1500 block of North 33rd Street, across from the Reservoir Drive entrance to Fairmount Park, John Coltrane worked on one of his most important works “Giant Steps,” in the house that was so significant to Coltrane it is now a National Historic Landmark. But the years since Coltrane lived in the house have taken their toll. This winter, YouthBuild Philadelphia Charter School, the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia and The John Coltrane House nonprofit, teamed up to do some urgent preservation work.
In late 2012, the Preservation Alliance received a $15,000 grant from the 1772 Foundation to do immediate stabilization repairs on the Coltrane House, but the project faced hurdles getting off the ground.
“One of the hurdles was that there really wasn’t enough money in the grant to address some of the really pressing needs that the house had,” said Andrew Palewski, a preservation contractor and Preservation Alliance board member.
To stretch the grant money and provide YouthBuild Philly students with rare, hands-on preservation work, YouthBuild and the Preservation Alliance teamed up. Over the course of about a month, three YouthBuild students worked with Palewski to restore and re-install three porch support columns, repaired the wooden transoms that sit above the main windows, milled the windows so they can be re-installed, installed wood paneling that is original to the interior of the porch and painted.
After Coltrane’s death, the property was altered as it changed hands.
“Little by little more and more of the front of the house was being taken apart, and I think with the intention that it was going to be restored,” Palewski said. He estimated that about 75 percent of what was removed was retained, but some of that was damaged in a fire.
“Those elements were restored by the students under my direction and reinstalled,” Palewski said.
Melissa Jest, a neighborhood coordinator at the Preservation Alliance, gave credit to The John Coltrane House nonprofit and its founder Lenora Early because, she said, “They had already kind of started doing repairs to the front facade as well, so we were really able to come in and build on that and compliment what they’d already started.”
The organization’s previous work included restoring, with the original bricks, the balustrade that the porch columns sit on. A previous owner purchased a historically accurate basement window that was an original feature of the house.
YouthBuild Philly’s Director of Vocational Training Martin Malloy said, “We don’t bill ourselves as historic preservationists, so it was really outside the realm of what we ordinarily do.”
For that reason, the hands on experience had even more of an impact on the three students (Luis Torres, John Laderer and Emily Robinson) who were selected to participate.
“If any of these students that worked on the project wanted to pursue an employment position in the future working for, say, the National Park Service or working for a contractor who works in historic [preservation] on national landmarks, the fact that they’ve already worked on a National Historic Landmark is very significant,” Palewski said.
Torres said he saw the project as a way to give back to the community and appreciated the fact that this is a historic landmark in North Philly.
“Growing up in my neighborhood I never had anything that was a historic landmark,” he said.
Torres said the experience was different from most YouthBuild projects, which tend to involve demolition and reconstruction.
“At the Coltrane house we kind of had to take things apart slowly,” he said.
Palewski said working with the students was a “very positive experience.”
“The students, just like anybody else who has not done any historic preservation work in the past, had to be educated on specific techniques and shown how to do them,” he said. “But once they learned, they were very efficient at getting things done and doing high quality work.”
Because the cold weather did not permit some of the paint work, the YouthBuild students will return to complete finishing touches. The plywood covering the porch windows also has to be taken down, but Pelewski said he wants to have the porch’s flood light working before doing so.
“At night the place just looks vacant,” he said. “We want there to be more of a presence by having a light ostensibly on the front.”
After this project wraps up, both YouthBuild Philly and the Preservation Alliance hope to keep working with each other and, separately, with The John Coltrane House. Neither have definite plans at the moment, though, and future partnerships will depend on available funding.