As a child, Blanche Burton-Lyles would watch opera star Marian Anderson perform concerts at the Academy of Music. Afterwards, the youngster would visit the home at 762 S. Martin St.
That wouldn’t be so special, except for the fact that it was Anderson’s home. The visits — and Anderson’s mentoring — had a big impact on little Blanche. She went on to become an accomplished pianist and music teacher. Since her retirement, Burton-Lyles has made a vocation of preserving Anderson’s local legacy.
Today, she will achieve another milestone when the Martin Street home is included in the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.
The ceremony will include the unveiling of the city’s 715th historic marker. The 700 block of South Martin Street — now known as Marian Anderson Way — will be closed during the ceremony. The Philadelphia Historical Commission had unanimously voted to designate the Marian Anderson Residence Museum as a historical site back in April. (The home on the 1800 block of South Webster Street, where Anderson was born, was designated Anderson Place last year.)
Burton-Lyles bought Anderson’s home shortly after founding the Marian Anderson Historical Society in 1997. The house had been a rental property, but she purchased it as soon as it was available. Burton-Lyles lives just five blocks away in the home her parents bought in 1926 on the 1100 block of South 19th Street.
"It had to be saved," she said of Anderson’s dwelling, adding, "We get visitors from all over the country."
Burton-Lyles leads a visitor on a tour of the home as one of the contralto’s classical opera albums plays in the background. She walks into the kitchen, where the stainless steel stove that Anderson bought for $1,500 in 1955 is still intact, as are the old Venetian blinds. The original dark hardwood floors that the opera singer had installed in 1926 remain throughout the house.
Much of Burton-Lyles’ work to preserve the past of her mentor, who died in 1993 at age 96, has been paid for out of her own pocket. But it’s all worth it, she said.
"It’s an incredible feeling to be able to save part of history."
Anderson’s personal history also extends to nearby Union Baptist Church, Fitzwater and Martin streets, where she received her first formal singing lesson at age 15.
The era in which Anderson became a star has been recreated in her home with old black-and-white photos, including a 3-foot-wide replica of the singer’s historical 1939 Easter Sunday concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Anderson performed the concert after the Daughters of the American Revolution denied her access to Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. The contralto sang at the Lincoln Memorial for a segregated audience of 75,000.
Young visitors to Anderson’s home can see videos of her performances and learn her history in the education center, formerly the singer’s bedroom.
Burton-Lyles said some 100 people a month visit the residence, coming from all over the world.
One woman, Geanne Holmquist, flew in from the West Coast to donate a hardback album that includes old photos, newspaper clippings and programs that paint a vivid picture of Anderson’s legendary career. The book sits on top of a grand piano for guests to view.
The Marian Anderson Historical Society, which received its nonprofit status in 1999, has been functioning on limited donations and out-of-pocket contributions from the founder, board of directors and volunteers.
Burton-Lyles also has been able to contribute in a historical sense since her mother, Blanche Taylor-Burton, saved many items that are now displayed in the museum.
The Anderson residence had some minor renovations in preparation for today’s event. One of the upstairs bedrooms received a fresh coat of paint to cover water spots. Wooden shelves have been added to the walls to display memoirs. The home’s other bedroom, which belonged to Anderson’s mom Anna, has been restored with antique furniture. The room’s closet was once a doorway to the house next door, where other family members lived.
For Burton-Lyles, the residence museum is her way of expressing gratitude to a musical legend who was also a friend. When Anderson returned from concert tours, Burton-Lyles visited her at home and played piano there.
"I feel honored to have known her personally and that she took an active interest in my career," she said.
Burton-Lyles credits her own pioneering achievements to Anderson’s influence. She auditioned for the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music, where she became the first black person to graduate with a degree in playing piano. And at Carnegie Hall, Burton-Lyles was the first black female to play with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.
Now the Marian Anderson Historical Society is helping to develop more careers.
The organization gives an annual award to an outstanding classical music scholar. The winner receives stipends to assist in living expenses, opportunities to travel in the United States and Europe, audition fees and weekly lessons in theory and vocal coaching. Chicago resident Takesha Meshe Kizart, a soprano, is the latest Marian Anderson Scholar and will perform at today’s ceremony.
The historical marker at Anderson’s residence is the latest in a growing collection of honors for the contralto.
In August, the U.S. Post Office announced it would issue a Black Heritage Marian Anderson stamp in 2005.
In 1998, Philadelphia’s first-ever Marian Anderson Award — an honor given to one who has used his or her public profile for humanitarian purposes — was given to singer Harry Belafonte. Subsequent winners have been Gregory Peck, Elizabeth Taylor, Quincy Jones, Danny Glover and Oprah Winfrey.
Today, Anderson’s home is in one of many South Philly neighborhoods enjoying a real-estate renaissance, but to Burton-Lyles, not much has changed.
"The street is as quiet and peaceful as it was 30-40 years ago," she said.
For more information about today’s event or the Marian Anderson Residence Museum, call the Marian Anderson Historical Society, 215-732-9505, or visit www.mariananderson.org.