Restoring Marian Anderson’s Martin Street home

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Artifacts of late opera singer and civil rights icon Marian Anderson are displayed inside her former home on Martin Street. Photo/Mark Zimmaro

Marian Anderson’s South Philly home is getting some renovations.

After flooding caused by a broken pipe resulted in thousands of dollars of damage in the late iconic opera singer’s home, the community is rallying to make 762 S. Martin St. as good as new — while keeping all the history intact.

“I could not be more grateful and excited,” said Jillian Patricia Pirtle, CEO of the Marian Anderson Museum and Historical Society. “It’s a burst of hope each time we get a phone call or a new announcement. It’s something we were praying for, that Marian’s home can rise again and stand tall.”

Pirtle was joined by City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, representatives from the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia and the Corporate Management of Premier Building Restoration and BQ Basement Systems to ceremoniously break ground on a second phase project to repair and restore the flood-damaged property.

Officials ceremoniously break ground at the Marian Anderson House on Martin Street. Photo/Mark Zimmaro

Anderson’s home, which she purchased in 1924 and was placed on the National Register of Historical Places in 2011, serves as the Marian Anderson Museum and Historical Society, which houses several artifacts, highlighting the South Philly native’s impressive and influential career. The museum had been closed during the pandemic and has been unable to reopen due to the flood that occurred in 2020. 

Two Philadelphia companies — Premiere Building Restoration and BQ Basement Systems — are providing $20,000 worth of repairs that will begin soon. The museum received another $75,000 grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and $105,000 from the city. Another $75,000 was secured by the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

“It’s all a combination of what’s lifting up Marian Anderson today,” Pirtle said. “It’s a wonderful feeling and we are very, very grateful.”

Johnson said his goal is to find annual funding for the museum in the city budget.

“We’re going to make sure we advocate for this to be part of the line items in the budget of City Council,” Johnson said. “The same way we support the African American Museum and Swedish Museum and the Betsy Ross House, we’ll support the Marian Anderson Museum.”

City Council member Kenyatta Johnson speaks at the ceremonial groundbreaking at the Marian Anderson House in South Philadelphia. Photo/Mark Zimmaro

Anderson’s home became a place for impromptu performances by African American entertainers in the 1920s and ‘30s because many were not welcomed to go out socially at the time.

Popular musicians such as Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong were just some of the names known to have played at Anderson’s South Philly residence.

Today, it serves to remember a musician and civil rights icon who most famously sang at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 and was heard by millions over the radio waves. It was arranged by first lady Eleanor Roosevelt after Anderson was turned away because of her race by the Daughters of the American Revolution at Constitution Hall.

“The community has a treasured jewel that they can look to and say they claim that as a part of them and as a historic landmark for the nation,” Pirtle said. “But it’s also a footprint in their own community in their own city that they can talk about, and bring their children. The greater future of our historic legacy can be alive and well.”

Pirtle said she accepts the challenge of keeping Anderson’s legacy thriving in South Philadelphia.

Jillian Patricia Pirtle speaks at the ceremonial groundbreaking at the Marian Anderson House in South Philadelphia. Photo/Mark Zimmaro

“As a millennial, I have the right and responsibility to protect this historic landmark and be able to expose new generations to who Marian Anderson was and what her story could mean to everybody,” Pirtle said. “Her story is for everyone and gives hope and inspiration to all of those who have a dream and seek to aspire higher.”

The efforts will not be Pirtle’s alone. 

The museum will still need funding moving forward, especially before it is able to open its doors to live visitors again, which is targeted for early 2022.

“I believe that when neighborhoods begin to develop, you want to maintain the cultural fabric of a neighborhood,” Johnson said. “We have to preserve those key institutions and those key iconic houses and most importantly artifacts in our community that reflect the culture of our neighborhood, regardless if you’re in Rittenhouse Square, Fishtown or places like Point Breeze or Grays Ferry.”

The groundbreaking on Dec. 7 was the first of many steps.

“What seemed to be impossible now seems to be reality in the making of kindness, charity, support and help,” Pirtle said. “We’re very thankful for those that have taken the charge to stand with us through this terrible time as we work to restore, replace, repair and preserve Marian Anderson’s great home in this historic landmark in our city.”