A Designed Response to Heritage Uplifts the Spiritual Legacy of John and Alice Coltrane
Once vulnerable to development, the John and Alice Coltrane Home in Dix Hills, Long Island, was included in the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s annual list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 2011. The property has since been acquired by The Friends of the Coltrane Home and is no longer threatened by demolition.
In January 2020, the National Trust contracted Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects to develop a landscape plan for the roughly six acres surrounding the home. The landscape design aims to elevate this place as a sanctuary for visitors reflecting on the Coltranes’ contributions to music, culture, and spirituality. The project is occurring alongside the restoration of the mid-century home, which is envisioned as a recording studio for visiting musicians and a site for exhibits, archival materials, and creative workshops to engage a wide audience.
John and Alice Coltrane moved to Dix Hills in 1964 from New York City at a time when much of Long Island was still largely covered by dense pine-oak woodland. Here, they created some of their most influential works, including John’s masterpiece “A Love Supreme,” while steeped in the love of their family, driven by creative commitment, and sustained by spiritual practice.
Prior to John’s passing in 1967, the couple shared a spiritual commitment that deeply infused their marriage and resultant musical synergy. That the couple only lived in the home together for three years, and during that brief period engaged in intense and prolific musical production, motivated the designers to manifest that creative power and emotion into the surrounding landscape.
The Coltrane Home, as a once-private domestic dwelling, shares many characteristics faced by organizations seeking to integrate a preservation-design approach toward the creation of a newly public space. Many questions arose during the initial planning process that likely sound familiar to practitioners with interests in cultural landscape preservation:
- How can the necessary amenities for public use be respectfully integrated into the context and material palette of the historic property?
- How can a landscape, which is alive and constantly changing, be conserved or designed to reflect a particular period of historic significance?
Another layer to the approach presented itself in that the Coltrane Home is a historically Black American space with little remaining evidence in the landscape to provide clues to the material heritage of the site—not a unique situation for many historically Black landscapes. This due because of long-term, deeply embedded inequities in whose material heritages are preserved, cared for, and kept in our historic environments—and whose are not. The Coltrane Home landscape, as many Black spaces do, begs the questions:
- If the landscape of preservation is not a level playing field, what should preservation look like?
- What should be preserved?
- What is more important: preserving the active cultural legacy through inspiration and active engagement of audiences through programs, or the research and preservation of material culture?
With this question in mind, the design team worked closely with the National Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund to consider preservation frameworks that celebrate Black heritage in new, creative ways—focusing less on material heritage to tell a story and instead seeking to preserve a living legacy. The Coltrane home is a powerful opportunity to provide alternatives such as the respectful design of new spaces that reflect and perpetuate the Coltranes’ commitment to community, music, creativity, and cultural flourishing within a context of ecological richness.
Design Approach and Discovery
The design team generated three proposals all using a forest garden that restores the coastal pine-oak ecology native to the grounds. The design provides a community asset to the Town of Huntington as well as a place supporting the house programs that engage an international audience. The design approach also sought to honor the sanctity and peace of this domestic space, while considering the necessary designed interventions to elevate a once-private landscape to a public space with interpretive potential.
The conceptual design process occurred alongside ongoing restoration of the home, including the original recording studio, with the goal of opening the home and the surrounding six-acre landscape to the public.
The first phase of the Comprehensive Site Plan incorporated multiple site visits and meetings with The Coltrane Home Board of Trustees and Town of Huntington officials to compile the necessary resources for documenting the property. Site documentation provided the team with essential materials to inform the design process. This process included collecting site aerial photography, GIS data, and historic maps, which were supplemented by on-site recordings and measurements.
The team met with jazz scholars, musicians, Alice Coltrane’s meditation students, and neighbors to better understand the history of the site as well as its current needs and aspirations. The site program evolved from the discoveries in these meetings alongside discussions with the Coltrane Home Board and with the guidance of Adrian Ellis (AEA) Consulting who developed the business plan for The Coltrane Home.
Following the Discovery Phase, the Design process relied on two integrated design-research aims:
- Exploring the ideal qualities of space and material conducive to meditative experience.
- Establishing a physical form or structure that could attempt to express, in some way, the music of John and Alice Coltrane for a public audience.
The team developed three concepts, each inspired by a particular aspect of the Coltranes’ expressive legacy: the first interpreting a structure of musical sequences used by John Coltrane, the second interpreting the spiritual or cosmic universality of the Coltranes’ music, and the third interpreting a particular method of playing uniquely demonstrated by Alice Coltrane on the harp.
Though the development of the second concept, the landscape architects relied on interviews with Alice Coltrane’s meditation students, who generously reviewed the evolving designs to comment on their potential for supporting meditative experience. This process achieved a balance between the aspirational goal of spatializing the remarkable lives of these iconic artists, while grounding the design in the immediate programmatic and infrastructural needs of future users of the space.
Concept 1: A Structure of Jazz Progression
A Structure of Jazz Progression is inspired by the underlying architecture of John Coltrane’s Circle of Fifths or Circle of Tones and its influence on the creation of “A Love Supreme.” The design extrapolates this musical order to draw out the radii of imaginary circles, arranged through the forest, upon whose arcing forms the meditative paths were then laced throughout to create a dynamic yet ordered meditative walking trail.
The trail tightens, then loosens, to reflect the vibrant quality of the jazz composition. Its arcing sequence echoes the qualities of music—seemingly unpredictable yet arranged by an unseen order. The concept thus seeks to express the dynamism of music—guided, always, by an underlying arrangement amid the seeming chaos of the forest—through an embodied experience of movement in space.
The variously sized circular outdoor “rooms” allow for a variety of experiences, with some circles host to steppingstones inviting one to venture off the main path, and others featuring benches, furnishing, or a soft clearing in which to rest upon one’s journey. These qualities of the concept created a uniquely flexible framework for future design iterations.
Concept 2: A Structure of Cosmic Sound
A Structure of Cosmic Sound seeks to highlight the transcendent nature of the Coltranes’ music as expressed in the fervent spiritual quests to which John and Alice both dedicated themselves as part of their creative journeys. The design was inspired by the notion of forest-as-chapel, with a central meditative space as the “heart” of the project.
Twelve flowering dogwoods, trees native to the Coltranes’ property, are arranged around this central space: a reference to John Coltrane’s famed Circle of Fifths, which, in musical theory, is a geometric representation of the relationships between the twelve semitones of the chromatic scale. A single allee of dogwoods invites users from the home into this outdoor room, where they can further explore a soft woodland clearing or venture into smaller, offset meditation rooms.
From the spatial and spiritual “center,” invisible radial lines, marked by dogwoods planted throughout the forest, resemble sound waves, or the waves of influence that John and Alice had on their musical and spiritual communities and the world.
Concept 3: A Structure of Glissando
The third concept is a formal interpretation of glissando, the rapid sliding up or down the musical scale often heard in piano compositions. Alice Coltrane employed glissando beautifully on her harp in “A Monastic Trio,” her first solo album, recorded in the lower level of the Coltrane Home in 1968. A Structure of Glissando honors Alice Coltrane’s musical innovation, while experimenting with spatializing glissando into a built form.
The resulting structure of long, diagonal paths slipping past one another through the forest, an interpretation of glissando’s manifestation on sheet music, invites experiences of restful walking meditation. At the end of long axes, the team envisioned small meditative totems, or wooden platform seating areas, to create moments of pause and contemplation.
Proposed Comprehensive Site Plan
The design team engaged a process of distilling the key concepts from each of the three proposals through periods of review and discussion with Coltrane family descendants, the Coltrane Home Board, Alice Coltrane’s meditation students, and community stakeholders. These discussions focused on aspects including the interpretive potential and use of the outdoor space, design legibility, the compatibility of the space with the programming objectives of the restored home, and the considerations of surrounding neighbors.
The final Comprehensive Site Plan pulls forward and evolves the major forms in A Structure of Jazz Progression, while incorporating key elements of the other two concepts, to arrive to an integrated and inspired concept that speaks to the power and potential of the site and its many layered potentials.
The design proposal for the Coltrane Home landscape seeks to uplift the narrative of the Coltranes’ legacy of musical exploration and spiritual reverence. Through working with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, NBW adopted the concept that preservation-design thinking must evolve beyond merely editing material heritage to fit within a period of historical significance.
While this methodology has a role within certain contexts and for specific projects, for many other situations, it is not an adequate or even equitable response to heritage, especially when that heritage has been lost or remains unknown. At the Coltrane Home, the programmatic, ecologic, and spiritual dimensions of the landscape take precedence to tell the still-unfolding story of these two legendary artists.
As the Coltranes’ impact and resounding influence shifts with the contours of society and current events, so too will the use, program, and social dimensions of this new community space. The restored pine-oak woodland echoes the ever-evolving undercurrents of these cultural impacts. It is a historic landscape that is constantly in flux—ever-maturing, re-seeding, growing, dying, and adapting.
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This project was made possible by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Joanne and Stanley Marder Fund for Innovation, and The Coltrane Home.
The mission of Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects is to apply design excellence at the intersection of ecological and cultural systems. This essay was composed by Nelson Byrd Woltz designers Ellen Garrett, PLA and Jennifer Lauer, who collaborated with the Coltrane Home to envision the Coltrane Home Comprehensive Site Plan (CCSP) in February 2021.