April 8, 2024

Preserving the Henry Ossawa Tanner House

How a group of local advocates launched a campaign to save this important piece of Black history.

In February 2022, a group of Black preservation advocates in the Philadelphia area launched a fundraising campaign to save the Henry Ossawa Tanner House in the city’s Strawberry Mansion neighborhood. Despite its status as a National Historic Landmark, the 1872 rowhouse that bears the name of the preeminent Black painter who once called it home had been declared unsafe by the city. It was in danger of immediate collapse and at risk of being demolished.

The grassroots efforts by this group, called the Friends of the Tanner House, to save the historic home were buoyed by the property’s inclusion in the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2023 list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. Along with the city’s Chinatown, the Tanner House was one of two Philadelphia sites included in the list, and it was one of two Black artist homes that were featured, alongside the L.V. Hull Home and Studio in Kosciusko, Mississippi.

“Adding the ‘11 Most’ designation really allowed folks nationwide to be aware of this project,” says Christopher R. Rogers, Ph.D., a founding member of and co-coordinator at Friends of the Tanner House, “and to match this hyperlocal grassroots organizing we were doing in the community with a national call around, ‘How can we place Black heritage? What can these places become? How are they sustained over time?’”

Henry O. Tanner House, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Built in 1871, this rowhouse in Philadelphia’s Strawberry Mansion neighborhood was the home of African American painter Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), along with many other Tanner family members with significant achievements.

photo by: Justin Spivey/WJE Associates

Exterior view of the Tanner House in 2023.

“We’re coming alongside people who are already working, giving them a national platform,” adds Jennifer Sandy, senior director of preservation programs at the National Trust. “The Friends of the Tanner House and community members have done amazing work recognizing the story and starting to tell the story more broadly.”

In the summer of 2023, Friends of the Tanner House also received a $100,000 grant from the National Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund to proceed with emergency repairs to stabilize the house. The grant, which highlighted the impact of systemic racism and related redlining and gentrification on majority-Black neighborhoods like Strawberry Mansion, was “a way of also supporting the community itself by bringing visibility to the urgent and critical need to preserve its rich history,” said Lawana Holland-Moore, director of the Action Fund’s Fellowships and Interpretive Strategies program.

A Long and Distinguished History

The Henry Ossawa Tanner House at 2908 W Diamond St. in North Central Philadelphia was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976. A marker outside the home describes the accomplishments of Henry Ossawa Tanner, a gifted painter who in the late 19th and early 20th centuries became one of the first Black visual artists to attain international recognition.

Tanner spent much of his life in Paris and was known largely for his religious works, such as his 1898 painting “The Annunciation,” on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Another of his prominent works, the 1893 painting “The Banjo Lesson” (now part of the collection at Hampton University Museum in Virginia) features an elderly Black man teaching a young boy how to play the West African-derived instrument.

Henry O. Tanner House, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. A view above the historic home of African American painter Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937) shows roof damage to the 1871 rowhouse.

photo by: Weitzman School of Design’s Historic Preservation Studio

Roof Image of the Tanner House before the Emergency Stabilization in late 2022.

Tanner, however, was hardly the only notable member of the family. His father, Bishop Benjamin Tucker Tanner, who purchased the house in 1872, was a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and served at the Christian Recorder, an influential, national Black-owned newspaper. Henry Ossawa Tanner’s mother, Sarah Elizabeth Tanner, had been enslaved at birth and self-emancipated as a child with assistance from the Pennsylvania Abolition Society.

Tanner’s sister Halle Tanner Dillon Johnson, graduated with honors from the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, becoming a pioneering female physician in the country. She became the first woman of any race to practice medicine in the state of Alabama when none other than Booker T. Washington asked her to help establish and teach at the nursing school at Tuskegee Institute. Tanner’s niece, Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in economics and one of the first to receive any doctoral degree, was born in the house in 1898. Alexander was also the first national president of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc..

View of a Save the Tanner House Print by Qiaira Riley.

photo by: Christian Hayden

"Save the Tanner House” print designed by Qiaira Riley. Installed at the nearby Cecil B. Moore Library as part of Tanner House Community Visioning Process Art Exhibition in February 2024.

The Tanner House was therefore an important gathering place for Black intellectual life in Philadelphia well into the 20th century. That history of excellence made the property a perfect candidate for financial support from the Action Fund. “We can talk about the stories of the Tanners, but there’s really something about being in this tangible place where this accomplished family was,” said Holland-Moore.

The Future of the Tanner House

Rogers first learned about the precarious conditions of the Tanner House from an article by reporter Valerie Russ that ran in a local newspaper, The Philadelphia Inquirer, in late 2021. At the time, Rogers was the public programs coordinator at the Paul Robeson Museum & Home, another historic Black home in Philadelphia that received an Action Fund Grant in 2020.

Rogers reached out to other Black preservationists in the area (Jackie Wiggins, Deborah Gary, Judith Robinson) and together they formed the Friends of the Tanner House, initially as an all-volunteer endeavor. A 2023 grant from the Mellon Foundation’s Humanities in Place program allowed Rogers to devote himself full-time to developing arts and cultural programming at the Tanner House as a research fellow at the Center for the Preservation of Civil Rights Sites at the University of Pennsylvania Stuart Weitzman School of Design.

Thanks to the support of the Action Fund, construction to stabilize the Tanner House began in the summer of 2023. The first step in the process was repairing an open, leaking roof that was letting rain in, causing the house’s wooden frame to rot. Said Rogers, “Winning that grant gave us the ability to move out of, ‘Wow, we want this to happen,’ into ‘Here is the proposal. This is what we’re going to do. Let’s get work started.”

Emergency stabilization effort at the Tanner House.

photo by: Friends of the Tanner House

Interior of the Tanner House after the emergency stabilization effort in October 2023.

Friends of the Tanner House, which has also received support from the City of Philadelphia, and operates in fiduciary partnership with the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, is currently in the process of acquiring the house from the current owner, Dr. Michael Thornton, who inherited the property from his father and is actively working to clear the property’s title so that it can be transferred to the nonprofit.

The pace of the title clearance process and the need for additional structural repairs means that it will be a few years before the Tanner House is ready to open to the public. In the meantime, Friends of the Tanner House has undertaken what it calls a “Community Visioning Process” to solicit input from Strawberry Mansion residents about how the Tanner House can best support the needs of the community.

Community partners gathered in front of the Tanner House as part of a block clean up.

photo by: Friends of the Tanner House

On February 3, 2024, community partners Blues Babe Foundation and Tree House Books partnered with the Friends of the Tanner House to execute a Block Cleanup of the 2900 Block of Diamond St. The event included a children’s book giveaway and free catered neighborhood luncheon.

A program by the Friends of the Tanner House with artist Qiaira Riley in March 2024

photo by: Christian Hayden

Civic Inspirations: A Social Justice Printmaking Workshop, curated by Friends of the Tanner House Artist Partner Qiaira Riley on March 17, 2024.

The feedback will determine how the space will be used going forward and how the Tanner House can reinforce uplift existing initiatives in the community across a variety of fields. To that end, Friends of the Tanner House is also in touch with author and scholar Dr. Rae Alexander-Minter, daughter of Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander and grandniece of Henry Ossawa Tanner, as Rogers said, "is supporting us to thread the family legacy within the long arc of Black-led strivings for a more just world."

“[The Tanners] were involved in pursuits across faith, family, freedom, arts, health and education,” said Rogers. “We thought about how to contextualize the revitalization strategy of the house within those pursuits that already exist within the neighborhood .”

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Nathalie Alonso is a freelance journalist and children's author based in New York City. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, Outside, Refinery29 and TIME for Kids. She holds a B.A. in American studies from Columbia University.

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